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Tea leaves, lost voices and real estate


Reuters recently published an interview with Zillow economist Stan Humphries. His tea leaf set of predictions and forecasts for real estate. From the interview:

“The best advice is to use a set of numbers to triangulate a trend. If you look at a whole bunch of numbers, you find a pretty positive picture – such as rents are up 3.2 percent nationally while home values are down 1.8 percent. That is the makings of stabilizing prices.”

Good news…presented to America, courtesy of Zillow.

Lost voices

Stan’s information is the basic nuts-and-bolts forecasting that rolls off the tongues of most real estate professionals when asked “how’s the market?”.

But most professionals aren’t sourced by the national media. In fact, they hardly ever are.

What America does hear or see are the oddball ad campaigns, shallow taglines, sales pitches, ubiquitous pie charts, complex market graphs and light-hearted, conversational newsletters — things that are overshadowed by the personable, straightforward Zillow.

While Zillow charms the pants off America, the rest of the real estate industry confuses. While they talk to America, real estate professionals talk at it, rendering the industry’s voice inaudible.

If you think syndication is the biggest threat to traditional real estate, think again.

The real disruption facing our industry is Zillow’s unique connection to your customers and the subsequent influence they have acquired as a result of a social CEO, an engaging Vice President of Communications, a team of brilliant developers and designers, and a choir of harmonious marketers. They compose a brilliant symphony of real estate life that drowns out the sound of mainstream real estate.

As a result, traditional real estate isn’t heard. Not often. Not enough.

Simple proof is evidenced by the din of many begrudged agents who complain that their CMA and professional opinion appear less credible to consumers than a Zestimate.

Zillow, despite its inaccuracies, lack of complete data and long list of imperfections, continues to grow, resonate and influence your customers.

You can complain all day long about it and fill streams of Facebook posts with hundreds of comments. But that won’t change anything.

Striking back will.

Start talking

There are two ways to deal with a competitor: wish them gone or beat them at their own game.

I opt for the latter.

Want to beat a competitor? Understand them. Marvel at their abilities. Focus on your own weaknesses by comparison. Then redirect your energies.

If I were a broker, I wouldn’t stand by while a national economist gets to entertain America with my data. Here’s exactly what I would do:

1) Email every agent under my brand requesting they send me their local market forecast. They have 24 hours to deliver. I’d read every one, and split them into two piles: accurate vs. inaccurate reports.

2) Create a PDF of the accurate reports and link them to a forecast I write, which I publish on my corporate blog. Like Stan, my post would contain straight talk. No pie charts and frightening trend graphs. People understand simple numbers.

3) Leave a respectful, non argumentative comment on the Reuters article suggesting that real estate trends cannot be summed up in a national report. I’d follow up with a thumbnail view of my local market in the same matter-of-fact, veridical tone Stan used.

4) Conclude my comment with a link to a corporate blog post that contains my deeper report and the PDF of individual reports from my agents.

5) Email every broker friend, association economist and agent listed in my national database, cajoling them to do exactly what I did: represent their local market and offer it to the public.

Tea leaves

This defines my first 24 hours. Next would be a serious overhaul of my PR and marketing team driven by a new strategy redefining my brokerage as a media center replete with its own ninjas. I’d confront the agents who failed to provide an articulate view of the market. If they can’t tell me how their market is doing, they don’t belong in my company.

This is just the beginning. Connecting with consumers in a way that makes them take notice will require an overhaul of many other departments and assets. But one thing at a time.

In looking at the tea leaves amid the battle for relevance every cylinder must fire red hot.

These days, anything less just won’t cut it.



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37 Responses to “Tea leaves, lost voices and real estate”

  1. Rich Jacobson says:

    Unfortunately, most brokerages don’t have a meaningful or effective method of consistently communicating good, relevant marketing data to local residents.

    As you state, we lack a unique connection/influence to our clients and potential clients.

    So many Brokers/agents use regurgitated automated data from places like TrendGraphix (not saying their data isn’t good or isn’t packaged well), and neglect to personally interpret the data so that is has specific value and relevance to local folks.

    No one is better qualified to comment on the current dynamics of a particular real estate market than the professional RE brokers/agents who know those areas most intimately and are in the trenches each and every day.

