Let’s start with the big picture. I could throw lots of stats at you, but you already get it. Mobile is huge. Bottom line? There is a massive paradigm shift underway as computing moves away from large desktop and notebook PCs to smaller, more portable, and always-on mobile devices.

And real estate, just like every other online activity, is going to have to adjust.


Note: This is the second part of a series, The Breakaway Brokerage, intended to help brokers frame their digital strategies for 2013. Read Part 1.

Let’s start with the big picture. I could throw lots of stats at you, but you already get it. Mobile is huge. Bottom line? There is a massive paradigm shift underway as computing moves away from large desktop and notebook PCs to smaller, more portable, and always-on mobile devices.

And real estate, just like every other online activity, is going to have to adjust.

My hope is that with this post, we can begin to get clear on who the mobile consumer is and start to think through where the opportunities lie.

The funnel

Admittedly, it’s a bit cliché. Although Brian says we all need to forget the funnel and watch the plumbing, I still think it’s an appropriate mechanism for thinking about three different user profiles of the mobile consumer.

1. Leaning back: The top

Picture this:

At the top of the funnel is the window shopper. This is someone who is not actively buying or selling a home, but is still engaged and at the least tangentially interested in homes. This is the biggest and broadest segment of the online real estate market.

The window shopper is interested at a high level in what’s going on in their market. What’s for sale, what’s sold nearby, that sort of thing. They may also just be poking around, nosy-neighbor style, inside the homes in their neighborhood, city or town. For the window shopper, real estate is a pastime.

The key to engaging the window shopper is photos. Big, sexy, gorgeous photos.

Designing an experience for the window shopper means creating something that is eminently browsable, an experience that is large and swipeable, filled with multimedia and, at its core, simple and easy to use.

In short, this experience is perfect for the tablet. It’s currently left greatly underserved, and, I think, ripe for brokers or brands to begin to build long-term connections with consumers.

Moving on.

2. Leaning forward: The middle

Somewhere a little further down the funnel is the searcher. These are individuals who are actively engaged in the real estate search process.

They’ve committed to finding a new home, and are now deep into research mode. They are voracious consumers at this point, and want to get their hands on as much information as possible.

There are a number of important things to think about when trying to engage the searcher. First, they are likely to be working on more than one device: their smartphone, which is always on them; a desktop or notebook PC, either at work or at home; and likely a tablet for their couch or bed.

So, making effective use of the cloud here is going to be key. Searches, saved properties — everything has to be shared and kept in sync across multiple devices. If you’re going to play in this space, think deeply about how you intend to serve multiple screens. Including, perhaps, yet another screen still to come.

Also critical to engaging the searcher is incorporating email alerts or push notifications. Consumers at this level want actionable data and information as quickly as possible so they can make decisions. Online brokerage Redfin has a commanding lead here.

Finally, there is an opportunity here for really robust collaboration tools that create environments where husbands, wives, partners and agents can begin to co-mingle and collaborate to find a home. This is an opportunity that Buyfolio was targeting when it was acquired by Zillow, and a space I suspect will soon be full of renewed activity.

This layer of the funnel is the busiest, and where brands and brokers have traditionally spent most of their efforts on the Web. For good reason, too, as this is where the greatest opportunity to convert a consumer into a "lead" exists.

The challenge is that this is also the layer that the big technology firms — Zillow, Trulia and Realtor.com — focus on and dominate.

It is therefore extremely complicated and expensive to effectively engage the consumer as a searcher at this point in the race. In fact, unless you plan to take it all the way — committing the budget and energy to making the consumer search experience as good as or better than these companies that are already doing it — you’re better off not doing it at all.

White-labeling a crummy app and dumping it into the app store isn’t going to cut it. You can’t half-ass this when your competition is fully locked and loaded on the same goal.

3. On the spot: The bottom

Finally, at the point of the funnel, we find the buyer. A buyer has moved from the filtering stage and is at a point where they have scheduled visits with their agent or may be busy touring open houses on their own.

The mobile opportunity here is largely focused on the smartphone or handset. It lies with creating new ways to empower the buyer on the spot, while still reinforcing the agent or broker brand.

Marketers conducting strategy session image via Shutterstock.

Some ideas for engaging consumers at this level:

  • Provide mobile access to routes for home showings and lists of saved properties.
  • Enable the consumer to create notes and save photos of properties they’ve visited, with the ability to share with their agent and others.
  • Provide access to on-the-spot decision support content like neighborhood reviews and school data, or even comparable or recently sold data.

It goes without saying, but let’s reiterate: All of this should be optimized for easy access and display on small screens.

And avoid the "everything-and-the-kitchen-sink" temptation. Whether it’s a mobile optimized website or native application, when thinking about mobile opportunities at this level, keep the focus tight and mono-task. Learn from what the big brands are doing — Google, for example, with its separate Maps, YouTube, Search and other apps.

Where to from here?

In a nutshell, I think the middle part of the funnel is far too clogged and competitive. Servicing searchers is going to be increasingly difficult for most brands and brokers. For many, this opportunity ship has already sailed.

My recommendation would be to optimize what you have, and then look to the other green fields in which you can differentiate.

The biggest opportunities, in my opinion, are going to be at either ends of the funnel. This is where the portals and their lead-driven business models aren’t as eager to play. The ends of the funnel are going to be more brand-driven, and more experiential in nature — and, in my opinion, will help build more meaningful and lasting relationships.

I also believe there are massive opportunities for brands and brokers in mobile to service other constituents. Namely, agents and sellers. But that, I’m afraid, will have to be a post for another day.

Joel Burslem is with 1000watt, a marketing, design and strategy firm focused on real estate.

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