Category Archives: Inman News

Posts by Sam DeBord on Inman News and Inman Next

Don’t Go Solo, Tech Bro: Do Your Homework

This article was originally published on Inman News:
by Sam DeBord

  • Someone else already failed at it. Why will you succeed?
  • Real estate is a collaborative business.
  • Look to profitable precedents for true tech investment opportunities.

Picture the scene: “Tech bros” with money to burn surround the table. The disruptor-in-chief is rallying the troops to the tune of nine figures. The pitch is some variation of a model that has failed repeatedly and without exception for decades. “Today,” he states, “we will finally change real estate because we have — technology!”

SoloPro’s enticement of a $1.6 million investment from Lowe’s is just another data point in a long line of over-funded, soon-to-be-failed commission-busters.

That’s not broker-centric hubris speaking. It’s history.

The company’s “nod to the traditional real estate model” by bundling services this week wasn’t just a slide toward traditional commissions. It was the first step in admitting its model doesn’t work. The bluster of “blowing up” agent commissions is a tiresome, thin smokescreen to the seasoned observer.

Tech money is pouring into real estate, but some techpreneurs seem more interested in spending than doing their homework. Many of them need a Real Estate 101 course, with a significant portion dedicated to the history of failed ventures.

Don’t be offended, tech bros — I used to be one of you

I was a techie know-it-all who was appalled by the broker-agent model that dominates the industry. Agents were overpaid and commissions were overblown. We knew tech disruption would rid us of real estate’s high costs and inefficient labor. Then I spent 10 years in the trenches with real brokers and agents, and I saw how wrong we were.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to hear Sean Carpenter speak, you’ve heard that in real estate, “Everything you need to know, you learned in kindergarten.” Having taught a significant number of kindergarten classes myself, I’d like to deliver a few of those lessons.

Let’s sit on the reading rug, clear our minds and start with the basics:

1. Read — read a lot

Find out if your business plan is just a carbon copy of something that’s already been done. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Many smart people have probably already tried it.

You’re saving consumers money by cutting commission costs? See Help-U-Sell since 1976. See the litany of competitors already entrenched in the marketplace and the graveyard of imitators in their wake.

You’re adding technology to increase the commission discount value proposition? See Redfin. Is $200 million in funding enough to reach 3 percent coverage in your primary market? That’s what it took them, along with continually shrinking the discount model.

The vast majority of that money came after the company changed its tone from adversarial to cooperative. So….

2. Play nice in our sandbox

Real estate is a relationship business. Abrasive characters usually find themselves a new attitude or find themselves out of the industry.

You’re not Steve Jobs. You don’t get to be a sociopath in this industry and get away with it. Real estate’s leaders are intelligent, savvy and financially motivated. They also make a lot of decisions based on long-term relationships. That’s not just the old boys’ club. It’s an acknowledgement that being amicable is profitable.

Many of our leaders were once real estate agents and brokers themselves — the smiling, anything-for-my-clients kind of folks. You’re going to have to shake a lot of hands, listen to a lot of different viewpoints and make a lot of friends to survive long term.

3. Build things. Don’t break things.

Disruption conjures images of broken models. Changing the way real estate works doesn’t have to mean tearing things down, though. It’s usually not the best path to profitability.

Our disruptive friends who are hell-bent on breaking everything in sight are often the fastest ones to the exit when it comes to earnings time. We love innovation in our industry, but don’t walk in, kick down the sand castle and tell us how smart you are.

Rather, build innovative tools that help us do business. Look at who’s actually generating revenue in this industry — listing advertising portals, productivity app developers, transaction management platforms, e-signature providers and so on.

Although some of these companies are still operating in the red, they’re at least hanging around with revenue long enough to establish themselves.

Brokers and agents have money, and they’ll spend it. Innovate and bring us a product we want to buy.

4. Follow the rules (as much as possible)

You’re entrepreneurs, so you’re naturally inclined to break the rules. Feel free to bend the rules of formality, tradition and stagnant thought. Just don’t ask to join the group and then pretend that you didn’t read the rules.

You can be a unique snowflake, but if you stand on your desk and throw rocks, you’re probably going to fail.

You could prove me wrong.

One of you will break all of the rules and be successful. I’ll let you buy me a drink and tell me all about it when you get there. But for most of you, building cooperatively is an easier path to profits in this industry. It has lower hurdles and more successful precedents to follow.

Innovate, but research first. Ask a broker why it won’t work. Take the advice seriously.

Then get busy building something that will loosen up our pocketbooks. History, and your investors, will look favorably upon you.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and President-Elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHomes.com and BellevueHomes.com.

Broker Public Portal: Angling for a new face

This article was originally published on Inman News:
by Sam DeBord

  • Accuracy isn’t enough. BPP needs attractive tools and media content.
  • BPP has valuable exclusive data that could be leveraged for exposure.
  • Public relations will generate earned media on a tight budget.
  • The name has got to go.

Organized real estate has undertaken some potentially transformative ventures in the past couple of years. Project UpstreamRPR-AMP and theBroker Public Portal have aligned the vision of brokers in numbers that would have been unthinkable in the recent past.

What these projects seem to have in common is that their progress since initiation has been difficult to follow. Although they have secured initial funding, the strategic direction of each feels like it’s taking shape in the dark.

It would be satisfying for industry constituents to have more insight into the mindsets of the leaders of these programs. In particular, the Broker Public Portal seems to be as much of an enigma today as it was when it was first proposed.

We know the leadership and the stated mission: to provide a simple, direct home search experience that connects consumers directly with brokers.

What we don’t know is how it intends to produce a distinguishable value proposition for consumer viability. Its success is reliant upon its ability to create a unique consumer benefit. That benefit then has to reach the general public’s consciousness — possibly an even greater task.

Doomed to fail

Some critics have already called BPP a failed concept — an exhibition built without an audience in an arena where the titans already own the stage. They’re correct to point out the challenges, but probably overstepping in the sweeping conclusion.

Detractors will point to NRT’s short-lived portal, homesforsale.com, as a cautionary tale. It was released and then mothballed in 2015 because it didn’t garner any consumer traffic. That venture’s difficulties should be poignant for BPP’s leaders. Homesforsale.com didn’t seem to have a particularly unique sales pitch to consumers.

BPP is a different animal, though. NRT’s site was intended as a lead-generation and referral-fee platform within a branded silo. BPP’s mission sounds more like a grassroots, brand-agnostic platform. It seems to want to be the Wikipedia of real estate listings, the Switzerland of the portal world.

