Consumer-centric multimedia technology will be a hot commodity for the real estate industry in 2006, say several brokerage company executives, and industry participants also have their sights set on improved lead management systems.

Improving the consumer experience through technology enhancements will be a continuing focus at GMAC Real Estate in the year ahead, said Lane Barnett, CEO for the company’s Real Estate Franchise business unit. “What we’re really trying to do is create an online experience similar to an offline experience,” he said, and the company is looking at ways to improve lead management and transaction management that will benefit consumers.

“We’ve proven that we can generate leads to our Web sites. The real challenge this industry has right now is what to do with those leads,” Barnett said, and it will likely take a mix of training and technology to improve the management of those leads.

Robust Web-based transaction management systems, he said, are also vital to the company’s strategy in offering a full range of real estate-related services to consumers, adding that this seamless offering of numerous services will likely become especially important as the market softens.

The appropriate gauge for new technology investments, Barnett said, is whether consumers will directly benefit. “Some technology that is brought to the table we think can be a distraction. Where it’s not serving the customer we get a little skeptical.”

Technology can be a double-edged sword if it detracts from an agent’s relationship with a consumer, and agents should not lose touch with consumers when they adopt new tools, said Brent Bonine, executive director of sales and marketing for Buffini & Co., a coaching company for real estate professionals.

“If the technology will help you improve your relationship with the client, then it should be considered. We have found that many agents today are looking for technology to do the work for them. The Internet and PDAs won’t build relationships with clients. People still do business with people that they know and trust. The only way to establish that trust is to spend time with the clients they serve,” Bonine said.

Officials at Ohio-based Real Living said this week that lead generation and management will be an important part of the company’s strategy in 2006, adding that the company is building “new interactive consumer programs” that will work in collaboration with tech tools available to the company’s agents. “It is part of our concept that allows our agents to work smarter, not harder,” officials said, and the company’s technology effort is intended to enable a more seamless consumer experience.

Bob Moles, chairman of Intero Real Estate Services, a brokerage company based in Cupertino, Calif., said the “most enlightened brokerage firms” are shifting money toward online lead-generation opportunities while curbing their spend on print-based ads. Lead generation and management systems will be a hot tech item for the real estate industry in 2006, he said. Intero has built a tech-savvy culture, he said, and the company has sought to keep the company on the cutting edge with streamlined access to MLS data and mapping tools, for instance, he said.

Real estate transaction management systems will continue to evolve in 2006 but are in “a problematic stage,” he said. “Right now there is no universal software in transaction management that I’ve seen that is answering all of the agents’ needs.”

Also, Moles said, there remains room for improvement in the existing MLS system, which can be cumbersome for agents to navigate when there are many competing MLSs in the same market area. “There are still about 800 MLSs (across the country). I don’t think we need 800. I don’t know if we need 50 or we need 100 — logic would dictate there are more efficient ways to do that.” He said he expects a “march toward consolidation” to continue among MLSs.

Multimedia technology — namely mapping and video — is revolutionizing real estate listings, said J. Lennox Scott, chairman and CEO for John L. Scott Real Estate, a brokerage company based in Washington state. “The future of real estate technology is all video communication. With the recent advancement in handheld devices, cell phones, PDAs and iPods, it’s apparent that this is the direction technology is headed,” he said.

“Our focus … will continue to be on interactive mapping. This highly effective tool is the latest advancement in online real estate technology. It provides consumers with an enhanced experience when searching for a home and has almost endless possibilities for real estate companies.”

Mapping technologies for real estate consumers will also be a key priority in 2006 for HouseValues, a company that offers lead generation and management tools and services for real estate professionals. HouseValues this year launched HomePages, a mapping-intensive home-search site for consumers that doubles as a marketing and lead-generation site for real estate agents. Real estate-related mapping technologies should continue to evolve and combine new sets of data, said Matt Heinz, senior director of marketing for HouseValues.

Consumers, he said, are “demanding personalization, demanding relevance, demanding local information,” adding that the company has sought to keep consumers “in control of the process,” while simplifying the steps it takes to find information they are looking for.

Over the next few years, there will certainly be a thrust to put interactive mapping technology in the hands of consumers, literally, using wireless technology and portable devices, Heinz also said. “That level of mobility for consumers and agents as well will be very powerful.”

A la mode, a real estate technology company, also believes there will be a push toward more multimedia content for property listings in 2006, said Rusty Lindquist, the company’s vice president of agent products. Agents using a la mode products can already upload video and audio podcasts to their Web sites for consumers and other agents to download, for example, he said, and these sorts of technologies can give agents a leg up in a slowing market, even over agents with more experience.

“Multimedia is one aspect that I really think will gain momentum. Another one is the movement toward a digital transaction. I think there will begin to be a tipping point (in 2006) where we see parts of the transaction,” even if the fully paperless transaction is still a rarity, Lindquist said.

Because the launch and adoption of new technologies is sometimes more piecemeal than universal, Lindquist said he also expects to see new technologies emerge that offer a more comprehensive solution to technology-enabled real estate systems. “I think brokers are going to drive this movement of standardization and consolidation,” he said.

Lindquist said he expects agent Web sites to increasingly become digital docking points for all activity related to real estate transactions. “I think the agent’s Web site will really begin to be a hub of agent business, and it hasn’t been. A listing will be much more than a listing. It will be a rich, multimedia engaging experience,” he said. Homeowners will be able to interact with agents and check the status of their real estate transactions through the agent’s site, for example, he said.


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