What real estate professionals can learn from Dominos Pizza

Domino’s Pizza owns the pizza conversation over its competitors, literally, with a continuous rollout of its progressive mobile app and web presence. Want to order a pizza via the in-car, voice-activated console of a Ford? No problem, go for it. Want to order a pizza via your mobile device via “Dom,” which is the Domino’s version of Siri. Done. You want to see the progress of your pizza order on Dominos.com, you’re all set. Listen to this NPR story, Domino’s Becomes A Tech Company That Happens To Make Pizza, for an excellent overview of Domino’s tech dominance.

Domino's Pizza order stats board
Domino’s Pizza order stats board

According to the NPR story, Domino’s has adopted a “Silicon Valley” approach to its technology deployment process. Essentially, Domino’s is in continuous rollout mode using agile development methodologies (for an overview of these methodologies, read Inspired by Marty Cagan). This process has allowed Domino’s to leap-frog its competition.

So how does this Domino’s story relate to real estate? Several entities in the real estate space have leveraged these software development methodologies to great gains; for example, Zillow, Trulia, and Redfin. And brokerages have amazing opportunities to do the same.

If a brokerage manages an in-house development staff, then it behooves this brokerage to send its key developers and managers to a Marty Cagan conference on agile processes, and then fundamentally change—if necessary—the way in which it manages this department. Moreover, this brokerage should consider creating a product manager layer within its org chart to further facilitate this internal product development process. Finally, this brokerage should consider creating internal mission teams like Spotify created.

These agile concepts are fundamental “Silicon Valley” like processes, where deployed properly can definitely create a culture of customer-centric internal product development and rollout. Alternatively, if a brokerage does not manage an internal development staff, then this brokerage should hold its development vendor accountable to delivering products and services in a manner that aligns with the agile approach. Otherwise, this brokerage is likely to be at a distinct competitive disadvantage in the marketplace in terms of technical capabilities and offerings.

Consumer experiences with retail set consumer expectations in real estate

Before a consumer decides to purchase a home (whether first time buyer, move up buyer, etc) how many times has he or she purchased products via Amazon, Zappos, iTunes, or visited Target or an Apple Store? Hundreds of times. Thousands of times. And in some cases likely tens of thousands of times. Think of the experience these entities deliver, the baseline expectations their consumers bring to the door when they begin their real estate experience.

What are these core baseline expectations? First, consumers expect integration between mobile, web, and social channels. Second, consumers expect stellar and insightful customer service. Third, consumers expect seamless integration between one and two above.

The ability to manage one’s own experience with the brands mentioned above–whether searching for products, skimming product reviews, downloading products, using an immersive mobile shopping experience within a store environment–is a key driver of their ability to consistently delight their customers. Additionally, if a customer service issue arises, these brands’ customers expect insight and knowledge about their interactions with these brands. For example, if I as a consumer reach out to the customer service department of one of these brands I understand I will have to provide some baseline validation as to my identity and explain my customer service issue, but I also do not want to explain my entire history with these brands. The customer service representative has my history at his or her fingertips which gives that representative an opportunity to engage me at a higher level, more efficient level, and more satisfying level. The brands mentioned above consistently deliver on these expectations, which is seen in their stock prices, their loyal customer bases, and general goodwill.

Real estate brands should study how these brands deliver on customer expectations. Additionally, real estate brands should strive to create support structures, systems, and training programs that give their sales associates the best opportunities to delight their clients, the best opportunities to deliver an exceedingly excellent experience. In essence, deliver an Amazon-like, Zappos-like, Target-like, and Apple-like experience. It’s this service delivery differential that drives personal referrals, client loyalty, and goodwill.

Photo credit: Patricia Turo

Creating and sustaining a culture of creativity within web-based services

This article from the International Journal of Design, gives a great overview of factors systems designers ought to account for when developing web-based services consumers use to create or co-develop products. As more services migrate to the “cloud”, user experience design is paramount to ensure customer satisfaction and loyalty.

As examples of creative-driven web services using “online configurator software”, the authors point to Timbuk2 and Chocri. It’s not an unreasonable premise that more and more of these types of web-service based companies will continue to proliferate, especially considering the future promise of social and mobile commerce. Thus, designing a user experience that’s satisfying is a key growth and loyalty building strategy for these types of brands. The authors point out nine factors that promote creativity (see Table 1 in the article):

  • Challenging work: Step-by-step instructions with increasing challenge
  • Autonomy: Tools that promote exploration
  • Community support: Chat rooms or galleries of recent work
  • Permission to take risks: Incorporating slogans that promote risk taking and having real-time help
  • Goal setting: Incorporating a progress bar
  • Positive effect: Use of positive images and colors
  • Mastery experience: Allow direct manipulation of tools
  • Sufficient resources: How-to sections and tutorials
  • Encouragement: Consistently reinforce that users are capable of completing the task; use images and verbiage

In each of the nine sections outlined above, the authors provide further research and practical examples. And the researchers make one final, valid point: be transparent. Clearly indicate copyright and other intellectual property policies and explain these policies in plain language that the average consumer will understand. Transparency promotes trust and loyalty.

Photo credit: Bitterjug

Information sharing across the social web: usability, minimalist design, and consumer choice