    The brokerage owners/management need to work in cooperative concert with their team and determine the most effective methods of consistently communicating solid market data to consumers in their areas.

  2. Michael Corley says:


    I came to the same conclusion and decided I wouldn’t feed free content to Trulia or Zillow.

    It’s important for agents to deliver information consistently to the markets they serve in a simple, easy to read format.

    The only way a broker is going to establish and maintain their market position in the consumers eye is to be a resource.

    great read!

    • Marc says:


      I completely respect your decision. However, not giving the syndicators your data does not stop them from appearing as the authority on real estate. Whether you give them the data or not my belief is that you should be thinking about how you can use your data and your interpretation of it to assert your voice as expertise. I really believe you and everyone else reading this should go to that Reuters article right now and leave your local market report. Start there.

  3. Brian Hickey says:


    We should at least make Z run the race – I’ll Have Another has to…

    One more win and that horse wins the Triple Crown. One more win for Z (become a broker – I know they have no interest..) and rest will be history :)

    The odds on the field are getting worse with every news bite.



  4. Ross K says:

    I believe every regional MLS system in the U.S. has 100% accurate and the most timely data available anywhere. I believe the brokerages and agents who fund each regional MLS system expects that MLS to do thing that make their fees worth while.

    I am sure there is adequate staff in each regional MLS office to support a basic PR strategy regionally. I would also recommend that the MLS members who pay for ads in the local newspapers demand that if any comment is to be published in a paper they financially support with advertising dollars, posts any real estate related articles, that their regional MLS and only their regional MLS is the expert source referenced.

    Also for all Zillow users, really you should immediately contact Zillow and order them to stop trying to replace NAR as the national expert on real estate.

    You have the power use it!

    • victor lund says:

      Good string Ross – The Association/MLS can (and should) help brokers and agents with this – and many do. Look at Realtors Property Resource (RPR), 10K, RBI, Terradatum, and Trend Graphics, etc – they all offer brokers and agents the tools…..nudge, nudge….

      I agree with Marc that Brokers should have this pinned to their chests in terms of their communication strategy – but would expect that they get help from the MLS/Association.

      By the way – has anyone heard a rebuttal from the National Association of REALTORS? What happened to their position as the authority on real estate?

    • Marc says:

      Victor, that authority is too busy concocting goofy print and TV advertisements that speak “at” the American consumer that I cited in the post. Hence real estate’s lost voice. It’s misguided and or hidden behind the straight jacket of corporate politics, the inability to properly communicate or fear of actually telling the consumer the truth. And this is where Zillow has consistently kicked ass. They have no trouble predicting a cloudy forecast. Real estate thinks doing this is not in their best interest. I disagree. I believe telling the truth creates trust and engenders an undeniable confidence in the source.

      Proof is in the pudding. Zillow has grown and grown despite its inaccuracies by making themselves appear as the authority though the manner in which they communicate.

      Here’s a question – does any brokerage have their own economist who publishes regular scheduled content and or appears in the local, regional or national media to offer users an academic purview of the market? I personally do not know of any. I would like to see that change over the next 12 months.

  5. Kirk Eisele says:

    It’s interesting. In theory there is enough revenue available in most markets to support a strong marketing voice about the real estate market. And yet, there seem to be few if any markets where a Broker has established a recognizable brand as an informational resource. (As opposed to a market-share presence in listings.) Anyone know of any good examples out there?

    • Marc says:

      There are some very good examples of brokerages who are broadcasting this information in a consistant and professional manner. My hope is that they are reading this and feel compelled to comment and describe what they are doing in detail.

    • Kirk Eisele says:

      Know any companies with a leading recognition level in their metro areas? I see lots of agents trickling out market data that is pretty decent but none that seem to have a meaningful audience.

  6. Mike says:

    The MLS should be the ones putting out some kind of consistent data to the press to trump national coverage. We all know that real estate is local, our own MLS can help. Though I guess I wouldn’t have enjoyed them pushing out the stats when everything was crashing. At that time it was better to feel that it was a nationwide thing not just us.

  7. Jim Meader says:

    Real Estate at the agent level has never been a “Group” or “For the Greater Good” sport. The goal of every agent is to stand out from the rest of the agents and not look like everyone else.

    Since “Brokers” have agents as “Their Clients” speaking out for the Greater Good is not the highest priority.