Too small, too late

Many have pointed to Zillow Group portals and realtor.com and asked how BPP could possibly compete.

BPP has $500,000 in funding so far. Portals are billion-dollar operations.

BPP’s people have said repeatedly that they don’t intend to compete with the top portals. They’re just creating a different option, a product offering that might be preferable to some portion of the consuming public.

Let’s be honest: “We don’t want to compete with the big portals,” sounds a bit like a coach saying, “We’re only thinking about today’s game.”

BPP’s leaders must have large-scale aspirations. They want to be a champion as much as their portal competitors do. They’re just wise enough to avoid inciting rivalry right away.

Why BPP?

The most important question being asked is: “Why would a consumer use the Broker Public Portal?”

What angle will BPP leverage to make it successful?

Make no mistake, it’s an angle. Its success will require sharp differentiation. Simply creating a neutral platform with direct broker data won’t cut it. The big three already have unbelievable amounts of data, user interfaces that provide superior experience and enough capital backing them to buy consumer traffic for the foreseeable future.

Can BPP be the neutral source for listing data — the Wikipedia for real estate consumers — if consumers can’t hear the message?

Realtor.com has blanketed consumers with its marketing pitch of being the most accurate and up-to-date site. Its 800-plus feeds from MLSs make this claim difficult to dispute.

It’s true that BPP could eventually have a broader set of listing feeds, but could it outspend Rupert Murdoch and actually get that message to the general public? There’s a natural conflict of messaging between the two portals if this is BPP’s elevator pitch.

If practitioners prefer BPP’s model and display rules to those of the other portals, it could become the preferred platform for agents and brokers. That might have little effect on consumer traffic, though.

Realtor.com is coming back today from its recent slide, but not because Realtors prefer it. It’s gaining steam because its operator and owners, Move Inc. and News Corp, are hustling and spending to get in front of consumers.

Building the shiny proprietary tools

Consumers don’t choose a portal based on a lofty mission statement. They use a website with attractive tools. So the portal’s strategy shouldn’t be overwhelmingly focused on how to build the framework that combines nationwide listings (though that’s a necessary foundation). It should be initially focused on what kinds of consumer-centric tools will attract organic consumer traffic.

What could those shiny new tools be that generate traffic? They could come from access to exclusive data that the member MLSs allow BPP to display.

Imagine the clickbait that BPP could generate by creating visualizations of electronic keybox histories. Home showing velocity and volume could be displayed as heat maps, time lapses and neighborhood trending reports.

That’s just one set of data out of many that BPP might be able to leverage in its quest for unique exposure. Access to immediate updates from MLSs’ raw data would allow BPP to inform its consumer base through news, social media and messaging in ways not possible for other consumer portal sites.

That positions BPP less as Wikipedia and more as Wikileaks. The portal could expose information to consumers that they can’t get — or aren’t allowed to see — anywhere else. There’s nothing more viral than exclusive content.

Perception: Marketing and public relations

BPP’s obstacle and opportunity is perception. The portal needs to first be perceptible to consumers. Without generating initial awareness, the rest of the package is irrelevant. That was NRT’s portal’s downfall. The second portion is the perception that consumers will have of the brand’s personality — how will the public perceive its image?

The kind of proprietary data BPP has access to could allow it to establish itself as a unique information source to the news media. Traditional brokers and Realtor organizations often complain that media outlets seek out sources such as Redfin and Zillow for news stories.

What they don’t often admit is that those companies are proactively driving the publicity. They employ researchers to build attractive consumer stories and public relations teams to push them to reporters. The media coverage they receive is not accidental.

Public relations is a gaping hole in the broker world. BPP could become the go-to source for inimitable media insights on the real estate industry.

Creating this content would, of course, be constrained by formidable broker and MLS restrictions on how broadly their data is used. The opportunities, though, are great:

  • Immediate market reports, leveraging daily market statistics while other outlets are working with weeks-old or months-old data
  • Keybox showing analytics tied to effects on sales results: Sale-to-list price, DOM, regional and seasonal variations
  • The best times and days to show a home to buyers, based on their likelihood of writing an offer
  • How likely a new agent is to sell your home in 30 days vs. an agent with 10 years’ experience
  • How long a property stays on the market when listed by a Realtor versus a non-Realtor licensee
  • Whether homes listed by single agents or teams sell faster
  • Whether agents with larger listing inventory have a higher percentage of overpriced listings that don’t sell

These kinds of stories are irresistible to consumers and to the news media. To be able to publish this kind of content, BPP’s members will have to fully buy in to the concept and allow for a deeper exposure of their data.

Angling for success

BPP has some significant strategic disadvantages when going up against the biggest national portals. It doesn’t have to compete with them initially, though. It just needs to create a ripple to demonstrate its potential.

Some strategy to make waves on a tight budget:

  • Start by imagining attractive tools and content for consumers that sit on top of an adequate listing database — not an overbuilt database followed by an interface. Consumers rarely know what’s under the surface. Give them what they want upfront.
  • Leverage proprietary data and pitch it incessantly to the media. Public relations generates inexpensive “earned media” when the content is truly unique. BPP could be the easiest pitch in the industry if it curates its assets correctly.
  • Don’t lean too heavily on pitching the data as accurate. Realtor.com is already buying that space. Reporters don’t bite on accuracy stories as much as they go for “new,” “cutting-edge” or “exclusive.” Build the perception that consumers, and news media, must come to you first for the biggest scoop.

Drive at an angle. Say it out loud.

  • “Trulia’s data: weeks old. Case-Shiller’s data: months old. Our data: updated this morning. Know first.”
  • “Find out where your city’s buyers are moving with data no one else can see.”
  • “Real estate tell-all: Choose the right kind of agent with exclusive data direct from the source — their broker/owners!”

That name, that name — Broker Public Portal

We don’t know if Broker Public Portal is intended to be the name of this effort long-term. Let’s hope it’s not.

“Broker” is a term that is known in the industry but foreign to most consumers. It sounds like a middleman who carries jewels wrapped in velvet in his breast pocket. Consumers can’t even distinguish a Realtor from an agent. This isn’t a good start.

“Public” is important for industry distinction. It is redundant to the consumer. Telling them that a consumer website is public conjures images of Austin Powers: “Allow myself to introduce — myself.”

“Portal” sounds like a mystical doorway or a stark public restroom. Neither conjures the friendly, useful image that BPP should be portraying to consumers.