This article in the Atlantichttp://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/11/the-undesigned-web/65458/ by Dylan Tweney (@dylan20http://twitter.com/#!/dylan20) essentially argues that as consumers adopt a minimalist approach towards reading, sharing (i.e., reformatting content to meet their needs and the needs of their social sphere), and generally consuming content (information), devices like the iPad will engender even more pressure on publishers align usabilty concepts with sound information architecture concepts. Indeed, the iPad imbues a sensual, tactile element to information consumption. Fingertips are one of the most sensitive areas on our bodieshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merkel_nerve_ending, and by virtually touching, massaging, moving, aligning, etc, information via the iPad transfers a degree of intimacy unmatched by even printed material. Tweney seems to argue that the tactil nature of iPad represents an inflection point in future information design, publishing, and consumption.
As a slight counter-point to Tweney’s missive, this articlehttp://www.fastcodesign.com/1662630/is-undesigned-the-next-great-web-trend-fat-chance argues that Tweney misses the point by claiming that design is dead and makes some excellent points:
“The future is all about designing for multiple use cases[.]”
“Digital design isn’t fading, but it is changing: to keep pace with evolving technology, to drive new economics, to satisfy users’ dynamic desires. Indeed, the fact that we tend to call them “users” in the first place–instead of viewers, readers, or audiences–is important to keep in mind when considering the role or future of digital design.”
The author, John Pavlushttp://twitter.com/johnpavlus, cites many useful sources to support his argument that a minimalist-centric interface is actually the result a complex design-thinking (ala, a Ferrari on the outside appears simple and elegant but underneath the hood it’s a complex machine). Similarly, a minimalist approach can actually be brilliantly enhanced by restricting consumer choice by presenting consumers with well thought-out, curated, and highly selective choices (ala 37 Signals). Finally, both Tweney and Pavlus are joined by researchers who are conducting some very interesting research on this topic: The Paradox of Simplicity: Effects of User Interface Design on Perceptions and Preference of Interactive Systemshttp://aisel.aisnet.org/mcis2010/30/ (registration required), A Model of Experience Test for Web Designershttp://eprints.qut.edu.au/18371/1/c18371.pdf, A Model for Understanding Social Commercehttp://proc.conisar.org/2010/pdf/1511.pdf
Photo credit: seier+seierhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/seier/493929328/
This article in the Atlantic by Dylan Tweney (@dylan20) essentially argues that as consumers adopt a minimalist approach towards reading, sharing, and generally consuming content (information), devices like the iPad will put even more pressure on publishers to align usability concepts with sound information architecture concepts. Indeed, the iPad imbues a sensual, tactile element to information consumption.
Fingertips are one of the most sensitive areas on our bodies, and the iPad transfers to a consumer a degree of intimacy by enabling him/her to virtually touch, massage, move, and align information in a very personal way. Tweney seems to argue that the tactile nature of an iPad represents an inflection point in future information design, publishing, and consumption.
As a slight counter-point to Tweney’s missive, this article argues that Tweney misses the point in claiming that “traditional” digital design is dead; as counterpoints, the author points out:
“The future is all about designing for multiple use cases[.]”
“Digital design isn’t fading, but it is changing: to keep pace with evolving technology, to drive new economics, to satisfy users’ dynamic desires. Indeed, the fact that we tend to call them “users” in the first place–instead of viewers, readers, or audiences–is important to keep in mind when considering the role or future of digital design.”
The author, John Pavlus, cites many useful sources in his article to support his argument that minimalist-centric interface design is actually the result of complex design-thinking. Similarly, a minimalist approach can actually be brilliantly enhanced by restricting consumer choice by presenting consumers with well thought-out, curated, and highly selective choices (ala 37 Signals theories). Finally, both Tweney and Pavlus are joined by researchers who are conducting interesting studies on this topic: The Paradox of Simplicity: Effects of User Interface Design on Perceptions and Preference of Interactive Systems (registration required), A Model of Experience Test for Web Designers, A Model for Understanding Social Commerce.
Photo credit: seier+seier

Persuasive design principles and website user behavior

Motivation, ability, and triggers influence users’ website behavior, according to this research paper by Stanford researcher BJ Fogg. This is important if you’re targeting specific behavioral action (e.g., filling out a lead form). Before a user takes a desired action, she must be sufficiently motivated to perform the desired action, have the ability to do so, and be appropriately triggered to take action.

Fogg’s model is fairly easy to digest. For example, let’s say you want to drive more listing appointments (the target behavior), there is a trade-off between motivation and ability. In this scenario, a user’s motivation is somewhat variable (either they are interested in the property or not). Thus, as website designer you should concentrate on the “ability” side of the equation: do you make it a simple fill-in-your-email-address form, or do you make users fill out more detailed information prior to submitting their request? On this issue, Fogg concludes:

The implication for designers is clear: Increasing motivation is not always the solution. Often increasing ability (making the behavior simpler) is the path for increasing behavior performance.

Contemplating appropriate triggers is where it gets really interesting for website designers. According to Fogg, without an appropriate trigger, targeted behavior will not occur even if motivation and ability is high. There are three elements of a successful trigger: the trigger must be noticed, the trigger is associated with the targeted behavior, and the trigger occurs WHEN we are both motivated and able to perform the targeted behavior. Fogg argues that timing is THE critical element and is often missing:

In fact, this element is so important the ancient Greeks had a name for it: kairos – the opportune moment to persuade. As I see it, the opportune moment for behavior performance is any time motivation and ability put people above the behavior activation threshold.

Poorly-timed triggers (e.g., pop-ups) generally do not drive a user to take a targeted action and can even cause a negative emotion. Thus, Fogg argues that proper triggers will align with collaborative CRM concepts (which I earlier discussed), functioning mostly as “signals” or “facilitators”. I encourage you to read Fogg’s research paper (all 7 pages) as he further details the discreet elements under motivation, ability, and triggers that influence website behavior.

Photo credit: ell brown (off to Italy)

Satisfied customers are more loyal than delighted customers

This research paper focusing on the hotel industry indicates that although delighted customers have generally positively views of brands, a satisfied customer will more likely take action supportive of loyalty marketing constructs (i.e., actually book a return trip) because they have an emotional connection to the brand. Thus, the researchers suggest that marketers focus on loyalty programs that seek to instill positive emotional experiences with the brand. Such mechanics go beyond baseline experiences like prompt response times, meaningful communications, knowing where a customer is in the life-cycle of a transaction, and extend to activities that prompt a positive emotional response (like receiving a handwritten thank you card).

Customer loyalty CRM and customer satisfaction

This research paper on CRM strategies used by RBC Royal Bank of Canada (Bahamas), analyzes whether the bank successfully applied the four P’s of CRM (planning, people, process, and platform). It’s well established that financial success is tied to a well executed CRM strategy which drives customer loyalty and customer satisfaction. What this research paper found was that although the bank lists CRM as a strategic initiative and policy, it has not integrated the CRM process at each customer touch point. The methodology used to correct the problem was instituting a wide-ranging customer satisfaction survey initiative to ascertain–from the customers’ viewpoints–where the service breakdowns and gaps actually occurred and to make changes accordingly at those points.

Using text analytics to increase customer engagement and loyalty

I love it when research/theory manifests in application/practicality. In 2007, I wrote about research being conducted on semantic analysis related to social media and blogs, and now there are companies using products stemming from this type of research.

Information Week covered text analytics, describing how JetBlue uses text analytics to understand customer sentiment from email messages, which informed the airline how to draft its customer bill of rights. And KMWorld discusses how the burgeoning field of “customer experience analysis” uses text analytics to increase customer engagement and loyalty.

Customers today aren’t just customers–they’re influencers and social networkers. Across the Web at any hour, they’re sharing observations about your company’s products and services, and those of your competitors…These new modes of customer behavior make it essential for companies to move beyond traditional ways of gathering, analyzing, and acting on customer information – Information Week

For a long time, text analytics was a technology in search of a business need. Now, thanks to social media, the need is there; the question is whether the technology can ramp up fast enough to be commercial – KMWorld

Where social media in real estate sometimes has the floor manners of a dog’s breakfast, it’ll become increasingly important for real estate firms to engage in text-sentiment analysis as part of their overall CRM and customer experience efforts. Here’s a list of companies that offer text-sentiment analysis services:

Photo credit: mnapoleon

Customer strategy departments driving customer loyalty

This Harvard Business Review article (subscription necessary) makes a strong case for companies to create customer strategy departments and positions. One section of the article focuses on “Customer-facing functions” and makes some great recommendations:

  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) responsibility should migrate away from corporate IT and into the customer strategy department since CRM helps companies assess customers needs and wants and that’s the role of customer strategists
  • Market research should break-out of the marketing department silo and extend to all departments and focus bilaterally on the aggregate and the individual (for example, creating customer profiles as espoused in the book, The New Rules of Marketing & PR) with a singular focus on customer for life (CLV) and customer equity metrics to measure success (here’s a sample lifetime value of a customer analysis from the Database Marketing Institute that will help you begin thinking about CLV metrics
  • Customer strategists should drive the product development process rather than the engineers; the article notes that NOKIA launched NOKIA Beta Labs in Asia and enjoys 60% market share there because, in part, this developer community helps drive the product development process, whereas in the U.S. Nokia pursued a different strategy that has far less consumer input and has suffered

Voice of the customer is not a new concept in product design and development. It’s sure refreshing to see HBR tackle this issue. What’s your view of creating a customer strategist role in a company?

