The Elephant in the Room – Coercion, content creation, and out of the mouths of babes

“It’s stupid to give away your content for free,” my daughter scolded.

Daughter Number 1 is home on a brief layover between journalism stints at New York Magazine and The New York Times Washington D.C. Bureau. We were discussing the parallels between the changes in her profession and mine brought about by the Internet. And when she uttered those words, she pretty much summed up what I see as the central issue to the third-parting syndication debate.

It’s stupid to give away content for free. But so many agents and brokers continue not only to do just that, but to do it proudly, defending their position by suggesting that both consumers are entitled to our content and sellers are harmed if we don’t freely cough it up to anyone who asks.

Neither is true. But both are concepts that are being aggressively promoted by the owners of the third-party “search” sites, like Zillow and Trulia in a rather shameless game of shaming the broker community into giving them what they want – namely, our valuable listing data. They do this by enlisting the public-at-large, both home-shopping consumers and our selling clients, to fight their battle for them. It’s become an all-out media blitz of late. “Hey, it’s not us! You owe it to the people!”

Do we?

“I, for one, applaud ARG’s move. It was bold and, in my opinion, it was right.”

I wrote those words back in January when local brokerage Abbott Realty Group (ARG) took their stand against syndicating listings to third-party sites (like Zillow and Trulia).  That’s my story, and I am sticking to it.

ARG’s fearless leader, Jim Abbott, took a stand, and (at the risk of understating) his position sparked a lot of debate among agents and brokers. Now Jim has published a video follow-up, “Life After Listing Syndication” in which he delivers what I believe to be the most thoughtful, well-crafted argument against third-party site listing syndication I have seen to date. And I have seen a bunch.

Mr. Abbott touched on many points where listing syndication is concerned. Today I focus, primarily, on just one – content – because that is the elephant in the room.

The parallels between journalism and real estate that my daughter and I were discussing are worth considering. Take the similarities between listing syndication to third-party sites and the rise of the Huffington Post.

At the recent White House Correspondents Dinner while addressing Arianna Huffington, President Obama quipped, “There’s no one else out there linking to the kinds of hard-hitting journalism that HuffPo is linking to every single day. Give them a round of applause… And… you don’t pay them! It’s a great business model.” Laughter ensued.

That’s pretty funny, all right. It’s almost as funny as the business models of the listing aggregators like Zillow and Trulia, only the joke’s on us.

The public doesn’t deserve to be given a newspaper or a magazine for free any more than journalists have a moral obligation to give away their content to anyone who will publish it, digitally or otherwise. For real estate agents and brokers, we similarly owe no such duty to populate and monetize other’s business opportunities.

Journalists create content; so do we. The only arguable difference is that our content is, in theory, created with the sole intent of promoting a product for sale – our client’s home.  As a consumer, however, you are probably also aware of the fact that the content is created and shared for the purpose of advertising the creator – the real estate agent and broker. So as you consider the rhetoric coming from the third-party site camps, and from the agents and brokers who defend their pro-syndication stance, consider who the true intended beneficiary of this advertising might really be. Hint: It’s not the home seller.

So if we agree that it is not the consumer’s divine right, nor Zillow’s or Trulia’s, to have our content regurgitated freely, in knee-jerk fashion, to any and every conceivable publisher, then we are left with the argument about whether or not our selling clients are owed product placement on third-party sites – and with the argument about whom the content, in fact, belongs to.

I’ll tackle the latter first. The content about my listing – the photos, the virtual tours, the interactive floor plans, the property description – belongs to me. The home belongs to my client and they are (ultimately) paying me to market that home, but all of that other stuff is stuff I procured, created and paid for. I don’t have an obligation to hand over the results of my labor to sites that endeavor to repurpose and monetize my content any more than I have an obligation to advertise a home on every bus bench in town, in every print publication in existence, or on an aerial banner flown across Pacific Beach on a 70-degree Sunday afternoon. What I do have the obligation to do is market the home logically and effectively in ways that will in fact benefit my client.

What we owe to our clients is exposure for their listings. It’s but one of our job descriptions, but it is the more visible – the role of advertiser and marketer. But to suggest that I am bound by some moral, ethical or social contract to regurgitate my content to every site that might want it, or even to just the ones with the most “hits,” is ludicrous.

And, yet, the spin machine is working overtime to convince us otherwise.

In a report by Marketplace’s Bob Moon, Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff was quoted as saying, “What seller on earth, especially in a down real estate market, would choose to list their home with an agent who was not going to put their home on the biggest websites in their city?”

That is the quote that appears in the text. If you listen to the audio, what he really said is, “A seller has got to be completely nuts to list their home with a listing agent who wasn’t going to put their home on the biggest websites in their city.” In hindsight, calling consumers “nuts” was probably considered unfortunate phrasing, especially since it is the non-participating agents who were the target of Mr. Rascoff’s verbal bullet.