I’m sure the good people at BPP and their consultants are aware of this issue and are working on it. The brand needs a lot of makeup.

All bets down for BPP

A betting person would put a strong dollar on BPP never competing with the top-ranked portals. Based on the current landscape, that would probably be a winning bet.

We’ve seen so many gamblers squander their capital on ill-fated, poorly vetted real estate ventures, though. In this industry, what you don’t know can really hurt you.

And BPP’s media arm, if it plays its cards right, will know a whole lot more than its competitors. If it can leverage that proprietary knowledge into earned media, it could find an angle to unchecked publicity.

I’d put a buck on that dark horse.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and 2016 president-elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.

Could the Supreme Court put an end to open house signs?

This article was originally published on Inman News:

Key Takeaways
  • A recent Supreme Court ruling threatens agents’ ability to display open house signs.
  • Municipalities will be reviewing sign codes and may remove real estate exemptions for expediency.
  • The ruling allows exemptions for compelling state interests, and real estate signage has been cited as supporting Fair Housing laws.

Open house signs dot the sidewalks on a weekend morning — it’s a sight of familiarity for our clients and our businesses.

Based on a recent legal ruling, those signs might disappear in short order.

That’s unless Realtor associations nationwide step up quickly to help their local governments identify the language in the ruling that supports open house sign exemptions in sign codes.

The town of Gilbert, Arizona, recently took a sign code case all the way to the Supreme Court. The town’s ability to regulate the content and manner in which temporary directional signs are displayed is at issue.

The Supreme Court ruling

In short, the court ruled that any sign regulation must be content-neutral so as not to deny free speech. A city can impose restrictions on size, type and placement of a sign — but not the message.

If a city employee has to read the sign to determine whether it complies with municipal regulations, then the regulations are not content-neutral. Therefore, the regulations are unconstitutional.

What does this mean for municipalities?

For decades, Realtor organizations have worked with local communities to craft reasonable sign codes. These regulations allow for responsible placement of open house signs that support consumers, real estate practitioners and their communities.

The Supreme Court ruling will force every municipality with a sign code to re-evaluate their regulations and decide whether they’ve granted exemptions that don’t pass the content-neutral sniff test.

If they currently grant content-based exemptions, they’ll likely see two basic choices:

  • Grant the right to place directional signs to everyone, regardless of content. This means the hardware store, the adult novelty shop and the liquor store can all place A-boards wherever an open house sign can be displayed.
  • Throw out all of the sign exemptions. Don’t allow any businesses to display any directional signs, including open house signs.

The second choice will likely be viewed as the easier, cleaner solution. Legal advice is currently going out to towns across the country asking them to review their policies, and many will lean toward the fastest solution.

There’s one caveat in the ruling, though, and it applies directly to real estate signs. If the content regulation is being applied in pursuit of a compelling governmental interest — and narrowly tailored to that end — some content exemptions are allowed.

The Supreme Court and Federal Trade Commission have, in the past, cited real estate signage as an asset to federal fair housing. These signs create non-discriminating access to housing and are supportive of the Fair Housing Amendments to the federal Civil Rights Act.

Why sign codes for real estate?

Cities create sign codes to limit sign sprawl. If every shop on every street is allowed to drop A-board signs around the block, a city’s rights-of-way quickly become cluttered and unmanageable.

Sensible sign regulations allow for business advertising while still keeping to the community’s desire for an attractive image.

Most businesses don’t require directional signs. They’re in a static physical location, with a permanent address, and they can be found fairly easily by consumers searching them out.

Real estate open houses, on the other hand, are dynamic in location. Each weekend they change, and consumers are led by temporary directional signs to properties that might otherwise not be located on residential streets.

One could say that Internet advertising and GPS-enabled apps have all but removed the need for open house signs, and most consumers find the homes they’re searching for on their computer or phone.

That’s a bit of a myopic big-city view, however. There are still many people who find homes through traditional means, and there are also those who don’t have regular access to online resources.

What would real estate look like without open house signs?

Would the lack of these signs significantly affect the industry? The first and most obvious change would be the reduction of the marketing opportunity to agents.

Agents often base their businesses on the ability to meet new buyers at their listings as well as neighbors who will be future sellers. Without signs on the street, the casual open house visitor might never stop in.

Serious homebuyers will usually find a way to view the properties they are most interested in — open house or not.

But agents who’ve used open houses as a significant source of new clients via the lookie-loos who happen across a sign in the neighborhood would see a drop in business.

And there are still plenty of home sales that happen when buyers walk into a home that they had no idea they’d love until they stepped inside at an open house.

FSBOs vs. sign codes

There would also be a potential benefit to organized real estate. Licensed real estate agents who belong to an MLS might take a firmer grasp on the volume of listing inventory. The open house sign is currently a neutral marketing platform, open to homesellers — licensed or not.

With FSBOs unable to advertise their own open houses through neighborhood open house signs, market exposure of properties on the MLS might become a much bigger value proposition. The FSBO seller would have fewer ways to garner consumer attention and likely be more inclined to list property with a licensed real estate broker.

Safety and fair housing

Realtor safety and homeowner safety might increase with fewer unknown open house visitors. The idea of the open house itself is bizarre to most outside of the industry.

Professionals invite complete strangers into the home of a client who isn’t present. There is a multitude of opportunities in these situations for bad things to happen to the agents or their clients’ property. Fewer open houses might result in better security in general.

On the other hand, fair housing efforts are supported by open house signs. Protected classes and groups who might not have access to certain real estate marketing information cannot be discriminated against when a physical sign invites all comers in a geographic location into a home for sale.

There is still a sizable portion of the population that does not regularly engage in online activities or does not have regular access to the Internet. Physical signs can engage these consumers no matter their social and economic status.

Saving the signs

The fix for the real estate industry is straightforward, though it will require much legwork and expediency. Municipalities don’t like to open up their sign codes. It’s a tedious process.

Their inclination when faced with the SCOTUS ruling will be to throw their hands up and throw all of the signs out. Rather than let their communities be cluttered, they’ll toss out the exemptions.

Education now, before the decision-making processes come about, is necessary to let these municipalities understand their options. The key is to engage local officials before the fear of lawsuits arises.

City councils and their counsel need to know that there is a compelling interest in allowing exemptions for real estate signage:

  • Open house signs increase local home sales, the rate of sales and revenue collection for municipalities.
  • Open house signs improve access for all citizens to housing and support fair housing and non-discrimination efforts.
  • Municipalities can continue their narrowly tailored exemptions based on this content.

