The Seattle-based brokerage John L. Scott has waded into social networking waters in a pretty significant way with JLSconnect — a brand new service based on Microsoft’s Live platform. From the news release:
JLSconnect augments the previous “Property Tracker” service found on www.JohnLScott.com which provides the ability for individuals to log in and save “favorite” properties. JLSconnect adds new social networking capabilities to the Property Tracker experience that makes it possible for people to easily share and exchange comments on interested properties with others.
“Live Services are building block cloud services from Microsoft that John L. Scott utilizes to enrich the consumer experience,” says Sam Chenaur, Microsoft Platform Strategy Advisor. “With those services, John L. Scott is now able to allow users to see when their friends and family are online, provide instant messaging services to share and view property information, see and map properties with Microsoft Virtual Earth, and offer a single sign-on experience to all of those capabilities.”
This could be interesting, but it has the feel of a dollar short and a day late. If JLS had launched the service a couple of years ago (and conversations about doing this sort of social networking were happening inside Realogy as early as summer of 2007), it might have been different. But today, there are a lot more questions as to how JLSconnect will work out.
My concern is that if JLSconnect does not deliver the results that JLS may be expecting, it will be seen as evidence that social networking and social media in real estate don’t work.
Overview of JLSconnect
In order to criticize, no matter how constructively, one has to at least give a fair accounting of what it is that one is criticizing. So what is JLSconnect?
From what I can tell (more on this below), JLSconnect is an extension of JLS’s “saved properties” feature that every serious real estate search website has today. A user can go on the site, save properties to view later, email properties to friends, etc. By saving search criteria, the user can have new listings that fit that criteria emailed to him. All of these features have been mainstays of the real estate web since at least 2005.
What JLSconnect layers on top is the ability to use the Microsoft Live platform to, as JLS puts it, “allow users to see when their friends and family are online, provide instant messaging services to share and view property information, see and map properties with Microsoft Virtual Earth, and offer a single sign-on experience to all of those capabilities”.
I would love to tell you more in detail what that looks like. However, I wasn’t willing to sign up for Microsoft Live, seeing as how I already have too many websites, social networks, and other doodads into which I have to signon.
So instead, I resorted to interviewing Pat Giles, the VP of Marketing, e-Strategies, and IT for John L. Scott. Dems a lotta hats to wear, by the way, and Ms. Giles was very kind to spend a bunch of time with some random blogger. (Actually, wasn’t that random — many thanks to Shelley Rossi, Director of Public Relations, for setting up the interview.) [ED: You rate as media now? Walter Cronkite is turning over in his grave. ROB: Shut up!]
What follows is the transcript (edited only for typos, grammar, etc.) of our chat interview. Yes, this is a monstrously long post. But I thought it worth posting the full because it really does help give a sense of what it’s like to be working for a large organization with responsibilities for a whole lot of constituents, and literally thousands of stakeholders.
(Funny aside: we spent probably 30 minutes trying to get Microsoft Messenger working so we can do the interview… which sort of proves one of my points.)
Rob: So what was the motivation for JLS to do JLSconnect at all? What sort of benefits are you seeking to achieve with this?
Pat: When people are buying a home it is usually a group effort however when they get online it was an individual activity. Repeatedly we heard that people wanted to be able to share their lists of favorite properties. A couple of other “requests” were given.
- Want additional categories not just “favorites”
- Want to be able to make comments on properties and keep it all in one place
- See the information on a map.
Those I think were the items. The bottom line was to have a collaborative experience online around buying or selling a home.
Rob: I assume that before you guys undertook the JLSconnect project, you must have set some goals/expectations of what you wanted to achieve using the tool. Were such goals revenue goals, market share goals, brand goals? How do you plan on measuring the success of the program?
Pat: The main goal was to meet the [Gen-]X & Y consumer desire for a collaborative tool and get them to come to our site and stay there. As they progress through the looking stage to the buying stage since they have been using our site the likelihood of them using an agent from JLS would be higher. So the market share we were looking to capture is the X/Y buyer. Of course other demographics would use it.
One of the things about John L Scott is we also like to push the envelope and to use new technologies or at least newer technologies in new ways. That was also another reason for JLSconnect.
Rob: How did you determine that GenX/Y was wanting a collaborative tool for home buying?
Pat: If you look at their behavior just in general they are more collaborative and want to get peoples opinions as well as rate items. In addition we got feedback from our website that people wanted to share their lists and also agents who work with that set have told us that at time they take a group to a house to show it. The group consists of their peers usually.
Rob: At the planning stage, I assume you guys looked at all alternatives. With existing social network tools already in place — such as Facebook — why create your own? Why not create interfaces/API’s to allow users to share data on existing social networks?
