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Hyperlocal Marketing: Is It Fair to “Own” the Conversation?

By Colin Ryan

Industry News

In a recent interview with Placester’s own Seth Price, Matthew Shadbolt of the Corcoran Group discussed ways for real estate agents to provide value beyond what’s available to their consumers. One solution: go hyper-local.

By controlling the online discussion about a small geographical area, the idea goes, you regain the authority that once characterized the best agents. “It’s about finding that little slice of your world and completely owning that conversation,” Shadbolt said.  This, however, may be easier said than done, particularly if someone has beaten you to the punch. As Shadbolt pointed out, “People are starting to lock up geographic conversations.”

The idea of dominating local real estate search isn’t exactly new. For quite a while, the most savvy and determined agents have been using SEO, social media, and quality content to push themselves to the top of the list in the regions they serve. What is relatively new, however, is the idea of owning local search and marketing not as a result of ingenuity or dedication, but good old-fashioned cash dollars.

Consider Complete Homes, an iPhone app launched by Visionary Apps back in 2010 that allowed agents to “purchase” all the listings in a particular zip code. For $24.99 a month, realtors could have their pictures and contact information appear exclusively whenever someone searched a property in that ZIP code, regardless of whether the listing belonged to them. The idea caught on: at one point, Complete Homes was one of the top 10 most downloaded business apps for the iPhone. Consequently, when the feature was introduced, people were buying as many as 50 zip codes at once.

There’s one problem, though: Only one agent could possess each ZIP code. As Visionary Apps suggests on their own website, it’s possible to be locked out:

As we expand into new outlets and continue to generate more leads for our partners we unfortunately cannot expand zip code availability. Many of our partners are signing up for our service now to lock in their territories not only to generate leads with the existing program but also in anticipation of our continued growth.

A spokesman for Visionary Apps informed us that Complete Realty is phasing out this program in favor of a software licensing model. Whether agents should be disappointed or relieved about this remains to be seen. That is, Complete Homes may have sounded like a good idea to realtors in 2010, but today, how many ZIP codes are left to purchase? And how does that affect those who have been effectively shut out? Does it provide those who have secured the service with an unfair advantage? Not necessarily. After all, Complete Homes is just one of many avenues out there to engage leads in the real estate space.

Still, Visionary Apps isn’t the only one selling this kind of listings leg up. Consider listings giant Realtor.com, whose Connections program does essentially the same thing, allowing agents to attach themselves to a ZIP code and “enhance” its listings with added photos.

Granted, Realtor.com received the NAR’s blessing for Connections, and there are limits built into the program. Brokers, for instance, can opt out of the program so that their listings can’t be used to generate leads for other agents. In practice, however, few do so, largely because the boost in marketing exposure is too good to pass up. This, however, doesn’t do agents any favors.

In any case, I’m less concerned about these particular programs and more concerned about the trend they represent. The Internet has always been an eminently open and democratic medium, not just in terms of what you can say and do on it but also in terms of your potential to be heard and seen. Payment structures like Complete Homes and Connections have the potential to close off the web, to fence it in and parcel it out in ways we’ve never done before.

Though exclusive lead generation deals have only a minor effect on the industry today, if unchecked, they have the potential to create something of a real estate oligarchy, with an elite few reaping all the benefits of the listings harvest. As businesspeople, real estate professionals are perhaps more concerned with competition than they are with fairness — but the question is: What’s the former without the latter?

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