City and county governments don’t want to be tied up in lawsuits, which is why their first inclination might be to take all exemptions away. Unfortunately, that will likely create more litigation from real estate organizations that rightfully wish to keep their current signage rights.

By pre-emptively engaging and educating local leaders with this information early, we can preserve the ability to advertise open houses without opening the floodgates of rampant right-of-way signage.

Many thanks to our Realtor staff, volunteer leaders and housing specialists in providing the background for this post.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and 2016 president-elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.

Will RPR fears hold back industry vision for Upstream?

This article was originally published on Inman News:

  • Upstream provides the model for broker-led data management, but the expense of RPR worries brokers.
  • Data management isn’t free. Brokers need to spend to keep up with portals.
  • Inaction based on past failures will only deepen brokers’ loss of control.

Broker conversations about data today usually take on a grim tone. That was the case when I recently moderated an industry panel of MLS and broker executives. The topic was the future of organized real estate, and the conversation was filled with worry that we (the broker-centric world) had lost the ability to manage and profit from our data.

Brokers and agents create the bulk of real estate’s valuable data sources, and then promptly give them away. Technology companies use the data, with few rules attached, and drive the majority of their revenue with it. They charge brokers to advertise adjacent to it.

This sentiment isn’t new, nor is it unique. It’s been around since the first portal website started charging for advertising. The message’s volume has been steadily growing, though. Its simple truths haven’t become any less true.

So when our panel’s conversation moved to the potential of Upstream to right the power structure in the world of real estate data, one would imagine the tone would turn aspirational, hopeful, or determined. It did not. While the concept clearly addressed our biggest concerns and drew significant approval in theory, the outlook was met with skepticism and distrust.

Skepticism’s roots

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a rare instance. Many of the industry folks whom I speak with about Project Upstream begin their conversations with wariness. There are well-founded concerns about the ability to bring such a diverse group of real estate companies together to make the project work.

By and large, though, the fears keep coming back to RPR.

Let’s get the bogeyman out of the way: RPR has cost the National Association of Realtors more than $120 million since its inception. That’s about $120 per member over its lifetime.

New annual expenses for RPR are around $22 million. They’re included in members’ dues (the Second Century Initiatives include RPR, HouseLogic, Real Estate Today Radio, .realtor domain, and eProperty data, at a cost of about $25 per member annually).

Maintaining RPR is a significant expense, one which many brokers feel is too large. It was built to be a revenue-producing tool, and it hasn’t become that. Although many Realtors across the country love and use the tool, adoption rates are still far too low.

Lack of access to MLS data in certain markets hamstrings its ability to provide profitable analytics products (its initial revenue model). Border wars between MLSs, brokers and vendors have created a maze of roadblocks to its adoption.

Moving forward

That $120 million is a sunk cost. It’s gone. RPR has been a failure so far as a revenue producer.

But it’s pivoting. We built a powerful tool, not realizing at the time what its most useful application would be: It’s ready to plug in to the data dashboard that brokers have been clamoring for.

The hottest topic at industry conferences is the desire to take back the management of our data. Unfortunately, many of the speakers get gun-shy when the tools are laid out on the table.

Ignoring how conspicuously RPR fits in to the model of broker-led real estate data management is playing the small game. Brokers are emotionally scarred by past ventures that didn’t go as expected, but we can’t let that drive us into a perpetual state of stagnation. If there’s one thing we can guarantee, it’s that marketing portals won’t be sitting still.

We must demand that RPR is run efficiently in the future as a facet of Upstream. The $20 million a year price tag is a big ticket, though it pales in comparison to the $50 million quarterly losses that advertising portals are taking on to secure a larger portion of the digital real estate pie.

The opportunity to shift the landscape of the industry’s data management isn’t free. Our leaders have to be aware of past mistakes, but not let them paralyze our will to take strategic risks.

After venting fears about RPR, our industry panel had one final related question:

“Considering that data management is the primary concern we’re voicing at the moment, is downplaying Upstream because of questions about RPR a signal that we’re OK doing nothing? Will we be sitting here next year with the same issues, or worse, if we don’t at least attempt to support Upstream?”

There was no answer. That’s because, frankly, we all knew it was the case. Our industry has many intelligent leaders with legitimate concerns about the path going forward. But the inertia of inaction in real estate is often scarier than the uncertainty of change.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and 2016 president-elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.

Dumping IDX: Don’t burn our safety net

This article was originally published on Inman News:

We’re hearing more often from brokers that they want to go back to a more traditional way of doing business. Keep your listing leads. Close more sales in-house. Build a Broker Public Portal to send all inbound contacts to the listing agent — just like the sign calls of old.

And dump IDX — that’s a refrain that’s starting to blend itself into the conversation more often. If syndication is inefficient, then IDX must be as well.

Brian Boero’s post on 1000watt a couple weeks back crystallized the argument for pulling out of IDX. It’s hard to swallow, though, because in advising a big broker, it could be spot-on. But at the same time, it’s so problematic for the broker-centric industry as a whole.

The theory is that if you have large market share, you shouldn’t share your listing exposure via IDX with small brokers, paper brokers and so on. Big brokers should leverage their strength to differentiate the quality of their listing display and squeeze out the little guy.

Make the consumer come directly to you. That’s an attractive strategy from a competitive standpoint.

 Cooperation and duty

In most industries, that would be the end of the story. In real estate, though, we have an ever-fluctuating requirement to cooperate. Where the level of cooperation begins and ends depends upon current licensing requirements, a code of ethics, and MLS rules.

We cooperate because we know that the efficiency of the real estate market is greatly enhanced for all of us when we set a baseline of standards that consumers and agents can rely upon across brokerage borders.

 IDX might not be a required component of cooperation, but it’s a significant outward signal that a broker is committed to it. It is the foundation that allows brokers to market every listing to the full spectrum of buyers.

It’s a concrete benefit to the seller, one which would be difficult to downplay in a conversation about duty to the client.

Let’s be honest about the slope we’re led down if boycotting IDX is the starting point — because it ends in a circular firing squad. Big brokers battle one another for local dominance with limited databases of their own listings.

That might lead to more double-sided sales at first, but consumers will rely more and more on portals for an integrated set of listings. IDX itself will become ineffective for all brokers.

