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Trulia acquires Market Leader: more ways to squeeze agents

Trulia makes a $355 million acquisition, and there is much chatter about the implications of this big buy. Below, one broker opines on the topic of how this impacts the real estate industry.

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Trulia makes substantial acquisition

Zillow announced its record-breaking first quarter results yesterday, and at 5 a.m. this morning, Trulia’s announcement, the planned acquisition of Market Leader (which owns ActiveRain) relegated Zillow’s news to “What, did they say something?” in agent circles. Before most of the Left Coast was even awake, real estate agents east of the Mississippi were commenting on Facebook groups and Active Rain’s blog platform about what this could mean for them — agents — and their future relationship with T and AR.

Online comments from the real estate community ranged from “who cares?” to “the sky is falling” to “they’ve sold us out.” Let’s break this news down into digestible pieces and I’ll give you my own (always opinionated, biased towards me-the-Broker) take on what this means to the real estate community.

First, let’s address the ActiveRainers

To those who are tearing at their clothes and opining the “sell out” of a beloved agent blogging platform to the “corporate raiders” — here’s a reality check: ActiveRain is a business. Sure it was started by a handful of computer geeks who developed an idea (hey, let’s get agents blogging online, talking to each other and members of their community, then we’ll leverage that into business for them), sold the idea to the masses, then sat back and watched it take off into a community of its own. As it got bigger and more successful, original founders dropped off to go on to bigger and better things.

Entrepreneurship is about thinking up an idea, selling it to users, and then many entrepreneurs sell the entire company and move on to the next idea. That’s how business works. So the argument that AR is selling users out isn’t valid from a purely business standpoint.

Where the “sell out” argument comes from is the fact that many AR users have been blogging on the platform since 2006-2009. The early adopters built a close knit community of agents (and other real estate professionals) who got to know each other and helped each other, especially through the latest downturn. Back in 2007 when I joined (the same year I opened my own brokerage), it was more an agent-to-agent platform. I found a group of like-minded professionals around the country to bounce ideas off, celebrate successes with, and drink a virtual glass of wine with at the end of a long day.

Thousands of agents built their blogging careers with ActiveRain. We learned about SEO, how to get our posts/blogs to rise up through the search engines, and dominate our local area. Hyperlocalism blogging was taught for years at AR and many agents became top producers thanks to learning how to make their blogs rank — and be read — by consumers. The theory is that by being a curator of local knowledge (not just real estate) consumers will be drawn to our sites, and by extension, we will be the go-to name when a local reader needs our services. I have sold millions of dollars worth of real esate by blogging using this technique and it works. What will happen to the great SEO that agents have built with their AR blogs? When Trulia takes over will that someone hurt our SEO and all the Google juice we’ve built up in our hyperlocal blogging efforts? Of course it will.

Now, let’s talk about Market Leader

When Market Leader entered the picture the same “sell out” cries rallied, and in the past 18 months not a heck of a lot has changed there. With the exception of a few more sales calls (which we always got from vendors) I haven’t noticed too many changes. But here’s the difference: ML was more of a software company (selling back end CRM services and trying to generate/sell leads to agents) than a consumer-facing portal. Despite their best efforts at making a consumer facing site work (RealEstate.com, acquired by Market Leader), I don’t see that’s been a huge success.

That’s where Trulia can be a game changer. As much as AR and ML are agent-focused, Trulia (and Zillow and Realtor.com) are consumer-facing sites. The bulk of their effort over the past few years has been to lure the consumer in to use their site to search for properties/find an agent. The sites are packed with “how to buy” and “how to sell” advice, listings for sale and (recently added) rent.

Here’s where I see the backlash.

These companies take the listings that agents work their tails off to get and re-sell us the very leads that our own listings generate. The sites make money by selling premium advertising to brokers/agents. While they’re courting the consumer on one hand (hey come look at all the houses for sale) they’re courting the agents/brokers out of the other side of their mouths (hey give us your money and we’ll deliver the buyers/sellers to you). They take the fruits of our labor (our listings), display them on their sites, and then charge us to find out who is interested in our inventory. See the irony? It makes me feel dirty just to admit I pay for this whorish advertising.

