Digital Strategist Matthew Shadbolt talks about “contextual content,” silent simplicity, and why it’s unhealthy to focus on your competitors.
Matthew Shadbolt is the Director of Interactive Product & Marketing at The Corcoran Group, Manhattan’s leading real estate brokerage, where he handles all of Corcoran’s interactive output and advertising. His responsibilities include the tactical value-building implementation of new features for multiple interactive platforms such as corcoran.com, as well as Corcoran’s initiatives in social media, advertising, video, mobile and search.
Under Shadbolt’s guidance, Corcoran’s online audience has quadrupled in less than 5 years. He recently spearheaded the organization’s first steps into mobile marketing and content production with the launch of its first iPhone and Android applications, and is an active participant in Corcoran’s social media presence across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Foursquare.
Prior to joining Corcoran, Shadbolt spent five years at Home Shopping Network QVC, first as Senior Interactive Designer at QVC UK in London (where he developed the world’s first real-time interactive television purchasing application), and later as Manager of Graphics at QVC headquarters in the United States, where he oversaw the creative strategy and production of QVC’s broadcast output and brand strategy.
A native of the United Kingdom, Shadbolt graduated from the Jan van Eyck Akademie in The Netherlands in 1998 with a Postgraduate Laureate, specializing in Interactive Design. He has taught at numerous academic institutions, including Oxford, Yale, New York University (NYU), and the Art Institute of Philadelphia. He’s also spoken at numerous national and international conference panels on topics related to real estate advertising and the industry’s interactive future.
Shadbolt’s work has been published across many publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, Mashable, Crains, Forbes, and The Huffington Post. In addition to being a regular writer for Inman Next, a website focused on technology for the real estate industry, Shadbolt is a frequent contributor to industry publications such as The Real Deal, Curbed, and Inman News. Shadbolt has been a member of the New York Chapter of AIGA since 2004, and is an enthusiastic member of the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society. He is also a current member of the Hitwise Online Competitive Analysis and Analytics Advisory Board.
Placester’s Seth Price caught up with Shadbolt recently to get his thoughts on Manhattan, better search tools, and why the real estate industry is in the middle of a watershed moment.
Placester: What are you working on right now?
Matthew Shadbolt: Right now I’m working on the creative package for Corcoran’s Annual Awards Ceremony, a large event we hold internally to celebrate the achievements of our best and most successful agents over the previous year. It’s our version of the Academy Awards. My team oversees and creates all the visual elements that go into the production of the event, from animated video sequences for announcing winner categories, to music choices and visual backdrops for the speakers, right through to signage and even what the food served at the event looks like. I’m heavily involved in the events each year, and this will be the sixth year I’ve created all of the visuals. This year it’s being held at the rooftop suite at 230 Fifth Avenue in The Flatiron District, one of my favorite places in all of Manhattan, with some of the best views of the city. Our event takes place as the sun sets over the skyline, which is truly magical. It’s a tremendous amount of fun, and for the four hours that the event lasts, it’s always amazing to see everyone at Corcoran getting together to get energized for the new year.
Ultimately I believe that digital users want beautiful, magical experiences, but there’s an investment in time and resources in order to build those kinds of products.
P: What does your typical day look like?
MS: I have a two year old, so between my family and my job, sleep is in short supply. My days always start incredibly early, and end very late. Outside of that, there’s no real typical day. I never know what I’m going to post on our social platforms, or work on, until I get up in the morning. We never plan or schedule our content, and I feel our presence is stronger for that more deliberately reactive approach.
In terms of routine, I like to read The New York Times during the morning commute, and I’m slowly adopting reading habits on the iPad via the New Yorker app and Instapaper, both of which are fantastic. I usually spend about 2 hours of every day reading. I try to spend as little time as possible in email. My only other staple is that I read to my daughter every night. I think it’s important that she grows up with a love of books. Real books, with pages. For me, reading is a shared, tactile experience.
P: What is the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
MS: For two years I worked as a Creative Director in the music industry, prior to joining Corcoran. When I took the job I truly thought it was the best decision I’d ever made, combining two things I really loved–creative and music. Unfortunately, it simply killed my love of music, and for that I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for making that decision.
P:Three real estate trends that excite you?