    Zillow has one voice, has a marketing team for that one voice and with investor dollars has the ability to get their perspective heard.

    Having said that, I am in agreement with the concept, we “Organized Real Estate” have created/allowed the problem to exist, and we have the ability to make it be different. But the concept that Coldwell Banker – Prudential and RE/MAX all standing together speaking for the industry as one voice is as likely as Greece being able to repay its debt.

    Company’s like agents do not what to be seen as “all the same” ?????

  8. Judy Orr says:

    I send out newsletters showing current, hyper-local market conditions & I also post charts on my multiple blogs, with easy-to-understand interpretations. My recipients love my newsletters, especially the market reports (they’ve told me). I am in an agent-centric brokerage & can’t imagine my Broker, whom I admire, taking an agent survey on the market, & I don’t see many of the 100′s of agents responding. I don’t want potential clients contacting my brokerage, I want them calling me.

    As independent contractors, I’m not sure of the benefit of a local campaign put out by our board (which covers a huge area) or even a cooperative endeavor by multiple area brokerages. Even in the area I cover, stats differ in neighboring towns. So I get down to individual towns but it’s to make me look like the local expert.

    So far my general area is still showing price decreases, with a couple towns showing very slight increases. We’re certainly not booming so if national real estate news is leaning toward more dismal data, it’s really not far off in my area, & I can easily get my data to prove or disprove how clients are interpreting what they’re reading from other sources.

    Although my website shows up higher than Zillow for most of the keywords I’m targeting, their deep pockets have made them one of the real estate sites buyers know by name & start their searches on. Neither I nor my brokerage has the cash to knock them out of the public mind, so I work away on my sphere, past & current clients & my farm areas, which have been revamped when I moved last year.

  9. Rich Jacobson says:

    Hey, Mikey!…

    Not sure that I would want our local MLS to be our representative mouthpiece. Not saying that they don’t do a good job organizing our data and depositing our fees. But the ones broadcasting the data should be the ones who navigate it daily on a more practical consumer level basis. Our regional MLS has some great tools to create market reports, but very few actually use them. I’m with Judy, narrow niche markets demand hyper-local broker generated market data…

    • Mike says:

      My thought was that media outlets would be more accepting of data from the MLS versus promoting a single agent. It would help specifically with the idea that real estate is local. And you’re right, I’m one of those that doesn’t take advantage of the tools as well as I should. :( adding to my to do list.

    • Rich Jacobson says:

      Mike – I understand. There is logic there. I just don’t know if there is anyone on our MLS who knows how to convey market data/stats in a way that consumers would find engaging…I may be surprisingly wrong though…

  10. CC Holland says:

    Marc, as you know, I couldn’t agree more with your points. That’s why we at Pacific Union International have embarked on an ambitious and unprecedented effort to counter the 90,000-foot view of real estate — the one that doesn’t really describe our local conditions — with research, data, and the distribution of content that shows what’s really happening in our neighborhoods.

    Our blog, blog.pacunion.com, is home to a wealth of knowledge about our local markets, our take on how to interpret national data, and what all those numbers floating around out there really mean to our real estate professionals and our clients.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head when you say we’re not represented well in the media because we don’t come across as engaging or interesting, and we don’t do a good job of sharing and distributing our knowledge. This is our effort to start putting that out there — and helping traditional real estate regain its voice.

  11. Rich Jacobson says:

    Ms. Holland;

    Are you the one who is writing the Local View segments for your blog? Are you doing anything to encourage local area agents/brokers to contribute content as well? Just curious….

    • CC Holland says:

      Hi Rich! Yes, my team does write the Local View piece every week — a roundup of what people are talking about across our regions. We absolutely do encourage our real estate professionals to use and distribute this information in whatever medium they feel best represents them: via newsletter, blog, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever format they choose.

      While the blog is written primarily by our digital media staff, our real estate professionals often offer us up ideas and suggestions, although most of the time they don’t author the pieces themselves.

  12. John Heithaus says:

    Mark, once again you nailed it.

    One way for Brokers to be ahead of the Zillow-driven PR machine is to belong to an MLS like MRIS. Not only do we publish very detailed market analysis reports (found at rbintel.com) for the micro an local markets, but we also make sure our brokers and agents are included in most of our PR on TV, radio and print. We have also created a Pending Sales INdex that our brokers/agents find very helpful to counter Zestimate fever.

