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Innovating for Consumers, Working for Realtors

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An interview with REALTOR.com President Errol Samuelson

By Maria Patterson

RISMEDIA, Oct. 4, 2007-Taking the helm at REALTOR.com just six short months ago, Errol Samuelson was faced with the challenge of ensuring that the industry’s leading real estate portal remained just that. To achieve that goal, Samuelson and the REALTOR.com team are rolling out a host of innovative new features to further grab consumer interest and forge relationships with Realtors in the process.

Maria Patterson: First of all, how would you describe your experience as president of REALTOR.com thus far?

Errol Samuelson: It has been incredibly fast, interesting and exciting. We’ve been introducing a lot of great, new products at a fast rate. The changes we’re making are having a positive impact on the industry and on the kind of service Realtors can provide for consumers. Our new features are for the benefit of consumers as well as Realtors. So the experience has been great…and fast!

MP: What were/are some of your initial goals for REALTOR.com and how are they coming along so far?

ES: I was fortunate that REAL-TOR.com was in a very good spot as the number-one consumer Web site for real estate. It’s been that way for 10 years. Somewhere between 5.5 and 6 million different consumers come to the site every month-and it’s not a drive-by visit. If you look at the amount of time a consumer spends on the site, it’s three times as much as the next closest competitor. That’s a lot more time they spend viewing listings and agent and broker branding.

NAR has been unbelievably supportive and the REALTOR.com brand is strong. The goals for me are how to expand our leadership position, and what additional services and new functionalities can we provide so that 10 years from now, we’re still number one and it’s an even better site for Realtors and consumers.

MP: Why is the future growth of REALTOR.com dependent upon consumer-centric innovations?

ES: If you look at the way consumers use the Internet today and the expectations they have today versus what they had five years ago, people are both more demanding and more sophisticated, which is a great thing. Consumers now expect greater transparency and are interested in having information that is current and up to the minute. They also want to look at the information in different ways. If you don’t satisfy those consumer needs, you are not going to continue to be a leader.

Interestingly, if you look at some of the new technology we’re introducing to the site, it actually positions brokers and agents much more favorably. The more valuable the information you provide to consumers, the more they realize that the best source of local, more nuanced information about a particular property is the real estate agent. When they see an abundance of information, they realize that they need someone who can help them sort through all that information and provide interpretation and guidance.

MP: What challenges do you encounter with consumers faced with selling their home in a tight market?

ES: Home sellers put their trust in their agent and also their broker. When the market does not deliver, many eager buyers and sellers start looking to the agent and broker for more help. They have some understanding of a tighter market and what they ask for is tangible evidence that the Realtor is doing all they can. With all of the new features we have recently added on REALTOR.com®, there are at least a dozen ways an agent can improve the marketing for the seller-and now more than ever, this sort of accountability and effort will be in demand.

MP: What makes for the best real estate search experience and how does REALTOR.com deliver this experience?

ES: Number one, the information has to be incredibly up to date and accurate. If you’re going to be a trusted source, you have to make sure the information is relevant and you have to have as much content as possible. And by content, I mean having all the inventory and then, along with that, augmenting that listing information to provide as much context to the listing as possible, like video and neighborhood information. You also have to give that consumer the decision-making support tools.

MP: Why is it important to enhance the consumer’s sense of a neighborhood while searching for a home online?

ES: Different people search for real estate in different ways. Those who know an area really well start with the city name or zip code. We actually thought why not start in the other direction by finding a neighborhood first? We can now ask consumers, “Tell us what matters to you in terms of a neighborhood? What are your criteria?” Then we’ll find a neighborhood that meets that criteria and give you the listings in that neighborhood. We wanted to give consumers different choices and help them narrow down those choices very quickly so that they’re not wasting time on properties that won’t pan out. That’s bad for the Realtor and bad for the consumer.

