Trulia Case Study in Online Reputation Management

Trulia’s response to this issue is an excellent case study in online reputation management.

This post generated 159 comments, and landed in Trulia’s lap on Tuesday, April 29th, 2008, 10:36 am MST. The subject hit at the heart of Trulia’s astounding SEO success. Trulia’s response to this issue is an excellent case study in online reputation management that began with a blog-flame and ended with this MarketWatch interview.

On April 29th, Trulia’s first response was to see how high the flames would go. BHB is a very popular real estate industry blog. If the issue dies on BHB, then it’s likely dead everywhere else too. However, if the issue lives and progresses from birth to adolescence to adulthood in record time, it’s time to respond. And on BHB, “adulthood” was reached in record time. Thus, Trulia responded.

Trulia’s first public response on BHB was April 30th, 2008 9:58 am from Rudy at Trulia. His post did not seem to stem the tide of negative commentary. Thus, Pete Flint, Trulia’s founder and CEO, got in on the action that afternoon. Rudy’s and Pete’s posts were debated, derided, and defended throughout the day and over the next several days, with the issue basically fizzling out on the eighth day–an eternity in the blogosphere. Additionally, in the midst of this, Trulia responded on its own blog; an appropriate tactic and response vehicle in addition to their comments mentioned above.

In analyzing their response tactics in view of a possible PR crisis, Trulia did an excellent job–they jumped into the controversy, debated and tried to clarify points they felt were inaccurate (i.e., through their comments they got their side of the story posted on the BHB blog), and responded in their own forum. This latter tactic get’s their blog post about the controversy a nifty Google search result. For example, the search phrase trulia pagerank debate gives them a higher position on Google than the original BHB posting, and the phrase trulia seo debate gives them a similar great position. Trulia’s final act in the midst of this blog-debate was to issue a press release about their foreclosure survey, which was also picked up by newswires like PR Newswire Eur at 15:47:00 on 5/7/08 and AP Alert – HiTech at 15:49:22 on 5/7/08.

From a PR perspective, what’s masterful about this latter tactic? PR channel management: managing the blog-tech channel as opposed to the traditional press-consumer channel.

Essentially, Trulia ceded the fact that they would not win the blog-tech battle, and appears fine with having their side of the story told. Yet, Trulia appears absolutely focused on maintaining its dominate position in the eyes of the traditional press as the authority on real estate. To this point, what’s some evidence that Trulia has maintained it’s dominance in the eyes of the traditional press? The MarketWatch interview seen above.

Trulia top 10 most used real estate website

This post argues that an online real estate search leader has not emerged since 2005, given that the recent Inman Connect attendees “still talked about them last week as if they were launched yesterday.” Interesting argument. But consider the Inman audience: real estate centric folks like sales associates, consultants, media, pundits, etc. Where were the consumers at Inman Connect? On Trulia it seems; they’re now one of the top 10 most visited real estate websites according to ComScore. Data and results tell a story better than anything spun at a conference. Consumer-focused product development processes combined with talented leadership combined with strategic decisions regarding raising equity combined with a positive entrepreneurial environment equates to proven success (pages nine and 28 of this paper delineates a correlation between optimism and success). Can any one entity knock off the big dog REALTOR.com? If I were betting, I’d double up on Trulia.

Trulia Revenue Model, Part 2

At its core Trulia applies intense competitive pressure to traditional media firms that historically–in the collective sense–bilked real estate firms out of millions–if not billions–of dollars for essentially non-measureable advertising. Sure there’s the one-off case of a person who walks in the front door of a branch office clutching a Sunday advert who actually purchases a home. However, it’s much more likely that a buyer nowadays will visit a firm’s most important branch office–that firm’s website–when beginning a home search. Thus, with its launch, Trulia’s model filled a gaping advertising chasm essentially ignored by traditional media firms (i.e., sending targeted traffic to real estate websites), and these traditional media firms have since been scrambling to catch up (what’s wonderful to observe is that Trulia likely has around 100 employees and it’s seriously challenging traditional media firms for online advertising market-share dominance–REALTOR.com included–that collectively employ tens of thousands of employees. Such is the power of elegant code and focused leadership).

