In my latest Inman column (link is for subscribers only, unless you made it in before the paywall dropped), I took issue with mobile for real estate, and called it the “eternal next big thing” for real estate. I didn’t have the space really to address what I do think is the future of mobile in real estate, as I was already pushing my word count limit, so I thought I’d talk about it here.
I wrote in my column that:
Mobile is the eternal Next Big Thing is real estate – a tantalizing mirage promising untold riches that appear to be right over the next sand dune… until you get there and… oh, it’s right over there over that hill. iPhone appears to me to be just the latest in the mirages built up about how consumers will use their mobile handheld computing devices to look for real estate. The next one may be the Droid, or the Apple Tablet, or the Kindle, or… whatever is next.
But, what I was and am really skeptical about is consumer-facing mobile, the B2C applications:
I am skeptical about the impact of mobile on real estate, at least as far as a consumer application goes, because mobile has been the Next Big Thing for about as long as I can remember
What I did not have space to talk about is mobile as the future in the B2B market in real estate. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Mobile’s Future in B2C
Before we dive in, a note about why I don’t think mobile’s future is in B2C real estate. I wrote in my Inman column:
One big reason for the skepticism is that I believe the mobile fanatics ignore a fundamental reality about American consumers. There is a huge difference between the Walking lifestyle and the Driving lifestyle… and the latter does not lend itself easily to any mobile device strategy. Put another way, mobile real estate is urban real estate, because only in relatively dense urban areas do you find consumers walking around neighborhoods with any degree of frequency. Layar, as cool as it might be, is simply a waste of time in a place like Millburn, NJ where I live – the downtown is one street corner, and the houses are tucked away in suburban streets far from where anyone might go walking around.
There are reasonable, and well-argued, disagreements with this position. Bernice Ross wrote, for example:
I do take issue with your position on the phone apps. First, when you get out of a car to show property, your clients are on foot. They want to know what else is available in the neighborhood. Buyers still stop at signs and punch in information. Call capture was a huge success for this very reason. Furthermore, I’ve had numerous times where I was a passenger and was sitting there running the Zillow app to see how much houses where in the area where we were driving. Will the app cause someone to buy from me however? Probably not. The bottom line is that the overwhelming number of customers do business with the first Realtor with whom they make direct contact. If it’s social media, an iPhone app, or F2F, the goals is to be the first one there.
I don’t disagree that first-contact is the key, but I’m skeptical that Bernice reflects the average consumer. She was a passenger running Zillow’s App — but she’s also a real estate professional; her whole approach/experience with real estate is different from a consumer’s. I think searching for a home to live in is quite different mentally and psychologically than looking for a restaurant to have lunch in — the consumer behavior can not possibly be the same.
Second, if I’m a consumer and I get out of an agent’s car to see a property, then I want to know what else is available… I ask the agent standing next to me. I don’t pull out my mobile phone and punch in an app.
And Mark Ford of CellSigns argues that mobile apps are not advertising, but Utility:
If you are a real estate agent or brokerage and you give your clients a mobile app or utility to access listing information on all homes in the market vs your competitor who doesn’t. You have a higher % opportunity to do business with those buyers with an app vs ones that don’t offer it.
I don’t disagree in principle… if you are a real estate agent in an urban market where consumers are walkers rather than drivers. In my suburban market, even if my realtor gave me a mobile app to search all listings, I’m simply not going to use it while driving my car around. Sort of as an aside, I’d like Mark to provide some numbers on “higher % opportunity” — how much higher are we talking about? What’s the sample size involved?
Finally, Jason Benesch, a f’ing smart guy if there is one in our space, argues (probably as Brian Solis would) that the real benefit of mobile is branding:
Measuring a large companies social media marketing blitz, would not entail an accountant, rather a surveyor. If I were running VW and invested in Social Media (which by the way does reduce the bottom line by quite a bit), I would hire a company that could poll a million Americans who are in the demographics I am targeting and ask questions like:
“Do you recognize our brand?”
“Where have you seen us?”
“On a “Cool” factor from 1-10, what would you give us?”
That for me would determine if the marketing was successful or not.
Well, speaking as a marketer and a brand guy, it would be fun to work for a CEO who thought as Jason did, and who was satisfied with buzz metrics like “Cool Factor Ratings”. But that speaks to a larger problem with brand marketers: we have a hard time quantifying the real impact on business of all this “branding” work.
What if 90% of those polled above (a) recognize our brand, (b) seen us all over TV and mobile phones, (c) rate us a 9 on the Cool Factor, then buy a Honda? I’ve successfully branded the hell out of VW — but to no good end.
If real estate consumer mobile apps should be regarded simply as a branding vehicle… I guess I’m okay with that. But that doesn’t answer the second-level (and more important) question of: Where’s the beef? Especially when real estate brands are in what I would describe as “brand crisis” where they mean absolutely nothing and convey no meaningful brand promise or differentiation at all.