Photo: ishrona

Customer loyalty and customer trust

Trust is a major driver of customer loyalty. How does a corporate brand secure this trust following a breakdown in service delivery? The authors of this study (.pdf) ponder this question and proffer some intriguing insights. The authors argue that negative emotions experienced by a customer following a negative service experience do not necessarily change his or her attitude towards the service provider; rather, the customer simply leaves the service provider. Although losing a customer is never good, this finding is somewhat good news because it seems that customers are unlikely to carry a negative emotion for long with respect to the brand following a service break-down, thus minimizing the chance of an emotive outburst via social media that negatively affects the brand. On the flip side, a brand can enhance the trust and loyalty of its customer base if it honestly admits a mistake and vigorously works to correct such.

Related post: Trust indicators in social network marketing

Leveraging user-generated content

Razorfish points out keen ways to leverage user-generated content (UGC). In the midst of all this social media mania marketers can leverage UGC to gain insight and develop relationships. A poignant take-away from the Razorfish blog post: UGC is  not problematic in it’s own right, rather it’s filtering UGC to gain actionable intelligence that will make for meaningful engagement with customers and clients to build long-term relationships with them. Best quotes from the article:

The problem isn’t with UGC, it is with the filtering, sorting and prioritization and that’s where the technology, the semantic web and also the ability to filter through the lens of a social graph is going to make a big difference.

Leveraging user-generated content are the same ones that marketers and sales people have been preaching for decades: 1) build relationships, and 2) provide value that fills consumers’ needs/wants.

Companies (and individuals) have long espoused transparency, of course, but the economic and viral advantages of tapping and responding to user-generated content are nudging us into arenas of more authentic rather than staged transparency.

The future of UGC global rights management will lie in solutions that strike a perfect balance between the goals of the copyright holder and that of the user.

Photo credit: jelene

List of social web resources 6-12-2009

Brand engagement

This presentation, The Audience is Always Right, by TBWA\ Berlin Media Arts team is one of the best I’ve seen explaining how brands need to reconstruct their core ethos pertaining to consumer communications. It delves deep into a situational analysis and then delivers some very meaningful aphorisms as guidelines:

  • Start with a simple truth
  • Create time, don’t try to buy time
  • Tell a story that makes peoples’ conversations more interesting
  • Leave room to think and ask questions by being imperfect, weird or contradictory
  • Make the idea easy to find (searchable) and easy to tell (spreadable)
  • Content isn’t king. Conversation is king

Online community lifecycle

This research article chronicles major research and studies on how online communities begin, mature, and evolve. The article focuses on a lifecycle analysis (inception, creation, growth, maturity, and death) and success metrics (for example, size and number of contributions and how willing any one member shares details about him or herself and how widely these details are shared). The article is very well researched and offers a compelling list of ideas marketers ought to consider when considering when, how, and why to engage consumers via social networks and other online communities.

Consumer centric disruption

Thank you to Nic Brisbourne and his The Equity Kicker blog for (a) highlighting an intriguing video of UK journalists debating the veracity and viability of blogs and (b) pointing out an excellent presentation on the Customer Development Model. Both offer some tasty take-aways.

I find the debate curious. Universal McCann’s 2008 Wave 3 study points out (page 22) that 17.8 million people in the UK have read blogs; this 17.8 million represents 32.1% of the total 16-54 population (in comparison 60.3 million people in the US–33.2% of the total 16-54 population–have read blogs). It seems to me–based on the anecdotal comments of the UK journalists in the video–that UK traditional news media has metaphorically walled itself up and studies blog culture with a telescope, as opposed to latching on to the interesting facets of blogs that attract readers and then combining these facets with traditional journalistic norms and ethos (during the debate some very sound and rational points were made about the role “traditional” journalism has in terms of checks and balances, fact checking, etc). Nevertheless, some very powerful apps and news platforms could result by embracing social web norms. For example, why not take an EveryBlock approach (see Russian Hill) and combine that with traditional beat reporting on the more nuanced and interesting stories cited in the raw data feed. Indeed, one could use EveryBlock data to track patterns which could form the basis for an investigative reporting series.

A visit to slide number 27 of the Customer Development Model presentation offers a succinct and cogent illustration of a consumer-centric product/service development process. The key elements of the slide: Build, Measure, Learn integrated in the overall development life cycle. If I were able to question the UK journalist panel, I’d ask a couple of questions: Do you know of any UK news company to have empaneled a group of consumers that routinely gather their news from blog sites so as to find out why these consumers like these blogs and how they use the blog information in their daily lives? Do you know of any UK news company that has analyzed what apps or smart phone devices their consumers use on a daily basis and how they would like to have news integrated in similar ways on their devices? The answers to these questions begin the consumer-centric design journey.

Finally, this article makes a compelling case as to how certain facets of the Customer Development Model can be a disruptive factor in the real estate industry.

Reinvigorating MLS information

Let’s assume a situation where intellectual property and licensing issues are properly resolved and set with respect to granting outside developers access to MLS content and data.

If you’ve heard of an MLS (or a broker with a VOW) that has engaged a group of skilled programmers similar to what Washington D.C. did with its content and data, please let me know. Don’t you think something wonderful could happen with real estate search similar to what’s about to happen with bioinformatics?

Dialogue between bioinformaticists and semantic Web developers has been steadily increasing for a number of years now as widespread data integration problems have clearly begun to impede the progress of research.

This is not to say that challenges don’t exist,

[I]f you’re talking about traversing [information and data] computationally, then it’s much more challenging to make sure everything means the same thing and that the object that you’re getting to on the next path has the same persistence, quality, and structure that you’re expecting to operate on.

Nevertheless, the vision for a more collaborative and effective future is vibrant,

Ultimately, what the semantic Web community hopes to have are applications that will make the complexity of the technology as invisible as possible.

The real estate industry has an existing standardization body: RETS. It seems to me that an MLS (or broker VOW) could provide great value to its public and real estate industry stakeholders by adopting a RETS standard (thus, at some level, solving the data standardization issue raised above) while opening its data pantry to a group of developers, similar to what Washington D.C. did with its Apps for Democracy contest held last year (according to the Apps for Democracy website, the city realized a $2,300,000 value, not to mention the fact that the public now has some nifty tools),

The first-prize winner in the organization category was a site called D.C. Historic Tours, developed by Internet marketing company Boalt. The information about area attractions came from the city, but Boalt developers decided how to present it…The site uses Google Maps as the basis for enabling users to build their own walking tours of the city. It pulls information from Wikipedia, the Flickr photo-sharing service and a list of historic buildings.

