Roost, a company known as a real estate search portal driven by data-exchange agreements among real estate brokers, is a search company no more. In an exclusive interview with Inman News, the company announced a categorical shift this week to a business model focused on helping agents and brokers gain referral business through the social networking site Facebook.

The company today unleashed a new home page, which advertises its new business focus: a "Social Real Estate Toolkit" that includes a Facebook tab and a publishing tool, as well as plans for other tools to be released this fall.

"At the end of the day, the world doesn’t need another property search engine, but Realtors absolutely need a social media toolkit for word-of-mouth business,"said Alex Chang, Roost’s CEO.

While real estate professionals get some leads from property-search sites, 80 percent or more of their leads still come from word-of-mouth referrals, Chang said. Roost’s goal is to help agents attract referrals by leveraging Facebook as a networking and relationship-building platform.

"(The) vast majority of agents are not (search-engine optimization) experts, lead conversion optimizers, or bloggers, but they are relationship builders," Chang said.

Roost was founded in 2007. According to Web metrics firm Hitwise, Roost’s site ranked at No. 129 among real estate category websites as of last week. Lack of traffic did not factor significantly into Roost’s decision to change, however, Chang said.

"We have done a nice job of growing traffic and the traffic services have always under-reported the Roost platform due to its nature (a network of IDX sites with different domains). The issue has much more to do with building something truly (unique) and needed by the market," Chang said.

Roost had considered a change to its business model since the March launch of its Social Real Estate tab for real estate professionals on Facebook, Chang said.

The tab allows agents to display local market data for one geographic area and up to four of their own listings on business and profile pages. Roost also released Roost Publisher last week, which allows users to customize and schedule their Facebook wall posts. The toolkit now has more than 17,000 individual users, primarily from the Social Real Estate tab.

The quick adoption of the tab made the decision to switch to a total focus on social media a "no-brainer," Chang said.

The switch will come with a number of new developments this fall. The company plans to release a premium version of the Social Real Estate tab in October that will allow agents to display market data for up to five markets, locations, or ZIP codes; feature an unlimited number of listings; and choose between multiple templates for the tab’s appearance and user interface.

The monthly fee for this "agent toolkit" will be around $20 per month.

Roost currently offers a "Social Real Estate Toolkit for Brokers", which includes all of the features from the upcoming agent kit as well a branded "Home Search" tab that ties into an individual brokerage’s IDX or website listings. It also includes customized social media training for agents, primarily through webinars.

The cost for the broker toolkit is between $20 and $2,000 a month depending on the size of the brokerage. So far, more than 70 brokerage companies have signed up and 50 of those kits are currently live, with the rest expected to go live with the tools within the next 30 days.

The company recently formed a partnership with Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, which gave the network preferred pricing for the broker toolkit and training directed specifically at LeadingRE brokerages, in exchange for promoting the toolkit to brokerage members.

Avery Hess, Realtors is one of the brokerage companies using the broker toolkit and the Social Real Estate tab. The Washington, D.C.-area company has about 210 agents and seven offices and has been using the toolkit for a few months.

The brokerage said it had about 1,000 interactions on its corporate Facebook page per week and wasn’t sure how many were due to the toolkit.

Nevertheless, real estate business engagement on Facebook is expected to grow rapidly and the toolkit has put the brokerage at the forefront of that trend, said Amit Kulkarni, the brokerage’s vice president of marketing and brokerage services.

"I don’t necessarily see it as getting bang for the buck right now, but I think it’s going to be important in positioning us for the future, like within the next one to three years," Kulkarni said.

He also added that the brokerage has been happy with Roost’s training webinars and that the real estate tab, in particular, has helped the brokerage’s agents stand out as local experts.

Roost’s free tools are also helpful to agents who don’t have a clue about how to nurture their relationships online, said Laura Monroe, a real estate virtual assistant and consultant. She uses Roost’s real estate tab to manage her clients’ Facebook business pages.

"(Roost is) helping them to strategize, and making it easier to take a strategy and put action to it, rather than being overwhelmed with ‘How do I implement this in my day-to-day business?’ Otherwise, (social media) can be more of a distraction than help your business," Monroe said.

Also upcoming in the fall are three new tools that will be available for free along with the real estate tab and publisher tool: Roost Endorsements, RoostBar, and Roost Analytics.

Roost Endorsements will allow users to easily ask for recommendations from their contacts and then publish selected endorsements to both an agent’s and client’s status feeds as well as the agent’s real estate tab.

RoostBar is a banner featuring a brokerage name and picture with a "Like" button next to it. The banner will appear at the top of any link posted via Roost Publisher in order to both encourage "friends" to become "fans" and remind readers who provided them with that link.

Roost Analytics will let users know which of their posts are garnering the most engagement as measured by the number of times a post is shared, commented on, and "liked."

Roost has 12 staff, including two employees hired in anticipation of the switch: a new head of product, Brad Selby, formerly senior product manager at Flixter; and a new head of technology, Chris Henley, formerly executive producer at Social Gaming Network.

San Francisco-based Roost is funded by venture capital from Shasta Ventures and General Catalyst Partners. The company declined to comment on its profitability, but said it had raised two rounds of funding totaling $13 million.

Commenting on discussions with Roost’s backers, Chang said, "From their perspective, what’s going on with the social world and Facebook is so powerful that this type of move makes a lot of sense."

While initially focused on Facebook, Roost has plans to build tools for other networks in the future.

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