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There’s always something to howl about

By publishing enough of the right information, Mom and Pop teams can triumph over Redfin, VOWs, Realty.bots or big-name brokers

I’d like to introduce you to some really nice folks. Take a look:

The couple on the left are the Anybodys, Jeff and Janice. Jeff is a middle-manager for GE. Unless he owns a Pizza Hut. Unless he’s a Civil Engineer for the county health department. Janice is a schoolteacher — or a stay-at-home mom — or the assistant manager of the parts department at the Saturn dealership.

On the right is their real estate agent — real live real estate agent Allie Howard.

This is good real estate marketing, profoundly effective in all kinds of ways. Virtually anybody can see themselves as the Anybodys. They are exceptional examples of everything that is unexceptional in American middle-class life. And Allie is just geeky enough, just semi-hip enough, just po-mo enough and just down-to-business enough to connect with the Anybodys in the intense but decisively temporary marriage that is a home search.

Everything in this photo is perfect. The clothing is casual but expensive — in just the right colors. That hand-written type face is an homage to the “Hello!” of the original Macintosh. Everything about this image is devised to make you feel comfortable about proceeding with a real estate transaction with Allie.

So who is responsible for this inspired piece of marketing?

Redfin.com, that’s who.

That’s right, the home of the geeks is working very hard to become the just-geeky-enough place for Janice — not Jeff — to shop for a home.

Just two weeks ago, Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman was wondering among the Bloodhounds if hi-tech companies like his would crush all the Mom and Pop brokerages. But here we see that self-same Kelman working very hard to compete with Mom and Pop on their own turf.

Let me make two interstitial points, if I might.

First, do not underestimate Glenn Kelman. We’ve beat up on a lot of people in the last 30 months, but, as far as I can tell, Glenn Kelman is the only one among them who is actively trying to figure out what he’s getting wrong. That doesn’t mean we have been right, necessarily. But Kelman is going to keep testing and revising his work until he either achieves perfection, runs out of investment capital or takes on an even harder job.

Second, Brian Brady and I are going to be speaking in public with Glenn in February. I’ll let Brian make the official announcement, but we’re going up to Seattle to do a one-day Unchained pre-event, and Glenn is going to join us to talk about his squashing the little guy post.

Now back to the picture. The old image of Redfin was a skinny, geeky guy with glasses and his skinny, geeky Asian wife — what we might call Microsoft diversity. Redfin built all of its marketing around geek-appeal, and it looked for a long time as if it were going to do geek-mining as its niche. This bold new thrust into the soft white underbelly of middle America is only skin deep — for now — with the rest of the site being the expected tableaux of tables and forms. But the day is young.

And that brings me back to Glenn’s post. This was my take at the time, quoting Glenn then responding:

Consumers now want tax records, bank records, property outlines, school data and neighborhood outlines, all of which are expensive.

Really? Other than school info, I’ve never had anyone show any interest in any of this stuff. Except for the bank records, all of that is available in one way or another on our IDX site, but I don’t get the impression anyone cares. It might matter from a bullet-point point-of-view, but none of it will replace the warm-and-fuzzy factors that actually cause houses to sell.

Women buy houses. Men sell houses. That’s not universally true, obviously. Not everyone is married, and married couples can differ in the roles they take on in the marriage.

But experienced Realtors know exactly what I’m talking about. When mom is ready to move, she is done with the old house. She sticks dad with job of selling it so she can have the money to buy the new homestead, which she may have already picked out. Dad cares about nothing but the net proceeds, which is why listing is so hard for eager young puppies and so easy for grizzled old hound dogs. But the implication is, if you’re going to sell to buyers, you’re going to sell to mom. You can’t exclude dad, but he will often be very grateful to be cut out of all but the most critical scenes in this particular family drama.

Who cares about houses — with an emotional zeal that soars and plummets by the ticking of the clock? Mom. Who cares about money? Dad. Redfin’s initial selling proposition was all about money — a cold and lifeless appeal to the guy who would rather just stay put. Janice Anybody is the first step in the process of correcting that marketing error.

