1000watt Top Ten Real Estate Brokerage Websites

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1000watt Consulting (http://1000wattconsulting.com) identifies the top real estate brokerage Websites in America.

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The Top Ten Real Estate Brokerage Websites in AmericaBased on the 2008 REAL Trends 500

A special report presented by:

Table of contentsAbout 1000watt Consulting and RealTrends Executive summary Introduction: A call to action What we learned: Takeaways you can implement now Selection criteria The Top Ten Brokerage Websites in America 2 3 4 7 10 11

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About 1000watt Consultingwww.1000wattconsulting.com 1000watt Consulting provides consulting services to real estate brokerage companies, franchisors and MLS organizations that want to connect with their markets more effectively, and in new ways. Our services include brand analysis, Web strategy and design, social media planning, copy writing, marketing and advertising, and much more. We also work with media companies and technology vendors that need help navigating the complexities of the real estate industry. 1000watt Consulting was founded by Brian Boero and Marc Davison. Brian and Marc have both worked in the real estate technology industry for over ten years. Prior to co-founding 1000Watt Consulting, Brian was CEO of VREO, Inc. At VREO, he created and marketed Real Estate Dashboard, a software application that made the vision of paperless, mobile real estate a reality. Before joining VREO, Brian was President of Inman News, the nation's leading independent real estate news service and content provider to consumers and the real estate industry. In his seven years at Inman, Brian was instrumental in the growth of the company's content syndication, conference, subscription and advertising businesses. Prior to co-founding 1000Watt Consulting, Marc Davison was a founding partner of VREO and served as business development director and brand strategist. Prior to VREO, Marc served as consultant to Inman News, where he and Boero met in 1998. Marc attended Princeton University and began his career in advertising, at the legendary agency Young and Rubicam. In 1984, Marc left Y&R to found DGE entertainment, a full service PR agency focused on the music industry.

About RealTrendswww.realtrends.com REAL Trends, Inc. is a publishing and communications company considered to be a leading source of analysis and information on the residential brokerage industry. REAL Trends is based in Denver, Colorado. With 19 years of continual growth, REAL Trends continues to provide real estate professionals with new and innovative resources on the latest industry trends and strategies into the future.

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Executive SummaryThe Top Ten Brokerage Websites in America report is based on a detailed examination of the corporate websites maintained by the 500 largest brokerage companies in the Unites States as established by RealTrends annual RealTrends 500 list. Every website was reviewed based on several criteria including usability, content, features, and design. Principals from both 1000watt Consulting and RealTrends were involved in the selection process. The results are placed in the context of a larger discussion of brokerage Websites, which notes that good brokerage websites are few and far between. The report offers reasons why this is the case, and suggests a pathforward. Takeaways gleaned from our review of all Websites operated by Real Trends 500 companies are also offered. We did not include franchisor websites in this report as their basic requirements place them in a category of their own. There are excellent "brand" or franchise sites, but they are for another report.

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Introduction: A call to actionThe websites discussed within this report stand out as excellent examples of how a real estate brokerage company can use the Web to connect with its marketplace, drive business and enhance its brand equity. They are oases in a desert of lost opportunity. Over the course of two months, we walked through this desert, meticulously evaluating five hundred brokerage websites. We clicked. We read. We tested. Too often we came across sites that were windblown shells of their late-90s glory. Or offered nothing to refresh users thirsty for such basic things as easy access to listings, or information on local neighborhoods. Things should not, and, as we shall discuss below, need not be this way. It would be easy to conclude that this report, and the judgments contained herein, are missing the point: The companies in the RealTrends 500 are, after all, among the most successful real estate firms in America. And indeed they are. But the era when a brokerage can be successful with a less than excellent website (that is a component part of a larger Web strategy) are over. We need not repeat the demographic and behavioral shifts of real estates customer here. But these realities, paired with a contracting market and the operational changes such a contraction ultimately requires, make mastery of the Web channel imperative. While each of the sites listed below display significant mistakes, they are, on balance, fine examples of what this sort of mastery looks like.

The brokers dilemmaWhy are excellent brokerage websites so few and far between? There are many answers, but there are a few factors we often run across and were apparent in our examination of these five hundred websites. First, there is what we might term the vendor headlock. Most brokerage websites of 2008 were built and launched in the late 1990s or early 2000s. These websites are very often tied to back-end systems that manage core advertising, marketing and reporting functions for the brokerage. And, all to often, these systems were built by legacy vendors that have not kept pace with the dramatic changes in information technology, Web programming and content delivery that have marked the past two to three years. Nor have they adjusted their prices to reflect the precipitous decline in the cost of things such as storage, bandwidth and development time.

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Some companies avoided the headlock by building their own Web platforms. This has worked well for some, but has prevented many others from adapting as quickly as they should to the changes at hand while creating an internal cost center of significant proportions. Many brokers are thus frozen in technology time while the Web progresses. A second and related factor at play is the organizational complexity of the average real estate brokerage. Brokers often feel that a break from a timeworn web platform would be calamitous. Some vendors are all too happy to encourage this sentiment, preferring to keep the monthly hosting fees rolling than to offer a path forward. Lastly, many companies have perhaps too eagerly offloaded elements of their Web strategy to third party sites that display their listings inventory for free. This often leads to punting on the company website itself. Listings syndication is a good thing (with the right partners) but it does not obviate the need for brokerage companies to formulate a homegrown Web strategy and create a compelling website destination of their own.

