Filling the white space void

This week’s Trialogue on Brand White Space & Brokerage Opportunity, with Rob Hahn (@RobHahn), Matthew Shadbolt (@Corcoran_Group), Linsey Planeta (@linsey), and Gahlord Dewald (@Gahlord), [which by the way actually makes this podcast a quadralogue – but who’s counting?] is a continuation of the mini-pod from last week entitled Zillow Begins to build a Media Model.  The discussion delves into the thought that Zillow is becoming the Home Depot of the home ownership process.

Rob goes to Home Depot to buy replacement windows.  The service company that Home Depot contracts with shows up with a different name on the truck and does a great job.  Rob thinks of this window company as just an extension of Home Depot and is happy Home Depot did a great job.  Likewise, should the installation go south, it’s Home Depot that Rob calls and delivers a tongue lashing.  Home Depot and Lowe’s are the go-to sources in home repair, improvement, or remodeling. Once you’re in the relationship, once you’re satisfied with a couple of jobs they do, you stay there.  There’s no reason to change.

How does this translate to Zillow (or the other portals) vis-à-vis Coldwell Banker or RE/MAX.   Zillow launched their television ad campaign intending to capture consumer mind share where none currently exists – a huge amount of “brand whitespace” in the real estate category, meaning no one brand symbolizes real estate in the U.S.   This “white space” is the empty place(s) in the entire home ownership process to which the homeowner can’t manage to attach a name – any name, be it an agent name, a brokerage name, a realty website, or a trademark brand of any kind.

If the first brand that pops into a consumer’s head when they think about buying a house is Zillow and not a brokerage or franchise, that fundamentally changes the business equation, WITHOUT Zillow actually getting into the brokerage business.

There was a lengthy discussion about the similarities between the Zillow ads (first one and second one)  and a flight of Coldwell Banker spots that aired earlier this year (right down to the music beds – did the Lumineers sample a little too much Phillip Phillips?).  Both had a similar feel, warm and tender, family oriented, designed to bring a little moisture to the corner of your eye which we men brush away as a sudden onset of hay fever. (“No, really, it’s just the pollen.”)

But despite the small difference in the commercials’ approaches, and the similarities in the message (start your home search on our web site), there’s a huge difference in the brand experience being advertised. When the consumer goes to Zillow.com, they get the same experience every time. The website behaves the same whether you’re signing on from Connecticut or California.  That’s what a brand promises – the fries will be the same no matter which McDonalds you drive through.

But Coldwell Banker is selling neither a website experience nor French fries.  Yes, the chain of events may well begin with a web search (many web searches on many websites if the consumer research is valid) but the product being sold is agency representation in the home purchase/sale process.  And THAT experience is not only different from branch to branch, but it is entirely different from agent to agent within the same branch.  There is no possible brand continuity within a brokerage or franchise unless the broker trains her agents to a robotic repetitious adherence to company process and mantra.  Perhaps some of the new models where agents are employees might be able to demand this level of adherence, but in an office of type-A personalities called independent contractors – NO WAY!

The discussion progressed on to the various models of brokerage, particularly considering the new LLC model where broker takes an equity position, not a commission split, in the agent’s business, not just within the current firm but in any future brokerage the agent affiliates with.  (More on that concept in this article by Imprev CEO Renwick Congdon.)  Carried to its logical extreme, this fractures the concept of broker branding beyond what all the king’s men could hope to reconstruct from Humpty Dumpty’s eggshells. This idea is worthy of another chapter all by itself, particularly the discussion of how a broker chooses which agents to “invest in.”

And to that point, how does the broker decide not only which agents she feels will be worthy of her investment, will be productive and return handsomely on her investment, but which of these agent-LLC’s will be brand reinforcing.  Can a company, made up of a bunch of smaller mini-companies, actually have a brand identity and create brand awareness in the mind of the consumer?  Or are they doomed to be lost in the aforementioned snow storm of white space?

For this post:
Cause: 
Entropy– the measure of disorder
Effect: 
Carpe diem

 

So where’s the next post?