So where does Trulia reside in a modern media mix? As an advertising replacement to traditional media and / or REALTOR.com? For some firms absolutely. For other firms decidedly not. For some real estate firms the decision to go or not go with Trulia (or REALTOR.com, New York Times, etc) has been based on evidence. What evidence? Evidence derived from analyzing the quality of traffic / lead sources: in some cases it makes sense to stay with REALTOR.com, and in other cases to have Trulia replace both REALTOR.com and the New York Times as primary sources of traffic / leads. For the firms described, decisions were made based on data: traffic-source-to-agent-placement ratios, traffic-source-to-showing-appointment ratios, etc. In some cases Trulia won, in other cases it was REALTOR.com that won, and in still other cases it was the New York Times, etc. Nevertheless, it all netted down to what the data showed.

Accordingly, real estate firms looking for marketing solutions should find a set of tools that measures, quantifies, and interprets the data. What this means is that real estate firms need to wipe off the muck of data analytics myopia and embrace the basics: segment prospective consumers based on demographics and decide which set of demographics to serve (recite the old adage “You can’t be all things to all people” when doing this), apply the same analysis for each traffic / lead source (for example, Trulia may deliver higher quantities of urban young professionals, whereas REALTOR.com may deliver higher quantities of suburban soccer moms), determine what traffic / lead sources “convert” at the highest ratio per each segment targeted, apply these findings to the respective traffic / lead sources, and make an informed decision to stay with or abandon such as they apply to the targeted demographic.

Trulia Revenue Model

UPDATE: Since I posted this in Dec ’07, I’ve interviewed numerous brokers and agents who’ve said that Trulia’s delivered lots of real business to them (i.e., high quality traffic that resulted in leads that closed), and that their clients are extremely pleased with the exposure their listings get via the Trulia vertical. Further, several interviewees informed me that Trulia is their number one or number two source of traffic, with one interviewee telling me that Trulia beats all other sources including paid traffic sources.

“Was anyone surprised with Trulia’s business model?,” wonders this post. For industry watchers? Not really. For real estate firms that shared listings content? Not really (at least the 30+ firms I’ve spoken with). But then again Trulia essentially repeats an earlier model: TV GUIDE.

UPDATE: Many of firms interviewed informed me that the Trulia relationship allows them to manage their advertising costs more efficiently for more effective results.

TV GUIDE used data provided by television programming companies to create a profitable company. It was the early years of broadcasting and broadcast companies were searching for new and creative ways to advertise their shows. TV GUIDE employed creative editing and advertising services (e.g., enhanced listings) to generate revenue and expand its reach (into broadcasting services); so much so Rupert Murdoch purchased it in 1988 (along with Seventeen Magazine and The Daily Racing Form) for $2.8 billion.

Real estate firms adopting “Southwest” consumer service ideals

For the past couple of years, pundits of “real estate data transparency” have loudly argued that real estate firms must “accept the inevitable” and allow property listing aggregators to scrape their firm’s real estate listings, or for these firms to post their property listings “everywhere” a consumer will search online.

The analogous situation, claimed by these pundits, is the benefits the travel and airline industries have enjoyed since data transparency largely eviscerated the travel agent livelihood–it’s now easier for consumers to find flights. And once the airline gets the traveler, they can focus on customer service.

Southwest Airlines, however, presents itself as a glaring–or galling–retort to this argument. Southwest does not participate in Expedia, Travelocity, etc. It “forces” consumers to look on Southwest.com for flight information. Has this hurt it’s business? Arguably not. According to this report, Southwest Airlines consistently has the lowest customer complaint rate in the industry. Further, by “forcing” consumers to actually visit Southwest.com to get schedules, Southwest controls it’s own brand experience. This gives Southwest the opportunity to introduce its service ethos to consumers on its own turf, following its own quirky, yet stunningly successful, business model.

Nevertheless, Southwest has crafted strategic partnerships as a way to expand it’s brand and it’s travel schedule. One example is its partnership with ATA. This implies that Southwest is crafting partnerships based around brand extension and synergy as opposed to just looking for leads.

What this short Southwest case study above calls into question is the whole model of lead acquisition strategies currently pursued by many real estate firms. Brand saturation does not always equate to leads with higher conversion rates. There is a break even point where the time spent triaging too many non-viable leads stresses infrastructure to the point where it cannot adequately service viable leads. Lead acquisition strategies should focus on capturing viable leads, i.e., leads sourced from credible sources and partnerships. Sure, Southwest has national brand penetration, but many real estate firms have similar brand penetration on the local level. Thus, these firms can model their out-of-market lead acquisition strategies on the Southwest model–quality partnerships, quality relationships, quality service, quality leads, and quality retention equates to a quality brand.