Traffic to brokerage websites will shrink at a faster pace, as they’ll be a scattered, unorganized way for consumers to search.

The cost of customer acquisition won’t go down. Advertising portals will hold the keys, and the pricing controls, to the only comprehensive listings databases and an even larger portion of online traffic.

They will dictate the cost of the leads that brokers are no longer generating. We’ve all heard the goal of 40 percent of the commission.

We could imagine the brokers pulling their listings from portals together in response, but we know how unlikely that is.

Without a coordinated effort (which would likely be illegal), there would always be someone willing to pick up the exposure of an exiting broker.

Ironically, brokers are probably less frightened about leaving IDX than they are of vacating their spots on advertising portals. If we were focused on the long term, it would be the other way around.

Protection as a whole

IDX-powered broker websites are the safety net in this tumultuous environment of online real estate. No matter what changes take place between public corporations and listing-focused tech companies in the future, we can still ensure an inexpensive way for brokers to display a clean, fair, timely database of properties for their clients.

For a couple hundred bucks a month, brokers can ensure that all of our clients have a way to search for homes, free of whatever marketing shenanigan the disrupters think of next.

Is it Zillow display quality? Of course it’s not.

Do real buyers and sellers care, though? They really don’t. They’ll buy the right home for them whether they find it on a postcard or a billboard.

So, maybe big brokers are winning right now, and they could take their ball and go home. When they step away, though, they leave a void.

 Someone else will fill it. It’s better to be collectively in the game, than to fracture, leave and let someone else take over the field. Cooperation requires some big picture, long-term vision.

IDX is an important part of ensuring some control of our digital future. It’s not just a tool. IDX is brokers’ collective bargaining chip. We can’t break it up, or we all lose its value.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and 2016 president-elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.

Zillow + dotloop: Raising the bar or boiling your data?

This article was originally published on Inman News:

Zillow’s acquisition of dotloop has generated quite a commotion this week. Let me try to summarize the fast-moving conversation:

  1. Zillow’s paying members might get a nice product in dotloop. Initial statements note that Zillow will be “making it available” to agent advertisers (we’ve yet to hear whether that’s at a discount or for free).
  2. Zillow is no longer “just a media company.” I’m sure Zillow Group staff members are as tired of saying it as we are of hearing it. The company’s main revenue source is still advertising, but with dotloop it’s now fully integrated into the real estate transaction from start to finish.
  3. Owning a transaction management platform used by many different brokerages seems to preclude Zillow from becoming a brokerage, unless they either dump that platform or all of its customers.
  4. Dotloop’s data on transactions in nondisclosure states could give Zillow a unique data advantage in those locations.
  5. Big brokers and franchisors are about to get a lot of questions from their agents using dotloop.

Big congratulations are due to Austin Allison, dotloop’s founder. He had the smarts, guts and work ethic to make something huge happen at a young age.

I remember when he called me years ago trying to make connections with our local MLS members. The founder was just Googling brokers and calling. That’s grit.

On to the outlook:

Raising the bar

Agents already have too many vendors to deal with. If Zillow can streamline services and bring more agents into the present with transaction management and e-signatures, it’s good for the industry and consumer experiences. Big money backing a tool can drive down the costs on a per-user basis.

Agents who are buying advertising on a long-term basis are, in one narrative, the agents who have enough money to do so because they’re productive. The more those agents improve their practices, the bigger effect on the transaction pool.

The combined technology could also allow customers to track return on investment (ROI) from lead to closing, something not often seen in a single platform.

Although some brokers track leads from the source to the CRM to the transaction management system, most don’t track it at all because it’s just too time-consuming. The synergy here, from an analytics standpoint, is attractive.

On the other hand, those points are difficult to hear over the dull roar of “Zillow’s going to have my clients’ personal information and all of my transaction data?!”

The data is the deal

When Trulia bought Market Leader, that deal concerned brokers and agents. The advertising portal might have access to their leads, their prospecting lists — their entire CRM database.

A CRM is a pittance of data when compared to a transaction-management platform. The hard data available from a platform like dotloop has not only client names and information, but forms, contracts, signatures, transaction milestones — all the way down to documents that might point to transactional situations that only the key members of the transaction knew existed.

Keller Williams has more than 80 percent of its agents on the dotloop platform. Other big franchisors have massive adoption as well.

Forget for a second about the agents who squawk at anything to do with Zillow.

Every other agent using dotloop will now be asking himself or herself, “What is going to happen to my clients’ data?” They’ll be asking the broker who supplied the system to them.

Dotloop’s terms of service, at the time of a well-publicized conversation about data rights with the California Association of Realtors, looked like this:

“You automatically grant, or warrant that the user content owner has expressly granted, to us (dotloop) a worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable and transferable right to license to use, reproduce, distribute (and) create derivative works …, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, and publish your user content in connection with our services.”

That blank slate should be enough to make you choke on your coffee. That’s not an indictment of dotloop. Your licensing attorney shoots for the moon on the first set of terms, and then waits for the customers to push back.

Many folks signed on to dotloop under these terms and are pointing to this past version of the agreement to say that Zillow will now be able to do anything it wants with your transaction data, but it appears that the concerns of CAR and others warranted changes.

Here’s what the dotloop’s website says today in terms and conditions:

“You own your Content. In connection with your use of our Services you may submit documents and other content (“your Content”) to the Services. Subject to ownership interests of third-parties, you will retain full ownership of your Content. We don’t claim any ownership to any of your Content. These Terms do not grant us any rights to your Content or intellectual property except for the limited rights that are needed to run the Services … We will not knowingly share or allow anyone to access your Content other than as we describe in our Privacy Policy. It is yours and we work to keep it that way.”

For those who worry about Zillow seeing your data: Zillow will be able to see your data. It seems that, at least for now, though, Zillow would be limited significantly from using the users’ content in any advertising.

Whether the raw sales data could be melded into the market analytics that Zillow uses to display sales data is a bigger question.

In nondisclosure states including Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, (parts of) Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, public data on real estate sales is primitive, and Zillow could get a leg up on its competition with this new trove of sales data.

Slow boiling the frog

For my cohorts and I in the tinfoil-hat-wearing, we’re-losing-our-data and the get-off-my-lawn crowd, I think there was a simultaneous shaking of the head and a chuckle when the acquisition was announced.

Imagine if CAR hadn’t pushed back and dotloop’s original contract was still in place when Zillow had acquired dotloop’s customer base. All of the users’ data would not only be visible to Zillow, but licensable to the highest bidder for public advertising.

