IBuyers as a service: How OfferDepot could do instant offers right

Offer iBuyer programs as a service to sellers while focusing on your strength in lead generation: personal relationships

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Reposted with permission from Rob Hahn. 

Mike DelPrete, the man behind Adventures in Real Estate Tech, recently sent out an email newsletter (I can’t find the article on his website) about OfferDepot:

A Keller Williams team in Phoenix recently launched OfferDepot, an instant offer play, to “help with all the confusion with cash offers versus bringing your home to market.”

Why it matters: This is the first move from a traditional real estate company into the instant offers space.

If you’re not subscribed to DelPrete, you’re missing out. Sign up for his newsletter. He is seriously smart. I’ll have to quote from the email liberally as I can’t find a link to a post on his site, but I wanted to engage in some freeform thinking. And as I’ve often said before, I don’t know what I think until I’ve read what I’ve written. So, here goes.

A tickle in the brain

I agreed with just about everything DelPrete wrote in the analysis of what OfferDepot (and future iBuyer initiatives from traditional brokers and agents) means for dedicated iBuyers like Opendoor. He wrote:

The online experience isn’t great. In a design reminiscent of the mid- to late-90’s, users must struggle through a form to submit their home’s information. It’s a far cry from the premium experience Opendoor strives to offer its customers through the entire process.

But it works. It does what it needs to and collects leads. And it is this dilutive effect that is the biggest implication to dedicated iBuyers like Opendoor. As I wrote in that same analysis:

‘The proposition from the incumbents will be poor, but it will be enough to soak up a portion of the demand in the market and take momentum away from Opendoor and other iBuyers.’

It’s simple economics. If we assume the demand remains constant, the addition of supply will dilute the amount of business any one iBuyer receives.

Certainly, DelPrete is correct. The user experience (UX) will be poor, but it will still soak up demand. That will have an effect on incumbent iBuyers.

And yet, there’s this tickle in the back of my brain. I don’t know what it is yet. But something about this doesn’t seem as cut and dried as DelPrete lays out. That’s the itch I’m trying to scratch.

Web-based vs. personal

So let’s start with this basic observation: iBuyers are web-based, traditional real estate is personal.

Is that right? I think it’s right, but have things changed so much in the past couple of decades that traditional real estate is also web-based?

When I wrote about and talked about Zillow’s entrance into the iBuyer game, I thought one of the most significant pieces was that Zillow was going to generate a tremendous amount of seller leads.

In my head, I contrasted that with the traditional seller lead generation process of real estate agents farming a neighborhood, working their spheres of influence and getting referrals. I felt that even in 2018, most homeowners are not turning to the web to sell the most valuable asset they own; they would ask friends and family, or if they had a pre-existing relationship with a real estate agent, contact that person for advice.

Zillow and the iBuyers were going after a small fraction of consumers who were much more comfortable with getting impersonal, automated offers from giant faceless companies. Sure, that would still result in a flood of seller leads, which are incredibly valuable right now, but the vast majority of sellers would still contact a real estate agent via referral.

Along that line of thinking, I believed that Zillow’s iBuyer program importantly allowed Premier Agents who are participating to present an offer from Zillow during a listing presentation.

So it wasn’t a replacement of the web-based iBuyer program, but a wholly different channel, and one that fit in seamlessly with the personal relationship-based marketing of real estate agents. Redfin has been doing that this entire time, after all.

In my June Red Dot, I recommended to brokerages that they implement an iBuyer program. And now I realize I didn’t spell this out, but I was thinking less about the web-based approach and more about giving agents the ability to present a choice to the seller during a listing presentation. Here’s what I wrote:

With the entrance of Zillow into the iBuyer space, that entire business model can be said to have been validated. Furthermore, the strategies of both Zillow and Redfin show that the iBuyer business isn’t only about flipping houses. It’s also about offering consumers a choice between risk and reward: less money with certainty right now or potentially more money later with less certainty…

Once again, it isn’t about buying and selling houses on your own that matters as much as at least attempting to answer the consumer frustration with the process, and offering them a choice — just as Redfin does.

Now that I think about it some more, the notion wasn’t so focused on seller lead gen over the web; it was to arm the agent, who already has the seller lead gen covered via her marketing activities with the ability to offer a choice to consumers.

Presumably, the Keller Williams team that launched OfferDepot is doing just that: offering choices to their seller clients during the listing presentation.