So, according to the Zillow CEO and depending on which version you favor, either the seller is nuts or I am nuts. Tomato, tomahto. But the fact remains, despite my position that giving away content for free is, in fact, nuts, I would be the biggest champion of the make-Zillow-rich-at-the-expense-of-the-broker cause if it benefited my selling clients. It does not.

For the record, we ceased wholesale syndication of our listings to third-party aggregators over a month ago. We didn’t do it with a fancy, all-guns-blazing media spash, but we did it for our clients and ourselves because it was the right thing to do. Our policy is that, after discussing the pros and cons with our clients, if they still perceive benefit, we will gladly bundle their listings up and ship them off. To date, no one has opted in. It’s nuts, I tell you!

We have established that the data on these sites is grossly inaccurate and unreliable.

And we have acknowledged that Zestimates are generally Ztupid. Every single one of the listings we have taken since we stopped syndication has sold in excess of their Zestimate. One in particular sold in three days with eight offers and at $110,000 over the Zestimate. Dang! If only the sellers had had the requisite exposure on one of “the biggest websites in their city!”

We are receiving buyer calls – many, many more than we received when we were regurgitating our content for fun and philanthropy. How did they even know the home was fore sale? I can only speculate that maybe, just maybe, it’s because all of our listings appear on every IDX site – hundreds of them – in our market. The calls come via our site, our MLS’s own site, and every agent/broker site in our market with a home search feature.

Oh, and maybe it’s because people don’t search one site and call it a day.  If I am looking for a purple purse with green embroidery (I am not), I don’t just hit Bloomingdale’s site and give up. I search the Internet for “purses,” and then “purple handbags” and, most often, by designer name. Most often, serious homebuyers search by neighborhood and even address – a Zillow employee admitted as much to me. The one-stop shopper is the casual shopper and is “just looking.”

The terms of use on these sites are frightening. They should be both concerning to the content creator and to the homeowner.  From Zillow’s own Terms of Service:

For materials you post or otherwise provide to Zillow or in connection with the Services (your "Submission"), you grant Zillow an irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide license to (a) use, copy, distribute, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, reproduce, edit, modify, and translate your Submission, in connection with the Services or in any other media, and (b) sublicense these rights, to the maximum extent permitted by applicable law.

This explains why the property page for one of our current listings shows the photos and the flowery, long-form description from the last time it was offered for sale – in 2007. The former listing agent gave up his rights to his work, yet his legacy (and the legacy of the previous owner) will live on – with no attribution and in any form and anywhere that Zillow sees fit.

Finally, there is the agent advertising – beside, around and below – each listing gifted to Zillow. This is not entirely about me, although I do appreciate being given credit for my work. And this is not about dual agency – not one bit. Agents and brokers who take their fiduciary roles seriously know that nothing could be further from the truth. This is about advertising practices that are deceiving and really bad for the seller.

You see, if your home is not on Zillow or Trulia, the serious buyers – the real buyers – will find you. We have proven that; we know that to be true. If your listing is present on those sites, however, a real buyer may just wander through. And the advertisings host or hostess will be someone who has no fiduciary responsibility to you; they have no incentive or motivation to sell your home. They are there because they paid to play, and their goal is simply to sell any home. They refer to the buyers as “leads,” and by this they mean they consider the buyers to be their “leads,” not yours.

If you don’t believe this, then think about it another way. Would you be OK with having your agent put another brokerage’s sign in your front yard? Why not? Because the buyers would be redirected and misdirected to someone who has no stake in your sale and, most likely, little or no knowledge of your home. It is the same reason we wouldn’t have an agent from another brokerage holding one of our listings open. Our goal is to sell our client’s home; theirs is to just sell a home. At least in the case of an open house, the agent from the outside brokerage might be able to field basic questions like, “Does it have a double oven?” because they are standing in the room at the time. Not so with most paying advertisers on the third-party sites.

Surprisingly, I talk to a lot of agents who loathe the practice of third-party syndication for all of these reasons yet continue to syndicate. They do so because they feel cornered – because they believe their clients demand it. And this is exactly what the syndication sites want you to believe.

But I know our clients are smarter than that. We simply need to be bold enough to, dare I say, do our jobs. Beyond marketing is a very long list of job duties all related to advising our clients. Where our marketing decisions are concerned, we owe them the same duty to present the options and implications of each. You might be surprised that, given the facts, they are less enamored of the syndication concept than you think.

So, to agents and brokers: Syndicate or don't syndicate. The decision is yours — and your client's. But make that decision thoughtfully, based on what is really best for each of you. And remember that your content is yours; if you choose to give it freely, do so because you honestly believe the trade-off is fair — that you will realize fair "compensation" in the form of measurably better results for your clients — not because you felt cornered, coerced and the victim of some self-serving, manufactured public outcry. 




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