Technology

Zillow’s warrior-priest knows how to disarm critics

Jay Thompson explains the biggest myths he debunks about listing portal

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Friends sometimes ask: “I just want to make sure you haven’t leapt out of a window yet.”

Misty-eyed spouses have thanked him for boosting their beloveds’ business. But a critic has encouraged him to have a second heart attack, and some agents have labeled him a shill.

Meet Jay Thompson, the man charged with defending Zillow across the blogosphere.

Roaming myriad real estate news sources and Facebook groups, Thompson spends much of his time debunking what he considers to be myths about Zillow and highlighting the company’s benefits to skeptics.

Thompson’s journey may have been arduous at times. But he’s happy to report that he sees agents increasingly coming to view Zillow as an ally, not an adversary.

In a bid to bolster its stature with real estate agents, Zillow brought on Thompson in 2012 as its director of industry outreach. Thompson, a real estate broker who says he once oversaw dozens of agents, had been a prominent blogger who advocated for transparency and dissemination of listing data.

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While part of Thompson’s job has been to help Zillow employees understand real estate agents, he’s best known for contributing to online debate on the listing portal.

zillow becoming mls isnt plan
Thompson sometimes is accused of being a “shill” for Zillow. He disagrees with the characterization. 

Chiming in  

Thompson hones in on conversations about Zillow by monitoring a wide array of social media accounts, more than 100 Facebook groups, and a range of blogs and online news sites that cover real estate.

He also sets up dozens of Google Alerts that send him posts across the Internet containing keywords relevant to Zillow, such as “Zillow premiere agent” and “Zestimate.”

Despite what real estate marketers might have you believe, Thompson said that the number of blogs and social media accounts he has to trawl has diminished since he joined Zillow three years ago.

“They just flat out say, ‘I don’t have time for that stuff,’” Thompson said of agents who have decided to stop publishing blog posts or tweets.

jay thompson vertical

Jay Thompson

Though Zillow takes plenty of flak across the blogosphere, Thompson claims that, overall, he gets much more positive feedback about Zillow than complaints.

Silent majority? 

Unfortunately, the agents who vocalize their opinions online — those whose viewpoints may circulate the most — tend to take a more critical view of Zillow than the overall agent population, he said.

Thompson has to help Zillow find two or three agents who advertise on Zillow for every panel the listing portal hosts in 70 to 80 locations each year.

Ninety-five percent of these panelists, Thompson said, don’t contribute to online discussion forums. And when Thompson asks them to weigh in on online conversations about Zillow, they’re often shocked to learn that there are detractors out there, he said.

“They’ll say, ‘Really?! There are people out there that don’t like Zillow?’” Thompson said.

Another challenge: Finding brand advocates can be tough because many agents like to keep their success with Zillow “close to their vest.”

Thompson regularly addresses gripes about “Zestimates,” home valuations provided by Zillow that sometimes cause friction between buyers, sellers and real estate agents. But grumbling over Zestimates has decreased considerably during his tenure, Thompson said.

Debunking myths

There are a number of myths about Zillow that continue to plague him, however. Here are some of what Thompson says are the biggest false beliefs about the listing portal:

1. Zillow wants to eliminate real estate agents

Thompson has had ample time to hone his rebuttal to this claim: “Tell me what business in the history of earth has been successful with a plan to eliminate their customer base,” he said. “It just makes zero sense.”

2. Zillow wants to be a brokerage or multiple listing service

Zillow has repeatedly said that it doesn’t aspire to be either of those. “We’re a media company; we sell ads, not houses,” Thompson said.

zillow has zero desire to be brokerage
Thompson says he frequently has to combat the misperception that Zillow plans to be a brokerage.

3. Zillow sells leads

Zillow sells certain numbers of monthly “impressions” on listing pages — which are, essentially, visits from human beings to listing pages — for flat fees.

These impressions should result in leads for an agent advertiser. But Zillow does not charge an agent advertiser based on the number of leads they receive from Zillow.

4. Zillow sells advertising ownership of ZIP codes

You can’t buy a percentage of monthly impressions of listings in a certain ZIP code. You can buy only a certain number of monthly impressions for listings in a ZIP code.

The share of Zillow listings an advertiser appears on for a certain ZIP code may decrease over time if the total number of visits to listing pages of that ZIP code increases, Thompson noted.

“Six months from now, when we’ve doubled traffic, you won’t have 25 percent,” he said, putting forth a scenario where an agent advertiser’s market share of listing ads decreases due to traffic growth on Zillow. “You’ll have 12.5 percent.”

5. Zillow doesn’t normally send a lead to multiple agent advertisers

By default, Zillow sends a lead to only one agent advertiser. The visitor must click boxes next to other agent advertisers that appear on a listing to also send their information to other advertisers.

From left: Cyndi Lesinski, Jay Thompson and Bic DeCaro.

From left: Cyndi Lesinski, Jay Thompson and Bic DeCaro.

Staying sane

Friends who often see Thompson taking heat online wonder how he can handle it. He said the tough skin he’s developed as a blogger helps him cope.

Suffering a heart attack about three years ago, he added, has also reminded him that “what the detractors say is small stuff.” That includes an anonymous email he received that asked: “Why don’t you do us all a favor and have another heart attack?”

That’s not to say insults or misinformation can’t get Thompson worked up. He’s just learned how to respond constructively.

“I cannot tell you, though, how many comments I’ve typed out” and “hit the delete key,” he said. “Sometimes I go home and sleep on something before I decide to do it.”

Nine out of 10 times when he takes the high road during a conversation, Thompson said, he ultimately hears a comment from a critic that runs something along the lines of: “You know what, Jay, what you say makes some sense, although I don’t agree with it.”

jay is no shill
Many agents express respect for Thompson even though they disagree with his views. 

The payoff

What’s encouraging, Thompson said, is how attitudes towards Zillow seem to have grown more positive, or at least, less negative.

He encounters far less criticism of Zestimates, he said, and many more news articles seem to suggest that buying advertising on Zillow delivers a positive return on investment for agents.

“The sentiment out there has changed,” he said.

That must be satisfying to a soldier who’s jousted relentlessly on behalf of Zillow. But what really rewards Thompson, he said, is the help he says he’s been able to extend to so many.

While a grown man hugging you for being part of Zillow may be “a little awkward,” it’s also “incredibly rewarding,” he said.

“When I was a broker, I had 32 agents that I could help improve their business,” he added. “Now, I get to help 103,000 agents improve their business, so … it’s a blast, I love it.”

Email Teke Wiggin.