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Editor’s note: This guest article, part of a series of articles about Virtual Office Web sites (VOWs), is republished with permission of the author. Click here to view the original. (View Part 1 and Part 2).

By VICTOR LUND

Whether you are new to real estate or a seasoned veteran, you must be aware that consumers are using the Internet as the cornerstone in finding a home to buy. Year after year the influence of the Internet is measured by many — including the "2008 National Association of Realtors Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers" study, which reports:

  • 33 percent started their home search by looking online for properties for sale (38 percent of repeat buyers, 27 percent of first-time buyers).
  • 87 percent claim that they used the Internet as an information source (86 percent of repeat buyers, 89 percent of first-time buyers).
  • 81 percent found the Internet as a useful source of information.

It is clear that brokers and agents must meet consumer demand for property information online if they are to have success in marketing homes to today’s homebuyer. Until now, brokers have relied on IDX (Internet Data Exchange, a standard for sharing and displaying online property information) data feeds that typically update information for every active multiple listing service-entered property daily.

The fields that are contained in the IDX feed vary by market, but fall short of displaying all of the information available in the MLS. With a VOW (Virtual Office Web site, another data-sharing standard that requires consumer registration to access), brokers may now obtain a data feed from their MLS that contains all non-confidential information available. This represents an enormous opportunity for brokers and agents to differentiate themselves from other Web sites by providing homebuyers with the most comprehensive Web site listing content available.

A Google search reveals 88 Million real estate Web sites that are available to consumers, rising from the wake of buyers going online to view property information. The battle for online superiority rages in every corner of every neighborhood of every city in the nation between two different types of Web sites: IDX and non-IDX.

IDX rules allow brokers to display some of the key features of a home on their Web site. IDX is also commonly referred to as "broker reciprocity," where all brokers are willing to offer their listings for display on other broker sites in exchange for the ability to display all of the other brokers’ listings on their own Web site. This orderly system of reciprocity comes with rules and regulations regarding display of that data.

While IDX Web sites provide consumers with valuable information, they fall short of allowing buyers to gain access to deep levels of information that is important in their home search, however. To learn about days on market, price changes, tax information, sold history and other important types of information, they typically need to contact a real estate agent to find it for them in the MLS.

With a VOW Web site, homebuyers can essentially access the MLS through their real estate professional. A broker may now obtain a data feed of all non-confidential information in the MLS and make that information available through a VOW.

Consumers will be able to view information that is very important to them as they look to purchase a home. They can view days on market, tax information, sold history and price changes. The real estate professional providing the information can provide better information than other Web sites and provide it through branded communications, helping the agent to nurture an automated, online relationship with a buyer.

The center of the conversation

The same principals of working with buyers that apply to your IDX Web site hold true for your virtual office Web site. An agent’s goal is to provide opportunities to engage a consumer to help them in their home search. Most notable features for achieving this are:

  • Inquire about this listing.
  • Request a showing.
  • Save listing to favorites.
  • Save a search.
  • E-mail a friend.

With VOW, these new features of consumer engagement emerge:

  • Agents and clients can leave notes or remarks for each other about listings.
  • Agents and clients can modify search criteria.
  • Clients can reject listings that they are not interested in.
  • Agents can view their client’s click-through activity.
  • Open house notifications.

With a few exceptions, this functionality has not been presented to consumers before. It represents an expansion of the opportunity for engagement and conversation with your buyer within the body of a listing-detail page.

Stay With Your Customer

The most important skill set that a broker or agent will need to focus on with their VOW is paying attention. If you offer a VOW site to your buyer, make sure that you are committed to responding to them in a reasonable amount of time. Most VOW solutions notify you of activity by your customers on your site by e-mail.

It is important to check your e-mail at least two or three times a day or more to keep up with your client activity. Doing so will allow you to build a stronger relationship with your customer by learning their likes and dislikes and paying close attention to the characteristics of the property types they are searching.

Much can also be gleaned by the pattern of sign-on activity of your customer. Does the customer search everyday or once a week, or once a month? Knowing this may help you appreciate their urgency. Have they changed their price criteria or area criteria, or added a new amenity? Are they searching for comparable homes in their neighborhood to understand the value of their home?

Remember, most sellers start out as buyers first. Knowing exactly when a customer becomes active and exactly what they are viewing gives the agent the best change of securing a sale. VOWs in no way replace the opportunity for you to consult with your client via phone or in person, however. They simply provide you with a good place to start a conversation.

Promote your VOW everywhere you can

In the marketing of your services, there are a variety of other touch points where you can offer VOW access. Accessing all of the non-confidential information available from the MLS is a tremendously powerful offer to consumers. Be sure to offer access to your VOW at every open house, every mixer, every featured listing on your Web site, every listing flier, every business card — anywhere you can. Make it the first service you offer to any buyer you come in contact with.

Make it your goal to have a VOW available for providing services to your buyers as soon as you possibly can. Brokers and agents who are quick to respond are likely to get the highest number of registered users and generate the highest amount of word-of-mouth advertising as people begin talking about it to their friends and families.

Victor Lund is a founding partner of the WAV Group, a real estate consulting company. This guest perspective is reprinted with permission of the author. The original post can be viewed here.

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