MS: 1. The new construction in Manhattan is incredibly exciting right now, with some amazing buildings being completed. The skyline, especially in Midtown, is undergoing a really huge, exciting transformation at the moment, resulting in some of the most spectacular views and living spaces you could ever imagine.
2. I’m excited how neighborhood information online is finally beginning to mature. For years it’s been very one-dimensional, and essentially a data dump of amenities, stores and classifieds. Startups such as Nabwise, Street Advisor and Walkscore are creating wonderful products, and I’m excited to see what they do with the filter of ‘time of day’ applied to their content. For example, walking through Midtown Manhattan is a completely different experience in the morning versus what it is in the evening – I think this represents an enormously fertile open space for real estate professionals to play in.
3. The blending of localized insight in and around search, especially in mobile, is emerging, and it’s really exciting. In a move away from “lists of results,” searching for listings is finally growing up and transitioning to “finding homes,” through the use of other neighborhood content placed contextually around properties. Some call this hyperlocal, or hypersocial content, but I think it goes (and needs to go) much deeper than that. Search is becoming more visual, and different models of interaction for answering real estate questions inside of search are being built. Look around: we’re in the middle of an incredibly important, innovative, creative and disruptive time in our industry’s history.
Those agents who embrace the technological freight train coming at them will be the ones still in business in the future. It’s an incredibly disruptive time to be an agent, and embracing change is not easy in the face of so much distracting and often conflicting advice.
P: How should real estate professionals think about their competition?
MS: I’ve never thought it was a healthy thing to focus on what your competitors are doing, as the distraction it causes to what you’re doing yourself becomes too great. Be ambiently aware of what they’re up to, of course, but exclusively think about what you’re doing, and only what you’re doing. Compare yourself to organizations outside of the real estate industry, and learn from them. For example, I think what Coca-Cola are doing in social media this year is incredible. If you’re worrying about what others are doing, that’s valuable time spent not creating amazing experiences for your own customers.
P: How do you bring ideas to life?
MS: Slowly, cumulatively, and with lots and lots of iteration. I like to experiment with our marketing approach, and as such we often take a “sandbox” approach where our presence on a platform will be purely speculative and exploratory.
What we’re currently doing in Google+ is a good example of this. When we’re ready to create a more significant product with the platform, then we take it out of the sandbox and begin to fold it into the rest of our advertising and marketing efforts at scale.
What we built with Foursquare is a good illustration of this working well for us — it was in the sandbox for about a year before we fully released it.
P: What inspires you?
MS: Beautiful, silent simplicity. And Peter Saville. And Manhattan (of course).
You have have to step outside of listing-specific information. Doing this in a way that is unique to your market, unique to your audience and skillset is key. It’s about finding that little slice of your world and completely owning that conversation.
P: What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
MS: In 1994 a friend and I went to The Reading Festival in England, a huge 3-day rock festival not unlike Lollapalooza here. He suggested we go and watch Radiohead on the main stage (this was the era of ‘The Bends’ where they were still relatively small), but I declined his offer in favor of staying at the smaller tent and watching Elastica, of whom I was a huge fan at the time. Looking back, it was one of the singularly worst decisions of my life. I’ve still never seen Radiohead live, but would love to one day. Always, always listen to your friends.
P: How do you measure success?
MS: Success is defined in different ways for different people, but a noble goal for digital marketers is simply to have as many people as possible say positive things about you every day. If they’re doing that, then what you’re doing is working.
P: What advice would you give an agency looking to grow their online presence?
MS: Focus, and grow things in phases. Be a ruthless editor. There’s a huge danger in just adopting everything at once, at which point nothing grows well. Pick a platform, and grow that as aggressively as you can for six months–learn what works, measure, and adapt to what your users tell you. Listen. Differentiate yourself. Then begin to add things. Ultimately, I believe that digital users want beautiful, magical experiences, but there’s an investment in time and resources in order to build those kinds of products.
P: If you had to buy some real estate today, what would you want that experience to be like?
MS: Absolutely painless and as digital as possible. I want to know what’s inside the agent’s head.
P: How do you see technology shaping the business of real estate in the future?
MS: Our industry is undergoing seismic shifts as a direct result of the technology developments of the past five years. It’s aggressively disintermediating the agent from the process, as transactions become paperless, syndication is widespread, and the commoditization of what the agent knows is rampant. Those agents who embrace the technological freight train coming at them will be the ones still in business in the future. It’s an incredibly disruptive time to be an agent, and embracing change is not easy in the face of so much distracting and often conflicting advice.