But let’s turn the tables on Redfin. The other piece of Redfin’s value proposition — theirs and all the other VOWs and Realty.bots — is access to data: Listings, tax records, school information, etc. But that kind of data is a dad thing, isn’t it? There’s nothing wrong with it, especially a robust home search with access to every available photo. But is the mom who is searching for the home she will love beyond all reason going to examine the tax records once she finds it? INTx’s and High-C’s might. For most moms, once they’ve homed in on the home of their dreams, their fancy is most likely to turn to thoughts of redecorating.

I’m not minimizing or making fun of this process. It’s always delightful to be a part of it. But the decision-maker in a home purchase will be driven almost entirely by emotion and almost not-at-all by reasoned reflections upon hard-headed data expressed in tabular form. I think it’s incumbent upon buyer’s agents to make sure their clients don’t let their emotions run away with them. But it remains that one of the key motivations for buying a home is to experience that rush of falling-in-love-all-over-again emotions.

So how do you — Misses Mom and Mister Pop, Realtors — fight back against the VOWs and the Realty.bots? If your answer is with syrupy, saccharine emotional appeals, you might be fine — for a while.

If you’ve got a decent home search, I don’t think you suffer a hard data deficit. If you have tax records and school records and lot outlines and that kind of stuff available to you, by all means make it available to your visitors. But don’t be dismayed if only the INTx’s and High-C’s ever use it.

But you do need data — not so much hard data as softer stuff. And note that I am talking exclusively about web-based marketing strategies, because I think that is all that matters going forward. Older agents will do well, for a while, with older techniques, but the Anybodys, in due course, are everybody. If they don’t find you on line, they won’t find you at all.

So what kind of data do you need? In that same comments thread, in response to a question from Bloodhound Tom Hall about a relocating mother concerned about schools, I had this to say:

First, you know which school mom would really want, if she had six months on the ground to scope out everything.

Second, you have no compelling way of telling her this. “I think you’ll find…” is just salesblather. A GoodSchools.net link is technobabble. “My son goes there,” is maybe the best arrow you have in your quiver.

So, third: Stop thinking that way. Sales is not how I get you to see things my way, sales is how I help you find the world you long to see.

So what do you do?

My take is that you help the school you know Mom would pick sell itself to her. That’s a weblog job, at least, maybe a weblog plus a forum. And setting something like that up is a lot of work for you as a Realtor, but if you’re really working in that kind of a relo culture, it’s what you have to do.

[....]

Once you’ve identified the objections that really matter, you can devote your marketing efforts to solving those particular problems. As you note in this example, home search is almost a side-issue. You have to solve a school problem before you can even get to housing. If you solve the school problem well enough, no one will be able to touch you with a mere search engine.

[....]

I want to make sure I’m being clear about this. The mom in this example doesn’t have a problem that can be solved with data. It can only be solved with experience — rich, deep, visceral experience. This is what you have to deliver to take away her fears.

Mom and Pop don’t have an image problem. They’re much better-situated than either Redfin or a Big Name brokerage to do more transactions per head at a greater per-head profit. The problem Mom and Pop have, going forward, is a publishing problem.

This is me in email to people working on the Scenius scenes we’ve been talking about:

56WestWillettaStreet.com is 178 megabytes on the server. There are a total of 38 folders which contain a total of 1,237 unique files, mostly photos. Including PDFs but excluding off-site links, there are more than 40 unique pages to the site, including two embedded videos and an embedded Google map.

After all the source files were assembled, I built the whole site, including writing all the copy, in two hours. Without the copy, the same site would have taken around 20 seconds, with all of the links, slide shows and headlines in.

With the right dataset, a database publishing solution can pound out a lot more data than this. But the difference is, I’m delivering to the home shopper — mom, usually — exactly what she wants to see in quantities so vast she will never leave my site feeling hungry for more.

The data the VOWs and Realty.bots bring to buyers is not the right data, for the most part, but they bring a lot of it. For Mom and Pop to offer meaningful competition — in the critical period when buyers are making a choice about which buyer’s agent to work with — they have to offer a satisfying quantity of data.

It has to be the right information, to begin with — rich, deep, visceral, experience-based evidence and testimony about the lives buyers will lead in the home of their choice. Here Mom and Pop can do what software-centric brokerages can never do. But there also has to be enough of that information — more than enough. We’re selling emotion, not calculation, and satisfaction is an emotional state, not a rational measurement. If Mom and Pop can publish enough of the right information about making a home of the houses available for sale, there is nothing that Redfin or any VOW can do to compete — at least not cost-effectively.

