Tag Archives: portals

The broker-driven future of the MLS

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

  • Brokers need to understand the new initiatives changing the way we work with MLSs.
  • New tools can create efficiency and improved data storage and analytics for brokers and vendors.
  • Consumers will have access to broader, more accurate information and tools.

New technology initiatives are reshaping the future of broker relationships with MLSs. The sheer magnitude of the changes coming to the MLS portion of our industry is creating uncertainty for some and unease for others.

These initiatives are complex. That’s why many agents, and even brokers, simply avoid them. It’s what we were taught: If the MLS is working, there’s no need to investigate further. Get back to business.

That focus is not selfish or small-minded — it’s a virtue to salespeople.

These are historic times, though. Brokers and vendors are driving the creation of tools that will radically change our industry’s data delivery system — streamlining and enhancing it significantly. These efforts will require not only understanding, but broad, demonstrative support by the broker community to come to fruition.

If we’re going to make intelligent decisions about the future of the MLS, we need to understand it. Many agents don’t know how their MLS works, let alone Upstream. Here’s a start, from one broker’s perspective:

The future of real estate data

 

To be clear, this is not a technical data flow chart. It’s merely a visualization of how the MLS world could fit together in the future. The intent is to illustrate the players involved and how they are connected. Many technical details will be glossed over in an attempt to provide brevity and clarity.

The players:

MLS service providers

Core MLS service providers handle the MLS’s listings and office information database. These could be Corelogic, FBS, Black KnightRappatoni, a custom solution, another vendor, or in the near future, RPR AMP. These companies provide the back end for the MLS and deliver data to some vendors for brokers.

They usually also provide a front-end interface for MLS users. This could be Matrix, Paragon, etc. In the case of RPR AMP, it could be multiple front-end interfaces for MLS users simultaneously sitting on top of the AMP database.

Secondary MLS interface providers

There are also secondary interfaces available to MLS users. Homesnap MLSand CloudMLX are optional enhancements to an MLS’s user interface options. They are built on top of any core MLS provider’s database. They don’t affect the primary MLS interface but provide a different (and sometimes more streamlined) way for a user to interact directly with the MLS database.

Upstream

Upstream is the database that would streamline brokers’ data output. Brokers who join Upstream would no longer send listing and office data to dozens of unconnected outlets. They would use the Upstream database to store and update all of their information.

All of their data could then flow downstream to their providers (including MLSs) at the individual broker’s discretion. This would increase efficiency and improve data storage and analytics for brokers.

Those brokers who do not join Upstream would continue the current process of listing and office data distribution on their own. They would send separate data feeds to multiple MLSs, office tools, vendors, portals, etc.

Aggregators

Aggregation products allow access to IDX data across multiple MLSs for brokers. They provide a feed that brokers can use with their office tools and vendors. The breadth of the data is dependent upon the aggregator’s MLS reach.

Some aggregators have additional data. Zillow’s Retsly Connect adds public records data for broker use. Trestle from CoreLogic adds consumer-facing public records data and AVM data. It’s far and away the largest with 100 MLSs already signed up, but it won’t be available until late 2016.

Broker office tools and vendors

One of the misunderstandings about Upstream is that it’s only about listings. Brokers are currently feeding different kinds of data to a wide range of office tools. Company records, office addresses and photos, agent rosters and photos, staff information, accounting, transactions, and customer records are all uploaded to disparate databases that don’t talk to one another.

With Upstream, these broker tools and vendors can all go to the single source of that data for the information. The broker merely needs to keep one central set of records with Upstream to ensure uniformity.

Portals

The major consumer-facing real estate portals currently receive listings from many sources. Agents, brokers, MLSs, franchisors, vendors and syndication systems send listings of different levels of quality to be displayed on these platforms. The data rights of the senders also vary widely.

In an Upstream world, a foundation of rights over the listing data and photos would be established for any broker or agent member using the system. Listings delivered by broker consent through Upstream to a portal would have pre-existing rules attached to their usage and display.

Brokers could negotiate different or superior agreements with the portals if they wished to. In short, portals wouldn’t be taking listing photos and recycling them as they please. The broker retains control of them.

Broker Public Portal

The BPP is a totally separate animal. It’s essentially another consumer-facing portal, but it’s broker-owned and managed. Its intention is to deliver an accurate, timely, responsibly displayed database of brokers’ listings to consumers.

BPP recently hired Homesnap to provide the technology for its product.Somebody pinch me. Homesnap has shown an uncanny ability to combine software interfaces that attract consumers, deep connections of MLS data and a cooperative style that works well with associations. If there is a company that fits the mold for this to be a successful venture, Homesnap is probably it.

The environment:

Friction

It seems logical that a broker with access to Upstream at the front end of data distribution and an aggregator such as Trestle at the nexus of multi-MLS data would be significantly more empowered than one using today’s traditional system.

It shouldn’t be surprising, though, that some of these initiatives face pushback from entrenched players. In some cases, they create significant new work and additional complexity for MLSs. MLSs need to be at the table with brokers in the planning and implementation phases. The transition will not be easy.

Action

There will be objections to this new model, some with genuine concern for viability and some self-preserving or self-serving. It will hit road bumps, and there will be growing pains. The rumor mill is already in full churn. That shouldn’t discourage us from seeking long-term improvement in our systems.

The funding is in place to begin the process, and most of the industry’s biggest players are on board. Upstream has five alpha markets already selected to begin testing the program.

Then what becomes of the MLS? I’ve heard intelligent people predict everything from a national MLS to the end of the MLS. Neither is happening nor would they be good for the industry.

Focused MLS

These initiatives are taking items off MLSs’ plates that create controversy. Most brokers don’t want the MLS to make advertising decisions for them. They want fast, inexpensive access to broad MLS data. They want flexible software options.

They want to have their data synchronized across their plethora of tools without having to update it manually in so many locations. Upstream, AMP, aggregators and secondary MLS interface tools take much of this burden away from the MLS.

Brokers also want the MLS to continue doing what it does so well — cooperation and compliance. Brokers are the MLS. Its existence is invaluable to us.

The idea of a compliance arm of a national MLS handling enforcement is frightening. Imagine the federal government replacing all local police forces with the national guard and expecting everything to be OK. “Seattle, you’re OK with people smoking pot in the park. Provo, you’d like to throw ’em in jail for the weekend. We’ve got a single answer for both of you that will please neither. Your papers, please.”

Painting the corners

There are a lot of angles and conspiracies regarding how these initiatives benefit some parties over others. Many have credence. These are businesses trying to make money.

That doesn’t have to be the narrative about these initiatives, though. They also create a picture of an MLS system that effectively serves its brokers, while brokers simultaneously gain back efficiency and control over their data distribution. They remove conflicting territories.

Will some outside platforms lose leverage? It seems that they might, but improving the business for the brokers and agents who actually generate transactions should always be viewed as a benefit to the industry.

And lest we forget, there’s a consumer angle. They’ll simply get more accurate data across consumer-facing outlets, better tools developed at faster rates and access to broader information across markets and MLS territories.

That’s worth a shot.

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.

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.