Not only do they make us pay for leads our inventory generates but these same sites generate “leads” with false data. How many calls do you get for “listings” that were sold six months ago or are not even on the market yet (pre-foreclosures flagged by RealtyTrac)? And my newest gripe is Trulia’s brilliant “recently sold” lead. In this one, I get an email from a consumer who wants information on a recently sold house. The theory is that maybe this lead is a neighbor thinking of selling. So if I email back the sold data maybe I’ll get a new listing.

Except in the trenches it’s not working that way. Buyers are emailing on the house, not understanding it’s sold, and they want an appointment, or wonder why it’s online if it’s not really for sale (since if it’s on the internet it must be true). Telling them it’s not for sale (such as a pre-foreclosure or a recently sold) just annoys the consumer. That’s not a “lead” — it’s a consumer who thinks I am wrong and the internet must be right. It takes up my time to convince Joe Buyer that the house really really is sold and no I cannot show it to him.

But I digress.

Agents know how bad the data can be on the aggregator sites (which is what T and Z are). T/Z argue back: garbage in/garbage out. Meaning, agents get your act together and update that data so it’s correct! Mark those houses sold, enter your status updates promptly and make sure the feed coming in is correct.

As of May 8th, my firm of 6 agents has 85 listings. Perhaps I should hire someone to check the various aggregator sites every day. Or I could cut the feed out completely. That’s the battle cry of some brave brokers who have gone that route. No feed to T/Z, then the consumer must come to our site to find the data! If you are a huge brokerage in control of the bulk of the market, that could work.

But we won’t stop the consumers from seeking out and using T/Z and their nifty little apps (and Realtor.com which in my area seems to be barely used). I ask every buyer who calls into the office who I get to speak to, every buyer I see at a closing table or in person, “Where did you find this property?” The majority are using T/Z and so if the consumer is there, we need to make sure our listings are in front of that consumer. Removing our sellers from the feed reduces their exposure and may harm their chance of sale.

What major platforms have been lacking

But what the major platforms have been lacking is agent-to-agent interaction. That is where Market Leader and ActiveRain come into play.

With ML’s back-office CRM software (already used by some firms such as Keller Williams) and the agent-centric blogging, Trulia made a brilliant play to rope the agents into their platform. I don’t question their business acumen. So why did I want to throw up this morning when I read the news release? Because instead of seeing it as a “yeah we have the whole enchilada now, in one cool place” my gut reaction was “Great, I’ll be held hostage here.” Keep reading for why I feel trapped.

Why agents feel trapped

I pay for TruliaPro status (and Zillow Premier agent as well). Up to three months ago I also paid for a half dozen zip codes in my area for my firm to dominate Trulia in my little world. I spent thousands of dollars in 2012 on Trulia upgrades. In doing the taxes I calculated the ROI on those zip codes and decided to adjust the ads. I wanted to test a few new ones and dial back a few old ones. Easy enough. For years I’ve been doing this all by myself with no “advisor” needed. Add a few cities, subtract a few. Analyze results in three months. Adjust. Except in February I realized my sliders (that control ad percentage of market purchased) were gone. I could not dial back any of my zip codes or adjust.

Trulia took away the sliders/ability to control my own ads, and didn’t even tell their tech support apparently. I had to send a screen shot of what I was seeing to my rep for him to even understand what was going on. Then he promised to call me back when he figured it out. When he did (several days later) he explained that the Powers That Be at T decided only sales reps could change/adjust our ads now as we might “screw it up” and make bad changes. Oh. That explains it. But it was too late. I had already called in, gotten a different rep, and tried to talk through the changes I wanted. The new quote was jaw dropping. The rep explained it would be much easier (and cheaper) to just stick with my old ad plan rather than play with percentages and buy/change zip codes. In reply I cancelled all my advertising.