Imagine a pool of widgets, desktop apps, apps for iPhone’s, Blackberries, etc, that slice and dice real estate content and data in novel ways. The public would obviously benefit by accessing real estate information in ways that are most meaningful to them. The content/data provider benefits by engaging the public at a deeper, more relevant, and effective manner. And real estate agents ultimately benefit because a more satisfied, more qualified, and more engaged buyer or seller equates to increased business opportunities.

Photo credits: ducks (SleepingBear), tightrope walker (tallkev)

List of social web resources 5-1-2009

Social media coolness
Henry Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities, has contributed to a seminal eight part series whitepaper on redefining theories underlying how information spreads across the globe. This series’ concepts are particularly important to brand management practices employing the social web as a strategic messaging tool.

This is an interesting research paper compiling a list of research about online communities. The article details the social, psychological, and emotional benefits people derive from online communities. The article relates these benefits to organizations and defines success metrics for online communities. This is one of the best research articles I’ve found in recent months concerning social web communities and organizations.

Here’s a short article describing how federal chief information officer, Vivek Kundra, is launching a new site, data.gov, which purportedly will allow for the development of more public-facing applications using raw data feeds from government sources. The article also discusses some very innovative uses of Washington D.C. government data that developers submitted for a contest called Applications For Democracy that Kundra directed while he was chief technology officer for Washington, D.C.

Responsiveness Drives Differentiation

Are your prospective clients having to act like abalone divers to interact with you? Abalone divers furbish themselves with an abalone iron to pry off abalones from submerged rocks. These divers are committed to their task, as abalone is considered a divine delicacy to some. But if prospective clients have to work like an abalone diver to communicate with and engage you, chances are they’ll dive elsewhere.

Concierge service is not a new topic, it still resonates. Let’s assume you have a robust lead acquisition strategy that runs the gamut from SEO, SEM, social media, targeted print ads, etc. Let’s assume too that this strategy yields a healthy inbound inquiry pipeline. Let’s also assume that–if you’re a brokerage–you have a decent eCommerce, relocation, and/or Internet lead management team that responds in a timely manner to these inquiries whether they’ve come in by email, telephone, or live chat. Finally, let’s assume that as an agent you get lead inquiries directly (from your blog, website, broker, etc) and/or leads are routed to you via a relocation or lead management team. What’s the average response time to these direct-to-agent or eCommerce-to-agent leads? If it’s over 15 minutes, I posit that is too long (for eCommerce-to-agent leads, I say response time should be under 5 minutes).

According to the 2008 NAR Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers:

  • 21% of home buyers say reputation is an important factor when choosing an agent, which is the second most important factor out of eight factors polled, the number one factor (at 29%) is agent honesty and trustworthiness
  • 93% of home buyers rate responsiveness as “very important” when considering agent skills
  • 84% of home buyers rate communication skills as “very important” when considering agents skills
  • 67% of all buyers interview only one agent in their search process

Do prospective clients visit the following types of sites more often than real estate websites: BassPro.com, Cabelas.com, Zappos.com, Craigslist.com, Geico.com? I’ll posit that your prospective clients are visiting these types of sites more often than any one real estate site. Thus, their customer service–their concierge service–expectations are being set by these entities. Where does your service level measure up related to these companies?

Put yourself in the shoes of a consumer who goes to BassPro.com and contacts their customer support staff and gets a response within one minute or less (especially if he/she used live chat). Would you say this consumer has a higher likelihood of being satisfied and that BassPro likely created a good vibe for its brand in the mind of that consumer? I’d say yes. Now what would happen if that consumer had to wait for 48 or 72 hours for a response to his/her question that common sense tells him/her should take only a couple of minutes? I’d say a bad vibe is created. Granted, if the customer is committed enough, he/she may try to pry a response out of BassPro by recontacting them. But the more he/she has to try and pry the customer service abalone shell off the rock, the less likely this customer will remain with BassPro. And if prospective clients have to pry a response out of you, the less likely they are to engage with you.

Prospective clients expect responsiveness. And their expectation for this responsiveness is being set OUTSIDE the real estate industry. Thus, it’s incumbent upon real estate professionals to step up to the client concierge service plate and respond as quickly as possible to inbound lead inquiries.

Where do you want your trustworthiness and reputation factors to be slotted in a prospective client’s mind: as uncaring and lazy because you don’t typically respond in a timely manner, or that you’re concerned about prospective clients’ needs and desires? Thus, meet 93% of home buyers’ expectations and set a standard to respond to inquiries in a timely manner. If 84% of home buyers consider communication skills as very important, how are you demonstrating your communication skills–as ignoring a prospective client’s requests, or by addressing him/her with alacrity and professionalism?

Don’t make prospective clients pry a response out of you. Remember that 67% of prospective clients contact and interview only one agent during their search process. Increase your odds of gaining a client’s trust and business by quickly responding to their inquiries.

Photo attribution: Abalone divers, Queue

Creativity Integrity and Brand Differentiation

Chris Brogan’s recent post challenges marketers to begin thinking of ways to use the social web to leverage traditional marketing expertise:

Marketers, are you paying attention to who’s spending how much and where when you read magazines, watch TV, or see billboards? Are you extrapolating out what it means to you, your business, etc?…If you’re in media, the stories are all around you. The model’s broken. Yep. The numbers are smaller. Yep. People aren’t as into paper. Yep. Ads online don’t make as much money as on paper. Sad, but yep.

Consider too this statement from Brian Solis:

While numbers indicate that Social Media Marketing may, for now, be recession proof, it is not idiot proof. Engaging in transparent conversations in social networks to build brand-centric communities is meaningless without intelligence, sincerity and a real world business acumen that can tie participation to important business metrics.

Assume a day in the not too distant future where 90% of your competitors have viable and cogent strategies for utilizing Facebook, Twitter, blogs, video, social CRM applications, etc. In this environment, where’s your edge? Where’s your competitive points of differentiation? How will your messages cut through the noise and fragmented media channels? I say it nets down to two main buckets: Creativity and Integrity.

