How brave are real estate companies, when it comes to their website?

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I was recently asked by a real estate company I was advising, the question “What could we do differently in terms of our online presence?”

It was a good question. Not surprising though; as most companies in most industries are looking for a point of difference.

I think however, what they were really thinking was; how could we make a website that showcased our listings better than our competitor so as to drive more traffic to the site, to generate more enquiries; after all that is what they want – right? More enquiries, more buyers, happy sellers!?

What I told them though, was not what I think they wanted to hear. I said, to start with how about not having property listings on your website!?

Think about it for a minute. Almost every website you view from almost every real estate company has a home page focused on a search box to find their listings. This is not unique to this country; almost every country reflects this approach.

So given this universal approach why would I advocate having no property listings, unless I was just trying to be controversial or get attention?

The point I made to this client and the point that I think is worth sharing more generally is that the purpose of a website for a real estate company is to attract new business. New business for real estate companies is not comprised of buyers looking for houses. It needs to be focused towards sellers looking to choose a real estate agent. In this situation real estate is no different from any other service-based business. They want to attract customers and to do that they need to profile themselves in such a way that the prospect says – “this is the company I want to work with”.

Now property listings are the content of the real estate industry, but I would argue that real estate companies are not in the content business, they are in the service business, the satisfaction business; the satisfaction that comes from a completed sales. They are not (or at least less so these days) in the property marketing business. In this regard they should leave property marketing online to the property portals – in NZ Trade Me & Realestate.co.nz. These websites have the eyeballs and this is where the marketing more and more takes place.

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A smart real estate company should focus its website to the process of real estate transaction. Helping people understand what the process involves, providing advice and rich content and then highlighting the value they add to the process.

The site should focus heavily on the team. Real estate is about agents. The industry structure is still based on independent contractors who earn their commission-based-income by people in regular and deep contact with clients. So I would advocate deep content and profiling of all agents. Take the opportunity o really reveal the personality of the agent. Too many profile just republish the same tired clichés “Jane / John has a passion for real estate, they love working with people through the life changing process of moving house. Jane / John have lived in the area for years and love the community and the relationships they build with their clients over the years that have become friends”!

This is an example of a real estate portal website - Zillow in the US, not a real estate company website, but the section "What I love about my house" is great

This is an example of a real estate portal website - Zillow in the US, not a real estate company website, but the section "What I love about my house" is great

How about a bit more about the unique characteristics of the agent – what about what they love in a house, what style they love, what is their passion outside of real estate. After all it is more likely that a person that loves dogs is going to be keen to chat to an agent that equally loves dogs!

The site should also be clear about how much it should cost to sell your house. It is amazing how hard it is to find this out in most websites. I seem to recall a quote that if there was no price on an item in a catalogue then if you had to ask – you could not afford it. Is this the approach real estate takes? If they want your business then they should be up-front and tell you what it costs. If they are flexible to negotiate, let them say that. But give a guide as to the expected cost.

They should also outline what types and scale of marketing that should be recommended dependent upon circumstances.

A real benefit would be some great case studies that demonstrate the process of listing, marketing and selling some homes, within this, demonstrating the areas where the agent helps the process through to satisfactory conclusion – this would be far more valuable than endless bland testimonials that most sites seem to have that just keep reiterating how marvelous the agent was. Let’s be clear; these days consumers only trust reviews when they are open and balanced, a curated list that is not allowed to be commented on, is generally discredited as biased.

Another key service that real estate companies can offer that is complementary to their market knowledge of property is their community knowledge, so how about making the website more about the living experience and community feel for the areas served by the real estate company. This perfectly complements the agent profile section so each agent can share open and insightful local community profiles.

Now a point I should make is that by real estate website what I mean is the business website for the local real estate company as opposed to the corporate website for the brand or franchise. In the case of NZ read Harcourts, Ray White, LJ Hooker, Professionals, Barfoot & Thompson and Bayleys. These corporate sites are likely to continue to focus on property search and listings. This is mainly because these corporates are more interested in challenging the power of the portals of Trade Me & Realestate.co.nz and supporting their franchise offices for whom they want to drive brand exposure and traffic. What they should be doing though is focusing more on profiling their core brand values, the investment in training they provide as well as the professional standards they uphold and the company network of local offices they have as well as socially minded initiatives.

Having made all of these comments of criticism and advice for real estate companies, I should add that recently I was forwarded a link from a colleague in the USA who has shared my views on the changing face of real estate – he had come across a brave real estate company who had taken the leap of faith and re-developed their website to not show properties – congratulations to Real Living at Home – a radically different real estate company of Washington DC.