    I just co-authored an article for the Washington Post with our colleagues at Coastal Association of Realtors and their president, Chris Jett, an active broker provided some great insight for the article. Our MRIS TV channel (mristv.com) also includes video interviews with many of our brokers, Association leaders and industry experts like Prem Luthra from RED, John McClain from George Mason University, and Marc Siden from OBI on various subjects.

    As Victor Lund and others suggest, a well connected MLKS with deep and meaningful media contacts and a participative communications strategy can out Z, the consumer website folks who are about 5 clicks away from the action. IMHO of course.

  13. Bruce Lemieux says:

    We see so few great examples of real estate market analyses because it’s so incredibly hard to do. You need to be a mathematician to troll through mountains of data to see what’s going on, have boots on the ground to *understand* what’s going on, and then translate all of that into human terms so that buyers/sellers can actually use it for their unique situation.

    At one end, we see Altos charts and their ilk which are an assult to anyone without a physics degree. At the other end of the spectrum, we see dumbed-down, simple metrics that don’t offer any complexity or texture needed for a consumer.

    Consumers need something in the middle which is a hard target to hit.

    • Marc says:

      Sadly, your point is accurate Bruce. Which makes it all the more ludicrous that someone who doesn’t live and breath transactions on a daily basis is on the national stage speaking to America. But there are plenty of people who can interpret the data. And it’s time they stepped forward and did so.

  14. Sean Nally says:

    I guess I just shake my head when I hear that the brokers do not have the time or the skill to do the analysis on the data. If you can not advise your clients on what to do or what to do next please do not use terms like “trusted advisor” in you tag lines. You are neither trusted nor offer any sort of advice anyone can bank on. Right now people can tell you how much a barrel of oil or a bushel of corn will cost in 5 years – but the real estate industry can not forecast home values. Trouble is we have years and years of date. Combine that with economic models you can do a lot of predicting. I spent 5 years banging my head against a wall before I got out. If you want to have a drink and smoke a cigar and discuss economic modeling let me know…..

  15. Michelle Poccia says:

    Great post filled with thought provoking messages…the “call to action” is an excellent idea…I am putting that on my list of “To Do’s” for this week.
    I read all that is written and endlessly chatted about when it comes to the vendors who are only guilty of attempting to make some money offering services that we, as an industry, failed to get ahead of the curve and see the needs and wants of consumers and fulfill them.
    So, now we have to swim a bit faster…do what they cannot do…take over your local market…be the Zillow…be the Trulia…where you live and work!
    I applaud Zillow and am fascinated by all that they have been doing this past year especially. I think they are chess players while most of us can barely muster a good game of checkers! Unfortunately, real estate brokerages and agents are their pawns! ha! I say..watch and learn…try to get ahead of the game if you can!
    Instead of crying so loudly and for so long…we need to get up off our asses…remove the cob webs that keep us tied down…rethink and imagine what would happen if we tuned into where the consumer is driving this business and create and remodel our ways!
    2012 is a business changing year for me…thanks in large part to folks like you who really make me think!
    I gotta go now…lots to do…THANK YOU!

  16. Spencer Rascoff says:

    Hi Marc,
    Thank you for the thoughtful post, and for paying me the highest compliment by calling me a “social CEO”.
    I completely agree with your comment, and the sentiment of the comments here, that real estate is local. At Zillow, we know that home values and other metrics are unique all the way down to the home level, not to mention the neighborhood, zip code, city, county and state. This, of course, is why we endeavor to value every home in the nation — because we know that each home is unique, and that national housing statics are not nearly as helpful as local statistics. This is also why we produce housing data at the city and even neighborhood level. See for example: http://www.zillow.com/blog/research/2012/05/25/home-values-continue-to-climb-in-april/

    The national media does still love to hear national data, so we do provide it to them. But we also provide more local data than any other source — NAR, Case-Shiller, etc. Another example here:

    Keep up the thought-provoking posts,

  17. Marc says:

    Thanks for the comment Spencer. Interesting that you brought up my use of the word “social” which I had clear intent on why I used it.