That doesn’t seem to be possible now, but the terms and conditions usually change when ownership changes take place, so this will be something to keep an eye on.

We’ve been here before. Syndication was no big deal because it was easy. A direct data feed from the broker or MLS was faster. “We’re supposed to negotiate Fair Display Guidelines in the data agreement? We just want to get the home sold.”

All the while, brokers were the proverbial frog in the pot. The water was warming just slowly enough that we didn’t jump out with our data. The potential repercussions were ignored in the pursuit of the comfort of another transaction. We were busy selling.

So maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the data aggregators expanded their reach straight into our transactions. Agents reacted vocally, but our data was already being reused in new and profitable ways by the day.

Zillow used agents’ profile information in advertising campaigns to draw traffic to its website. They’re defending, in court, the position that agents’ photos of sold listings not only don’t belong to the agents, but they can also be used in unrelated marketing campaigns.

Agents or their brokers often probably gave these permissions when they didn’t pay attention to their data agreements.

We’re all guilty of clicking the checkbox and saying “I agree” without reading. It’s not that our service providers are vindictive. They just don’t think that we care, and we usually prove them right. They keep turning the temperature up, and we just sit in the water and hope it doesn’t boil.

Peoplework with boundaries

Our problem in real estate is that we’re so people-oriented that we sometimes allow personal trust to overrule our instincts to verify. We like the people at dotloop and Zillow.

Peoplework is the dotloop mantra, and it’s wonderful, but it can’t exist in a vacuum. We can’t ignore the boundaries that have to be framed around our businesses just because we like the people with whom we work.

Your former clients’ master bedroom can already be used in an unseemly advertising campaign. Something more personal might be next.

Companies change. Management changes. Terms and conditions change.

We need to pay more attention to the protections we give to our clients’ data as an industry. We can forge agreements with vendors without having every modicum of our data rights gutted by their attorneys, but it can’t be done on an individual level. We need leadership to provide a unified voice.

Let’s all take a step back and reset our expectations of data rights with our vendors before diving, head down, into the next transaction.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth, and 2016 president-elect of Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.

On-demand showings: Uber-like innovation or bait-and-switch?

This article was originally published on Inman News:

Showings on demand: They’re all the rage in real estate tech innovation right now. Everyone is crying “Uber,” and on-demand is the latest amplifier.Hobizbo and Redfin introduced their pitches this week. Curb Call andAgentPair are already working in this space.

The idea is simple. Consumers want their transportation, their food and their shopping to happen instantly. They have been trained to expect that the best tech companies will deliver the results they want faster. From a tech mindset, home showings are a natural next step.

Connected, organized, integrated showing systems have great appeal to our industry. The marketing of these systems as on-demand showings, however, muddles the picture. Consumers who buy into the marketing might just be swallowing a bait-and-switch — hook, line and sinker.

The hook: On-demand

“Instant appointments, instant offers, instant gratification.” That’s the sales pitch of one on-demand outlet and the allure of the term. The hook makes a consumer think that it might take a few minutes for the agent to get to the house, but on-demand must be faster than calling another agent.

If a company has a lot of agents out in the field who can respond to these showing requests in short order, it could be an improvement for the efficiency of showings.

There’s opportunity here for big brokerages and offices. There are also dozens of reasons why it might not the best way to conduct showings for sellers, brokers — or even the buyers themselves — but that’s a separate conversation.

This is about lead generation and conversion. Getting consumers to believe homes are available on-demand is enough to garner their contact information. That’s goal No. 1 in lead gen.

It’s also enough to make consumers believe they don’t need to call anyone else. Because they’ve already input their on-demand request, they’ll feel comfortable waiting for that company to fulfill their request instead of calling around until someone answers. That’s a big win for lead conversion.

The line: Schedule your showing time

The scheduling feature of showing systems is a step in the right direction — on its own. If we can standardize the systems and make them available to more markets, we’ll be improving our workplaces and consumer satisfaction with the process.

There are some other showing software tools that allow buyers to schedule showing times with agents as well. As long as a consumer is notified responsibly about the likelihood of seller constraints and lead time before a showing is likely, this is good for real estate.

The more we can electronically organize a showing between two agents, two sellers and two buyers, the better all of our experiences will be.

Tech companies should be applauded for their continued improvement of the streamlining of scheduled showings.

The sinker: Reality and consumer trust

Brokers know most homes are not really available on-demand. Listings can have restricted showing hours or require that the listing agent accompany the buyers at the showing.

They have occupants, guests or children who are home. They work night shifts or just don’t pick up the phone to confirm a showing time. Often we have to wait for a listing agent to receive our call, call their client and relay the message back again that the showing time is OK.

Giving consumers the impression that on-demand showings are our standard practice — as opposed to a fortuitous, infrequent occurrence — is more base than innovative.

Like the ads that say, “I’ll sell your home in 90 days, or I’ll buy it!” Let’s not obsess over the questionable sales pitch as if it has changed the dynamics of the transaction.

Anyone who has worked in real estate for a significant amount of time knows that the majority of our showings require more than getting an alert from a buyer and running for the door.

If we’re totally honest with consumers, we can offer them the ability to schedule an appointment with the caveat that it might not be available.

A system that integrates the sellers’ schedules and seamlessly contacts sellers, buyers and their agents to streamline showings would be a huge boon to most real estate markets.

On the other hand, on-demand holds a flashy treat out to the buying public. When consumers order it, half of them get their two-day-shipping Amazon Prime packages delivered four days later.

We know that’s what will happen when we advertise on-demand. The question for brokers is: Are we willing to offer something we can’t deliver for the sake of getting the lead, and then apologize later?

In real estate, there’s no such thing as instant gratification. Let’s not pretend there is and confuse our customers in the process.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth, and a director for WA Realtors and Seattle King County Realtors.  You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.

Xome Brings Banks Into The Paper Portal World

This article was originally published on Inman News:

On March 11, 2009, President Obama signed into law the FY2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act that permanently prohibits banks from entering the real estate brokerage and management businesses.

Legislation is often less effective than its framers intend. Whether it’s federal law or local Realtor board regulations, once a rule is on the books, profit-driven entities will look for loopholes.

That might be the common case for those who intended to keep banks out of real estate brokerage business and brokers who built IDX listing capabilities intending for their active selling members to use them.

