Mobile real estate trends in 2012
Experts debate native applications vs. Web-based apps
By Andrea V. Brambila
NEW YORK -- Given the ever-increasing adoption of smartphones and other mobile devices, real estate agents and brokers will need to consider their mobile strategy for 2012, according to speakers at Real Estate Connect in New York City last week.
Higher conversion on mobile
There is increasing evidence that consumers are more likely to call or email an agent about a listing from a mobile device than from a laptop or desktop computer, speakers said.
For example, among visitors to Realtor.com, the National Association of REALTORS®' official property search portal operated by Move Inc., Apple iPad users and iPhone users, respectively, are 160 percent and 300 percent more likely to contact an agent than users of desktop or laptop users, according to Realtor.com President Errol Samuelson.
Though desktop users continue to dwarf mobile users in terms of raw numbers, the share of mobile users is rising, constituting between 25 and 45 percent of Realtor.com's traffic during weekends, for instance. For that reason, accuracy, appearance and response times should all be considerations, according to Samuelson.
The accuracy of listings information is "key," he said, because "mobile is where reality meets what's in your database."
Addressing appearance and user experience in general, Samuelson announced that Realtor.com will be rolling out free mobile-optimized single-property listings sites for real estate professionals around the end of the month.
Top Producer, a sister company to Realtor.com under parent Move Inc., released a customer relationship management system Web-based application that runs on HTML5 in November.
It can work on virtually any device, including laptops, smartphones and tablets. Leads from the CRM go to an agent's mobile device, and leads include a countdown clock for how long a lead has been in the system, and tips such as "You have a 72 percent chance of closing this lead if you get back to it within an hour."
Native apps vs. responsive design
Move's decision to make its Top Producer CRM an HTML5 Web app, instead of an app that runs exclusively on a certain platform, such as iPhone or Android, may be a sign of an industry trend.
"I do see there is a transition from the native app on these mobile devices to a Web app. You're going to see a lot of these Web applications that are going to rival the native apps," said Justin La Joie, vice president of industry solutions at Zillow and Diverse Solutions.
In addition to several native apps, Zillow has a mobile website and Diverse Solutions offers a Web-based mobile IDX search.
"The Zillows, the Realtor.coms, the Trulias, the franchises -- they're going to get the downloads," La Joie said, adding that a Web app accessed through a browser might be a better choice for small brokers.
Mark Lesswing, NAR's senior vice president and chief technology officer, announced that Realtor.org will launch in beta later this month with an HTML5-based responsive design. Responsive design allows a website to automatically adjust to the screen size of whatever device a site visitor is using so that the site looks the same across devices.
"What you can do now with the HTML5 platform is really exciting," Lesswing said.
He added that developing separate native applications for smartphones and tablets that run on the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry platforms, among others, can be both expensive and time-consuming for a company.
"(There are) multiple platforms to develop for, and after you finish that wave, invariably you go back to the beginning and keep redeveloping and redeveloping," Lesswing said.
For those considering developing a native app, he pointed to the potential cost.
"An app, by itself, would cost between $9,000-$14,000. It would cost less to do responsive design," he said.
Speakers on a session titled "Developing Your Brokerage's Mobile Strategy" also debated the merits of native vs. Web-based applications.
"We thought about just building a mobile Web application rather than native apps, (but) there were native features we wanted to take advantage of," said Jamie Wilson, vice president of technology at ZipRealty, which has both iPhone and Android apps.
"HTML5 is becoming more robust ... but we don't see not developing (native) mobile apps for the foreseeable future."
He added that millennials, in particular, are fond of native apps.
"They don't even start on the Web. They'll start with an app. They're a very sophisticated user. They have a high expectation level for user experience, so you have to nail that piece," Wilson said.
"You should want to put something out there that's really quality, otherwise it may be a wasted effort," he added.
Not taking advantage of a device's native features may actually alienate consumers, said John Lim, president and CEO of mobile technology and marketing company Mobile Card Cast.
While a Web-based app could be "just fine" on an iPad, for example, "you're insulting me by not giving me an experience that I paid so much money for," he said.
Moreover, "'just fine' is not how you build your brokerage," he added.
"Look at analytics. Where is your traffic from: iPhone or Android?" he said.
Nevertheless, Lim said brokers should fix how their websites appear on mobile devices first.
"There's nothing wrong with having a mobile application, but if you don't have a mobile site, all those business cards you hand out with a URL on them are garbage," he said.
"From a vendor standpoint, prices have significantly dropped" to between $50 and $100 a month (for costs related to a mobile site), Lim added.
Regardless of whether a broker chooses a mobile app or a mobile site, panelists agreed that consumers want a smooth, converged transition between a desktop and a mobile device.
"Our approach is that the Internet is the Internet, but it's the devices that are different," Lim said.
"(When sending an email), you don't know what device I'm on. I should experience it the same on my website as on my mobile device. (Brokers) have to make sure it's all the same throughout devices."
In terms of content, mobile efforts should focus on property search in particular, panelists said.
"The first thing is search. Google created an 'I-want-it-now' society with search," Lim said.
Build vs. buy
Some brokerages grapple with the question of whether to build a particular type of technology in-house or buy it from a vendor.
"First, figure out what you want," said Cary Sylvester, executive director of technology at Keller Williams Realty, in a Thursday panel titled "Build vs. Buy."
If brokers don't know what they want, they may succumb to what Sylvester called "shiny widget syndrome" and end up with something beautiful, but that won't solve the core problem they were trying to address, she said.
Once brokers identify their objectives, they should ask themselves what resources they'll need, whether they have them in-house, if there are partners they can work with, and the cost to both develop and maintain the product, Sylvester said.
Michael Montsko, fellow panelist and president of Weichert Lead Network, said he also considers whether a product will give his company a competitive advantage.
"If (so), I consider building it in-house," he said.
"We look at different features and ask which ones are going to make us the most money," he added.
Smaller brokers, however, should consider partnering with vendors, he said. The Weichert Lead Network, a real estate lead generation company, employs more than 100 people, more than 20 of whom are developers.
The company was founded in 2002 and built much of its platform in-house, though it also bought some components, Montsko said.
"The reason we build a lot is that we've spent nine years measuring lead incubation programs," he said -- information the company is loathe to give a vendor for fear that vendor will share it with competitors.
He acknowledged that partnering can mean a quicker implementation of a certain technology, but also cautioned that a company could end up having to routinely charge its members for it rather than making it free.
He pointed to Keller Williams Realty's eEdge platform, which the franchiser developed with Market Leader and DotLoop. Agents are required to pay a monthly fee for use of the system.
Most brokerages aren't technology companies, and therefore should buy rather than build, said Alex Lange, a fellow panelist who serves as Market Leader's chief technology officer.
"My personal view is that if you're not in the software business," software shouldn't be the focus of your company, Lange said. Brokerages should focus on managing their agents and selling homes, not talking to developers, he said.
"Technology is a means to an end, and technology needs to be as quietly efficient as possible," Lange said.
Sylvester said Keller Williams sent out requests for proposals to find partners for its eEdge platform and was "flooded with 30 to 40 different options" -- a position any company wants to be in, she said.
From there, Keller Williams rated each vendor by how well its product matched the core features the franchiser was looking for, references from other companies, additional features, and cost, she said.
"For maintenance (of any product), I would allocate about 20 percent of what it took to build it" per year, Sylvester said, adding that if a company planned to continuously update and add new features, the product would cost about the same annually as it did to build.