This control-freak approach also extends to the leads they send me (the ones I pay for). The email I get anonymizes the lead’s email and replaces it with a Trulia-centered email. To get the real email I must log into T’s portal, hit reply to the lead, and then I can see the true email. It’s an extra step, which matters to me because I use a third party portal to consolodate all my leads. So when the portal gets this junky email, I still have to waste time by logging into the T website, copy/paste real email, log into my CRM portal, and replace bad email with real one. Time suck. T say it is to protect the consumer’s data. Really? I think it’s so you control one more aspect of the lead-to-agent flow and it messes with my system.

As a broker and an agent, I don’t like it

I have no problem with the T/ML/AR partnership from a business standpoint. I get it. But as an agent, I don’t like it. It’s just one more blow in the fight to the top of the search engines for these two companies. And while T and Z are duking it out for Top Dog status, it’s the agents who are in the middle getting squeezed.

Erica Ramus is the Broker/Owner of Ramus Realty Group in Pottsville, PA. She also teaches real estate licensing courses at Penn State Schuylkill and is extremely active in her community, especially the Rotary Club of Pottsville and the Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce. Her background is writing, marketing and publishing, and she is the founder of Schuylkill Living Magazine, the area's regional publication. She lives near Pottsville with her husband and two teenage sons, and an occasional exchange student passing thru who needs a place to stay.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Missy Caulk

    May 8, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Excellent perspective, Erica!

  2. Carla E. Muss-Jacobs

    May 8, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    I agree with, and appreciate the post Erica. I get consumer calls all the time and have to explain why the listing isn’t for sale, etc. Consumers do not understand IDX and third party aggregation sites. If the home owner knew how rich and fat they made these third party sites off their listed homes for sale, they would be appalled — talk about feeling like a cheap, dirty whore. All listed property is pimped out by these sites, most agents, let alone consumers, have a clue how they are being used. Anyway . . . I do not agree with this comment: “The majority are using T/Z and so if the consumer is there, we need to make sure our listings are in front of that consumer. Removing our sellers from the feed reduces their exposure and may harm their chance of sale.” Really?!? The exposure has been and always will be MLS. Brokerages that remove their listings from third-party aggregators aren’t affected. Their listings get sold, their clients’ property doesn’t get pimped.

  3. Paceride

    May 9, 2013 at 8:46 am

    I agree 100%. I would add that the reason there is an MLS (other than to indicate cobroking) is so that the data is correct. If I have to check umpty – million websites to make sure my “sold” houses are not there, I’m wasting a whole lot of my time. I’m also wasting a whole lot of my time by checking Z and T’s sites to “claim” my listings, to see if the PHOTOS have come through the feed, or any other TIME WASTING MAINTENANCE I have to do on my own listings.

    On the matter of the public wanting answers right away — TOUGH. I don’t expect Joe to tell me where what aisle the dog food is in at 3AM, Joe can wait till a decent hour to find out what the taxes are on 123 Main Street.

    Consumers think a pre foreclosure “listed” on Trulia by RealtyTrac is for sale and don’t believe us when we say it isn’t? TOUGH. So Joe, email 5 or 6 other agents and they’ll tell you the same thing. What do the public think? That we don’t want to sell houses?

  4. Nathan Froelich

    May 14, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Thank you Erica to take the time to share your insight. It’s refreshing to hear this perspective from a practicing agent who is actively subscribing to some of these services. Your statement, “These companies take the listings that agents work their tails off to get and re-sell us the very leads that our own listings generate” was well put.

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Opinion Editorials

Job listings are popping up left and right, so what exactly *is* UX writing?

(EDITORIAL) While UX writing is not technically new, it is seemingly becoming more and more prevalent. The job titles are everywhere, so what is it?

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UX writing

The work of a UX writer is something you come across every day. Whether you’re hailing an Uber or browsing Spotify for that one Drake song, your overall user experience is affected by the words you read at each touchpoint.

