By Stephanie Andre
RISMEDIA, Oct. 8, 2008-Metropolitan Regional Information Systems (MRIS)-the nation’s largest MLS-stared the following assumptions down this year when it decided to make a major investment in rebuilding Homes-Database.com, the company’s public listings portal:
“Innovation and MLS don’t mix.”
“MLS organizations can’t think big.”
“An MLS can’t help a broker’s bottom line.”
The MRIS board and leadership team set out on a mission to reshape how an MLS delivers value to its broker and agent subscribers, and to reclaim the mantle of online innovation from companies outside the industry for those who own, market and care for the listings.
What follows is the story of how MRIS turned perceptions about what an MLS is and does into myths to be shattered.
The Context: ‘Innovate or Die’
When MRIS CEO David Charron surveyed the prospects for his company and its subscribers last fall, he became convinced aggressive steps were in order.
“Brokers were struggling amid escalating marketing costs and declining profits. At the same time, questioning the future of MLS organizations was almost becoming a pastime,” says Charron. “Innovation was not optional. In fact, ‘Innovate or die’ was more like it.”
Moreover, a decade’s worth of Internet companies entering online real estate with venture-backed bravado, acquiring listings and building businesses around them, had placed many brokers in an uneasy dependency.
Charron and the brokers that comprise the MRIS board of directors viewed the “Homes-
Database.com 2.0” project as the first logical response to these forces. The old Homes-Database.com was already one of the top real estate sites in their market. With a serious investment in technology and marketing, the MRIS team believed it could impact the businesses of their broker subscribers by delivering a dramatically higher volume of consumer traffic, free of charge.
Brenda Shipplett, president of brokerage giant Long & Foster, an MRIS subscriber, was supportive of the initiative from the beginning. “Getting our listings in front of more online consumers is something we are always eager to have happen, but it must be done in a way that supports our brand, not someone else’s,” she says. “Because HomesDatabase is powered by our own MLS and exists to support brokers, it delivers on that score.”
“When it came to building bigger, better, more usable home search sites, those of us inside the real estate industry were some of the last to leave the starting gate,” explains Charron. “We watched as online innovation came from outside our business, and we reacted. But the time had come to stop merely reacting-we needed to lead.”
The MLS Advantage
Investing in a public listings website that was as good or better than those maintained by the big online players was ambitious, but less risky than many may assume. MRIS had become adept at developing and deploying technology for its subscribers. And its database platform, Cornerstone, was being licensed to MLS organizations across the country that wanted to consolidate or share data in their markets.
But the unique MLS advantage, explains Charron, was in its ability to leverage the broker’s listings to the benefit of the consumer. “We have all the listings, in pristine condition,” he says. “When consumers realize they can stop hop-scotching from listings site to listings site and use HomesDatabase.com as their one destination to find every home on the market, the possibilities are transformative and the value accrues directly to the folks that create these listings: the brokers.”
Turning those possibilities into realities required two things: creating a listings site that matched or beat anything on the market for usability and features while delivering superior listings data; and spending the time and money needed to get the message out to consumers.
Making It Happen
Building a killer website, using the most progressive technology, is no easy task. The man charged with making it happen was Jonathan Hill, vice president of business development at MRIS.
“To make this work for our brokers, we had to get the consumer experience absolutely right,” says Hill. “Every feature, every pixel was tuned to meet the needs of the end user. If the end user gets what they want, they are more likely to make a quick and meaningful connection with our brokers.”
To that end, MRIS hired one of the top consumer research organizations in the country to conduct focus groups and in-depth interviews with consumers.
“Too often, ideas are churned internally, developed and rolled out without actually validating if consumers find them easy to use or valuable,” explains Hill. “We weren’t going to make that mistake. The feedback from our consumer research guided our thinking on the product in a profound way.”
MRIS invested in important feature innovations as well. The search paradigm itself was first on the list.
“We believed that people should be able to search like they talk,” explains Hill. “If a buyer is interested in a town home in Annapolis, she should be able to enter that preference into a property search field in plain, natural language. So we licensed the natural language search technology, used by sites like Amazon.com, which gives consumers a new and simpler way to search for homes. Nobody else in real estate has that.”
The company also pushed the envelope on the display of property photos, integrating “cover flow” technology into a unique open house search tool directly on the home page.
Local Value, National Vision
HomesDatabase 2.0 launched in beta early last month (visit the site at http://beta.homesdatabase.com). Soon, MRIS will be launching a large-scale radio, print and online promotional campaign to spread the word of “Home Search Simplified” to consumers in the Mid-Atlantic region. The result will be unprecedented levels of traffic delivered to brokers through a site powered by their own MLS, with no outside advertising, at no charge.
“We’ve accomplished what we intended,” concludes Charron. “We’ve ensured that the people who own the listings no longer have to look outside their industry to connect with consumers on a large scale.”
The next step for MRIS? Preparing to take HomesDatabase to interested markets by licensing its underlying technology platform to other MLS organizations that want to benefit from the investment MRIS has made.
MLS myths beware.
What MRIS Learned from Its Consumer Research
1. Consumers notice when a site offers incomplete or outdated listings data.
2. Maps are best as a secondary, not primary, means of searching.
3. Consumers are highly suspicious of any request to register for access to content or features, and require assurances of privacy.
4. Clear, clickable photos of listings-and lots of them-are imperative.
“The Story of Mr. Is”
MRIS decided to communicate the mission and benefits of the HomesDatabase project to its 60,000 subscribers in a creative way: through a comic book superhero, “Mr. Is.”
The character-whose name is a variation of the MRIS acronym used by many in the company’s market-reflects the challenges and strengths of the practitioners who stand to benefit from the HomesDatabase site.
“The story of Mr. Is” was told in a four-part online comic book series published at the Mr. Is blog: http://mrisstory.com.
For more information, please visit www.mris.com.