A cool drinkOur general impression, having emerged from the desert to report our findings, may seem negative. And we will not sugarcoat the current state of brokerage websites. But we are far from pessimistic. The websites below show that brokerage companies can get things right on the Web. And beneath the hype about Web 2.0 lies a host of happy realities for companies that seek to follow in their footsteps. The number of free or nearly free applications and platforms available to a real estate brokerage is breathtaking. Information from school reviews to recent solds is now freely available. APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), widgets and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) make integrating such information a matter of hours, not months. In short, many things the average brokerage pays for are now free. Tools for leveraging the intellectual assets within a brokerage company (the market perspectives of management, the street-level expertise of agents) to better connect with consumers are widely, and often freely, available. Video players, slide show and photo plug-ins, and, yes, blogs, can be deployed cheaply. Finally, the general lack of excellence among brokerage websites presents a big opportunity for companies that move aggressively to pull ahead of the pack. A glass of water tastes good in the desert. Companies that offer consumers a compelling Web experience (and re-deploy marketing and public relations resources to support such an effort) will be richly rewarded. They will also likely realize

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significant cost take-outs. We do not mean to suggest that creating a great Website is easy. It is not. We have witnessed many such efforts first hand. But it is possible and in many ways easier than it was even five years ago.

A beginningIt is on that optimistic note that we offer the list below. We hope this report serves as encouragement for brokerage companies that seek to create websites commensurate to their already considerable offline success. We do not pretend to have the last word, and recognize that there will be legitimate disagreement over our findings. Let this then be the first word in a long and fruitful conversation. The real estate experience matters. We can do better. Brokers can do better.

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What we learned: Takeaways you can implement nowThis study revealed a number of good ideas, and a ton of not-so-good ideas. It also suggested a number of actions, small and large, that should be considered. Following are just a few of our top takeaways.

Call things what they areHome search is Home Search. A map is a Map. Email listing updates are Email listing updates. Far too often companies called these things something else. Dont be creative with your naming conventions. It confuses users and is engagement death. The most common example we saw in this area was the label Quick search. This appeared on nearly 25% of home pages and was often complimented with some sort of presumably non-quick or advanced search. The search function should be simple and clear, with advanced options available if at all via a simple link that says, More search options. Quick search prompts the user to think. If the user has to think, they will probably leave. Call things what they are and you will see better results.

White space is your friendA brokerage website need not be a tight arrangement of rectangular jpegs. Resist the impulse to fill every available inch of screen with something. It hurts you. Any good website design creates a visual hierarchy for the user, clearly drawing the eye to what is important. Moreover, pages filled with images are slow to load.

Give users what we know they wantIt has been nearly fifteen years since online real estate was born. In that time, we have learned a few things about what kinds of real estate information consumers want when they go online. The NAR and the California Association of REALTORS alone have issued dozens of research reports on this subject. The bottom line: Consumers want these things: 1. 2. 3. Listings Home value and market information (recent solds, median prices) Neighborhood information (e.g., school reports, crime data)

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If you do nothing else with your website, make sure that these elements are well executed and prominently displayed. We observed listing search elements that were poorly displayed, outdated market data, and, in most cases, a complete absence of local information. This last element is most puzzling, as the local knowledge stored within a brokerage company is a powerful differentiator no classified site or media company can match the street-level knowledge locked within the brokerage.

Reject convention and perceived standards (in real estate)As we noted below, adhering to generally accepted best practices and established standards for web usability and design is a good idea. However, we encourage you to break with many of the common Web practices seen within real estate. As we note above, the evolution of brokerage Websites has followed a twisted path, guided in part by suboptimal vendors. It has also suffered from the conflict between consumer and agent needs. But perhaps most significantly, the industry has tended to jump on new applications without placing them in the context of a larger strategy, or changing them based on new information. Mapping is a good example. Sometime in 2004, it was decided, somewhere, that mapping was an unquestionably good thing. Many brokers then added mapping to their sites without serious consideration for usability, often slapping mapping onto creaky IDX displays or detaching Map search from the main search function entirely. In the meantime, many of the online real estate sites that pioneered the use of map/listings mashups moved to de-emphasize maps as a search paradigm, using them as a tightly integrated complement to list-based listings displays. Dont follow your peers. In most cases they will lead you astray.

Dont write website checks you cant cashBe realistic about your ability to handle tools and applications you place on your Website. We came across numerous live chat buttons on brokerage sites. Not one of them connected us with a live person. Another common error was placing Free home valuation or Home value estimate on the home page, only to lead the user to a lengthy form with no explanation, no sample, and no promise of what to expect. In an environment where free information and instant gratification prevail, messing with user expectations in this manner is something to avoid.

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If granny has three eyeballs, dont set her on the front porchThat quote is from Lyndon Johnson, and we find it to be good advice when thinking about content and social media elements on brokerage websites. If you dont have capable writers in your organization, dont pursue a company blog. If your CEO is brilliant, but uncomfortable in front of a camera, dont feature her in Web videos. We saw many examples of blogs loaded with bad writing and frivolous content. And several instances of video that served to diminish the professionals being featured. No blog is better than a bad blog; no video is better than sloppy video. Know your strengths.

Consider re-tooling your marketing departmentMake your marketing director the Managing Editor of your companys website. As we have noted above, exposing the local knowledge and expertise within your organization on your website is imperative. Doing this effectively takes effort. Right now, the marketing and communications department is perhaps focused on traditional tasks that either produce limited results (e.g., endless press release creation) or are becoming prohibitively expensive (e.g., print ad management, development of print marketing collateral). Think of your organization as a media company. Your website is your channel.

Expunge the word template from your vocabularyMaintaining brand consistency and integrity across a national network is a good thing. Applying bad, one-size-fits-all website templates a...