Web Sites: The Next Generation

With the right interactive programming, you can transform your Web site into a sophisticated marketing and sales tool that offers every visitor a highly personalized, highly responsive experience.

October 1, 1998

In this comprehensive package, you can eavesdrop on a Q&A with two Web-savvy practitioners, read about coming attractions in interactive Web software, consider how much you're willing to learn to set up complex interactivity at your site yourself, and contact the next-generation practitioners who you meet here.

When the Web first appeared on the scene, slick simply meant having a graphically pleasing Web site. But these days, Net cruisers want much more. They want interactive tools at the site so that they can begin to conduct business with you or your company.

The tools may be as simple as search engines to find their way around the site more quickly or as high-tech as virtual reality tours of properties that peak their interest.

"Multimedia applications have transformed the Web from a publishing medium to an interactive medium," says Stella Gassaway, coauthor of Designing Multimedia Web Sites (Hayden Books, Indianapolis). "The word interactive has come to represent the most dramatic demonstrations of user control."

Where Few Practitioners Have Gone Before

Here are nine interactive elements that every next-generation real estate Web site should consider.

1. Web site search engines

Too many Web sites are little more than elephantine filing cabinets floating in cyberspace. There's plenty of information, but digging for it can be irksome. On-site search engines help solve that problem by fetching data for users.

Practice with search engines like Yahoo! or Excite and then decide how you can put a search engine to use on your Web site.

Judy McCutchin, owner of Judy McCutchin's Dallas Real Estate, has done her homework on this one. Visitors to her site can use a search engine to bring back listings in their price bracket. Each listing is accompanied by a picture of the property, a map, and a contact number.

Equally impressive is the property listings search engine at John L. Scott's site, where visitors can choose among 26,000 property listings.

If you want to add a search engine to your site, you'll find information at www.searchenginewatch.com.

2. Special interest data

You can't anticipate the frame of reference of every visitor who stops by. But homebuyers generally do have some predictable needs, and that's where special interest content can shine.

Berkeley, California-based Prudential Real Estate's site addresses those needs with a vengeance. The site has exhaustively detailed sections for buyers, sellers, Berkeley residents, visitors, and real estate practitioners.

"We wanted to appeal to the sophisticated Web user who's usually offended by glitz and desirous of good content, carefully presented," says Tim Cannon, a manager at the company.

Another special interest data domain can be found at the site of Janet H. Ridder, CRS®, associate broker with Bolton-Johnston Associates, GrossePoint Farms, Mich. She devotes an entire section of her site to free advice. Links to other Web sites featuring expert advice on moving, mortgage interest rate calculation, home architecture, gardening, and a moving costs calculator are all here for the clicking.

Moreover, the site offers generous links to articles about home mortgages, such as common mortgage terms and fixed vs. adjustable rates, as well as links to Fannie Mae, the VA, FHA, and weekly average loan rates.

And Sparta, N.J.-based Garden Gate Properties' site offers a link to Mapblast! a free online tool that enables users to create a map between virtually any two locations in the country.

3. Request-for-more-info forms

Although fundamental to any interactive Web site, request-for-more-information forms are still the exception on the Web--at least in the experience of this 30-hour-a-week Web cruiser.

These forms are little more than questionnaires, but they can be mined to build mailing lists and analyze customer preferences.

At Judy McCutchin's site, for example, visitors can request a hard copyof her "Dallas relocation package" in exchange for a few things Judy would like to know about them.

4. Text-only option buttons

Too many Web sites feature all the technological bells and whistles known to man. Many people cruise the Net with 28.8K modems and low-power PCs, so savvy Web site builders accommodate those slower cruisers by enabling them to click to text-only versions. Users get to the data they want without being forced to endure interminable download times for fancy graphics and frames they don't want anyway.

5. Online slide presentations

Marketing departments have been creating PC-based presentations in programs such as Microsoft Powerpoint and Corel Presentations for years. The latest versions of these and similar packages enable those presentations to be posted on the Web.

Ridder's site offers a good example of a slide presentation. She has put together a slick automated presentation of snapshots that give users a feel for the community.Meanwhile, at Steve Hatfield's site, visitors can take a charming and extensive manual point-and-click tour of Dearborn, Mich. "If you're serious about having a Web site that will bring you results, be willing to put some time, effort, and money into developing a unique and truly useful site," says Hatfield, a salesperson for Century21--Curran & Johnson, Dearborn Heights, Mich. "If you do it right, the rewards will be many."

6. Online newsletters

Going with the theory that the longer a potential customer lingers at a Web site, the greater the chance of a sale, some practitioners, such as Ridder, are posting newsletters on their sites. Some companies enable visitors to read their online newsletter after they've entered their contact data on an interactive form. That's another quick and easy way to develop leads and gather visitor demographics.

7.Freebie downloads

Nothing enamors a Net cruiser like free data and software to download. Visitors to Hatfield's site can download a number of real estate-related shareware packages. People who try a package and like it are expected to send a fee to the software's author.

Hatfield doesn't reap any monetary benefits from the arrangement but he generates good will by making the software available.

8. Cool tools

At Judy McCutchin's site, visitors can complete an interactive market analysis form to quickly inform McCutchin of the kind of property they're seeking. It's a common sense tool that many practitioners haven't yet added to their interactive arsenal.

