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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.

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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

Uber CEO regrets saying that murder is part of business

(EDITORIAL) Uber CEO calls murder a mistake. Should society support a business that seems to think death is just part of the cost of doing business?

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Uber Pickup

On February 21, 2016, I woke up early to notifications about a shooting in Kalamazoo, Michigan. An Uber driver shot multiple individuals. Although I live in Oklahoma, the Facebook algorithms correctly deduced that this incident would be of interest to me. I have family and friends in Michigan, some in the Battle Creek area, just miles east of Kalamazoo. Later that morning, I learned that one of my friends had been killed in the incident.

Uber was criticized for the incident. Lawmakers across the country called for tougher background checks on Uber drivers. It was a PR nightmare for the company. Ultimately, it was the driver who was charged. Earlier this year, the driver pled guilty to all counts against him and was sentenced to life in prison. Uber continued operating, although then-Governor Rick Snyder did sign legislation that increased regulations for the ride-sharing industry.

I say this out of disclosure. This Uber tragedy affected me in a way that may cloud my opinion. I believe that Uber should be regulated more than it is. But recent events have made me question why society supports Uber and what I believe is a toxic culture.

How does Uber keep managing their corporate profile?

Uber seems to weather their PR crises fairly well. They’ve been criticized for inadequate background checks. Sexual harassment allegations at corporate headquarters shook up the management team. Uber has suffered data breaches. In 2018, the organization settled with the FTC for $148 million. Still, the company enjoys a market share of transportation services.

In 2018, Dara Khosrowshahi, former CEO of Expedia took over at Uber as its new CEO, replacing the CEO and founder Travis Kalanick. It was reported that Kalanick “led the company astray” from its moral center. Khosrowshahi said at the time, “In the end, the CEO of the company has to take responsibility.”

Just days ago, during an interview, Khosrowshahi said that “the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was a ‘mistake.’” It was a political murder. Khosrowshahi compared the assassination to a self-driving accident with an Uber vehicle that killed a pedestrian. It didn’t take long for Khosrowshahi to issue a retraction, saying that he “said something in the moment (he doesn’t) believe.”

Is Uber’s culture toxic?

Khosrowshahi says that his comment shouldn’t mark him as a person. He thinks that what he said was a “learning moment.” When a CEO misspeaks in an interview that isn’t just local, but international, maybe we should pay attention. According to him, murder isn’t a big deal. I wonder if he would say that if it was his father who died, or his friend who was killed by a driver.

When my friend died in the Kalamazoo shooting, I had to seriously think about how I viewed Uber. My friend wasn’t even using Uber at the time. She was getting into her own car at a local restaurant with some friends of hers. I recognize that Uber wasn’t responsible for the driver going on a shooting spree, but I have to wonder if it was Uber’s culture that led to a lack of response at the time.

Uber’s new CEO seems removed from how its services affect individuals and communities as its previous CEO did. When a company thinks that murder is a “mistake,” maybe it’s time to rethink about supporting a service that doesn’t seem to think about people, its employees, its drivers and its riders.

It may be more convenient than a cab, but it’s time to look at Uber’s real impact on society. I hear Uber saying that innocent deaths are just the cost of business. Is that the basis for a billion-dollar corporation?

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Opinion Editorials

Funny females are less likely to be promoted

(CAREER) Science says that the funnier a female, the less likely she is to be promoted. Uhh…

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Faceless keyboard warriors around the world have been — incorrectly — lamenting that women just aren’t funny for years now (remember the “Ghostbusters” remake backlash?).The good news is they are obviously wrong. The bad news? When women dare to reveal their comedic side in the workplace they are often perceived as “disruptive” while men are rewarded.

That’s right. Women not only have to worry about being constantly interrupted, receiving raises less frequently than men despite asking for them equally as often, and still making nearly $10,000 less than men each year, but now they have to worry about being too funny at the office.

A recent University of Arizona study asked more than 300 people to read the fictional resume of a clothing store manager with the gender-neutral name “Sam” and watch a video presentation featuring Sam. The videos came in four versions: a serious male speaker, a humorous male speaker, a serious female speaker and a humorous female speaker.

According to the researchers, “humorous males are ascribed higher status compared with nonhumorous males, while humorous females are ascribed lower status compared with nonhumorous females.” Translation: Male workers earn respect for being funny while their funny female coworkers are often seen in a more negative light.