Pat: We did look at the different options. We were looking for an option that could have a collaborative component as well as a chat component and we felt that Live Services offered that. The great thing is that Microsoft has been creating relationships with social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn so to bring in your contacts from those sites is about 3 or four clicks.
Rob: But that still requires the member to migrate to Microsoft Live, instead of using existing services, right?
Pat: That is correct. We felt with 500m Windows Live Users and 320M Live Messanger users we were selecting a platform, if you will, that had a large base, especially here in the [Pacific] NW.
Rob: And you know I was going to ask this 🙂 so I will. Why Microsoft Live? Google has a ton more users than Windows Live; Facebook even more. Twitter will likely surpass all of those in a matter of months. Why Microsoft? (The signin/logon process is truly annoying, and led to my not wanting to even try the JLSconnect product, to be honest.)
Pat: The sign-in process if you do not have accounts is definitly a challenge on any of the platforms. When you venture into something such as JLSconnect it is not always an easy choice to look at what vendors and partners to work with for the first release of a product. One of the great things about the beta is seeing where we can migrate the product to and other players (google/facebook) to tie into
Rob: Okay, moving on to a related and important topic, Pat. 🙂 As marketers, you and I both know that the beauty of online marketing and online technology generally is in the trackability. We can measure and see what difference various initiatives make. What are the KPI’s you guys will be looking at to see if JLSconnect is or is not a success? What are the KPI goals and over what time period?
Pat: The first thing that we will be watching is the amount of accounts that we get on JLSconnect. More importantly the usage of the tool, such as how many listings, and how many postings. On a longer term it is the attraction of agents to our company that use this type of tool with their buyers and sellers. That one is a little more subjective when you are tying it to innovation over time.
Rob: Do you offer other ways for users to “share” listings — like posting it to their Facebook page, or Twittering it? Of course, they can just do it themselves…
Pat: Not at this time. Agents do post in many areas as part of their marketing.
Rob: Ach… was thinking you could track usage by users of a “TweetThis” or a “Post this on your Facebook” vs. usage of JLSconnect… but you raise a very interesting point that I’ve run into while at Realogy. What’s been your agents’ response to JLSconnect? I’ve had agents reject tools because they felt the tools took away from the personalized service that the agent was providing to the customer.
Have you seen any pushback like that? If so, how have you addressed their concerns?
Pat: This was definitly designed around the consumer which will build in pushback, that I knew. I have explained to agents that the group who will gravitate to this wants this type of tool and my job is to bring them to JohnLScott.com. I do explain that this is not for everyone and was not designed to be. They really do understand that there are different segments of buyers. They also like that we push the envelope a little and did something that has not really been done like this.
That said, it is a starting point not an ending point and they like where we are going.
Rob: Which raises the obvious question, Pat. 🙂 Where are you going?
Pat: Where the consumer and agents are taking me!:-O I say that with a bit of humor but the reality is I have at least 6 groups that I have to build tools for: 3 agent groups ([Gen-]X/Y, Boomer, Other) and 3 consumers groups ([Gen-]X/Y, Boomer, Other) and we work to keep up with how they want to conduct business. I come from the high tech world and what I really enjoy about real estate right now is the speed at which things are changing. The social networking is just beginning to be used in this industry and watching it evolve will provide framework for where we go.
Rob: So you probably know that “Big Brokers” get a bum rap when it comes to innovation, to understanding the consumer, and so on. Why do you think that is, and what must Big Brokers, like JLS, do to reverse that image — especially when tech firms like Trulia, Zillow, and others are so visible in our industry?
Pat: Historically the tech firms you mentioned focused only on the consumer since they have no agents and were able to move at a faster pace. For Brokers I think it takes thinking out of the box and taking some risks in the approach and of course be nimble. If you try something and it does not work the way you want then figure out what needs to change or move on.
Rob: Isn’t this a fun time to be in marketing, technology and real estate? 🙂
Pat: I LOVE IT!
I really enjoyed chatting with Pat, and perhaps that colors my impressions — who knows? I’m human, despite rumors to the contrary.
I haven’t looked at JLSconnect at all. [Hrm… hang on.] Okay, I’m back. No good — got a login error when trying to login to Windows Live, and now the whole John L. Scott site is down. Pat did say it was in beta, and the whole site might just have crashed, which means IT folks out in Seattle are being awakened right now….
In any event, I think a few positives need to be highlighted.
First, John L Scott did try something “out of the box”, and did put resources into an initiative that the management team knew would create problems with some of their agents. That is a brave thing they did, especially in a down market, and they should be commended for that.
