Listing portals go beyond lead gen

Zillow rolls out new agent tools; Homes.com partners with Re/Max

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CORRECTION: This original version of this article contained an error regarding the acquisition cost of SharperAgent and has been updated with a correction. Market Leader reported that it acquired SharperAgent on Aug. 1, 2011, for $1.75 million in cash and assumed liabilities of about $400,000.

Some of the biggest real estate portals on the Internet — including Zillow.com, Realtor.com, Homes.com, and RealEstate.com — want real estate brokers and agents to think of them as more than purveyors of leads and advertising space.

Realtor.com operator Move Inc. has provided customer management relationship (CRM) and marketing tools to Realtors for years, through its Top Producer Systems division. Those products, which can be integrated directly with Realtor.com, boast endorsements from franchisors Keller Williams Realty Inc., Re/Max, and EXIT Realty Corp. International.

Keller Williams agents already know RealEstate.com’s owner and operator, Market Leader Inc., as one of the lead vendors behind the franchisor’s integrated CRM, transaction management and marketing platform, eEdge.

Now Zillow has quietly rolled out its own CRM tool and, under a new partnership with Re/Max, Homes.com will jointly market its Home Connect CRM and marketing platform to Re/Max agents.

Providing CRM, online marketing tools and other services including website design to brokers and agents not only provides operators of third-party listing portals with new sources of revenue, it increases the likelihood that brokers will view their websites as allies, rather than enemies.

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Some brokers take a dim view of third-party websites that use their listing data to attract consumers, only to pass them along as "leads" to agents with competing firms. A few brokers have made waves by announcing they will withhold their clients’ listings from some big-name listing portals, citing concerns about ads for competitors and the accuracy of listing data on third-party sites.

So far there’s been no mass rush by brokers for the exits,  with websites like Realtor.com, Zillow and Trulia announcing agreements in recent weeks to keep listings flowing from major players like Howard Hanna Real Estate Services and multiple listing services (MLSs) in Illinois and Connecticut.

But brokers definitely have the attention of listing portals.

Zillow recently hired Bob Bemis, formerly the top executive at Arizona Multiple Listing Service Inc., to help the company improve its relations with brokers and MLSs.

In announcing a partnership with Re/Max LLC to power a new Remax.com website and mobile apps, Homes.com Executive Vice President Brock MacLean said that "With all the negative attention lately surrounding syndication, it’s important the Homes.com brand and mission avoid getting caught up in that fray."

Last month Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff disclosed that the company intends to roll out a suite of productivity tools to help brokers and agents manage and organize leads generated by Zillow.com and the company’s mobile apps.

"The strategy is all about shifting from a seller of advertising, which is very finite and sort of monolithic, to a provider of a (software-as-a-service) based suite of productivity tools," Rascoff said in a conference call with investors.

Zillow’s "Premier Agent" program — which includes paid ads that put agent head shots and contact info next to listing detail pages in targeted ZIP Codes — helped the company achieve profitability and go public in 2011.  According to the Zillow’s 2011 annual report, the company finished the year with 15,799 Premier Agent subscribers — a 95 percent increase from the year before.

Selling ads and leads is only part of Zillow’s business, Rascoff said. Zillow wants to move into CRM, listing distribution, Website enhancements, training, and "other things that agents need to make the most of the Internet," Rascoff said in a Feb. 15 conference call.

A company spokeswoman, Cynthia Nowak, said Zillow has already rolled the first version of its CRM tool without making a formal announcement. Zillow Industry Outreach Manager Brad Andersohn outlined key features of Zillow’s free "contact management platform" in a Feb. 29 blog post.

The CRM tool allows registered users — some 370,000 agents have created profiles on Zillow — to keep notes on Zillow-originated contacts, flag contacts for follow up, and send emails. The platform also allows agents to create new contacts so they can manage everyone on Zillow.com, and export contacts so they can be managed in another CRM system.

"What you’re starting to see from us is a strategic expansion of our Premier Agent program, from a one-size-fits-all advertising platform, to a varied suite of marketing services for agents," Nowak said.

A big part of that strategy, she said, is Zillow’s acquisitions of Postlets, a listings syndication service for agents, and Diverse Solutions, a provider of MLS listing data for agent websites.

Acquisition strategies

Rascoff said the strategy to expand Zillow’s portfolio of agent-focused tools might also involve further acquisitions.

Move and Market Leader — the companies behind Realtor.com and RealEstate.com — have also been in buying mode.

In September 2010, Move acquired Threewide Corp., operator of national listing syndication platform ListHub. Last July, Move announced it had acquired social media search platform SocialBios.

The SocialBios acquisition enabled Move to roll out two new mobile-enabled "HyperSocial" tools in January that allow agents to broadcast profiles and recommendations across Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google and Foursquare.

In the mean time, Move’s new subsidiary, ListHub, is vying to become a clearinghouse for brokers to syndicate listings to franchisors, through a Real Estate Network announced in January.

WAV Group consultant Victor Lund has estimated that, at launch, the websites operated by participants in ListHub’s Real Estate Network — Century 21, Coldwell Banker, Realty Executives, and Re/Max — attracted 9 million to 11 million unique visitors a month.

Zillow, by comparison — which also powers listings and ads at Yahoo Real Estate — claims more than 31 million people visited its websites and used its mobile applications in February.

