Breaking Website useability par

As a real estate firm with a sophisticated website, what other websites are your top “competitors”? Obviously, your local market competitors are your competitors. Similarly, certain national aggregator sites are too. But what about non-industry sites? Like eBay, Amazon, Cabela’s, Home Depot, Facebook, etc? Arguably, they are too. Why?

Internet consumers experience a variety Website experiences on any given day. Their online search experience spans from generic to hyper-specific Google searches to specific item searches on sites like Amazon. Chances are that these consumers are more frequently interacting with these latter types of sites than any real estate firm’s site. Thus, these consumers’ expectations for search, interactivity, responsiveness, customer service, etc, are set by these non-real estate industry sites. If your site does not meet par, your site is irrelevant to these consumer (at worst) or an annoyance (at best).

Accordingly, real firms that are serious about meeting and exceeding Internet consumer expectations regarding website usability should study these outside-the-industry platforms, map their site’s current functionality against these other sites, and begin the process of adjusting their sites to step up. Use these other sites’ public-facing operations as tools to learn best practices and adopt relevant processes. Firms, thus, avoid sinking research and development dollars into usability analyses and, in effect, leverage the millions of dollars these other sites have invested in such.

Multichannel marketing forensics

Kevin Hillstrom, President of MineThatData has written an excellent whitepaper on conducting a multichannel forensics analysis. Why is this whitepaper an important resource to real estate firms? Because real estate firms are engaged in complex multichannel marketing endeavors. But only a handful of these firms analyze their data from a multichannel perspective.

How does a firm begin its forensics analysis? Hillstrom explains:

  1. Understand the Retention Mode your product, brand or channel resides in.
  2. Understand the Migration Mode your product, brand or channel resides in.
  3. Combine the Retention and Migration Mode, understand which of twelve retention/migration modes your business operates in. This determines the way you will grow your business, long-term.
  4. Map the Ecosystem, so that the executive can clearly understand how all products, brands and channels interact with each other.
  5. Forecast the Ecosystem. This allows the executive to understand the long-term health of the ecosystem, given various marketing initiatives.

A key point Hillstrom makes is to look at multichannel businesses as ecosystems, where each product and division is interdependent on one another (a biodiversity perspective would also apply). Unfortunately, many companies are still balkanized in this regard.

For the most part, real estate firms have at least centralized their focus around a core product and service: representing buyers and sellers of homes and other forms of real estate, combined with highly related ancillary businesses such as rentals, REO, mortgage and title services, etc. This is a real estate firm’s ecosystem.

Hillstrom, in this whitepaper, has identified several business modes and strategic considerations related thereto. With the exception of certain commercial divisions and investment services, real estate firms fall within one of the two following modes: Acquisition / Equilibrium Mode and Acquisition / Transfer Mode. Both modes imply a constant sourcing of new customers with differences in how customers adopt new products or services. In the case of the former, Hillstrom states customers occasionally migrate, whereas in the case of the latter, the assumption is that customers will migrate to another product (much like a professional baseball player over his career migrates between teams).

So how can real estate firms a) position their products and services more relevantly to new sources of customers while b) targeting the “may migrate” class to the “probably will transfer” segment? Hillstrom advocates mapping the ecosystem

A key aspect of Multichannel Forensics is the mapping of the ecosystem you work in. Each combination of products, brands and channels are mapped. Any relationships in equilibrium or transfer are mapped with arrows, arrows that indicate the direction of the relationship.

The next step is to forecast the ecosystem, which, Hillstrom argues, enables executives to engage in valuable scenario analyses.

The benefit to a real estate firm in undertaking these analytical steps is that it will have a deeper understanding as to how its agents influence (negatively or positively) the firm’s sales of its primary and ancillary products and services. What’s also beneficial about Hillstrom’s whitepaper is that he actually gives you a step-by-step process by which to perform the analysis.

Ranking real estate agents

David Parmet, in a recent interview, talked about how Stormhoek winery and English Cut custom tailoring used social media strategies to promote their new products and brands: Stormhoek blog and English Cut blog. Both brands have a bit a Kula in them.