Second, I meant it when I said Big Brokerages get a bum rap about innovation and understanding the customer. Whether Pat and her team at JLS are right or wrong about the Gen-X/Y consumer wanting collaboration tools, or whether JLSconnect as implemented right now is the right collaboration tool, is somewhat beside the point. Ain’t none of us perfect, y’know? The interview made it clear to me that companies like JLS are focusing intently on the consumer, on consumer wants, consumer desires, consumer consumer consumer — even to the point of risking pushback from agents.
Third, JLS didn’t try to build the whole thing itself. Again, whether Microsoft Live was the right or wrong platform is beside the point for this issue. JLS understood that it is not in the technology business, but in the consumer service business. If that meant partnering with Microsoft, so be it.
On the Other Hand…
On the negative side, I came away thinking that Microsoft was absolutely the wrong partner, and Windows Live absolutely the wrong platform for JLS. I think that after the beta phase is done with, Pat and her team may very well be migrating to a different platform for social networking.
The technical difficulties can maybe be overlooked, although I’m seriously unimpressed by how the boys and girls at Redmond can take something as simple as signing on to an online network account and make it annoying. But maybe that’s just me, this computer, this time of night, stars not in alignment, whatever. Nonetheless, taking 15 seconds to even show me the login screen is just not acceptable. (And that’s Windows Live site directly, not JLS’s site.)
The bigger issue is that Microsoft and Windows Live are simply not players (yet) in social networking space. FaceBook more or less dominates this space, with Google a strong second (IMHO) because of Gmail, Google Chat, and Blogger. Plus, MySpace ain’t dead yet. LinkedIn dominates its niche of job searching, recruiting, and business connections, but collaborating on home buying doesn’t seem to be its niche there. And Twitter is coming on extremely strong.
The 500M Windows Live and 320M Live Messenger base sounds great, except that I just don’t believe (and would love to see some data proving/disproving this point) that those 500M/320M are really engaging in social networking that much. First, 500M is more than the population of the United States. Second, Windows Live includes all sorts of services, like XBox Live which boasts 10M users, and HotMail.
Granted, Microsoft obviously wants to muscle into the hot social networking space in a big way, and Microsoft is still the largest and wealthiest software company in the world… but it’s going to take time to establish itself (if it ever does) in this niche.
So for a real estate company launching a new program into beta whose success or failure will be measured by consumer usage… I’m not sold that partnering with a “new entrant” is the ideal way to proceed. At a minimum, I would have included the “Tweet This Listing” or “Put on Facebook” buttons or some such, just to track what percentage of consumers used those tools vs. using JLSconnect. Hey, the sucker’s in beta, right? Include those buttons today and track usage metrics.
The final critique — if it can even be called that — is that although pushing ahead with the project was courageous, should be commended, and is evidence that JLS is thinking about innovation, thinking about the consumer, and constantly looking to stretch… social networking is too conservative a play.
Is there any Gen-X/Gen-Y consumer or agent in 2009 who is going, “Oh wow! I can send this listing to my friend over instant messenger. How cool is that?” Even Oprah is getting into Twitter. Social networking and sharing-over-IM were innovative five years ago; they are about as mainstream as it can get in 2009.
Sure, JLSconnect may be more innovative compared to its competitors. But is that good enough to attract consumer attention? I don’t know. I doubt it.
If JLS or any Big Brokerage is going to go for innovation, go for the wow-factor, and use technology to engage consumers, attract agents, and drive business… it’s going to have to go out on a limb. It’s going to have to start thinking sci-fi, then go find partners whose business is technology, and make them come up with a solution.
Just one example. Let me click on a listing, see not just a photo, but a 3-D photorealistic rendering of the house, with a sun path diagram:
Then, show me daily usage of electricity, heat, water, etc. in both unit terms (e.g., KWh) as well as cost ($USD).
Then let me do a sun path diagram on all surrounding structures, so I know exactly where my neighbor’s house’s shadow is going to fall at what time of day, depending on the season.
This is just one random off-the-top-of-my-head fantasy. I’m sure people can think of others.
Oooh, thought of another one — how about Sixth Sense for all of your agents?
Or give the client a Sixth Sense loaded with all of the neighborhood and property information, and let them go on a walking tour, seeing prices project right onto the house they’re looking at, or seeing traffic statistics right on the road. The possibilities are bounded only by imagination.
The point is that because real estate companies are in the business of providing services to buyers and sellers, they can’t possibly be innovative enough from a technology standpoint without going the “are you nuts?” route. Technologists are already doing those things.
What the tech people don’t know is the problem to be solved in the real estate world. Tell them those problems and challenge them to find a solution.
Thinking “outside the box” may not be enough for brokerage companies to drive real innovation that will get consumers and agents truly excited. They might have to destroy the damn box instead.
Yep, this got long… what else is new, right? Well, thanks for sticking through it if you’ve made it all the way through.