While Zillow is branching out from web portal operator into CRM territory, Market Leader has recently been moving toward the same goal on the opposite tack.

Founded in 1999 around the lead generation site HouseValues.com, Market Leader rebranded and reinvented itself in 2008 as a provider of marketing, lead management and other tools for real estate franchisors, brokerages and agents.

After landing a role as the lead vendor for Keller Williams’ eEdge platform last year, Market Leader went on a buying spree, picking up mobile lead-generation platform developer kwkly in January for $1.15 million in cash and stock. That deal was followed by the acquisition of Denver-based SharperAgent and its 30,000-strong customer base in August for $1.75 million.

Market Leader said the goal of the SharperAgent deal was to develop an integrated software platform for franchisors and real estate brokerages providing lead generation, customer relationship management, social media and blogging integration, online and offline marketing, agent and office websites, and other tools.

Market Leader then turned its attention back to lead generation, acquiring RealEstate.com from two subsidiaries of Tree.com in September. The $8.25 million deal netted Market leader a network of more than 250 real estate broker customers, plus patents, trademarks and approximately 400 domain names.

Homes.com operator Dominion Enterprises has also relied on acquisition to build a multifaceted business model, evolving from the publisher of free real estate and other magazines into a major player in the digital realm. Under the leadership of Peter Ill, over the last decade Dominion’s electronic media division acquired companies like Homes.com, eProspecting, eNeighborhoods and 123Movers.com.

Homes Connect

Homes.com is now part of Dominion Enterprises’ Homes Media Solutions division. Last year, the company revealed it was working on a new Homes.com back-end, with the goal of providing agents and brokers with a single point of access to services including lead generation and management, marketing, website design and hosting, search engine optimization and report generation. Dominion Enterprises had previously offered those services through five brands: Homes.com, Advanced Access, AgentAdvantage, eNeighborhoods and NUMBER1EXPERT.

The integration of agent and broker services into Homes.com was also to include new capabilities, such as CRM tools for social media, and tools for managing leads from other listing portals.

The result was Homes Connect, which launched last August with a customizable "gadget" dashboard inspired by iGoogle that allows users to monitor their leads, manage a to-do list, and keep an eye on Twitter.

Under Homes.com’s new online marketing partnership with Re/Max, Homes.com will not only power a new Remax.com website and mobile apps, but the companies will collaborate in marketing a Re/Max co-branded version of Home Connect to Re/Max agents around the country.

"The concept is that they’ll help us market, and we’ll come up with special packages for their agents and brokers," said Homes Media Solutions Vice President Andy Woolley. 

That doesn’t mean that Homes Connect will replace LeadStreet, Re/Max’s current lead generation and management platform.

LeadStreet actually runs on three platforms provided by three external vendors — Homes Media Solutions, Reliance and Realleads — said Marnie Blanco, Re/Max’s vice president for eBusiness. Re/Max is working with Reliance to migrate the system to one central platform later this year, Blanco said.

"We really chose Homes.com to be our strategic partner to the forward facing consumer," Blanco said in an email. "They have realized great success with their consumer platform and we feel that is a great advantage to us."

Although Homes Media Solutions will not be the provider of Re/Max’s unified lead management system, "we promote and allow our affiliates to use other systems that may be able to fit a customized need and look for ways to integrate those systems into our enterprise structure," Blanco said.

Thanks to its acquisition of eNeighborhoods, Dominion Enterprises’ Homes Media Solutions division was already hosting Re/Max’s website. Re/Max’s new mobile apps for Apple and Android devices were also developed by and are hosted on the Homes.com platform.

"We’ve hosted Remax.com for six years, so the biggest part of this partnership is leveraging Homes.com to power Remax.com," Woolley said. "What’s unique is that instead of saying, ‘We’re competing with a portal,’ Re/Max is taking the opposite approach, and saying, ‘These guys have it dialed in with SEO and consumer experience.’ "

Homes.com generates about 10 million visitors a month, and much of that audience is distinct from Remax.com’s, Woolley said.

"They recognized that Homes.com has a different audience than Remax.com," Woolley said. "The opportunity to drive traffic from Homes.com to Remax.com was what they are striving for."

Woolley said Homes.com has launched "a big initiative to go to MLSs directly" for listing data. As part of that campaign, in December it turned on lead capture forms on all free listings, providing about 200,000 free leads to agents "to extend an olive branch to the industry."

Brokers typically pool "Internet Data Exchange" (IDX) listings within individual MLS markets for display on their own websites. But third-party listing portals like Realtor.com, Zillow.com, RealEstate.com and Homes.com have to cobble together listings from multiple sources including brokers, MLSs and third-party syndicators.

Franchisors can display listings represented by brokers that are affiliated with them on their national websites, but not complete sets of IDX listings represented by all of the brokers in a given market.

Although franchisors were briefly allowed to display IDX listings last year, the National Association of Realtors quickly repealed the rule change that allowed them to do so when some brokers and brokerage networks objected.

As a workaround, Re/Max and other franchisors allow visitors to their national websites to view framed search results of their affiliated broker’s IDX websites, or simply refer traffic to those sites.

ListHub’s Real Estate Network is intended to provide another solution for franchisors, by making it easier for brokers to pick and choose which franchisor sites they want their listings to appear on.

Blanco said that in the future, Remax.com will use a combination of framed IDX listing data and information from the ListHub Real Estate Network.


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