A UX writer facilitates a smooth interaction between user and product at each of these touchpoints through carefully chosen words.

Some of the most common touchpoints these writers work on are interface copy, emails, and notifications. It doesn’t sound like the most thrilling stuff, but imagine using your favorite apps without all the thoughtful confirmation messages we take for granted. Take Eat24’s food delivery app, instead of a boring loading visual, users get a witty message like “smoking salmon” or “slurping noodles.”

Eat24’s app has UX writing that works because it’s engaging.

Xfinity’s mobile app provides a pleasant user experience by being intuitive. Shows that are available on your phone are clearly labeled under “Available Out of Home.” I’m bummed that Law & Order: SVU isn’t available, but thanks to thoughtful UX writing at least I knew that sad fact ahead of time.

Regardless of where you find these writer’s work, there are three traits an effective UX writer must-have. Excellent communication skills are a must. The ability to empathize with the user is on almost every job post. But from my own experience working with UX teams, I’d argue for the ability to advocate as the most important skill.

UX writers may have a very specialized mission, but they typically work within a greater user experience design team. In larger companies, some UX writers even work with a smaller team of fellow writers. Decisions aren’t made in isolation. You can be the wittiest writer, with a design decision based on obsessive user research, but if you can’t advocate for those decisions then what’s the point?

I mentioned several soft skills, but that doesn’t mean aspiring UX writers can’t benefit from developing a few specific tech skills. While the field doesn’t require a background in web development, UX writers often collaborate with engineering teams. Learning some basic web development principles such as responsive design can help writers create a better user experience across all devices. In a world of rapid prototyping, I’d also suggest learning a few prototyping apps. Several are free to try and super intuitive.

Now that the UX in front of the writer no longer intimidates you, go check out ADJ, The American Genius’ Facebook Group for Austin digital job seekers and employers. User-centric design isn’t going anywhere and with everyone getting into the automation game, you can expect even more opportunities in UX writing.

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Opinion Editorials

Have an in-person job interview? 7 tips to crush the competition

EDITORIAL) While we all know the usual interview schtick, take some time to really study for your next face-to-face job interview.

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Job interview between two women.

So, you’re all scheduled for an in-person interview for a job you’d kill for. It’s exciting that you’ve made it to this step, but the question is, are you ready? Especially with remote interviews being the new norm, your nerves may feel shaken up a bit to interview in person – but you’ve got this! And many of these tips can be applied no matter the interview setting.

We all know the basics of a job interview: dress nice, get there early, come prepared, firm handshake, yada, yada, yada… However, it’s good to really sit and think about all of the requirements of a successful interview.

There are seven steps for crushing a face-to-face interview. Do your homework upside down and inside out in order to walk into that room.

Which brings us to the first step: know everything you need to know backwards and forwards.

This can be done in two steps: getting to know the company and getting to know yourself. By doing website, social media, and LinkedIn research, you can get a feel of the company culture as well as the position you’re interviewing for.

By getting to know yourself, have a friend ask you some interview questions so you can practice. Also, take a look at your resume through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know you. Make sure everything is clear and can compete with other candidates.

The next step is to anticipate solving future problems. Have some insight on the department that you are interviewing for and come prepared with ideas of how to better this department. (i.e. if it’s marketing, give examples of campaigns you’ve done in the past that have proven to have been successful.)

Step number three requires you to go back to the research board and get some information on the employer. Find out who you’re meeting with (head of HR, head of the department, etc.) and make your self-presentation appropriate for the given person.

Next, work on making the interview conversation a meaningful one. This can be done by asking questions as people like to see you take an interest in them. Also, be sure to never answer the questions as if it’s your regular spiel. Treat each job interview as if this is the first time you’re presenting your employability information.

With this, your next step is to have stories prepared for the job interview. Anecdotes and examples of previous jobs or volunteer/organization experiences can help bring life to an otherwise run-of-the-mill resume.

