Real estate technology: think food, not forks

Yesterday I participated in a session at the Leading Real Estate Companies of the World conference on “The future of technology.”

I thought about this a lot before the event and decided I didn’t want to talk about technology, for two reasons:

First, technology is – in the real estate broker’s world – thoroughly paradoxical. That which offers brokers a promise of liberation (from legacy systems, from antique business practices, from burdensome costs) often ensnares them in a Web of confusion, dependency and waste.

I’m thinking here of the transaction management systems that cost more to train on and operate than the Old Way; the whiz-bang websites clotted with “map search” no one knows how to use; the iPhone “apps” stamped out by chop shops (which are now, thankfully, being clamped down on by Apple).

Second, discussions of technology among brokers can frequently be compared to a group of foodies talking about utensils: They usually miss the point.

So I asked the brokers in the audience to put aside trying to figure out what’s next in technology for a moment and shared a couple quotes that suggest larger strategic issues:

If HP knew what HP knows, we’d be three times as productive.”

This was Lew Platt, CEO of Hewlett-Packard in the 1980’s.

Every company is a media company.”

That’s John Battelle, one of Wired Magazine’s founders and CEO of Federated Media.

These words are relevant for any broker trying to reclaim brand equity with consumers and deliver long-term value to agents.

Think about it: good real estate data will soon be ubiquitous. Broker A’s charts will look like Broker B’s charts. In any good brokerage, though, the intelligence stored in the minds of executives, managers and agents is likely more distinctive.

But it’s locked away, unleveraged. Most brokerage companies don’t know what they know.

The idea is to explore that. Tap the knowledge within the organization, shape it, refine it, dress it in your brand’s clothes and channel it out to the marketplace.

In other words, act like a media company.

This presents challenges of course. Suspicious agents. A lack of internal resources. More immediate concerns for self-preservation.

If you can pull it off, though, and once you determine who your target customer is and what it is you know that is most likely to engage them, then – and only then – think about the technology you’ll need to make that happen.

Maybe you compile a comprehensive library of neighborhood photos, annotated by agents who know these places house-by-house.

Maybe it’s an email newsletter (I know, so un-sexy!) from your CEO who’s been in the business for thirty years that layers her perspective on each month’s market data.

Maybe, if you’re really fired up, you publish consumer reviews of every one of your agents.

Lots of options. Lots of technologies to bring them to life. Pick the ones that play to your strengths and run with them.

Just think technology last, not first.