There are, of course, several reasons this could be the case. The researchers behind this particular study pointed to the stereotype that women are more dedicated to their families than their work, and being perceived as humorous could convey the sense they don’t take their work as seriously as men.

Psychiatrist Prudy Gourguechon offered another take, putting the blame directly on Sam the clothing store manager, calling out their seemingly narcissistic behavior and how society’s tolerance for such behavior is “distinctly gender-based.” She says these biases go back to the social programming of our childhoods and the roles mothers and fathers tend to play in our upbringing.

So what are women supposed to do with this information?

Gourgechon’s status quo advice includes telling women to not stop being funny, but “to be aware of the the feelings and subjectivities of the people around you.” While recommending an empathetic stance isn’t necessarily bad advice, it still puts the onus on women to change their behavior, worry about what everyone else thinks and attempt to please everyone around them.

We already know that professional women can have an extremely hard time remaining true to themselves in the workplace — especially women in the tech industry — and authenticity is often a privilege saved for those who conform to the accepted culture. We obviously still have a long way to go before women stop being “punished” for being funny at work, but things seem to be progressing, however slowly.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama shared her thoughts last year on the improvements that have been made and the changes that still need to happen, including encouraging men to step up and do their part. In the wake of the #metoo movement, CNBC recommended five things men can do to support women at work. There are amazing women in STEM positions around the world we can all admire and shine a spotlight on.

All of these steps — both big and small — will continue to chip away at the gender inequality that permeates today’s workplaces. And perhaps one day in the near future, female clothing store manager Sam will be allowed to be just as funny as male clothing store manager Sam.

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Opinion Editorials

To the unsung entrepreneurial heroes – we believe in you

(EDITORIAL) To the unseen entrepreneur we see you and we know that you work your tails off to do good things in your community even if it never means going IPO.

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restaurant entrepreneurs

I recently frequented one of my favorite new restaurants to find it permanently closed after less than a year. This locally sourced brunch place had pinpointed all of the farms that supplied their food on a map of California that hung like gallery art in the center of their restaurant.

They made sandwiches at their shop with donated food for the homeless and wrote inspirational notes to tuck inside their brown bag lunches. Their food was not only nutritious but delicious, and they seemed to always have patrons when we went, not too many that there was a line out the door, but enough that they always seemed busy.

I wish that we had spent more time there, more money, told more of our friends or left glowing yelp reviews, but we are only two people, two people who took a delicious restaurant for granted because we thought how could this fail?

I’m sure that’s what the owners believed too when they started out.

They probably thought they’d make great food that people want to eat in a location newly dubbed Silicon Beach – amid shiny live/work complexes, surrounded by startups and young people.

They ventured that they could morally source nutritious food, give back to the community, and be excellent.

Part of me imagines that they did so well as a restaurant that they shut their doors just to expand, or open in a better location, or take a much needed break. But they probably failed, like so many businesses do, and I want to take a moment to say thanks.

Not just to the restaurant that served the best breakfast tater tots that I have ever had the pleasure of eating, but to every entrepreneur who embarks on a journey that tries to make the world better.

I’m not just talking about the tech entrepreneurs, though we need you too.

I’m mostly talking about the unseen baker that wakes up at 3am every morning just to bring a handful of baked goods to their city. Or about the small store owner that stocks chotchkies and cookbooks and beautiful things all of which I wish I could buy. I’m talking about the start up plumber who shows up to your house on a Sunday afternoon and fixes your toilet because you’re at your wits end.

You are the unsung entrepreneurs, the heroes that we hurriedly thank on our way out the door.

You are the folks who had a dream and risked everything to bring us delicious food, adorable chotchkies, and functional plumbing.

A mentor of mine once told me that to be successful you must jump in the water, swim as fast as you can, and slowly increase the speed.

To those of you out there swimming as fast as you can – we’re behind you, and we appreciate you.

This is your headline, one you don’t often get — keep doing what you’re doing, we believe in you, and your hard work does not go unnoticed.

And if you decide after everything you’ve been through that it’s time to hang a permanently closed sign on your front door, there are people out there, lots of them maybe, who will mourn the loss of your mini quiches, your adorable iPhone cases, or even the best breakfast tater tots in the world.

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