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Opinion Editorials

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.

Business Finance

How to survive a recession in the modern economy

(OPINION EDITORIAL) Advice about surviving a recession is common these days, but its intended audience can leave a large gap in application.

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There’s no question of whether or not we’re in a recession right now, and while some may debate the severity of this recession in comparison to the last major one, there are undoubtedly some parallels–something Next Avenue’s Elizabeth White highlights in her advice on planning for the next few months (or years).

Among White’s musings are actionable strategies that involve forecasting for future layoffs, anticipating age discrimination, and swallowing one’s ego in regards to labor worth and government benefits like unemployment.

White isn’t wrong. It’s exceptionally important to plan for the future as much as possible–even when that plan undergoes major paradigm shifts a few times a week, at best–and if you can reduce your spending at all, that’s a pretty major part of your planning that doesn’t necessarily have to be subjected to those weekly changes.

However, White also approaches the issue of a recession from an angle that assumes a few things about the audience–that they’re middle-aged, relatively established in their occupation, and about to be unemployed for years at a time. These are, of course, completely reasonable assumptions to make…but they don’t apply to a pretty large subset of the current workforce.

We’d like to look at a different angle, one from which everything is a gig, unemployment benefits aren’t guaranteed, and long-term savings are a laughable concept at best.

White’s advice vis-a-vis spending is spot-on–cancelling literally everything you can to avoid recurring charges, pausing all non-essential memberships (yes, that includes Netflix), and downgrading your phone plan–it’s something that transcends generational boundaries.

In fact, it’s even more important for this generation than White’s because of how frail our savings accounts really are. This means that some of White’s advice–i.e., plan for being unemployed for years–isn’t really feasible for a lot of us.

It means that taking literally any job, benefit, handout, or circumstantial support that we can find is mandatory, regardless of setbacks. It means that White’s point of “getting off the throne” isn’t extreme enough–the throne needs to be abolished entirely, and survival mode needs to be implemented immediately.

We’re not a generation that’s flying all over the place for work, investing in real estate because it’s there, and taking an appropriate amount of paid time off because we can; we’re a generation of scrappy, gig economy-based, paycheck-to-paycheck-living, student debt-encumbered individuals who were, are, and will continue to be woefully unprepared for the parameters of a post-COVID world.

If you’re preparing to be unemployed, you’re recently unemployed, or you even think you might undergo unemployment at some point in your life, start scrapping your expenses and adopt as many healthy habits as possible. Anything goes.

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Opinion Editorials

How strong leaders use times of crises to improve their company’s future

(EDITORIAL) We’re months into the COVID-19 crisis, and some leaders are still fumbling through it, while others are quietly safeguarding their company’s future.

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Anthony J. Algmin is the Founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company helping business and technology leaders transform their future with data, and author of a new book on data leadership. We asked for his insights on how a strong leader can see their teams, their companies, their people through this global pandemic (and other crises in the future). The following are his own words:

Managers sometimes forget that the people we lead have lives outside of the office. This is true always, but is amplified when a crisis like COVID-19 occurs. We need to remember that our job is to serve our teams, to help them be as aligned and productive as possible in the short and long terms.

Crises are exactly when we need to think about what they might be going through, and realize that the partnership we have with our employees is more than a transaction. If we’ve ever asked our people to make sacrifices, like working over a weekend without extra pay, we should be thinking first about how we can support them through the tough times. When we do right by people when they really need it, they will run through walls again for our organizations when things return to normal.

Let them know it’s okay to breathe and talk about it. In a situation like COVID-19 where everything is disrupted and people are now adjusting to things like working from home, it is naturally going to be difficult and frustrating.

The best advice is to encourage people to turn off the TV and stop frequently checking the news websites. As fast as news is happening, it will not make a difference in what we can control ourselves. Right now most of us know what our day will look like, and nothing that comes out in the news is going to materially change it. If we avoid the noisy inputs, we’ll be much better able to focus and get our brains to stop spinning on things we can’t control.

And this may be the only time I would advocate for more meetings. If you don’t have at least a daily standup with your team, you should. And encourage everyone to have a video-enabled setup if at all possible. We may not be able to be in the same room, but the sense of engagement with video is much greater than audio-only calls.

We also risk spiraling if we think too much about how our companies are struggling, or if our teams cannot achieve what our organizations need to be successful. It’s like the difference in sports between practice and the big game. Normal times are when we game plan, we strategize, and work on our fundamentals. Crises are the time to focus and leave it all on the field.

That said, do not fail to observe and note what works well and where you struggle. If you had problems with data quality or inefficient processes before the crisis, you are not fixing them now. Pull out the duct tape and find a way through it. But later, when the crisis subsides, learn from the experience and get better for next time.

Find a hobby. Anything you can do to clear your head and separate work from the other considerations in your life. We may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and without a pressure release we will not be able to sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as our teams, businesses, and families need us.

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Opinion Editorials

Declutter your quarantine workspace (and brain)

(EDITORIAL) Can’t focus? Decluttering your workspace can help you increase productivity, save money, and reduce stress.

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It’s safe to say that we’ve all been spending a lot more time in our homes these last few months. This leads us to fixate on the things we didn’t have time for before – like a loose doorknob or an un-alphabetized bookshelf.

The same goes for our workspaces. Many of us have had to designate a spot at home to use for work purposes. For those of you who still need to remain on-site, you’ve likely been too busy to focus on your surroundings.

Cleaning and organizing your workspace every so often is important, regardless of the state of the world, and with so much out of our control right now, this is one of the few things we can control.

Whether you’re working from a home office or an on-site office, take some time for quarantine decluttering. According to The Washington Post, decluttering can increase your productivity, lower stress, and save money (I don’t know about you, but just reading those three things makes me feel better already).

Clutter can cause us to feel overwhelmed and make us feel a bit frazzled. Having an office space filled with piles of paper containing irrelevant memos from five years ago or 50 different types of pens, has got to go – recycle that mess and reduce your stress. The same goes with clearing files from your computer; everything will run faster.

Speaking of running faster, decluttering and creating a cleaner workspace will also help you be more efficient and productive. Build this habit by starting small: try tidying up a bit at the end of every workday, setting yourself up for a ready-to-roll morning.

Cleaning also helps you take stock of stuff that you have so that you don’t end up buying more of it. Create a designated spot for your tools and supplies so that they’re more visible – this way, you’ll always know what you have and what needs to be replenished. This will help you stop buying more of the same product that you already have and save you money.

So, if you’ve been looking to improve your focus and clearing a little bit of that ‘quarantine brain’, start by getting your workspace in order. You’ll be amazed at how good it feels to declutter and be “out with the old”; you may even be inspired to do the same for your whole house. Regardless, doing this consistently will create a positive shift in your life, increasing productivity, reducing stress, and saving you money.

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