For families with school-age kids, the quality of the schools in a neighborhood is important, so we have a tremendous amount of information available around schools, such as the student/teacher ratio and specific test score information. We even now include comments from parents who have students in that school. This helps consumers to find a house that looks great, check on the schools and then contact an agent.

MP: How is REALTOR.com setting the standard for providing the most up-to-date listing information to consumers?

ES: If you were to think back six or seven years ago, typical real estate Web sites would update listings about once a week. We’ve embarked on a project that we started in the middle of June to update every listing on our site every 15 minutes. We’re actually just shy of a million listings being updated every 15 minutes.

Say there’s a special listing that’s out of a consumer’s price range, but suddenly there’s a price reduction on that listing. We want to make sure we can surface that price reduction to the consumer audience as soon as possible. If you wait a day, a great number of consumers could pass it over because the “old” price wasn’t in their range. This is a great benefit to home sellers, too. It all goes back to transparency and accuracy-everybody wins that way.

MP: What role are high-quality photos, tours and videos now playing in marketing listings online?

ES: When we talk to consumers, the number-one thing they ask for are as many photos as possible. They want to know how they can get a feel for the property without going to see it. We used to offer the ability to load six pictures of a property, now you can have 25. This makes for a richer experience for all involved.

Video provides the same experience. In January, about 55 million people watched 1.2 billion videos on the Internet. To put that in context, there are 65 million cable subscribers. That means that there are twice as many people watching videos online as households with cable television. Consumers are crazy about video on the Internet. With our new feature, agents can upload a video about the neighborhood or about a condominium complex showing consumers the pool and the amenities so they can get a feel for what it’s like to be there.

Something new that we’re introducing is gigapixel cityscapes. These images are 1,000 times bigger than the images you take with your regular camera. We’ve taken these now in a bunch of cities, like Seattle and San Francisco. You can start with a view from the top of the Space Needle and zoom in to receive a high degree of detail at any point. You can actually explore the neighborhood you’re interested in.

MP: Please describe REALTOR.com mobile and how it will benefit consumers and agents?

ES: This is a new program that anyone can download for free. It’s designed for the new smart phones. Anywhere you have a cell-phone signal you can call up all of the information regarding a listing. You can also get driving directions if you have a GPS feature on your phone. I’m frequently interested in what a home costs, but I’m not going to bug the agent just to find out. However, if the price was interesting, I might be motivated to do something about it. You could be walking the dog, pass by a property that has a for-sale sign, and with one click bring back the listing information.

MP: What are some of the most significant challenges brokers are confronting in today’s market? How is REALTOR.com helping brokers deal with these challenges?

ES: First, brokers are struggling to decide where to spend their marketing dollars. The majority of the dollars is still going to print. The funny thing about the Internet, however, is that it works better than print. A recent NAR survey showed that consumers are five times more likely to buy a home they found online versus in the newspaper and 24 times more likely to buy a home they found online versus a real estate brochure or magazine. Brokers need to decide if they’re going to make the politically sensitive decision to quit advertising in some of these traditional venues and put their money where it works. It takes a certain amount of will.

The other significant challenge is how to reach the younger consumer, the 20- to 30-year-olds. They grew up with instant messaging and texting and communicate in a different way. We recently launched a Featured Blog section to our site that any Realtor can download and use for free. This allows the broker and agent to start telling stories about the neighborhood and create a narrative where people can get a feel for the agent and create an online dialogue.

MP: As more companies seek to capitalize on the trend toward listing real estate online, how is REALTOR.com positioning itself to stay competitive and stand apart?

ES: On the one hand, we have the advantage of being in a leadership position. On the other hand, you become the standard where people say, “How do I compete with you?” So you can’t get complacent. You have to keep challenging yourself. You have to ask yourself, if you had a clean white board, what would you do? That’s what led us to some of our new innovations. You have to think like a start up and stay in the garage. As long as you do this, you’re going to be fine. If you look past the hype of the techies, change actually happens relatively slowly. But if you’re asleep at the switch, change will come out of nowhere. RE

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