ORLANDO, Fla.–Since August of 2001, the Houston Association of Realtors has delivered 500,000 leads to its broker and agent members. HAR Chief Executive Bob Hale attributes the statistic to the association’s public access MLS Web site, which enables prospective buyers and sellers to browse home listings and encourages them to use the services of a Realtor.

HAR’s lead generating campaign exists amidst a changing landscape for public MLS Web sites. A growing number of MLSs nationwide are conceding to broker member demands to nix public access to home listings through a neutral MLS site. The debate centers on who should be the first to provide the coveted first point of contact with consumers in a real estate transaction.

“We wonder why the broker communities do not understand that when you deny consumers information, you open the door for other companies to provide it,” Hale said during a panel discussion, “Virtual leads: New customers, new profit centers, new frontier,” during the National Association of Realtors’ 2004 Convention & Expo.

Hale showed a full-page advertisement displayed in a Chicago publication targeting consumers with the question, “Is your home on Chicagoland’s best home Web site?”

Chicagoland’s MLS, the Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois, turned off public access to home listings this year under pressure from member brokers who felt the Web site competed with their own companies’ sites. That left the door open for companies to boast the most comprehensive listings display in its place.

Hale said that according to research, consumers believe that the best place for them to initially gain information about listings is on a neutral Web site, such as an MLS, not on a broker or franchise Web site.

In contrast to its third-party lead generation counterparts–or even franchise lead networks–HAR doesn’t charge members a referral fee for leads.

Consumer attitudes and expectations have already changed, Hale said. The Houston association’s intent has been to keep that changing attitude consistent with its members by introducing its ideas in the early stages of membership. HAR tries to harvest sophistication among members regarding the importance of maintaining the public MLS site.

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To illustrate the shift that’s taking place in consumer attitudes about real estate services, Hale told a true story about an agent in Houston who was on the verge of closing a deal when the home seller called the agent and demanded the LendingTree rebate they’d heard about. The agent explained to the seller that they didn’t connect through LendingTree, but the seller insisted the rebate or the deal was off. In the end, the agent had to concede, even though he or she was not a part of the LendingTree network.

“The point is this shift is going through the minds of the consumer,” Hale said.

Gregg Larson of Clareity Consulting said agents can expect more pressure to pay referrals to lead generation companies in a market downturn. Housing experts expect many markets to soften in coming years.

Larson focused his comments on best practices in lead management, citing Reply.com and HouseValues as two innovators in the space.

HouseValues, which recently filed papers for its initial public offering, has a drip marketing campaign that helps real estate agents manage leads for months or years in advance of a transaction. The company automatically sends e-mails to clients on behalf of agents to keep them updated on houses that match their search criteria or home selling bracket for sellers.

Reply.com has a rigorous lead “scrubbing” process in which the company filters out bad leads first using technology, then by calling the consumers to verify their needs. If the lead turns out to be bogus, Reply will not charge the agent for it.

Reply recently implemented a three-step lead verification process that includes filtering bad leads with technology that identifies bogus information such as fake names or phone numbers, manually verifying lead information, then phoning consumers as a last step to ensure the lead is qualified.

Reply CEO Payam Zamani in a separate interview said the company asks prospective buyers questions about their search criteria and price range to make sure they have reasonable expectations about the market they’re searching in. Reply has a team of 35 people who call every lead that comes through the Web site before handing it off to an agent. Only 44 percent of leads make it through the verification process.

“We think that the agent will be most loyal to the company that provides the best lead,” Zamani said.

In October, Reply.com had 300,000 repeat consumers, according to Zamani.


Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to jessica@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 133.

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