Xome is a new portal backed by Nationstar Mortgage Holdings. Nationstar reportedly spent $18 million to acquire Real Estate Digital (RED). Its business model is based on the ubiquitous “discount via agent rebate” model. It claims to have access to 98 percent of MLS listings via RED.

If you’re furrowing your brow, you’re not alone. Banks aren’t supposed to be in the brokerage business, are they? An MLS servicer can’t just display all of its MLS feeds on a nonbroker portal, can it?

That familiar feeling

Sometimes you aren’t sure yet what the problem is, but you can’t help feeling something’s amiss. Maybe Nationstar isn’t technically a bank acting as a brokerage through Xome when it refers agents, takes a portion of their commission and rebates it to the consumer. Maybe its company structure, or its business model for Xome, is in line with the intended separation of banks and brokers.

But it looks a lot like the groom who’s dancing much too closely with a bridesmaid at his wedding reception. They might not be officially intertwined, but everybody is whispering that something ain’t right. When a potential buyer wants to write an offer on Xome, he or she must check a box that says, “I agree to use Xome affiliated companies for closing services/valuation/inspection.” And the whispers of an unholy union get a bit louder.

Commingling of MLS data on public portals is allowed via new Realtor guidelines, but the publisher of those listings, in most cases, will have to define itself in its online display as the local brokerage that received that MLS feed. That should make it clear how the listing data is being delivered.

Following the rules of 800 MLSs for proper display of data is no simple task, and even well-funded ventures make big mistakes. A betting man would put money on there being some rocky relationships ahead on that front.

When Redfin’s Agent Scouting Reports came out, there were a plethora of MLSs alleging violation of data agreements and threatening to shut down feeds. Hopefully, Xome has crossed a few more t’s.

Updating to define intent?

That bring us back to the concerns about paper brokerages. They’re playing within the rules, but many brokers with living, breathing agents believe they’re acting outside of the intent of IDX (and VOW).

There are quite a few fairly successful paper portals already, including Movoto, Estately and Blossor. Some have been built by relatively small companies with limited funding. Redfin uses the model to expand into more markets before going traditional.

Xome would turn that paradigm on its head. A big-money established player in the real estate industry would be funding a pseudo-paper portal, intent upon funneling consumers into its service providers, its rebate-driven agent pool and its purported “integrated way to buy and sell a home.”

If MLSs weren’t already re-examining their policies for access to IDX and VOW, they will be now.

There’s some light for the consumer in that big money is focusing on the need for better software to tie the consumer experience to the entire transaction, but it’s not a neutral platform. It looks like a walled garden of limited choice. Channeling the consumer’s choice of agent, appraiser, inspector, lender and closer into one fraternal funnel is enough to make anyone who’s dealt with industry regulators wince.

That’s the trade-off for a financial rebate, in most cases. This industry isn’t lacking in discount options. It lacks a fluid, engaging transactional experience via technology.

It’s possible that Nationstar’s weighty footprint will help Xome garner more adoption than other discount models. Its reputation among real estate agents for servicing responsiveness and reliability is less than stellar.

If its software exposes a better way to transact online, it will be a good thing for other software providers to follow. Our first glimpse at it looks like a fee-heavy business that will be walking on eggshells as it gets started. Stay tuned.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and a director for Washington Realtors and Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.

Is it possible to fully protect your name in the digital age?

This article was originally published on Inman News:

Zillow ad with Realtor's name

As a Realtor, if you aren’t protecting your business’s name, it can be used competitively against you. This week gave us a poignant reminder of the potential. It was also an opportunity to prepare ourselves for more competition and the Realtors code of ethics for the future.

The latest hubbub was Zillow using real estate businesses’ names in pay-per-click ads. A couple of agents just stumbled upon the ads. When a consumer searched Google for a company’s name (ex: Cooper Jacobs real estate), Zillow had an ad placed at the top of the page.

The first link’s text had the company’s name and was supposed to go to that agent’s profile page on Zillow. The next four links in the ad went to “Homes for Sale,” “Condos for Sale,” “Find a Local Agent” and “Open Houses” — none of which landed the user on anything related to the company’s name that was advertised.

There were plenty of opinions as to the intent, strategy and propriety of the program. In this case, the net effect was that Cooper Jacobs would lose significant traffic if the ad continued to run.

Courtney Cooper is a friend and competitor (more on that later). She has almost every link on the first page of search results for her company going to one of her curated websites and review platforms.

Zillow’s ad bumped those down and inserted four links that diverted traffic away from her business. Competitively, it was a good move. To the premier agent in the ad who likes the company and vocally supported it for years, it was ham-handed at best. The ads are currently on hold.

Competition and cooperation

There are two distinct learning opportunities from this episode. The first is regarding unrestrained competitors, and the second pertains to those that we cooperate with in a standardized fashion.

Business is business. Someone else will probably try to use your name against you in the future.

Zillow has temporarily paused the ads because its revenue source (agents) squawked at the practice, but even if they never run them again, another company probably will. For-profit companies will run ads against you the moment the return on investment is positive. It’s what investors demand.

Businesses can combat this by paying for their own PPC (pay-per-click) campaign on their company names. It’s inexpensive, but it’s also a hassle most probably think they shouldn’t have to handle. In reality, it might be necessary.

Companies can also register their business name as a trademark — it might not prevent competitors from using it in their ads (see previously mentioned ad), but it does provide some immediate ammo to ask an advertiser to take down an offending ad. Google also has a trademark complaint form that might help in stopping an ad using your trademark.

We’ve followed tech companies building ads, ratings, rankings and online profiles of real estate agents over the past few years, and it’s clear that there’s very little concern about using your name competitively against you. Asking forgiveness is preferable to permission, so it’s called a “test” or a “beta version.” But that’s just marketing if it’s live on the Web.

Code of ethics

Getting past the unrestrained competition, we also have competitors within our real estate world. Realtors’ interactions with one another are governed by a code of ethics. It speaks specifically to the need for us to present a true picture in advertising, without misleading consumers.

Its overall tone would lead one to believe that an ad similar to Zillow’s, but placed by one Realtor versus another, would be a violation of the code. Clearly, most of that ad was designed to take traffic away from the company whose name was being advertised.

The great value in the code of ethics is specificity. Standards of practice are included to help Realtors abide by the code in their daily routines and help boards make concrete decisions on violations. A twist on the Zillow ads might call for an update of Standard of Practice 12-10 to help those boards clearly define proper use of AdWords and search engine ads for members.