Creativity

Calders 1968 Nenuphar In The Lincoln Gallery
Calder's 1968 Nenuphar In The Lincoln Gallery

@doverbey (aka Derek Overbey) is a creative person, a talented marketer and prolific–and effective–user of social media. This year he attended SXSW for the first time and knew he could meet people like @scobleizer, @gapingvoid, @guykawasaki (for those who’ve never attended a SXSW, that’s one of the hallmarks of the conference and its appeal…you can actually speak freely with many experts in a variety of disciplines…if you can get on their radar). @doverbey turned “could” into “did” by thinking creatively. Knowing that people like @guykawasaki would be hit from all sides and at any time of day for a chat-up, drinks, meeting requests, whatever, he knew that if he had any chance at wrangling a substantive and informative conversation from “stars” like @guykawasaki he’d have to have a “hook” and “angle”; in short, a creative and compelling reason to get these people to spend some time with him. His brainchild: “100interviews“. His methodology: a wordpress blog, some t-shirts, a flip video camera, and a targeted Twitter promotion prior to and during SXSW. His outcome? Visit his site. Here’s what Derek has to say about the experience:

When @morganb (Morgan Brown) and I decided to conduct some interviews at SXSW, I knew we had to have a hook. The thought on trying to do 100 interviews in 4 days had a nice ring to it and provided us with a platform to stand on as we went out and started to secure interview subjects. But I think the aspect that really pushed us over the top was using Twitter to promote and secure the interviewees. Once we secured a couple of bigger names like @guykawasaki, @chrisbrogan and @garyvee and started to tweet that info out, we had people literally coming to us asking if they could get involved. We leveraged the social aspect to do the work for us. Then when we were at the event, people felt like they were missing something if they were not involved because all their social media friends were participating. In closing, I would say this experience showed me the “true power” of social media outside of just connecting. It can really be leveraged as a additional marketing arm but must still have the good idea behind it.

Derek walked into a situation where many of the attendees were just as prolific users of social media as he is, and where many of these individuals perhaps had similar goals to his, but out of literally thousands of attendees he got substantive face-time with these thought-leaders, and captured telling interviews by using his marketing prowess and creative thinking to come-up with a compelling “hook” that was just different enough to make these thought-leaders stop, take notice, and contribute. And in the process he’s branded himself as a social media leader too.

The take-away: You can do the same with your brand by looking at what’s not been done in your vertical in terms of a promotional strategy and use social media to leverage this uniqueness. In a sea of banality what’s your concept that’s simple to execute, but has a “nice ring to it” that will create a buzz tsunami?

Integrity

Integrity
Integrity

Trent Reznor of NIN is a great artist. Whether you like or dislike his music, it’s unlikely you’d disagree that he’s been uncompromising in his art as well as his business acumen. Take 40 minutes out of your day and listen to this interview where Reznor’s answers to the DIGG community questions deliver keen insights into how he’s blended art and business into a strategy that not only propels his brands, but also keeps his core constituency front-and-center and conversant with these brands. What’s clear from the interview is that he’s confident in his own vision, and has been from the start. There’s a point in the interview where he describes how he strategically broke into the music business in the late 1980s by sitting back and really understanding what his unique value was to the music industry, aligning himself with the right label, and using then ground-breaking distribution models (e.g., MTV) to get his art heard. In essence, he looked at his core strengths and passions and leveraged such in the “alternative music” niche that existed at that time. Reznor focused on perfecting his art, stayed true to his vision, and created a truly unique sound which differentiated himself from the crowd of other bands. And once his audience “found” his music, he engaged this audience with ever-increasing diversity coupled with new technologies and distribution methods to increase this engagement (see his recently released iPhone app under his NIN brand for the most recent example of this.

The take-away: Understand your core values and define how you’ll make a difference and then have confidence in your brand, your vision. Keep an uncompromising adherence to these values as you deploy new services and utilize new technologies to spread your vision. And when a constituency embraces your brand, engage this constituency and demonstrate that you understand its core goals, wants, and needs by developing products and services that align with these core values while adhering to yours.

Photo credits: Creativity photo, Takomabibelot; Integrity photo, Jahat

Clients are not cows

Real estate marketing professionals interested in farming, cultivating, or harvesting customers should consider something new. Livestock management perhaps? How about genetic engineering of new hybrid corn? Better yet how about driving a combine or cultivator? It’s time to shed these agri-centric terms that are so often used in conjunction with traditional Customer (Client) Relationship Management (CRM) theories.

Potential and existing clients are neither livestock, corn, nor wheat. Clients are people who have families, passions, wants, desires, and needs. And they likely would not want to be managed, cultivated, harvested, or farmed. Instead they’d likely want a meaningful interaction with your brand where you treat them like a human rather than like an uninformed data element.

As a first step to embracing clients and potential clients as living and breathing HUMANS, rather than disembodied data nodes, firms ought to shed certain traditional labels of CRM as well as agri-centric terms in favor of human-centric labels. Use “client” rather than customer; clients seek professional advice, customers purchase products. As a real estate professional who’s positioning yourself as a trusted adviser and subject matter expert, aren’t you more interesting in engaging clients as opposed to just pushing products?  Similarly, use “engagement” and “conversation” rather than cultivate or nurture; engagement implies a recognition that your client has a role in the CRM process and conversation recognizes that you’re goal is to enlist the client in a dialogue, rather than having them passively remain rooted in your system like a seed and plant in a field until they’re harvested at maturation.

Words matter. And labels inform your conduct. If your CRM system focuses on the human touch, the people element, then your CRM operations become more focused and in tune with promoting engagement and brand partnership. Consumers want to trust your brand. Give them a reason to do so by acting like you trust them.

Photo credit zieak

Peering Under the Hood at Facebook

If one stops and ponders the amount of data and content users add to Facebook on a daily basis, it’s truly staggering. I’ve often wondered what the Facebook data team does with this data and content. Recently, I stumbled across two insightful articles and a video series that sheds some light on this.

The first article discusses how the Facebook data team uses statistical analysis to make informed product development decisions (the article also touches on Google’s use of data modeling and statistics).

Facebook’s Data Team used R in 2007 to answer two questions about new users: (i) which data points predict whether a user will stay? and (ii) if they stay, which data points predict how active they’ll be after three months?

For the first question, Itamar’s team used recursive partitioning (via the rpart package) to infer that just two data points are significantly predictive of whether a user remains on Facebook: (i) having more than one session as a new user, and (ii) entering basic profile information.

For the second question, they fit the data to a logistic model using a least angle regression approach (via the lars package), and found that activity at three months was predicted by variables related to three classes of behavior: (i) how often a user was reached out to by others, (ii) frequency of third party application use, and (iii) what Itamar termed “receptiveness” — related to how forthcoming a user was on the site.

The second article, posted by the Facebook data team in response to this Economist article, gives a very insightful description as to how the Facebook data team uses statistical analysis to answer an important question:

We were asked a simple question: is Facebook increasing the size of people’s personal networks? This is a particularly difficult question to answer, so as a first attempt we looked into the types of relationships people do maintain, and the relative size of these groups.

What the Facebook data team found was that a user’s passive network is 2 to 2.5 times larger than their active network (i.e., a reciprocal network where there is an active two-way communication happening), and that a passive network is just as important as a reciprocal network in building buzz.

The stark contrast between reciprocal and passive networks shows the effect of technologies such as News Feed. If these people were required to talk on the phone to each other, we might see something like the reciprocal network, where everyone is connected to a small number of individuals. Moving to an environment where everyone is passively engaged with each other, some event, such as a new baby or engagement can propagate very quickly through this highly connected network.

