The No-Star General

Photo credits: This infographic was unabashedly ripped off and modified without permission from AgentGenius.com. While it is quite possible that my next blog post may be filed from the confines of a 6’ x 6’ cell, I am hopeful that my friends at AgentGenius.com will forgive me given that I gave them proper attribution and everything.

There has been a bit of a buzz lately as our friends at Z home of the Zestimates announced their $52 million IPO.

From the press release:

Seattle, WA, April 18, 2011 – Zillow, Inc., which operates real estate site Zillow.com®, Zillow Mortgage Marketplace, and Zillow Mobile, today announced that it has filed a registration statement on Form S-1 with the Securities and Exchange Commission relating to a proposed initial public offering of its common stock. The number of shares to be offered and the price range for the offering have not yet been determined.

I challenge you to find anyone that is the least bit surprised by this news, that didn’t see it coming. So, enough about that. What I did find interesting (albeit, again, not surprising) was the growth in ad revenue that Zillow has seen over the past several years.

Zillow makes money off of advertising and subscriptions sales through both their Mortgage Marketplace and directly to real estate agents. While they have yet to enter the land of profitability, the display ad revenues were up 27% last year. And as a matter of full disclosure, I did my part. We have been running a small display ad on the site for the past nearly two years.

It’s a crazy relationship, really – one that many agents and brokers have serious issues with.  We send our listings, the consumer eyes follow, and then we pay for the privilege of potentially recapturing some of those eyes. Personally, I am happy to populate these sites, because it is good for our selling clients; it means additional exposure. And, regardless, it’s too late to take our ball and go home. So, where growing our own business is concerned, having long ago set our listings free, we have to make the tough decisions about where to place our advertising dollars based on return on investment. Life’s not always fair.

Life recently got a little less fair at the hand of Zillow’s agent reviews. The idea is that we tell all of our clients to run, not walk, to their site and post reviews of our past performance. The party line is that consumers want transparency (true) and that buyers and sellers benefit by having past customer testimonials available to them to aid in the hiring decision-making process (also true). Here, you get no argument.

The problem is this. We began doing this long before Zillow rolled out the feature. We have been doing it on our own site, for the benefit of our own clients and would-be clients. We do not fear the transparency; we welcome it. So, why then, would we send our past clients away to traffic another site and promote (or pan) our services on foreign turf? We are told it will improve our “impressions,” increase our “click throughs,” and increase our business. That may very well be, as long as we rent one of those coveted side bar slots, that is. One thing we do know with certainty is that it will increase someone’s business, but whether or not we too benefit on the coattails of the success we help create for Zillow, it is the manner in which we are now being courted and coerced that doesn’t feel right.

Here is a screen shot of what you might see if you conduct a search on their site in the 92131 Zip code.

Look, there we are! Just like they promised! Wait. Now, it appears, we are paying to look really lame – that is, unless, we start populating those reviews and fast.

This isn’t about Kathy. She may in fact boast production numbers and client satisfaction that make me look like a part-timer opening a few doors between episodes of Oprah. What I do know is that she had two clients who left reviews, and now I am a sitting lame duck.

Here we are again! Look, it’s even our listing! Still lame, I’m afraid. Who wants to work with a no-star loser? Anyone?

I wrote a loooong time ago about Zillow’s genius.

As they set about building their traffic and their revenue in the earlier days, they used a grass roots approach. They courted and engaged the individual agents, recognizing, of course, that they wanted their hands on both our listings and our advertising dollars. It was not what they were up to then, which is no different than what they are up to today, but it was the way in which they went about it that was unique. They knew they had two customers, and it didn’t feel so much like we were tools – more like partners.

In Zillow’s case, the consumer is both the real estate agent and the homeowner (which makes for one crazy-big target market), and Zillow needs two things to succeed. They need data, sales and “for-sale”, and they need eyeballs. You can’t have they latter without the former, but rather than build their reputation and their inventory by taking the more-traveled route, courting the big real estate brokerages, they have reached this point primarily by appealing to the individual agent. It is the individual agent who is online and socially connected – and blogging. Appealing to us makes us happy, which in turn inspires us to write nice things about Zillow.

Things change, of course.

Now, I like the Zillow folks – a whole bunch in fact. Spencer, Sara and, in the old days, Drew and David, are each awesome and wicked smart. Sure, I have poked my share of fun at their Zestimates, but I have given them just as many kudos over the years for what they have built. This isn’t personal. Rather, it is about a cultural shift I have seen slowly occurring. The conversations and early press releases of yore have been replaced with multiple cold calls from a sales force phone bank, each time encouraging me to buy an ad I am already paying for. It no longer feels like a partnership, but rather another buy-what-I’m-selling telemarketing adventure — push versus pull, with the sales pitch being the threat of exclusion versus the promise of inclusion.

I know. It’s big business now. And today they have an IPO while I have an appointment with the stager. Again, I’ll give them props where props are due.

So, in this, our latest adventure of Watch Kris Shoot Herself in the Foot, I am not asking you to leave your reviews of my performance on their site. I would rather you left them on mine. I know your time is limited, and I am honored that you would bother to offer your endorsement at all, seeing that you have a whole bunch of boxes to unpack and stuff. To ask you to copy and paste over multiple sites so that I might have a couple of stars next to my pathetic likeness is a self-serving intrusion, and I am not ready to put a redirect on my site just yet.

Which brings us back to the pirated infographic at the top of this post. Trulia, Zillow, Move, and a whole bunch of other folks out there who aggregate our listings for fun and profit have partnerships. So do we. Our partnership is with our clients. When sending them away makes sense for my business or is in their best interest, I will gladly oblige. In the meantime, at the risk of (perhaps foolishly) diluting the effectiveness of my paid ads, I shall remain star-less.

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