    I’ve run across too many brokerages sitting atop a mountain of content – from data to pure opinion – buried underneath and unseen by the public. These brokerages, run by men and women, many whose name appear on yard signs, letterheads, little league banners and print ads have no voice anywhere publicly. I’m not sure what their concerns are about using social networks or mainstream media to get their message across. At times though, I’ve heard some tell me that they are too busy to be bothered by these platforms which appear silly to them and have no proven ROI.

    I think they’re missing the bigger picture.

    In my ongoing riff about why I believe Zillow has been great for the real estate industry, my main theme rests in the endless opportunities that Zillow has shown to be possible. Having someone at the helm who finds the time to speak and address the public is a big one. Sherry Chris embodies that persona for BH&G but I can’t of too many others.

    I believe that ought to change. Sometimes, silence is not golden.

  18. Spencer Rascoff says:

    The timing of this post was interesting because just today we had a company meeting where @whitneyt talked about our social strategy. After walking the company through what we’re up to in social media, one of the first questions from the audience was “how do we measure ROI from all of these social initiatives”. Wow, that’s a good question, and incredibly hard to answer. Whitney did a good job answering it, but part of me thought: it’s really really hard to measure, and even in a world where Salesforce.com has now spent nearly $1 billion buying two companies who try to do just that!
    For the most part, it’s just my gut. My gut says that by being out there talking about Zillow, talking about ourselves personally, and by talking about what we’re up to (and what we’re not up to), that people will start to view Zillow as what we really are: a collection of nice people who are trying to help consumers, agents, brokers and the industry. Rather than the alternative: that we’re a giant behemoth that has some master plan to obliterate everything in our path and pillage just for fun.
    Where’s the ROI in that? Hard to say. But I’m pretty sure it’s positive.

  19. Marc says:

    Another immeasurable ROI of having a leader who is out there speaking to the public is the message that sends down through the ranks. I’ve often stressed this to brokers I’ve spoken too about the value of of being candid and communicative socially. It sets the tone of brand to the public. It sets an example to everyone in company about what to say, how to say it and that’s its okay to do so across social networks.

    I realize that being social is not mandatory or in everyone’s breadbasket. But being silent… not sure how that helps anyone.

    Thanks for taking the time to participate here Spencer.

  20. Betty Jung says:

    Consistently on my 3 real estate blogs the most viewed posts are always the stats. I run my own stats on everything imaginable: houses under a $ amount, houses over a $ amount, year to date stats, monthly solds, median price stats, average price stats, stats for houses in school districts, stats for neighborhoods, condo stats, multi-family stats, etc., etc. However, after a while those posts get boring for me but I make sure I consistently do them. I run my own numbers from our MLS which I feel are the most accurate. Occasionally I will post Altos Research stats as fillers, but I don’t post Zillow or TendGraphicX or whatever their name is although I do see agents do those a lot. My RE/MAX equity group also run stats from our MLS and I post those as well. Further, I interpret the stats in my own words. But by far, those are the post viewed posts second only to local events. I have also been writing a newsletter for all the 37 years I have sold real estate, and again, I post my own stats from MLS. Unfortunately many agents don’t do this.

    Personally I don’t think we can out run the likes of Zillow, Trulia, etc. They have a lot more power and money behind them than I do, or most of us do, although I try to do my part to educate the public about what is really going on locally.

    • Marc says:


      Be proud of yourself for what you are doing. You might not be able to out run Zillow or Trulia but you are keeping stride nevertheless and that’s the basic premise of my post. Being silent simply allows them to be the only voice.

      One thing I would consider not doing is including the charts and graphs – consumers find them confusing to understand as we discovered during user testing of our Nudge app which is why we created that entirely new paradigm of indicating market trends. The charts prove to be confusing, intimidating and most often show such drastic downward movement over the last 5-6 years, they tend to be a visual bummer. It’s best to simply state the numbers or if you like to offer graphics, you can always embed a Nudge into a blog post and give the user a nice visual treat. Simple always rules. (Pardon the advert. I’m offering this info to help you make your reports better and more interesting visually).

      Keep doing those market reports. We’ve discovered the same thing you have – people have a basic interest in knowing how the market is doing. By providing that info, you are not only satisfying a need through great marketing, you are establishing yourself and your brand in a great way.

      Thanks for sharing this with all of us!

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