I’ll take a leap and say that these findings helped drive some of the reasoning behind the updated profile home page and business page “lifestreaming” functionality. Facebook’s focus on having people set up a profile–and updating this profile–and immediately engage with other people, coupled with an emphasis on increasing a user’s penetration within their passive network, is critical to Facebook’s continued growth. [Update: for an excellent three series analysis of the new Facebook pages go here, here, and here]. We can see an example of this passive network effect below where a Facebook user posted a short note that his twins are soon to be featured on CSI, the news spread quickly and opened up several channels of commentary:

passive network buzz using facebook newsfeed

Here’s an additional link to some interesting insights by Facebook’s former head of data and analytics, Jeff Hammerbacher, into Facebook’s approach to data analytics and lessons learned (these are fairly long videos, but really really fun to watch). Hammerbacher discusses how they analyze terabytes of data in near-real time to allow their various business units to make more informed decisions. My key take-away from the videos is that a graphical display of data that allows users to also “hack” the data to gain deeper insights yields great product development and customer relationship management gains.

Spreading Positive Brand Messages Using Social Media

Although many real estate brand managers have embraced social media and are pushing their executives and agents to start a blog, join Facebook and LinkedIn, etc, many are still reticent to step into the space. Questions like these are fairly common: “What if someone says something bad, or posts a rude comment, or is just really nasty on my public page?”, “How can I keep out the competition?”, and “How can I control what’s being said?”

These are relevant concerns and may stem in part from a generalized mistrust of consumers’ ability to “properly” “understand brand message”, or from feelings of insecurity in the worth and veracity of one’s brand. But sweating the minutia over message, taking a parens patriae like attitude towards the consumer, and adopting a defensive posturing towards one’s competition as a way to temporarily stave the social media tsunami actually play into the hands of any competitor who’s already joined the social media party.

Questions:

  • Do you believe in the transformative power of your brand?
  • Do you believe that your brand is better than your competition?
  • Do you believe in what you’ve built?

If the answers are no, then read these books as starting points to rejuvenate your brand: The Black Swan, Purple Cow, and The Art of the Start. If the answers are yes, then set your brand free with social media. Spreadabilty is the key, and one of the most efficient ways to accomplish this is via social media.

Spreading your message

If you believe in your brand, use the recently updated Facebook Page platform and Home page lifestreaming features to spread your message to your friends, core constituency, and clients. If you believe in your brand, use Twitter like Comcast does via its @comcastcares profile to engage customers and solve customer service related issues. If you believe in your brand, embrace the fact that maybe one of your competitors will “fan” your Facebook Page but then use this opportunity to overwhelm them with the greatness of your brand and use this platform as a subtle recruiting environment. If you believe in your brand, figure out creative and low cost buzz-worthy tactics to get a spotlight on your greatness (look at the buzz that @doverbey created at SXSW: he’s using a wordpress blog as a repository for 100 video interviews and promoting it via Twitter while attending SXSW…and now he’s in the SXSW buzz spotlight as a participant, rather than an attendee).

Social media is here to stay. And the longer you wait to begin using social media to spread your brand message, the the more opportunity your competitors have to spread theirs at the expense of yours.

New Facebook Home Page Useful for Real Estate Pros

Here’s an excellent article on the PR 2.0 blog about the new homepage design features Facebook will soon release. The article gives a reasoned analysis of the new Facebook feature-set as well as possible implications for brands, individuals, and services like Twitter and Friendfeed.

What could be considered the Wall 2.0 or quite simply, a personal or branded activity stream or timeline for people, public figures, and brands, the company is placing your in-network and external network activity at the front-and-center of your public profile for friends, associates, and followers to not only stay up to date with you[sic] aggregated Web activity, but also participate in the stream.

New Facebook Home Page
New Facebook Home Page

The new Facebook home page likely will have positive implications for real estate professionals. First, the new filter feature presumably allows you to separate your contacts into separate channels, monitor those channels, and more easily converse within those channels. This allows you to use Facebook as more of a social media multichannel marketing tool (i.e., by monitoring separate channels you can prioritize those channels and, thus, respond appropriately and in a timely manner as needed). Second, the real-time “stream” feature will give you an accurate pulse of your sphere’s goings on, which is useful in choosing which contact to engage immediately or at a later time (this feeds into the multichannel marketing nature of the filter feature). Finally, the “publisher” aspect of the new Facebook home page seems to give you a more useful–and engaging– way to update your sphere.

Web 2.0 Multichannel Marketing Considerations

Digital Trends is a big topic and this post really goes through a substantive analysis of Edleman’s recent predictions.

The digital train is tearing down the tracks and has no signs of slowing. Every industry is being reshaped by the expectation that everything should be digitized. Add digital hungry consumers with web devices, NetPCs, Kindles and smart gaming consoles and you’ve got a multichannel marketing and distribution train wreck.

Multichannel marketing considerations will certainly be primary this year as fragmented consumer relations with brands accelerate. Thus, firms like SAP have begun tracking social media interactions. Despite the inherent trackability problem presented by fragmented brand interactions with consumers, firms are either “in” or “out” of the social media space. And it seems evident to me that firms should be “in”, as this report on how telecoms use social media demonstrates; given this, here is a list of great tips list for creating content that spreads.

Viral is Dead, Let it Spread Instead

Real estate firms that are thinking about implementing social media marketing strategies should pay attention to Charlene Li‘s predictions. Li’s series of five interviews paint a road map of the social media future firms ought to be considering today:

melded identities

 

social algorithms (see also my earlier post on trust indicators in social networks)

open platforms

privacy and permissions

organizational trust

Her thinking mirrors that of Henry Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, who essentially argues in his white paper “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead” that marketers need to shed the terms “viral” and “memes” and adopt “spreadability” as a benchmark.

What Jenkins points out, and Li implicitly endorses, is that humans are not passive hosts that propagate marketing messages. Rather, humans take an active roll in transferring and transforming marketing messages. Thus, marketers need to rethink their approaches to conceiving of, executing on, and managing marketing campaigns by migrating away from command and control modalities to adopting more of a marketing midwifery role.

I think that Li’s and Jenkins’ thoughts also pertain to CRM definitions. Let’s shed the agri-centric CRM labels like “cultivate,” “nurture,” and “harvest” for terms that recognize a consumer’s role in allowing themselves to become part of a CRM system, rather than passive victims of that system. Terms like “engagement,” “conversation,” and “partner” align with Li’s and Jenkins’ sentiments, seem more respectful of an individual’s role in a CRM system, and are reflective of the fact that consumers are active participants in a firm’s “relationship management” processes. And assuming that a firm’s client services division performs at high levels of consumer satisfaction, this ethos shift also has the potential to empower “engaged” consumers to spread the word of a firm’s client services successes (much like Li relates in her Comcast example in the above “organizational trust” interview).

Twitter Please Believe the Hype

Here’s an interview about Twitter with a friend of mine who owns a manufacturing plant in Northwest Chicago. Of course, I was evangelizing the incredible value, benefits, and just awesome coolness of Twitter, but he was a little skeptical…

I think Tom has good advice. It’s easy to get caught up in a Gartner hype cycle, becoming fascinated and enthralled with a technology and thinking it’s value resides simply in its sheer technical coolness. This said, I’m still convinced Twitter is one of the best applications a real estate firm and agent can use to build their personal brand as well as eventually drive transactions. UPDATE: Check out this NYTimes article on the power of Twitter.

