It’s the Listings, Stupid

Are you giving consumers the online experience they want?

July 11, 2013

People often ask me, “What’s your business strategy?” In a nutshell: If you build it, they will come. By “they,” I mean everyone—sellers, buyers, brokers, and agents. And by “it,” I mean an online experience that gives consumers exactly what they’re looking for.

Let me back up a bit. I’m the broker-owner of Hawai’i Life. We’ve been fortunate to experience growth in one of the worst real estate markets in U.S. history. We went from $4.3 million in sales in 2008 to over $500 million in 2012, and today we have more than 130 brokers and salespeople in 10 offices throughout Hawaii.

But we didn’t start out with our strategy fully formed. Hawai’i Life began as a referral brokerage. You know what that is—the kind of company that calls you randomly and says, “How would you like to receive leads in your market area?”

Awesome, right? Yeah, not really.

When we started, we were just two agents in a 500-square-foot office on the second floor of a building in Kapaa Town, on the island of Kauai. Our office was so hidden from the public that when people wandered in, we’d ask in surprise, “How’d you find us?” Invariably, the answer was online.

That got us thinking seriously about the direction of our online strategy.

What we discovered early on was that if you give consumers a better online search experience, preferably one that’s local and authentic, filled with listings they can browse with ease, they will come—and stay. If you muddy that experience with a real estate professional’s large, airbrushed face or huge corporate banner ads, they bounce.

When we converted the company into a bricks-and-mortar brokerage in 2008, we insisted that marketing listings be the fundamental reason for our existence. We set out to build the best real estate marketing platform available. And we’re still on that journey. So what does “the best real estate marketing platform” really mean? It starts with technology.

Consider this: The typical REALTOR® today is in her mid-50s. A majority of real estate professionals were already working adults before Internet usage became mainstream. If you’re like most practitioners, you remember (and, in some cases, yearn for) the days when the only access to listings was via the MLS book. But today, consumers have access to the virtual equivalent of the MLS book. And practically every real estate professional has to be in the online publishing business.

However, even though everyone’s a publisher, we’re all putting out the same—or at least similar—stuff. In this case, that content is listing content. So how do you compete? Simple: Focus on the experience and give consumers exactly what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. What do they want? What we know for sure is that they want to search listings. Not just your listings. All the listings. And they want the easiest, most user-friendly experience possible.

What we did was deliver on that desire. For, we built a search tool that shows every listing in Hawaii, broken down by island. We also created a blog where our agents can share their opinions about the communities they work in and the current market.

We spent a lot of time asking questions and seeing how our Web site performed. How long were our customers spending on it? How could we use it to promote the listings we were hired to sell without alienating the visitors?

Once we built up our Web presence, we were able to lure some of the top salespeople in the state. They understood what we could provide: exposure. They seek to promote their listings and themselves. For the most part, we didn’t even have to “recruit” them. They joined our company because the benefits were obvious.

Real estate is a fascinating hybrid of relationships and meritocracy. When you get results, people notice. And success breeds success. That’s been the case for us, and it can be for you.

Note: Opinions expressed in “Commentary” do not necessarily reflect the position of the National Association of REALTORS® or REALTOR® Magazine.