9. Panoramic virtual reality software

These packages enable prospective clients to experience a photo-realistic 3-D tour of a home or property. Garden Gate Properties features panoramic virtual reality at its site, created with Spin Panorama 2.0 by PictureWorks.

Rubloff Residential Properties, Chicago, also offers 360-degree walk-throughs of properties at its site. The walk-throughs are the creation of Ipix Interactive Pictures. Other Web-based panoramic virtual reality work is being done by Infinite Pictures, View360, Evox Productions, and Communique.

Since interactive Web technology keeps improving, it's understandable that many practitioners-cum-site developers groan about keeping up. But painful as it may seem, next generation Web sites rooted in interactivity will soon be considered de rigueur across the Web. Offer Netizens a slick, interactive experience, and there's a good chance you'll transform a Net cruiser into a Net customer.

Up Close With Two Web-Savvy Practitioners

Today's REALTOR® talked with Steve Hatfield, a Dearborn Heights, Mich.-based salesperson for Century 21-Curran & Johnson, and Jim Hicks, a broker and one of the primary designers of the Sparta, N.J.-based Garden Gate Properties site. Both are well acquainted with interactive technology and offer their insights into what works for real estate pros on the Web.

What quantifiable results have you achieved with your Web site?

Hatfield: Since adding interactive forms, I've seen a substantial increase in the number of inquiries generated from my site. On average, I receive about 15-20 E-mail or online inquiries per month from prospective buyers and sellers. Of those inquiries, approximately 10 percent to 15 percent end up being qualified, serious prospects. My Web site averages 35-40 visitors per day.

Hicks: We're averaging 19 new inquiries per month over the Web. That may not seem like a lot, but for a small agency like ours-- surrounded by six giant regional and national franchise agencies, all within a 10-minute walk--it's good.

How much did it cost you to put up a Web site?

Hatfield: $2,615 for development; $25 per month for maintenance.

Hicks: $330 for development; $30 per month for maintenance.

What software packages were used in developing the site?

Hatfield: Adobe Photoshop 4.0 (for graphics) and Ultra Edit software (for HTML coding).

Hicks: Claris Home Page (for HTML coding) and Adobe Photoshop and PictureWorks Spin Panorama 2.0 (for panoramic virtual reality pictures).

Who developed your site?

Hatfield: We hired a Web designer originally but decided to take maintenance in-house. Otherwise, the cost would have been prohibitive.

Hicks: We designed it ourselves. We didn't want to be at the mercy of an outside designer who might or might not be there in the future.

New Web Tools to Watch For

During the coming year, look for more interactive Web technologies to proliferate on the Web and raise the bar on interactivity even higher. What follows is a sampling:

Chat room software--Most Internet insiders readily admit that the application that made America Online the No. 1 Internet service provider was its easy-to-use chat rooms. Here, visitors can chat back and forth by typing text messages to one another over the Net. Packages like Webmaster's Conference Room enable you to easily add a chat room to your site.

Click-and-call software--Packages like Sprint's Give-Me-A-Call enable a potential customer to click on a Web site icon and get a call back on a second phone line almost instantaneously. The application is perfect for homebuyers who are perusing realty companies' sites at work and can accept a call back from a practitioner on their desk phone.

Teleweb software--Besides enabling a customer to "click-and-call," these software packages also let a practitioner transmit images of property listings to customers over the Web while talking to those same customers by phone.

Some packages also allow users to talk to potential customers, PC to PC, via Internet phone. The software isn't specifically designed for REALTORS®, but it can easily be programmed for the industry.

Database-to-Web fusion software--Companies looking to offer potential customers access to huge databases of property listings will want a computer programming professional to evaluate these programs. It's possible for an amateur to use these; but the learning curve is steep.

More info: Allaire Cold Fusion 3.0, Computer Associates' Jasmine, HREF Tools' Web Hub, or Oracle Web Application Server

Webcam portals--The technology already exists to offer a live video feed from over the Web. Such technology could be used for videoconferencing or, conceivably, for giving customers live video walk-throughs of homes and properties.

The only problem: Typical connections to the Internet are too slow to take any practical advantage of the technology. Still, it's a technology to watch closely. More info: Type "webcam" into any popular Internet search engine.

Know the Facts Before You Proceed

Fortunately, one of the inspiring things about the Web is that new twists on slick interactivity are happening all the time.

One caution: Creating interactive tools demands a fairly sophisticated knowledge of Web authoring software. You can install any of the elements mentioned in this article at a site--as long as you're willing to learn the software needed to achieve the effects.

Jim Hicks, a broker and one of the primary designers behind the Garden Gate Properties site, is among those going it alone. "Any practitioner with the endurance to make a living in real estate is overqualified for real estate Web site design," he says. Still, taking the helm of a Web site is a choice to consider carefully. Currently, fees for Web design are all over the map, though industry market research firm Jupiter, based in Manhattan, says the average Web design firm charges $96 an hour.

Joe Dysart is an Internet business consultant and technology writer who has been published in Virtual Reality World, The New York Times, NETWorker, and Advertising Age's Business Marketing.

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