I think mobile is still in its infancy for the real estate vertical, but has the potential to dramatically alter how we think of “location location location.” I hope to see more exciting work coming out of home search in the future too — I feel it’s time to move past drop downs, checkboxes, and pages of results. I want technology to help me answer the question, “what does it feel like to live there?”
P: I know you’re a huge proponent of social media. With all the choices out there to participate, where should an agent focus their limited energies for the best results?
MS: I’m reluctant to say Facebook, but it’s probably Facebook. It also depends on the market, on who you are and where you are. Agents should start by using Twitter to listen to conversations about neighborhoods. No tweeting, just listening. That’s a great first step: Use social as a listening tool to understand your audience. How much energy does it take to listen?
P: How do you see social media intersecting with traditional and online advertising?
MS: One of the interesting things we’re seeing on TV is the idea of the company URL going away. Very often, the call to action is a social one. The company website is somewhat outdated. The web is moving away from static pages and content towards conversations and engagement.
P: Who should drive this social movement within an organization?
MS: Somebody needs to be accountable and in charge, setting the direction. Group think is not very effective, in my opinion. This person needs to be the brand incarnate. It’s a very critical role: Putting out fires, building brand equity interaction by interaction. These people have the capacity to save businesses. Frank Eliason is a best case example of someone in this position. I tend to look at other industries for examples of great implementation of social engagement. Think about Coca-Cola, or Best Buy.
P: In the midst of the disintermediation that agents are experiencing, how can they provide value beyond what is available to the masses?
MS: When you look at what an agent does online, 98% is listing-centric. That’s the problem that fuels the disintermediation: in order to remain visible in search, you have have to step outside of listing-specific information. Doing this in a way that is unique to your market, unique to your audience and skillset is key. It’s about finding that little slice of your world and completely owning that conversation. People are starting to lock up geographic conversations. Look at what we did at the Inman event. We tried to engage the audience long before the event, acting as the unofficial host. Because of that, almost every time there was a conversation about the event, we were part of that conversation. Take a look at real estate in Austin Texas, when you search in that area, one group is dominating the conversation. This is starting to happen all over the country.
P: What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
MS: Make sure your users have something to do when they see your content. The days of passive digital consumption are over. What I mean by that is, the web is becoming more of a stream-based, conversation-based, social web. Not giving your viewers something to do defeats your intent.
P: What do you read every day, and why?
MS: The New York Times, BBC and The New Yorker for news (and sometimes the Wall Street Journal), with Zite, Curbed, Grub Street and Mashable for blogs. My guilty pleasure is Julia Allison’s lifestream blog.
P: What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?
MS: Grouped, by Paul Adams. It’s a small book written by one of the lead product developers for Google+, who recently joined Facebook to work on their Timeline product. It advocates an approach of moving away from thinking of the web in terms of destinations or pages, and more about focusing on sharing and conversations. If you’re interested in the future of interactions on the web, and how people share and discover content, this is a wonderful resource.
P: What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?
MS: I love my iPod Nano wristwatch.
P:Three people we should follow on Twitter, and why?
MS: : Paul Carr (@paulcarr), ex-Techcrunch blogger, has one of the sharpest wits on the web. If you can get past the extreme sarcasm, Paul really knows what he’s talking about, and has incredible insight into the future of the web. He lives in hotels, and has an amazing life story. His autobiography ‘The Upgrade’ is one of the best travel books I’ve ever read.
Alex Rainert (@arainert), Head of Product at Foursquare. Writes the best personal blog of anyone I know. Understands usability like no-one else.
David Carr (@carr2n), Media Desk Writer for The New York Times. Another inspiring life story. Simply put, it’s a delight to read David’s columns.
P: What Real Estate expert would you love to see us interview?
MS: Nouriel Roubini. Or Andrew Carnegie. But since one is inaccessible and the other is dead, Michael Arington, Paul Carr or Fred Wilson come to mind.
P: When is the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
MS: There’s a small British indie movie call ‘The Trip’ starring Steve Coogan, one of my favorite English comedians. Here he is discussing “leaving at daybreak.”
P: How can people connect with you?
P: Where are you located?
Manhattan, New York City.