The salient part of Parmet’s insight lies in his admonition to brands everywhere to embrace social media as a consumer engagement tool. He cites an example of hoteliers griping about Tripadvisor exposing service failures at their respective establishments. Parmet advised these service providers to embrace the brutal feedback, make the required changes (if valid), and then openly engage these “gripers” in the Tripadvisor forum. Nine times out of ten, he says, consumers will respect these efforts and turn into brand evangelists.

Real estate firms can use these same strategies to promote their brands, particularly around luxury or otherwise unique properties or locations, as well as their unique service value propositions. This said, why don’t real estate firms do the same as Tripadvisor? Homthinking, of course, already does this. But what if a real estate firm allowed consumers to openly rank its own agents. Not only would this be a PR-worthy event, but it would certainly elevate the service level of the agent base within the firm.

 How many agents would leave the firm because of this? Who knows. A more interesting question is how many would stay with the firm? Likely those who are confident in their own abilities, knowledge, and skills; basically, the weak flee while the strong remain. Who ultimately wins? The consumer. And if the consumer wins, chances are high that the consumer’s loyalty will remain with the firm that has the most transparency and the strongest agents.

Sourcing Web 2.0 customers, serving existing customers

By using Facebook, an agent could create their own Web 2.0 brand while controlling their sphere of influence and network. Real Living has already established this platform for it’s agents (or was it an agent, or group of agents, establishing this platform Real Living?). What a great way to kick start the engagement process while giving agents the ability to serve existing customers and find new customers (particularly echo boomers).

Gatineau Project marketing metrics

Eric Peterson continues to provide great insight. He has an exclusive profile of the Microsoft Gatineau project. At first glance, the Gatineau project is quite impressive. What’s particularly pleasing is that it appears to have been designed for marketing personnel and business managers. The visual representation of the data clearly indicates relevant campaign success and failure metrics.

Nevertheless, there are some considerations: Will this service give an accurate, and full representation, of data across multiple universes, or is it just limited to the MSN universe? Can firms track their competitors with this program? And with respect to their demographic data, it seems to be self-reported data from MSN, rather than from a wider sample data set; thus, how representative is the demographic data in Gatineau?

False profiles and the Internet consumer

Arguably, nothing messes with a firm’s loyalty and/or CRM strategy more than a multitude of false consumer profiles polluting a CRM database. In seeking to elevate one’s marketing engagement index, it’s often helpful to understand the demographic profile of a consumer. But if such a consumer does not self-report this, or if such data is not inferred, then firms are at the mercy of the garbage.

Interestingly, a research team claims in their research paper

The profiles users may contain fake information. We believe that our proposed algorithm can be used to identify and refine the profiles which contain bogus demographic information.

Essentially, this team analyzed web log files for search patterns and used an algorithm to predict gender or age. They claim a lift in accuracy of 30.4% on gender prediction and 50.3% on age prediction over traditional methodologies.

What makes this exciting is that, assuming futher testing bears out the team’s claims, companies like HitWise or WebTrends can incorporate this algorithm into its search pattern analsysis products. Firms can then use this core demographic information to craft more relevant landing pages, calls to actions, etc, on their websites.

Local market insight, marketing muscle

Where is the real estate industry on this chart? In terms of brokerages, arguably it’s between 2005 and 2006. Many real estate firms still encourage their agents to pursue off-line sphere of influence strategies (i.e., volunteer at the local charity, pass the business card around, wait for the call, etc) without a similar focus on Internet strategies. Indeed, many of these same firms are extremely uncomfortable with encouraging their agents to contribute to blogs, community forums, etc, due to fear that an agent will say something inappropriate, or whatever. And forget about these firms providing a company-funded blog platform for its agents!

Unfortunately, these risk averse attitudes drive marketing myosis.

What is social media? Wikipedia has a good answer. Why does social media matter? For the real estate industry it matters because the whole business of selling real is about engagement. And social media, at it’s core, is about engaging consumers immediately. Real estate firms who do not invest in social media devices aimed at engaging consumers directly or reinforcing the firms’ local expertise are at risk of sliding into irrelevancy.