Article 12
Realtors shall be honest and truthful in their real estate communications and shall present a true picture in their advertising, marketing and other representations. Realtors shall ensure that their status as real estate professionals is readily apparent in their advertising, marketing and other representations, and that the recipients of all real estate communications are, or have been, notified that those communications are from a real estate professional. (Amended 1/08)

  • Standard of Practice 12-10

Realtors’ obligation to present a true picture in their advertising and representations to the public includes Internet content posted, and the URLs and domain names they use, and prohibits Realtors from:

  1. Engaging in deceptive or unauthorized framing of real estate brokerage websites;
  2. Manipulating (e.g., presenting content developed by others) listing and other content in any way that produces a deceptive or misleading result;
  3. Deceptively using metatags, keywords or other devices/methods to direct, drive, or divert Internet traffic; or
  4. Presenting content developed by others without either attribution or without permission, or
  5. To otherwise mislead consumers. (Adopted 1/07, Amended 1/13)

This standard of practice would probably prohibit one Realtor from placing an ad like Zillow’s, advertising another Realtor’s name in the ad and using it to divert Internet traffic in a misleading way.

What if Realtor A simply bought Realtor B’s name as a search term, though, and then placed a standard, truthful ad about Realtor A every time a consumer searched for the Realtor B’s name? Would purchasing the AdWord “Realtor B” itself constitute manipulation or misleading results?

Realtor B would probably think so. Ethics violations have been filed for much less.

It could be argued, though, that the practice is the same as Realtor A asking the Yellow Pages to place an ad for his company next to every instance where Realtor B is displayed. If the ad itself is truthful, is advertising specifically targeted to be close to a competitor’s name just a strategic tactic?

That’s what PPC advertising at its core is — proximity targeting.

Whatever the right answer is, it should be defined in the code. Clarity can reduce violations of the code and shorten deliberation over perceived violations. PPC advertising isn’t new, but it’s evolving and growing quickly. For our members, we should have a clear guide as to its ethical use.

Cooperative competitors

I won’t be running an ad based on Courtney’s name anytime soon, nor do I expect she will with mine. We compete every day for the top search engine results in our market. We do so with a healthy level of competitive respect.

Still, it would be helpful if we had a bit more clarity in our Realtors’ code so that all of our competitors know which side of the code they are on if they decide to use our names in their AdWord campaigns. Fences make good neighbors.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and a director for Washington Realtors and Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com andSeattleCondo.com.

Upstream and RPR: the smart grid to power the real estate machine

This article was originally published on Inman News:
by Sam DeBord

The negotiation, dissemination and confirmation of an agreement to build Upstream this past week between brokers and NAR’s board of directors was shocking in its speed. Virtually the entire broker sphere is on board. Upstream, with its newly unified backing, has the potential to alter significantly the power structure of the real estate industry.

To put the agreement in its simplest terms: The brokers representing the vast majority of agents nationwide support Project Upstream. Their goal is to create a broker-controlled gateway to all online display of real estate data with broker-specific rules attached. They’ve partnered with NAR to fund building that gateway with RPR — the largest parcel-centric property repository in the industry — as its database.

Brad Inman wrote this week that brokers are biting back at “the machine” of technology that wrested control away from them decades ago. He wondered if Upstream would be just another middleman.

As I watched the partnership solidify in D.C. this past week, it was almost bizarre to see this new power player emerge during a nonprofit trade organization’s annual legislative meeting. All outward appearances were that this was just another buttoned-down event designed for measured, process-driven political decision-making.

In reality, a group of executives and technology minds were seizing an opportune moment and wresting control of the industry’s conduit to the consumer world online. This new power player, the middleman that he might appear, was Michael Corleone eliminating his stunned opposition while attending a baptism. No one thought him capable of such swift and broad consolidation of power until it was too late.

Brokers and NAR can now create a smart grid to control the flow of power to any vendor, MLS or portal that is dependent upon broker data for viability. This isn’t just “taking our data back.” It won’t just allow brokers to decide where their data goes. It will define how, when and where much of that data is displayed and used at any end point.

The real estate tech machine has always been powered by a tangled web of broker data too disjointed to control. It looks like a Brazilian favela, with rogue users strapping their own data lines anywhere they see fit and supplying unreliable power sources to anyone with the willingness to plug in. We know it’s a risk to the end user, but no one has ever built the infrastructure to replace it all in an organized and fully funded way.

That can end with the smart grid dashboard of Upstream.

Brokerages can curate their data-driven content on a granular level if Upstream is built out as a flexible, powerful platform. A brokerage could deliver its full data set to an MLS, restricting the data to co-brokerage and IDX uses. Controlling its own syndication dashboard through Upstream, it could decide it only wants Portal A to receive five photos of each listing and require a linkback beside each to the broker’s website (driving direct contacts from consumers). Other portals, vendors and partners might be required to follow a different set of display guidelines based on their relationship with the broker. Each broker could form its own set of rules for each of its data recipients.

Broker experimentation with subsets of data and rules, displayed on different advertising outlets, will allow us to develop long-term analytics showing what kind of marketing actually sells homes. No longer reliant upon the vendor’s statistics, brokers will be able to develop rational models for marketing that are based on sales instead of impressions.

Upstream is a gift to relations between brokers and MLSs. It takes away the MLS’ need to syndicate, and it takes away the broker’s ability to protest. The MLS continues to provide the cooperation and compensation rules at the broker-to-broker level, while brokers are free to experiment with their consumer-direct advertising as they see fit. RPR has always had a noncompete with MLSs, so there’s no national MLS controversy.

It’s a massive coup for NAR. Brokers could have built Upstream on their own, but interbrokerage rivalries would have slowed the process significantly. Recognizing this as an industrywide watershed moment, they tabled their past disputes and added a unifying voice to lead it (and to fund it significantly). RPR was a financial drag in the past, but it looks like a product that was built to do exactly this. Pivot or not, it’s an ideal partner to jump-start the initiative.

When it all shakes out, access to more standardized, reliable data will be available to anyone willing to play by the rules. That might inhibit a few tech companies’ plans, but it’s a much-needed maturation for the industry’s data foundation.

Real estate’s utmost service value is to the transactional parties, not hobbyists or entertainment browsers. The people directly responsible for helping sellers sell and buyers buy could once again be sitting at the control panel that powers sales-related real estate data across the Web. That’s a good thing for our industry.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and a director for Washington Realtors and Seattle King County Realtors. You can find his team at SeattleHome.com and SeattleCondo.com.