Mobile’s Future in B2B
However, none of the above issues exist when it comes to B2B mobile. I don’t mean commercial real estate; I mean mobile apps that provide utility to real estate professionals.
Whether Walkers or Drivers, real estate professionals who are in the business of buying and selling real estate would absolutely utilize a tool that provided them 24×7 instant access to information that allows them to do their jobs more efficiently.
There is no doubt that ROI in real dollars (as opposed to in Cool Factors or Whuffie) can be measured for a B2B mobile initiative on both the topline (additional transactions) and the bottomline (greater efficiency –> greater profitability). If Agent Smith was doing 10 transactions a year prior to Mobile App, and is now doing 14 transactions after Mobile App, she can be interviewed as to why her business has improved: if the answer is, “That new Mobile App lets me look for new listings or get up-to-date market pricing with my client in my car” then you’ve got solid ROI.
MLS and Mobile
The single most important sector of real estate, then, for mobile is the MLS. There are a number of companies that have rolled out mobile apps, quietly, without a lot of fanfare and hoopla as a consumer-facing app might get. TrendMLS in the Philadelphia area is a good example.
Trend has recently released Trend Mobile for its members into beta and while I don’t have screenshots, I have played with it. It’s really quite good.
From Trend’s announcement notes:
The initial release of TREND Mobile Beta contains the basic functionality you need to work in the field:
Search – Look for residential listings only by MLS number, address, MLS Area, Subdivision/Neighborhood, School, status, price or number of bedrooms or bathrooms, or perform a radius search within a specified distance from an MLS number, address or a landmark. Also, you can include 180 days of settled listings.
Reports – View listings on reports, specifically designed for TREND Mobile.
Directory – Search for agent or office information.
As one can imagine, this is the basic functionality, the bare minimum for a professional-use mobile app.
I can easily imagine refinements going into the future where a Mobile MLS app would include the basics, and also provide detailed pricing and market reports, CMA reports (on the fly), school ratings information, demographic data, crime data, traffic information, nearby amenities, distressed properties, etc. I can imagine graphs, charts, colorful visuals right on the mobile app so that the professional can show their customers right on the spot.
This way, the agent in the field has just shown a house to a couple and can instantly answer what the pricing trends in the area have been, what comparable houses have sold for, and have listed for, if there are any comparable REO’s in the area, what the median income of the neighborhood is, how long it would take them to get to work in the nearby city, and how safe (or unsafe) the area is according to the FBI.
Brokerages and Mobile
As I’ve written in the Inman column, if you are a brokerage in an urban area with a lot of Walkers, then a consumer-facing mobile app might be awesome for you. But no matter what area, I think brokerages should be looking at mobile seriously for their workforce.
If the MLS doesn’t provide the above search and reporting functionality, then the Brokerage certainly should. It’s their agents, after all, who will be more productive.
But even if the MLs does provide great professional mobile platform, brokerages should be thinking mobile for at least one thing: mobile CRM (Customer Relationship Management).
First, we have to assume that the brokerage in question has a robust CRM solution to begin with, but let’s assume that they have such a thing.
Imagine I’m a consumer. I’ve been looking for a home for the past three months or so, and have already spent time on Google, on Realtor.com, on Trulia, Zillow, whatever and have landed on your brokerage site, or on one of your agents’ websites, and became a “lead”. (I know Marc Davison just loves that word.) Someone from your office calls me, we chat, and we agree to meet up to look at some houses.
When your agent shows up, she greets me and my wife, and has at her fingertips all of the information that I provided her over the phone. She also has all of my saved searches, properties I’ve looked at on the brokerage website over the past three months, which ones I’ve emailed to people, which ones I’ve looked at more than once, which school district links I’ve clicked on, and so forth. As we’re touring the house, she’s noting our comments about the bathroom, about the kitchen appliances, and she’s taking notes in the BrokerageCRM Mobile app. All of those notes are fed back into the main CRM system, and a new customized search for me and my wife is being created based on what we’re saying during the tour.
Your agent walks out of the house, and says to us, “Listen — based on your reaction to this listing, I think there’s a house we should go look at; our system just pulled up something that wasn’t in your original criteria, but you should take a look at it.” And she shows us a picture of the house, the basic listings information, and explains why we should visit it.
Sci-fi? Not really. The technology exists; the data exists. It’s a matter of will, innovation, and investment.
How much more productive would your people be if you had this system? What would or should happen to your close rate with such a system?
If you don’t have this system today, shouldn’t you be working towards that, instead of some high-buzz, lotsa-hype consumer facing iPhone App that has very little chance of generating real ROI instead of buzz metrics?
The future of mobile in real estate is not in sexy iPhone apps that only appeal to residents of Manhattan and San Francisco. The future is in making the real estate professional far more effective and efficient. So at the end of the day, all I can say is: