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The hottest housing market: Information

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Michelle Singletary:

In the real estate world, there was one word that used to be the cardinal rule: location, location, location.

Just about anybody -- the informed and uninformed -- could buy a house in a good location and easily make money by flipping, selling or refinancing the home, sometimes after just a short ownership.

That was then, before the Great Recession.

This is now, and the new cardinal rule of real estate is information, information, information.

"For decades, the real estate industry has operated under the principle that the less information buyers and sellers have, the better it is for agents, lenders, title companies, and all the other folks who eat from the trough," writes Ilyce Glink in "Buy, Close, Move In: How to Navigate the New World of Real Estate -- Safely and Profitably -- and End Up with the Home of Your Dreams." "But the real estate tide seems to be turning, as the housing and credit crises of 2008 have heightened awareness in Washington, D.C., and on Wall Street about the catastrophic consequences of a closed information loop."

I have no doubt that many professionals in the real estate industry will take great exception to Glink's observation. But the evidence is on her side. We ended up in one of the worst housing market collapses because far too many borrowers were uninformed, ill-prepared and overly optimistic about potential gain because of bad information they received and gladly embraced.

Why focus groups tell you the obvious

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Luke Johnson:

Irecently commissioned some market research and, as is too often the case, it told me what I already knew or was obvious. I paid the bill of several tens of thousands of pounds, consoling myself with the fact that the work at least confirmed my prejudices - always a satisfying sensation. But I also sensed I had received very poor value; and in talking to other clients of research companies, I realise quite a few feel the same way.

As Michael Skapinker wrote on Tuesday, the idea that the customer is always right has become an accepted truth in business. Unfortunately, customer desires are often wholly unrealistic - because of cost, technology or legislation. As Henry Ford said at the launch of the Model T: "If I'd asked the customer, he'd have asked for a faster horse."

I remember Peter Boizot, founder of PizzaExpress and my predecessor as chairman, telling me how, in 1965, customers in his Soho pizzeria felt uncomfortable with authentic Italian pizza - and demanded chips. But he stuck to his vision and guided their tastes to the genuine product.

First: happy new year and best wishes for a healthy and prosperous 2010!

Second: 2010 change and opportunity.

I have been traveling extensively the past few weeks. It is always interesting and useful to observe people, their activities and gadgets.

Hands down, iPhone and iPod Touch devices dominated aircraft, airport and holiday scenes. I did see a few blackberries (one family had a company blackberry and several iPhones) and one Droid.

The recent smartphone explosion along with the introduction of useful "tablet" or "slate" devices will continue to change the way in which people use, create and interact with real estate information.

Most importantly, it will change their expectations......

What does this mean for brokers and agents?

## A) Mobile

The "killer app" - from a VP customer - for real estate buyers, sellers and professionals.

www.virtualproperties.com/iphone/

Our second major release in 9 months, your branded iPhone app provides essential website functions in a faster, easier to use application. Always on, this "app" can be accessed at home, work, on the go, while working out, dining, traveling - anywhere.

Our software makes sure the app is up to date with the latest property information and technology. It includes property comparison tools and unlimited use mapping services. Stop paying for maps on a per click basis.

Your organization must be in this space.

There will be competing devices, though it is not yet clear who will successfully challenge the iPhone infrastructure.

## B) "Tablet or Slate" computing and real estate

There has been no shortage of hype recently about these new devices. From my perspective, the real change will be to traditional laptop formats. Physical keyboards will certainly be available for some time, but, virtual keyboards (via touchscreens with "multi-touch" gestures) will take over the volume portable device space.

Many real estate firms have published traditional magazines, as a marketing and advertising vehicle.

This conceptual video, by Bonner Mag+ neatly summarizes digital magazine possibilities with emerging devices:

http://www.bonnier.com/en/content/digital-magazines-bonnier-mag-prototype

The video reinforces the benefits of high quality, well organized information. Our Main Street single entry cloud software generates timely media and text content for many publications in different formats, including html and pdf. Our clients do not need to add yet another vendor and platform to support these emerging applications.

www.virtualproperties.com/rt/ms.html

## C) Your Website

The iPhone app explosion is changing buyer and seller information convenience and access expectations. Does your website address these changing customer desires?

Accelerate your website with our Main Street cloud software's new customer portal tools. From lead generation to transactions and customer for life, Main Street manages your world in real time.

One vendor.

Virtual Properties is your trusted technology team - since 1995. Do you have the right people, platform and technology partner for 2010 and beyond?



Morgan Stanley's Latest: The Mobile Internet Report:

Our global technology and telecom analysts set out to do a deep dive into the rapidly changing mobile Internet market. We wanted to create a data-rich, theme-based framework for thinking about how the market may develop. We intend to expand and edit the framework as the market evolves. A lot has changed since we published "The Internet Report" in 1995 on the web.

We decided to create The Mobile Internet Report largely in PowerPoint and publish it on the web, expecting that bits and pieces of it will be cut / pasted / redistributed and debated / dismissed / lauded. Our goal is to get our thoughts and data into the conversation about what may be the biggest technology trend ever, one that may help make us all more informed in ways that are unique to the web circa 2009, and beyond.

Our key takeaways are:

Material wealth creation / destruction should surpass earlier computing cycles. The mobile Internet cycle, the 5th cycle in 50 years, is just starting. Winners in each cycle often create more market capitalization than in the last. New winners emerge, some incumbents survive - or thrive - while many past winners falter.

The mobile Internet is ramping faster than desktop Internet did, and we believe more users may connect to the Internet via mobile devices than desktop PCs within 5 years.

Five IP-based products / services are growing / converging and providing the underpinnings for dramatic growth in mobile Internet usage - 3G adoption + social networking + video + VoIP + impressive mobile devices.

Apple + Facebook platforms serving to raise the bar for how users connect / communicate - their respective ramps in user and developer engagement may be unprecedented.

and, via Fortune:

"Apple has a two or three-year lead" according to Katy Huberty, thanks to an installed base of 57 million handsets, 100,000 apps and 200 million iTunes subscribers with credit card numbers on file. (She will keep her eye, however, on Samsung, Nokia (NOK) and Google's (GOOG) Android.)

But much of the presentation was spent showing, in slides culled from research over the past two and a half years, that the iPhone is not like previous mobile devices, and its owners not like ordinary cell phone users.

For example, although iPhone and iPod touch owners represent only 17% of the global smartphone installed base, they account for 65% of the world's mobile Web browsing and 50% of its mobile app usage (see chart below).

Key Virtual Properties assets to help you take advantage of the mobile explosion:

2010, The Year of Enterprise, Integrated CRM?

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Robert Hahn muses on several topics in a recent post, including the possibility that 2010 may (finally) be the year of enterprise, integrated CRM*.

Now completing our 13th year of creating, supporting, implementing and improving our Main Street enterprise CRM [video] cloud software: from leads to closing and beyond, I thought it time to pass along a few decisive observations that separate the pretenders from those who sit forward in their chair and drive change.

First, any investment will only be successful if the organization has
  • strong, consistent leadership,
  • implementation and training staff who are interested in the business and know it from the agent, broker and consumer perspective (and are not interested in simply playing with technology to no avail) and, lastly,
  • the right technology team.
In that order!!!



Main Street was designed from day one as a cloud computing, enterprise CRM platform for brokers and agents. From lead generation, lead management, agent and broker tools and analytics, marketing assets, VOW, websites, forms, closings/transactions and everything in between, Main Street provides a single entry platform to build your business, today and tomorrow.
Step one begins with a conversation to understand your business strategy and see if this proven technology can support those goals.

Lastly, "build to flip/sell/spin" is one of the many reasons brokerage technology is often an oxymoron. Too many technology schemes are simply built to spin/sell, rather than to solve real business problems. Virtual Properties is a family owned firm established in 1995.

If indeed, 2010 is the year of enterprise, integrated CRM, let's talk: (608) 271-9601 or zellmer@virtualproperties.com.

* CRM = "Customer Relationship Management". A system that allows you to manage and interact with all aspects of your customer relationships from leads to marketing/farming, CMA, reports, forms, transactions and concierge.

The Profit and Peril of Mashups

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What is a "mashup"? According to this wikipedia entry, "In web development, a mashup is a web page or application that combines data or functionality from two or more external sources to create a new service."

Real estate brokers and agents may wish to take advantage of "free" internet api's (application programming interface). Websites such as flickr, facebook, youtube, yelp and many others offer programatic interfaces to their data and media.

What are the benefits of such API's?

  • Aggregate local information around properties for sale or rent.
  • Enhance your website "experience".
  • Avoid the cost of collecting and managing local information.
What are the costs and risks of using such API's?
  • Bad data. Automated information aggregators often lack local expertise. Information may be outdated; a long closed restaurant may still have a review on your website.
  • Inappropriate content. I created a Facebook demonstration for a client some time ago. The resulting page included an advertisement for Filipino Girls.
  • What motivates the data aggregator? Is their strategy aligned with yours?
  • Does the data make your site more generic?
  • Competitive stealth advertising on your site. Savvy competitors will figure this out and place their content on your site via the API's.
What are the alternatives to "mashups"?

Your agents have a wealth of local market knowledge. Hire or appoint a "blog-o-spondent" or "blogger-in-chief". This person creates and aggregates your own content (text, audio, video, maps) on your blog, around your website(s) and via appropriate social networks. Over time, agents and staff post directly and incorporate your listings, services and our unlimited use maps (for a fixed price). Create your own platform that emphasizes your brand. This approach improves recruiting, retention and internet marketing in ways that you control and at a much lower cost than traditional advertising.

Main Street reliably supports the tools you need, from blogs, dynamic short links, lead management, surveys and multimedia to market reports and live charting tools.

As always, there is no "free lunch".

Improving customer service in a downturn

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McKinsey:

Consumer-facing businesses whose revenues are now under pressure may find themselves having to compromise on customer service--for example, by reducing their hours of operation or the number of service workers they employ. Not surprisingly, McKinsey research shows that customer satisfaction scores are falling in some industries. Yet most executives think that reducing service levels is a mistake. How can a business maintain them while reining in costs? Our review of the companies with the best customer service records in ten industries shows the wisdom of challenging long-held but seldom-reviewed beliefs about service and testing them analytically. Very often, they turn out to be wrong.

Seth Godin urges real estate agents to do just that, actually - the electronic kind, in a recent blog post:

Assume you've got six people in your office. Each person is responsible to do two things each day:
  • Interview a local business, a local student or a local political activist. You can do it by phone, it can be very short and it might take you ten minutes.
  • Get 20 households to 'subscribe' by giving you their email address and asking for a free subscription. You can use direct contact or flyers or speeches to get your list.
Godin's real point is that now is an excellent time to step into the local information void.

A combination of an easy to use, informative blog, a fast and deep website with maps and a periodic enewsletter is a powerful way to improve your "Broker Value Equation" [PDF].

Note that THIS approach benefits your brand (think lead generation and recruiting/retention), rather than investing time and money in generic MLS or third party services.

Main Street includes blogs, eCards, eNewsletters, weblead management, online surveys, CRM and much more.

Virtual Properties has more than five year's experience publishing influential local blogs. Let's talk. 877 901 9601 and ask for Jim.

Brokerages are spending more time and in some cases money on their websites. What features and factors are critical to your brand and value equation to agents, sellers and buyers?

Pew recently published an interesting look at the 50 US State election websites. This report raises a number of interesting issues, including:

  • Website usability (don't cobble things together from disparate systems),

  • The enormous potential cost savings when information is accurate, timely and easily discovered,

  • 2 minutes: "On average, people spend two minutes on a website before they abandon the search for information". Consider this fact as you evaluate your home page, agent tools and the engine behind them,

  • and, seven criteria for evaluating the usability of state elections websites:

    1. Web Presence:
      How easily can users find the official state elections Web site when conducting standard Web searches for key phrases related to voting? Can they find the elections Web site from the state's main Web site?
    2. Navigation Information Architecture:
      Is it easy to navigate to key topics? Can users easily tell where they are Information within the site if accessing a deep link from a search engine? Are links Architecture named intuitively? Is the site organized in a user-centered manner?
    3. Content:
      Is the content understandable to users? Is it easy to scan and find the right information? Is information made available in HTML versus PDFs?
    4. Homepage:
      Is the homepage organized such that users can tell which information is intended for them? Are important links placed and presented so they will be noticed? Is the homepage easy to scan?
    5. Accessibility:
      Can users with disabilities (severe or mild) utilize the site effectively?
    6. Search:
      Is there an open search field available on each page of the site? Do search results
      seem appropriate? Are result titles/content understandable?
    7. Site Tools:
      Are tools for looking up registration, finding a poll location, etc. intuitive and efficient?
These are useful questions to consider for any website initiative.

Take a quick survey of US Broker websites using our sortable list (click the column description to resort by Name, City, State, Zip Code or Website).

Pew Trusts:

Americans are increasingly incorporating the Internet into their daily lives. Today, it's an easy way to look for directions, purchase gifts or household necessities, get a movie or book review or search for information about a presidential candidate. For many companies like Marriott, Progressive, Best Buy or Toyota, a first-class Web site is part of their core strategy and the site's usability sometimes makes the difference between success and failure. Businesses realize that their customers rely on Web sites to help them not only purchase goods, but also to gather information--comparing products and prices--that can help consumers make better decisions.

In this report, Make Voting Work (MVW) examined the state elections Web sites in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to determine whether citizens can find the official election information they need to register to vote, check their registration status and locate their polling places. More importantly, MVW measured if potential voters can use the information on state elections Web sites and if it helps them. We found that every state has room for improvement. However, states can still take steps to help voters; as the election approaches, many states have updated their Web sites and developed tools to help voters this November.

A key point: However, usability research suggests that additions and improvements should be incorporated within a unified Web site rather than spread across different URLs or separate windows. As state elections Web sites update their information and tools, they should aim for consistency in the navigation and information architecture of their sites.

Most broker websites include a variety of systems and interfaces, counterintuitive to good usability.

Website Survey Tools

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Century 21 has added a survey tool to their franchise website, according to MarketWatch.

Main Street includes a rules engine that automatically applies followup/feedback plans based on survey/feedback results. All activity is stored in Main Street's contact/webleads system, which means you have a complete picture of customer activity, rather than disperse data silos.

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