In a similar vein I’m having much more meaningful conversations and interactions over Twitter than via telephone and email. I think it’s because Twitter forces you to think crisply and communicate with brevity, mirroring “live” conversations in a way. And in thinking again about ‘ol Notorious’ recent post, it’s this aspect of Twitter–and other social media applications in general–that make it (them) such huge brand-building tools.

Top down branding campaigns are typically forced on consumers like geese trapped in a foie gras factory, delivered in 15 second to 30 second snippets that really don’t change that much. Whereas social media relies on relationships that naturally evolve over time. And it’s this aspect of social media–its repartee–that allows a brand to develop a “personality” that a consumer can choose to befriend. Assuming a consumer remains engaged and interacting with a brand under these circumstances, it stands to reason that consumer affinity and loyalty with/to a brand would be higher than with/though traditional media campaigns.

Theatre of Cruelty in a Carnival of Real Estate

What’s the value of a real estate firm’s or agent’s service? What actions justify a firm’s or agent’s fees? I’m contemplating these questions as I re-read “The Theatre and Its Double” written by Antonin Artaud, and some of what he says in his writing has a certain philosophical resonance with respect to the current state of affairs in the real estate industry.

Artaud was an early 20th century French playwright. He challenged existing theatrical norms of his day to strip away historical groundings with respect to performance (which he generally thought were overproduced parodies of themselves) and show a more honest–transparent–personification of character, thought, or theme, where the actor is the ultimate provocateur of an honest dialogue with her audience, whilst producers and directors contentedly cling to the status quo. In Chapter 6, “No More Masterpieces”, Artaud states:

Far from blaming the public, we ought to blame the formal screen we interpose between ourselves and the public[.]

He continues at a more sublime level:

Enough of personal poems, benefitting those who create them much more than those who read them.

Theatre changed for the better after Artaud’s call to action. Similarly, it seems to me, the real estate industry is due for an Artaud-like challenge to existing norms with respect to representation, compensation, and professionalism. The run-up to 2009 was indeed a real spectacle, but the tent has fallen, the elephants have flattened the performance space, and the audience seems to have run away. Indeed, many have written about the current state of affairs.

But here are perhaps two of the the clearest calls to action to change the status quo–two honest evaluations of the state of affairs with respect to the relationship between real estate professional and consumer. Neither author engages in finger pointing, tries to push off responsibility, nor cringes from the challenge to ask hard questions and honestly answer these questions.

Rather, there is a recognition that the forum has changed, that same old lines fall on increasingly calloused consumer ears. Indeed, the authors’ challenges to the “old rules” of relationship and dialogue between real estate professional and consumer especially resonate when one of these authors had a consumer click through to his blog from the search “buyer’s real estate commission myth“. Clearly this consumer was seeking a different type of relationship with a real estate professional. And, with respect to the norm, this author’s blog post presented an honest–and transparent–alternative conversation. 

Thus begins a few hammer blows to the status quo.

Engagement and consumer value propositions

Here’s another recent article on the changing consumer landscape regarding brand affinity and marketing. It parallels themes from my Crowds, Hives, Mobs, Swarms post.

The contemporary savvy consumer is seen as someone who combines areas of competency (particularly technological sophistication, network competency and marketing/advertising literacy) with empowerment (especially self-confidence and self-efficacy).

The paper points out that consumers are focused on value in their online interactions: value-for-time, value-for-attention, and value-for-access for their personal information. In searching for this value, consumers have become self confident in utilizing new technologies to filter and control brand-centric messaging. Additionally, consumers are by and large comfortable tinkering with new technologies on a trial and error basis as opposed to following a script or reading a manual, which has resulted in mega-brands like Google, iPhone, etc. As other brands attempt to match the success of these mega brands, ad spends are increasing in places like social networks as these brands go for consumer “engagement gold”. But there is a downside.

Organisations that serve consumers, employees and citizens in the world of person-centric commerce will be beneficiaries…but along the way there will be losers and casualties, including some businesses that over-estimate the desire of their consumers for engagement at the expense of offering basic value-for-money.

Accordingly, brands need to account for the differences among consumers and their attendant needs regarding value. These differences fall largely along generational lines, but even these lines are blurred as older consumers learn to adopt new technologies and adapt to novel ways of socializing and networking. In conclusion, the paper posits that despite a brand’s overt focus on highly customized, highly relevant, and highly emotional appeals, these efforts may not be enough to get these customers “involved” with the brand because the consumer landscape is too fragmentized and unstable.

Real estate website technology and engagement

This post on real estate brokerage future and this one on hyper-local targeting are two excellent discussions about the strategic decisions real estate brokers will face over the next few years, especially with the technology side of the equation. I will focus on two salient points from these posts: (1) the ascendancy of broker power relative to agents and agent teams; and (2) the “Human Touch”.

In the first post, the author essentially argues that “Big Brokerage” along with a constellation of boutique firms will emerge dominate over the next few years. Not only is this argument valid in my opinion, but follows the power law principle, which has been proven in many other social, scientific, and natural systems. Interestingly, the author also skims the surface on some historical trends too. Having just finished reading the Rise and Fall of Great Powers, I’m seeing a correlation in the real estate industry to what existed in the late 1600s through early 1800s in Europe, which saw “old” powers atrophy and “new” powers emerge. Many national firms are under distress and, thus, weakened competitively when confronted by attempts at marketshare gains made by rivals (i.e., analogous to the Hapsburg’s loss of power). What may emerge in the near term is a balkanized set of real estate brokerage fiefdoms (all following the power law principle within their own market) but no one true national “winner”. Over time these fiefdoms (or principalities) will begin competing along their borders too, where the brokerages that strategically deploy technology gain advantage (just like the principalities and states that adopted new forms of weaponry won their military campaigns during the afore-mentioned time period).

Which brings me to my second issue the, “Human Touch“. I’ve always argued that real estate is a participation sport. And technology should serve one principal service: get an arms-length positioned consumer in front of an agent as quickly as possible…but it’s the manner by which this occurs that separates effectiveness from mere happenstance.

Many agents despise Internet leads, and sometimes with good reason. Too many “leads” an agent receives are really a waste of time from the agent’s perspective (too many questions, too many meetings, too many emails, not enough transaction); this tends to breed resentment, bitterness, and non-effectiveness. Thus, smart brokerages employ a lead qualification layer operating under a managed care rubric that works with potential clients prior to handing them off to an agent (in my opinion agents by and large are “closers” not “nurture-ers” and their talents are not deployed optimally when called upon to nurture consumers). And it’s in the managed care environment where firms can make the most gains.