What’s one of the easiest ways to begin the conversion? A corporate blog that is owned by the firm but also owned by the agents (in terms of content contributions). Why does this matter? This lets the firm’s agents demonstrate their local knowledge, superior marketing accumen, and reinforce their superior service value proposition. Why does this matter? Because consumers are going to “test” the firm’s claims by searching for validation of these claims. What better way to validate a firm’s deep local knowledge than to have an archive of such in a blog?

What’s an example of a great corporate-sponsored blog in real estate? This blog clearly demonstrates the firm’s local expertise, market knowledge, and marketing acumen, while giving its agents a platform to shine.

Swarm business / swarm creativity in real estate

Create value for the swarm. That is the overarching goal of a swarm business mindset. Swarm creativity embodies the passion that drives this goal, along with coolhunting as an adjunct exercise. Real estate, as an industry, seems well-poised to take advantage of swarm creativity.

Nicholas G. Carr, of the Economist.com explains the basics of swarm business:

To achieve this status, a swarm-business aspirant must follow three principles. First it must “gain power by giving it away”. For instance the MySpace social-networking site works by granting its users the ability to determine its rules and content. Second, the company must be seen to “share with the swarm”—IBM, for example, has backed Linux’s open-source software with cash and code. Finally, firms must “concentrate on the swarm, not on making money”.

HBS Working Knowledge elaborates on swarm creativity:

There are five essential elements to collaborative innovation networks: learning networks, sound ethical principles, trust and self-organization, making knowledge accessible to everyone, and internal honesty and transparency.

Following Carr’s lead, a real estate firm must first abandon its possessive brand centrality and opt for a more decentralized brand presence. This means consumers, employees, real estate agents, vendors, and management equally “own” the brand. This means, at the core, a firm must open itself up to transparency and honest consumer review; which really means consumer ratings of its website, agents, customer service and then using these ratings as forums–conduits–to engage these consumers as collaborative partners to create a better value proposition. Internally, a firm could create a collaborative swarm between agents, IT, marketing, and management to build on the collaborative concepts derived from the consumer-based swarm insights.

For ROI-minded owners and managers, a swarm exercise is likely a hard pill to swallow, let alone ever digest. This is because swarm creativity lends itself to indirect monetization strategies (as does most social media). This could also be related to the fact that real estate as an industry, at first glance, is not really engaged in new product development processes (swarm creativity naturally lends itself to new product development ideation).

What is the real estate product? A house. What is the service? Representing a buyer or seller while giving advice.

This description is a bit facetious, but the point is that real estate professionals should begin looking at their entire web presence–and service value proposition–as an ongoing product that constantly requires new strategies and ideas that evolves in line with consumer expectations. If 10 swarm exercises yield one new service enhancement strategy that increases customer loyalty and retention, arguably the swarm exercise is worth it; especially if this strategy enhances a full-service agent’s consumer value proposition. In this example, ROI would be indirectly realized: as consumer satisfication increases, referals increase, and competitors suffer a corresponding competitive disadvantage (assuming they are late adopters). By implementing a consumer swarm idea, a firm has rewarded the swarm: first by listening and second by acting on its advice. This, in turn, promotes further honesty and integrity within the swarm and, hopefully, within the firm itself; eventually driving higher ROI over the long-term as internal strategies become integrally aligned with near real-time consumer driven initiatives.

Direct / social media marketing research 9.04.2007

Below is some fairly recent research on motivating and behavior factors underlying social networks. The theme of this set of research is to explore how the “echo boomer” or “millennial” generation uses social media. Since real estate is an engagement-oriented Internet based service, firms should study the motivations underlying their potential recruits and future customers to ensure they are well-positioned to serve them in the future.

Applying Common Identity and Bond Theory to Design of Online Communities

Mobile Text Messaging and Connectedness within Close Interpersonal Relationships

Leveraging Social Networks To Motivate Individuals to Reduce their Ecological Footprint (interesting analysis as to how a social structure nurtures affinity, loyalty, and evangelism).

Digital Relationships in the ‘MySpace’ Generation: Results From a Qualitative Study