Make checks payable to Trulia.com

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I’m Trulia in a quandry. 

This morning Trulia officially launches their self-proclaimed “first-ever agent product”, Trulia Agent Featured Listings. Here is an excerpt from their press release:

TRULIA LAUNCHES SELF-SERVICE PREMIUM LISTINGS FOR REAL ESTATE AGENTS

Agent Featured Listings boosts online traffic from serious home buyers through top placement in search results and addition of custom contact information

San Francisco, CA, November 8, 2007 – Trulia.com, the fastest-growing U.S. real estate Web site, today announced the launch of Trulia Agent Featured Listings, a premium advertising service that delivers greater exposure to property listings and enables real estate professionals to attach contact information, including email and phone, to their listings on Trulia.com.

Agents whose listings appear on Trulia can choose to highlight up to 10 individual listings with preferred placement on the site. When consumers search for homes for sale on Trulia.com, featured listings that match their search criteria will appear in the top three search results. Consumers can click on an expanded property detail page to view a listing agent’s photo, phone number and send an email directly to the agent who represents the properties they’re most interested in viewing.

“Trulia Agent Featured Listings is one of many steps we’re taking to deliver marketing value to real estate agents by connecting them with more of Trulia’s serious home buyers — 81 percent of whom are looking to purchase a home in the next 12 months,” said Sami Inkinen, co-founder and COO of Trulia.com.

The blogs will be humming this morning. Trulia, as every good web bot should, went the viral route and did a triple-secret prerelease of the added features to the bloggers among us and an invitation to Beta test-drive, with the requisite sermons  embargoed until 6:00 AM Pacific Time. That would be me, and here I am!

First, for my confessional. Forgive me, Trulia, for I have sinned. I got busy, and then I got sidetracked, and then I forgot about you altogether in the cosmic vacuum I call my email inbox. So, I haven’t really participated in the Beta testing at all. What I have done, however, is surf a blue streak over to the sign-in page and ante up. Why?

Because I am impulsive, and sometimes it takes my brain awhile to catch up with my checkbook.

My feelings on this are a little involved, and they have less to do with Trulia specifically and more to do with the online direction our business is taking in general. In the early days, agents like myself recognized that the consumer was moving online. As a listing agent, I knew that my clients’ homes should be advertised there to realize maximum exposure. This was intuitive – Go where the buyers are going. First, it was agent and broker websites that provided this online exposure. Then came Realtor.com.

It was Realtor.com who first took our listings through IDX (Internet Data Exchange) feed and displayed them on their site. So far, so good. All roads still led back to the owners of those listings – the agents (or, for you purists, their brokers). Sure, we saw the flashing ad banners and rapidly multiplying side bar ads promoting our competitors, but we turned a blind eye. Everything comes with a cost. And, strictly speaking, the display of our listings cost us nothing. Besides, our clients were benefiting.

Business is business, though, and a business is in it for the money. What a great world we live in where you need only lease the space and manage the store but the cost of your product is zip. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to allow Realtor.com to “borrow” my listings for their for-profit venture. I was given the “opportunity” to make my listings stand out. I was now invited to pay thousands of dollars a year for the privilege of writing my own text to accompany my own listings, and to otherwise “enhance” them. I reluctantly went along. I really had no choice. My clients were better served by a more impressive online presence; they expected it, and I was obliged and even happy to deliver.

Good entrepreneurs will follow the money, and follow they did. We all held the barn door open while the herd charged out to graze in the verdant real estate pasture. Oodles, Backpages, Yahoos, Googles, Trulias, Zillows and others, too many to count, got into the business of capitalizing on the online migration. Each knew that that their ultimate success would depend on populating their site with data, our data, so they each extended the offer to advertise our listings “for free”. Who doesn’t like free? Besides, our clients would be better served; they expected it, and we were obliged and even happy to deliver.

So, now we find ourselves in that place where our work is no longer proprietary. It is wholly in the public domain, and we have put it there. But, everything eventually comes at a cost. Trulia’s offering, which is now the trend du jour, is not about benefiting the client but about benefiting the agent. It is about lead generation. Wouldn’t it be great if the people who are interested in your listings could be directed to you? How much would you be willing to pay for that? It is an interesting, backwards pickle we agents have gotten ourselves into, but we are here, and now we must decide if and how we want to play.

It is no secret that agents market themselves. Like any business enterprise, marketing of the business in addition to the product is essential to long-term success. It is also no secret that the smart money is continue to move online and at mach speed. Our print and direct mail budgets are shrinking while our online marketing budgets are growing. The Internet has up until now been praised as a low-cost, wide-net advertising proposition. Until now.

At a time when so much online traffic turns out to be clutter, Trulia is focused on delivering serious home searchers to real estate professional.

Clutter, indeed. Trulia will now be offering me the opportunity to claim up to ten of my listings, with a photo and a link to my contact information posted front and center, for $50 a month. At first blush, this doesn’t seem like much. What is $50 times $50 times… to the power of ten or twenty? Let me do the math for you – It starts to add up very quickly. Realtor.com charges a lot more, but at least they know they have me over a barrel. What I get enhances the presence of my listings there and brings my clients added value. What Trulia is offering enhances only my presence, yet what it value it really brings to my business is subject to debate.

Over the past year, I can confidently say that we have received dozens of buyer inquiries from our listings on Realtor.com and dozens from our ads on Craigslist. We have even had a call or two as a result of placing our ads on Zillow.com. To date, our Trulia presence has resulted in (let me see, add the zero, carry the zero) Zero calls. This isn’t to say that as they gain momentum that won’t change, but since it is not possible to divide by zero, I can’t yet say what my return on investment might be.

Consumers won’t give a flip about the Trulia announcement, but any practicing real estate agent with an online presence should be doing some serious soul-searching to go along with their business planning.

We have heard from many agents in our community that they would like to increasingly localize and customize their Trulia listings and we are continually innovating to support those requests.

Localize my listings? If by localize you mean put my picture next to what was already mine, I guess this makes sense. Future enhancements, they say, will include the “ability to reroute property links from your broker’s site to your own site (if this is not your default traffic route).” Fortunately, my broker has elected to make this my “default traffic route”, so I can put my checkbook away.

Don’t misunderstand; I understand why Trulia is offering the new features, and I honestly think (if I think like a web bot) that this is a wise move in a potentially and significantly lucrative direction for them. But, while they have to think like a business, I do as well. To provide my clients exemplary service and value, I have the obligation of ensuring that their home receives the broadest possible exposure to potential buyers, and this includes Trulia. Paying to self-promote on every site at my disposal, however, is a decision I will have to evaluate. My “opportunities” online are multiplying like bunnies. For now, I am going to bite, and you will find my grinning mug next to my clients’ listings on Trulia. But, over the next year, I am going to be making some very big decisions about allocation of my marketing dollars because, you see, my dollars are not unlimited. 

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