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By Maria Patterson

RISMEDIA, Sept. 23, 2008-Funny how things change. Just a few short years ago, the industry stood warily by as online listing models hit the street and quickly caught the eye of the consumer. Many industry types feared that sites like Trulia would usurp the role of the agent and broker in the real estate transaction. These days, however, most real estate professionals are singing a different tune. For many, Trulia has gone from feared foe to trusted friend.

Why the dramatic difference in perception in just three years? Because most brokers have quickly figured out that online is where consumers want to be, and if they want to earn their business, they’d better be there, too.

The proof is all right there in the pudding, or in this case, the leads. According to Hitwise, Trulia is the leading traffic source for many of its subscribing brokers and Trulia reports that, for many of its brokers, the site delivers an average of 300% more traffic than the second-most referring real estate websites.

Such high traffic is not so surprising when you consider that Trulia attracts about five million unique visitors each month-visitors that are encouraged to move right along to a participating broker’s site, that is.
Gina Kaegi describes Trulia as one of the only, truly “Teflon” websites around. “Their focus is on the broker and funneling traffic to the brokerage instead of keeping people on their own site,” says the director of marketing for Realty Executives Phoenix. “They shift traffic to our site and let us do what we want with those leads.”

Kaegi has witnessed the climate surrounding sites like Trulia change for the most part. “Two or three years ago, brokers were really leery of this whole technology wave and how it would try to replace Realtors and own their listings,” she explains. “Things are slowly shifting, though. It’s like trying to redirect an oil tanker, but brokers are much more receptive.”

First and Foremost, the Consumer

Back in 2005, Trulia co-founders Pete Flint and Sami Inkinen were onto something when they recognized that online real estate was shifting from a portal model to a search model. In order to drive consumers to Trulia-and from there to brokers’ sites-they would need to freely give consumers what they were really wanting most-information.

“We wanted to build up the site with information and data-and the visual display of that data through heat maps and user-generated content,” explains Flint, co-founder and CEO. “Our focus was on providing huge amounts of information to the user, whereas many of the earlier companies focused on capturing users’ information and then making leads out of that information-putting them on drip campaigns and incubating them…all these horrible things. But in the world we live in now, the consumer is in charge, whether you like it or not. We really felt that we should give the consumer as much information as we possibly could and then when they’re ready, they can contact a listing broker and agent for more information. It was a big reversal in the thinking of the time.”

By staying true to this open, information-sharing approach, Trulia has been able to not only attract a huge following of consumers, but very qualified consumers at that. By combining its comprehensive data with a clean user interface, Trulia believes it has hit the nail on the head with consumers.

“Over 70 percent of consumers on Trulia plan to buy or sell within a year, and over 40 percent have already prequalified for a mortgage,” reports Inkinen, COO and co-founder. “One of the reasons why we attract such a qualified consumer is that we provide a comprehensive source for consumers looking for real estate information-not only listings but historical data, comparables and advice from real estate professionals on Trulia Voices.”

Among the site’s other impressive statistics? Thirty-four percent of Trulia visitors are under 35 and over 42% earn more than $100,000 a year. “We have a rich, young and affluent demographic, which means we skew toward first-time home buyers-which is clearly the audience of the future,” says Flint.

Mike Pappas, president of the Miami-based brokerage firm the Keyes Company, agrees wholeheartedly. An early adapter of online distribution models, Pappas was one of the first firms to sign on with Trulia in 2006.
“If you look at the demographic who’s moving today, you’ll see a whole generation who understands the online vehicle-something that the Baby Boomer doesn’t fully comprehend,” explains Pappas. “The phone is to us, what the Internet is to them. We need to create an environment where we can attract the young, new buyer. Attracting that group and partnering with that group is critical to our future.”

For Pappas, the increased exposure for his firm’s listings and access to a national consumer base, made partnering with Trulia an obvious choice.

“We’ve always felt that it’s a face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball business-we always saw that the Realtor was a strong part of the equation,” says Pappas. “Once we realized that information is a vehicle, a tool to be able to connect with consumers, sites like Trulia became a must. Trulia gives us access to these consumers on a much broader scope.”

Making Real Connections

Skeptics aside, Trulia’s goal has always been to connect brokers and agents with consumers. According to Flint, Trulia offers consumers a safe way to survey the real estate community and then build trusted relationships. Trulia Voices is a prime example. The site’s public forum allows consumers to ask questions anonymously and receive answers from participating real estate professionals.

“People using Trulia are serious about starting their search and want to do independent research before finding their real estate agent,” explains Inkinen. “Agents can take advantage of this marketing opportunity to introduce themselves to searchers on Trulia, either through the Local Spotlight Ads with Trulia Pro, or by sharing their expertise on Trulia Voices. We constantly hear success stories from agents who are effectively using Trulia as a way to successfully connect with new clients online.”

Pappas is a big believer in Web 2.0 strategies like Trulia Voices. He’s taking it a step further, in fact, by putting videos of the company’s properties on YouTube and rolling out Facebook pages for all of his offices.

“There is no question that the Internet is a social network and a communication vehicle, and a very inexpensive delivery system at the end of the day,” says Pappas. “It’s the execution of garnering those leads and responding to them that will make the difference. Companies that are gaining marketshare are those who are doing things differently.”

A Must in Today’s Market?

In a time when many real estate professionals are cutting back on marketing expenditures, many more believe that investing online should not only continue but, in some cases, even increase. With a comparably streamlined operation, Flint and Inkinen believe they can deliver an important business-building tool at value pricing.

“We are all about cost efficiency,” says Inkinen. “At about 70 employees and a slim cost base, we can deliver great value and savings for our partners during a time when they are looking for efficiencies.”

“It’s clearly a tough market,” agrees Flint. “Consumers today want and need more information than ever and that belief is being borne out right now.”

“The consumer is more educated and more empowered and it’s more important than ever to have listings out there, especially when we have so much more inventory,” adds Kaegi. “In Phoenix, our inventory went from 5,000 listings to 55,000 listings. We need to put those listings on Internet sites that can push them out to the world.”

Capitalizing on the traffic that comes through Trulia, however, requires brokers to stay online and be vigilant about follow through, says Inkinen. “As soon as you’re contacted, return the call or e-mail-these are serious consumers who are looking for your assistance.”

Changing the Perception for Good

According to Flint and Inkinen, those who are not on board with online marketing are missing critical opportunities.

“I think it’s fair to assume that the people who still perceive Trulia as a threat don’t really know what we do,” says Inkinen. “We don’t take consumers from real estate professionals. In fact, we deliver consumers via our free traffic referrals. No cost, no lead forms-just free traffic from a qualified, curious consumer.”

According to Flint, Trulia will continue to evolve in new directions. Trulia recently introduced Trulia Mobile, allowing consumers to access Trulia via their PDA devices. Trulia also launched a free blogging platform, increasing user visibility even further.

As Pappas says, when it comes to Web 2.0 and online marketing, it’s just the beginning: “We’re all in the Model T stage of this online world. If you don’t keep trying and learning you won’t be able to grow.”

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