Creating meaningful experiences for online users is always a fantastic thing, but how exactly do you do that? How can you go beyond simply searching for homes on the endless number of syndication sites available to the public, and create helpful and exciting paths for people?

One way is to use the idea of discovery. Discovery as defined here means deliberately creating environments where your users find things they didn’t expect to see. It’s a way of going not only beyond search, but also a way to go beyond selling. Most importantly, it keeps people engaged with you and your content in a meaningful way. The unexpected search result or experience in a sea of noise, that creates real value related to what the user was originally looking for, can be a very powerful place to position your services.

Think of it in terms of something we’re all familiar with, a trip to the grocery store. Even when we have a list, we often end up buying something we want to try, had never thought of, or just something that appeals to us. These unplanned purchases are at the root of discovery – finding things that are of immediate use to you around the existing search experience. For a grocery store it might be promotional in nature – an offer on the end of the aisle for example. Or it could be that new flavor of spaghetti sauce next to the one you usually buy that would make for a little better tasting dinner tonight. Or to take a digital example, how many times have you searched for something with Google but clicked on something unrelated in the search results?

When you deliberately create these experiences, you deepen and broaden the user’s search, and involve them in a more engaged way with the OTHER things you do outside of just adding listings into databases. It begins to have your online marketing solve real-world problems that clients have. Discovery is much more powerful than just search because it enables the user to feel as if they have determined their own path through search, themselves. It takes them out of search and into something more meaningful and long-lasting.

Foursquare are using this idea in their location-based mobile apps. When you look for venues to check-in around where you are, you can use the ‘Explore’ tab to enter into an area of the app that has what they refer to as ‘guided discovery’ in it. What this means is that you’ll get surrounding venues presented to you that your friends have visited, are popular with other locals, or that you’ve never visited before. It’s a fantastic way to go somewhere new and try something different. You can even filter it by the type of venue you’d like to visit – the type of food you like for example. Their vast inventory of user-generated tips is the content that ultimately describes what those experiences are going to be like prior to actually going there. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a powerful form of suggestion-based marketing that often leads to some amazing recommendations.

They are also exploring the idea of serendipitous discovery, whereby you can discover things through what your friends are doing right now. The notion that what a nearby friend is doing can help you visit somewhere new (or even just knowing that they were nearby), and can allow for all sorts of unexpected experiences to transpire. Many digital coupons are starting to work this way, by trying to bring in not only you, but also your nearby friends into a venue in order to redeem the coupon. For example, bring 5 of your friends to a bar and all check in, and you all get a free drink. It’s exciting, and never been done this way before.

So how does this translate to the real estate industry? The idea of helping people discover new experiences around neighborhoods is a familiar one to real estate professionals, with the agent often being the conduit for the guided discovery of an area. Think of this as what happens with clients before and immediately after they’ve been looking at homes with an agent – they explore the area a little themselves. Working in this space is a way to pre-empt their questions, and provide an amazing, helpful service. I’ve heard of agents who give their clients (however undecided they may be) a coupon to a local restaurant to have dinner after their day of home tours. I think this is a fantastic thing to do and translating that customer service online would be exciting.

What you choose to present as part of the search experience, especially if it’s unexpected, can be a very powerful way to translate what happens in the real world to the digital one.

Many real estate sites position themselves as providing deep-level neighborhood information, when really they’re presenting a database of local amenities and stores on a map next to listing search results. This is neither discovery nor insight. It’s boring. What they’re missing is a point of view. Often this is referred to as curation.

Anyone can serve up a feed of local stores and present it as a way of understanding a neighborhood. It’s not. I argue that this doesn’t give a sense of really what it feels like to live there. When I go to the restaurant near where I’m going to live, what should I order there? What are other people saying about it? Have my friends ever been there? ‘What’s near here’ on a map is no longer enough. It’s the particular voice of (in our case) the agent, that’s missing from these kinds of online experiences. What if this was part of the digital real estate search experience? It certainly is offline, and often answered by an agent accurately fielding questions from clients.

Rich, unexpected content around the search experience deepens not only the user’s understanding of a neighborhood, but also helps them to familiarize themselves with what it’s actually going to be like to live there. Market statistics and data do not do this. Of course they can strongly inform a purchase decision, but they provide no insight into what it will be to live in that home. Great if you’re an investor, but most homeowners aren’t though.

What do I mean by ‘unexpected’? Let’s take a simple use case. It’s Sunday, and someone is looking on their phone for open houses near where they physically are right now. The phone recognizes that this user has performed numerous searches of this nature in recent weeks. In addition to the search results, what if an offer came up for a free appetizer at the new hip bar you’ve never been to 3 blocks away but only after you’d visited one of the open houses? You’d be much more likely to visit that open house, and it incentivizes you to take action. Foursquare users know this all too well. Their badges model is often criticized as being frivolous, but make no mistake that it’s highly effective at driving people to new locations and to do things in places they’ve never been before. Creating incentives around locations is a powerful way to get someone to visit. For anyone unconvinced about this, I refer you to the recent Groupon IPO.

Alternately, what if inside those same search results there was a vast video archive of things to do in the immediate area from people that had lived there for a long time? True local insight, while always in the head of the agent, is even more powerful if it actually comes from local people themselves, and blending this experience with real estate search would be a very powerful product offering. Mobile is a perfect way to leverage this kind of content because it puts the discovery experience into people’s hands not only in the right place, but at the right time. As Foursquare know only too well, discovery creates loyalty, and if you can sustain loyalty with your customers, you solidify your competitive advantage.

Creating unexpected search experiences for your users will allow them to discover and unlock new things about you, your market, your services and the area they’re looking to move to in a new, fresh and exciting way. They’ll spend more time with you if you facilitate this for them. Taking what Foursquare is doing with restaurants, bars and stores and applying the same idea to how people discover neighborhoods through the lens of agent experience, I believe is something we’ll see a lot more of in mobile real estate in the future.

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