I think that means that the hypothetical “little guy” is gone. He can’t publish enough to keep up with the race. And Mom and Pop really have to become Mom and Pop and Team. But, despite the best efforts of Sean Purcell, Mike Farmer and Rob Hahn, there are no economies of scale left in publishing to justify the value of a brokerage — as distinguished from a real estate team organized as a brokerage. If Mom and Pop and Team can publish enough to provide a satisfying experience to homebuyers, they can compete against anyone, earning more money per agent and keeping more in profits per transaction.

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  • 8 comments

    8 Comments so far

    1. Thomas Hall December 24th, 2008 5:34 pm

      Greg, I agree that the solution isn’t all about the data – and I like your further insight that the data that is presented presently may not be “the” data that ultimately “sells” a home.

      Interesting too is that NAR predicts the home buyer of the future is a single female who has never purchased a property before.

      As search continues to evolve, however, further value can and will be created to the search outcome if property attribute data, ie MLS data, and situs attribute data, ie location specific data like located within walking distance to a bus stop, train station – walking distance to Starbucks etc., are combined to create a search which allows consumers to search by lifestyle preference.

      I call this a heuristic property search which “learns” what attributes are important to a potential consumer – both in terms of a particular property’s attributes and its location.

    2. Cari McGee December 24th, 2008 8:11 pm

      I read this – “But experienced Realtors know exactly what I’m talking about. When mom is ready to move, she is done with the old house.”
      and said aloud, “I LOVE Greg Swann,” and then I read – “Who cares about houses — with an emotional zeal that soars and plummets by the ticking of the clock? Mom.”
      and I said aloud, “I SO love Greg Swann!” and my husband said from the other room, “You are so not going to Pheonix in the spring, then!”
      I assured hubby that I don’t love Greg in a David Cook sort of way, but in the way you love the guy who is incredibly brilliant and gets it EXACTLY RIGHT. Thanks, Greg, for getting it right, yet again.

    3. Kevin Tomlinson December 24th, 2008 9:08 pm

      Perfectly said. Spot on.

    4. Brian Brady December 24th, 2008 10:33 pm

      If Glenn’s watching I have some advice. Vary the landing pages so that the consumer pics reflect the communities.

      A San Diegan would never hunt for a home in anything but flip flops and a Bostonian would never wear flip flops outside of the comfort of his own patio. I’d like to see some copy on those local landing pages, too.

      I’m generalizing but you see where I’m going. Get local.

    5. Sean Purcell December 25th, 2008 3:13 pm

      Greg,

      Can’t help but appreciate the direction of this post. I’ve been retooling my marketing efforts lately as a result of various BHB comment strings and more than a few late night, marketing bull-sessions with Brian. The industry has regressed and the marketing must follow suit. I’ll have a post coming next week exploring this in depth but for now suffice to say: think old school, which you have done Greg and done excellently. (Readers: for more in this vein, take note of Brian’s comment above…)

      But… I suggest you go back and reread my post on the future of real estate organizations here and here. The brokerage was dead long before the economies of scale in publishing disappeared. My entire thesis is based on the fact that the standard brokerage model can not and will not compete. Super Teams are the future. This is not news to anyone paying attention. My addition to the discussion (and Rob’s as well) was to take the team concept a step further to a General Partner, Jr. Partner, associate system. The type of specialization this form would allow plays right into your very intelligent exposition of Sales and the Decision-Maker Process.

      Great stuff. Its execution only enhanced by the Firm concept.

    6. Tampa Real Estate December 27th, 2008 7:18 am

      Nice post. Hopefully the little guy can keep up!

    7. Matt Goyer - Redfin December 29th, 2008 2:36 pm

      Greg, you give us too much credit :). The truth is that homepage photo was the best that turned out from our modest photo shoot at Redfin HQ this past fall.

      Brian, I agree. Unfortunately our little two person marketing team hasn’t had the time to get a bunch of customized photos for each market. Hopefully this spring we’ll get to it.

    8. [...] who think their job is to pick a peck of corn out of their gardens. But as I wrote the other day, Realtors have a publishing problem. They’re just now waking up to the fact that their “garden” is four miles square [...]