Why not throw up a website and collect leads as well? It hardly costs anything to do that, and if it leads to a few sellers filling out the form, well, so much the better. It’s no different than the “What’s your home worth?” tools that have been around for ages.

I haven’t spoken to anyone on the Kenny Klaus Team, the people behind OfferDepot, and the site is so new that I doubt real data is available just yet, but it would be interesting to see/hear what the impact of this program has been for them.

Is the site really generating a flood of seller inquiries in Opendoor and Zillow’s backyard? If so, that would be interesting in its own right.

Lead generation or service?

Closely related, I suppose, is the strategic focus of OfferDepot. Is it meant to be a lead-generation and lead-capture play, or a service delivery play? I know, it can be both, but which takes precedence?

If the latter, then I think it can be enormously beneficial and successful, while posing no threat whatsoever to incumbent iBuyers.

If the former, then the program has serious problems, but does pose a threat (like DelPrete says) to iBuyers.

Let’s think through that.

Service delivery

If OfferDepot is focused more as a service delivery play (offering sellers the choice of less money with more certainty today or more money with less certainty tomorrow), then the implication is that Kenny Klaus is sitting with the homeowners at their kitchen table at the time the offer is presented.

Those sellers might never have contacted Opendoor or Zillow. They did what just about every seller does and calls an agent — in this case, the Kenny Klaus team.

Maybe it’s because of a referral from a friend or family member, or maybe Kenny Klaus is the dominant listing team in the area, or whatever. The traditional methods of lead generation led to that homeowner calling Kenny Klaus. That doesn’t shift demand away from Opendoor; those people were never going to fill out a form and ask for an impersonal offer on their family homes.

If anything, OfferDepot done as a service to sellers adds to the demand. The true demand here isn’t for iBuyer services; the true demand is for something better than the broken, pain-in-the-ass process of selling a home.

Promotion/lead generation

On the other hand, if OfferDepot is focused more as a lead-generation play, then there are some significant problems for Kenny Klaus team.

First, people have to know about OfferDepot. Trying to battle it out on Google against the likes of Opendoor, Zillow, Redfin and the thousands of others who are gaming SEO like mad is, well, you can do it, but I’m skeptical. Show me the money, as Rod Tidwell would say.

via GIPHY

Or the Kenny Klaus team can invest a shitload of money into advertising OfferDepot. That is no different than anybody else investing money into advertising to let consumers know about a website.

So once again, competing against the marketing budgets of Zillow, realtor.com, Opendoor and Redfin in the crowded media consumer mindshare attention span space is, well, you can do it, but I’m skeptical.

Second, now the user experience that DelPrete talks about is a real problem.

To give a personal example, I recently purchased some products from Amazon rather than from the company that makes (and sells!) the product simply because the user experience on Amazon is better than on the company’s own website.

It was more expensive on Amazon; I didn’t care. That’s how important user experience is, and I’m not convinced that any real estate brokerage or team can compete with the UI (user interface) experts and the design budgets over at actual tech companies.

Third, operating OfferDepot, doing SEO on it, advertising it — none of those are free. I wonder if that money could be spent where Kenny Klaus Team is already strong to make it stronger, rather than where it is at a major disadvantage.

That is, what if Kenny Klaus Team invested even more in the personal relationship type marketing like farming, sphere communication and the like? That’s an area where the iBuyers are weak.

That’s the tickle, I think

So we arrive at something resembling a conclusion. And I feel like the itch has been scratched.

It isn’t that OfferDepot is bad — it’s fantastic, actually. I recommended it in my Red Dot, after all. But I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that was bugging me. I think it’s this:

Do iBuyer programs, but as a service to sellers, while focusing on where your strength lies in lead generation: personal relationships.

To do otherwise, to jump into trying to become an iBuyer yourself, is to compete where you are weak: technology, websites and mobile apps, and media advertising. It’s a form of the don’t try to out-Walmart Walmart principle.

The challenge for real estate brokers and agents and teams is not to launch a successful website that generates inquiries by the thousands. The challenge is to prevent your past clients from referring Zillow to their friends and family.

Let me end with a quote from a strategist far more brilliant than any other:

“You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.”

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Robert Hahn is the Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. Check out his personal blog, The Notorious R.O.B. or find him on Twitter: @robhahn.