After this, you’ll want to make sure that you’re showing enthusiasm for the position you’re interviewing for. Don’t jump on the couch in the lobby like you’re Tom Cruise on Oprah, but definitely portray that you’re excited and up for the challenge.

Lastly, make a good impression by being impressive. Be professional and in control of your body language. Put yourself in the mindset of whatever position you’re interviewing for and show them that you have what it takes.

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Opinion Editorials

The benefits of remote work are just too good to overlook

(EDITORIAL) Employees scream it from the rooftops and businesses don’t want to admit it: Remote work is just too beneficial to pass up- and here’s why.

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Work from home written with scrabble letters.

Remote work has been rising in popularity in the past several years. Especially following the COVID-19 global pandemic, more companies saw significant benefits for both their business and their staff that went beyond the realm of finances by allowing remote labor.

Less happily, many people lost their job during the pandemic, but they ended up having more time to put toward their passions or were compelled to get creative with their remote business ideas to ensure a consistent stream of income.

If you remain on the fence about allowing your employees to work remotely, or are considering a career shift yourself, take a look at the top four benefits of working remotely, which may sway your decision.

Better Overall Quality of Life

Allowing your employees to work remotely doesn’t necessarily mean they work from home full time. There are benefits to having your employees work in an office part of the time – say, two or three days – and working from home, in more familiar surroundings, the rest of the week.

In this way, your workers enjoy some freedom and independence while retaining the ability to interact face-to-face with their peers. That provides human interaction, which can play a substantial role in terms of improved mental health for your staff.

Happy employees means healthier employees, which can save your outfit money in the form of healthcare costs and lost productivity. But we will get further into the cost-saving benefits a little further on.

If you’re a remote worker, you should see yourself becoming significantly more productive. But why would this be the case if you don’t have a manager over your shoulder watching your every move?

It’s true that when employees have a greater sense of independence, they also experience a significant sense of trust on the part of their employers and managers. This is one of the huge benefits of working remotely because it has a trickle-down effect on the quality and overall production of people’s work.

Can Work Anywhere with Internet

Whether you are a small business owner or have crafted your work to tailor toward a life of remote labor, this is an opportunity for someone who has dreamed of being a digital nomad. You have the ability to work anywhere in the world as long as you have access to the Internet. If you love to travel, this is a chance to spend time in various places around the globe while continuing to meet your deadlines.

Multi-member Zoom call on a Apple Mac laptop with a blue mug of black coffee next to it.

Set Your Own Hours

In some cases with remote businesses, you have the freedom to set your own hours. Content writers, for instance, tend to enjoy more flexibility with regard to when they work because a lot of what they produce is project-based rather than tied to a nine-to-five schedule.

When you’re a business owner, this can be incredibly useful when you outsource tasks to save money. You can find a higher quality of performance by searching for contractors anywhere in the world and it doesn’t limit you to workers who live near to your office.

Saves Everyone Time and Money

 In the end, remote work typically saves money for every person and entity involved. Businesses save costs in terms of not having to pay for a physical space, utilities, Internet, and other expenses. This allows you, as the owner, to spend more of your income on providing quality software and benefits for your employees so your operation runs more smoothly and efficiently.

According to FlexJobs, employees or remote business owners may save around $4,000 on average every year for expenses such as car maintenance, transportation, professional clothing in the office, or even money spent dining out for lunch with coworkers. Eventually, the costs add up, which means extra money in your pocket to take that much-needed vacation or save up for a down payment on your first home.

These benefits of working remotely only skim the surface. There are also sustainability factors such as removing cars from the roads and streets, because people don’t have to travel to and from an office; or employees missing fewer workdays since they have the ability and freedom to clock in from home.

Weigh the pros and cons as to whether remote work is right for you as a business owner or online professional. You might be surprised to find that working from home for more than the duration of the pandemic is worthwhile and could have long-lasting benefits.

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