When I started this blog 10 days ago, I had a specific first major post in mind.  It was a piece I started to write over two years ago while still in Arizona.  It was an overall assessment of the state of the industry, focused primarily on how the MLS system might evolve in coming years.  It started like this:

There is a seismic shift coming, and coming soon.  I don’t know where it will come from, what form it will take, or who will initiate it.  I can feel it in my bones.  I feel like one of those earthquake-predicting animals that get credit for a sixth sense about natural disasters and flee to higher ground before the quake hits.

My sense of foreboding comes from a series of developments that when taken individually might be interpreted as just business cycles in flux.  But if one steps back and looks at the bigger picture, a pattern of motion starts to develop, a fluid dynamic of interconnected but constantly changing parts and participants, a pattern that we have not seen before, not in this magnitude. 

What followed was about 20,000 words of overview and insight, at least from my perspective, on the then current state of the industry and how the MLS might fit into its future state.  When it was nearly done, I asked a couple of key staff people to read it and react.  They read.  They overreacted.  But they reacted just as the leadership of that organization might have reacted had I delivered this report in its then current form, full of gloom and doom.

Fortunately, I was wrong.  In the two years since I wrote that introduction the world of real estate did not meet an untimely demise.  No earthquake.  No tsunami.  Perhaps a ripple or two was felt in the force as one wandered to the dark side only to return somewhat older and much the wiser.

So what will follow in the days to come is a rewrite of that assessment, updated with developments from the past two years and cut into easily digestible bite-sized pieces/chapters.  (I could never challenge Rob Hahn to a contest of longest run-on-sentence or wordiest post.)

So while I’m working on that piece, I will offer a couple of observations along the way.  The first is curating now and should be ready to post tomorrow.  Sorry for the suspense.

For this post:
Cause: 
Procrastination frustration
Effect:  Teasing preview

Why this blog?

On July 29, I left the employ of Zillow.  As I told Paul Hagey at Inman News, the task of soliciting direct data feeds from MLSs turned out to be more daunting than either I or Zillow had expected.  While I had detected some significant movement in the industry as a whole, particularly a lessening in the stridency of the complaints I heard when I first joined Zillow in early 2012, I could point to no compelling value proposition that the MLSs wanted, and that Zillow was willing to offer in exchange, that would lead me to believe the results would change in the near future.  We both recognized that reality, frustrating as it might be, and decided it was time for me to move on.

In the two weeks since, I have fielded no end of questions about where I want to go next.  My phone has rung with callers looking for advice on new ventures they are starting up, or have already begun.  Believe it or not, many of them start with questions about how to get data out of the MLSs, or what they can do with that data once they have it.  It seems I’m not the only one frustrated with the state of data licensing in this industry.  The confusion is rampant.

So what does an out of work former MLS CEO and former Zillow VP with nearly 25 years of industry experience to reflect on and draw from?  Why, he starts a blog and a consulting service, of course!  It gives me a platform from which to comment on happenings in our business, and to offer opinions that I might not have been able to offer previously for fear they would be attributed to the company for which I worked rather than recognized as strictly personal observations.

Please don’t expect any acerbic retribution on my part against any of my former employers.  That’s not my style.  And besides, even though I don’t work there any longer, I have the utmost respect for Spencer Rascoff and the team he has assembled at Zillow.  One had only to watch the interview with President Obama earlier this week to see the culmination of weeks, months of hard work by an entire team of public relations and marketing professionals to have a feeling of utter awe for that achievement and for the company.  As Greg Robertson put it, “Well played, sir.  Well played.

So where do I go from here?  Frankly, the paths are many but the choices few.  I am looking for the next calling, but have no preconceived notions about what that might be.  The most interesting career changes I’ve made have almost always been unexpected, spontaneous, and surprising.  Some of them worked.  Some did not.  But the roads taken have always been interesting.  I’m looking forward to what’s around the next bend and to sharing my adventure with you.

For this post:
Cause: Unexpected unemployment
Effect: Unassisted outplacement

Welcome

I’ve had a lot on my mind lately.  Most of it having been bottled up for months, years, decades, not published either because of lack of time, lack of energy, or an abundance of self restraint.

Short comments, medium essays, or long (some will say too long) diatribes, they will all dribble onto these pages as the feeling moves me.

I hope you enjoy the read.