Let’s assume an ideal state of technology circumstances for a brokerage principality that wants to gain consumer mindshare (and, thus, marketshare). This brokerage’s website would consist of the following primary entry points for potential (and existing) clients (all very consumer-facing, focusing on consumers’ needs and points-of-view):

  • Tag clouds that demonstrate inventory density demarcated along neighborhood, price, zip code, lifestyle, and home-type attributes
  • Search clouds that demonstrate what consumers have been most interested in within the site
  • Lifestyle-oriented search (which I’ve written about previously)
  • Targeted site elements driven by a Site +1 engine (I have not seen this product work, but will give the company the benefit of the doubt and assume that it works as advertised) that presents relevant imagery, content, property type suggestions, and calls to action that meet the potential client’s assumed demographic/psychographic profile in a predictive sense
  • Map display that presents data in compelling ways (like search cloud data overlaid on a Google map)

Deploying such site elements not only meets consumers expectations at a high level by presenting them with features they are “familiar” with by virtue of visiting other types of websites more frequently than a real estate website, namely sites like Amazon and blogs (my previous post references a Universal McCann study stating that blogs have just as much reach as traditional media). But more importantly a Utopian site like the one I’ve described is geared towards four primary things: not wasting the consumer’s time, presenting them with multiple ways to access information, speaking relevantly to them immediately, and incenting them to contact a “human” as quickly and efficiently as possible.

This type of a site uses engagement-oriented features that compellingly reward a consumer’s time spent on the site by giving them information in a manner that mirrors a “human touch” while actually cross-promoting a “human touch”, rather than penalizing or irritating them with worn, tired, slow, and stale elements. Thus, consumers establish emotional and brand-centric bonds with the brokerage via its website. And when a consumer decides to “reach out” and contact the company, this consumer does so in a more informed and qualified manner, which allows the managed care department to not only engage this consumer at a higher level but transfer a more informed and content consumer to the agent. What’s happened is that “technology” has allowed the consumer–at her leisure–to satiate her information gathering needs in a highly effective and efficient manner, making the site more relevant and trustworthy with respect to her quest, allowed the managed care department to spend less time educating her, and focuses agents’ core competencies on “closing” and transaction management issues; which in the end reinforces the power law principle and propels the marketshare gains the firm seeks.

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.

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).

Profiling hedonic data in social networks

Continuing the discussion from the McKinsey interview of Cammie Dunaway, she states

[Yahoo!] is using behavioral data–really mining the wealth of transactional data we have about how people are spending their time online and trying to marry that data with attitudinal data…that’s where the most powerful insights can really come from.

Insights into what? It could be many things. Two of the most studied motivational data elements are utilitarian motivations and hedonic motivations. Utilitarian motivations center around goal-oriented behavior (e.g., I logged in to check my email, I checked my email, I logged out). Hedonic motivations are more social in nature (e.g,. I logged in to explore, to analyze, to decide, to eventually take action).

In real estate search, companies have typically focused on rewarding utilitarian behavior, often in a very reactionary manner. Consumer searches site > Consumer registers > Consumer selects home > Consumer is “passed off” to a real estate agent. Of course, the ultimate goal is to consummate a sale. And improving the “experience” of looking for a home on a real estate firm’s website could actually lead to more loyalty, referrals, and sales.

Nevertheless, overly focusing on “experience” at the expense of a goal can scuttle both consumer loyalty and ROI. Thus, balance lies in properly testing and deploying Web 2.0 assets that fulfill consumer goals while logically jibing with the product subject matter.

So how does mining attitudinal data fit this balanced approach or paradigm? Incenting consumers to add profile information that logically fits a goal is one idea. For example, if a real estate firm’s goal was to create a social network on their site targeted at tapping a suburban soccer mom demographic looking to buy a home, logical profile information may be zip code (current residence and desired residence), schools, sports, design preferences, and home type.

Zip code is important because the firm could relate this consumer to an agent who serves that zip code, where the agent serves as the social network ombudsman(woman) to answer questions and otherwise kick-start the group. Secondly, once a firm understands home type preferences and desired location, the firm can relate specific home information, community information and statistics, and other moms in the network to this person. The additional profile information constitutes community building information (e.g., relating moms who have children in similar sports). These steps help build a community and take the burden off the real estate firm to be all things to all consumers (if a mom has questions about how her child can join a traveling baseball team, she could ask the real estate agent, but more likely she’d ask the community). This way the firm’s “social asset” reinforces the firm’s local expertise, which allows for an eventual monetization of this consumer as she “graduates” through the process into ultimately looking at home types and eventually purchasing a home.

Through the tracking of profile data combined with the interaction of the consumer with the group (communications, postings, etc) combined with accessing utilities (e.g., widget downloads pertaining to design elements, video home tours, community data, statistics, etc), a firm could create an “engagement” index to validate whether their site is properly satiating consumers’ needs (Circuit City does this). The experience of this for the consumer is not so much having real estate listings and drip marketing pushed her way, but related data presented in a way that allows her to more deeply engage in the process and begin building a community before actually living in a community. Finally, in terms life-time value, this type of a social network could operate as a forum for a firm–and its real estate agents–to cultivate a valid and meaningful long-term relationship with consumers after they have actually bought a home (thus, closing the circle by adding transactional data with previously compiled attitudinal data).

Engagement marketing, using social media in real estate

According to McKinsey, global companies are increasingly using Web 2.0 technologies to engage their customers. Tapping web services, collective intelligence systems, and peer-to-peer network capabilities were the top three technologies companies were currently deploying or planning to deploy. Respondents indicated that customer acquisition was the number one reason they were deploying social media (the respondents also stated that they use Web 2.o media to more efficiently engage partners and suppliers as well as internal collaborative purposes). Several respondents indicated that social media is particularly valuable in terms of ideation and creation of future products.

In a similar report, McKinsey interviews Cammie Dunaway. Ms. Dunaway indicates that Yahoo’s concept of digital salons (online focus groups) have delivered unprecedented success with respect to new product prototypes and new product development initiatives. Yahoo also measures consumer engagement as a success metric (i.e., share of time spent on Yahoo and the number of media properties “consumed” during this time).

Applying social media to real estate home search is a logical step. Real estate firms should begin experimenting with new forms of engagement. Despite the fact that homes are not commodities novel opportunities exist to deploy social media. Virtual renderings of homes (pictures, virtual tours, etc) offer a rich bed of experimentation and engagement opportunities, and there currently exists technology real estate firms can deploy to support this initiative. For example, Benjamin Moore has a tool where consumers can select templates or upload pictures of their own homes and then change color schemes; Halstead Property has deployed a similar tool. There are 3-D home design platforms available.

 A creative firm could move beyond the virtual tour and allow consumers to actually change the color and layout of a prospective home; or grab widgets that have predefined parameters pertaining to build-outs or additions, thereby allowing consumers to visualize how a home would appear after the completion of such. Rounding out the experience, a firm could allow an agent, or team of agents, to answer questions via live chat and have a local interior design consultants “on call” to do the same. These types of consumer-facing features not only meet the consumer engagement parameters explored by McKinsey, but actually allows consumers to design or alter a product so they can visualize, experience, and “feel” how a home will look after purchase (allowing a consumer to virtually move in to the home and get a deeper sense of the living space). As Mini Cooper and Scion have found, the higher consumer engagement, the higher the return on customer acquisition strategies (measured in engagement and brand loyalty).