I find it hard to discuss the RPR these days without a certain wistfulness. Conversations slip into the past tense.
Which is a funny thing because the product hasn’t even been released. It is also a sad thing, because the basic idea, and its early manifestation, is so appealing.
Am I nuts? Or has the launch of this thing just been screwed up that badly?
I tweeted a couple weeks back that the communications effort around the RPR is “at once excellent and catastrophic” and I still feel that way. The excellence is mostly tactical – the great looking blog, the nicely executed demos – but these things alone cannot mitigate a botched launch and persistent strategic gaffes.
It has been painful, as someone who does marketing and communications in this industry, to watch the president of the RPR – a product guy – mix it upwith an MLS lawyer and blog post commenters over contract language. Or to watch the CEO appear at the Big Show last November unprepared to deal with obvious objections.
Maybe the launch webcast, which looked like a transmission from Skylab circa 1974, should have tipped me off. Or perhaps the fact that the license agreement – the linchpin of the whole data aggregation strategy – was not even drafted at the time Dale walked on stage in San Diego should have raised a red flag. But in any case, by the time the RPR team placed a redline of that license agreement online for all to parse the whole thing reeked of self-flagellation.
And then this stinker: Vendor Alley announces that the country’s largest MLS will not be participating in RPR. Bad news happens, but it’s easier to deal with when there has a been a consistent message and a clear set of expectations against which people like me and you can interpret it. It’s possible that it doesn’t matter a bit to the RPR’s long-term success whether this or that large MLS participates. But we don’t know, do we?
Nor do we know how to place Move’s recent move to give a product built on a code base for which NAR paid $3.5 million to the same MLSs the RPR is courting. Taken on its own, it seems deeply ironic. It was only 14 years ago that NAR lost millions of dollars on a massive technology project before, well… offloading it to Realtor.com.
Or why didn’t NAR just pay the $2-$3 million per year it would have taken to license the public records data, sell ads on the thing, cut the MLSs who fed them listings a slice of the revenue and call it a solid member benefit? Who knows?
Why am I asking these questions?
Well, for starters, the optics of this whole thing begs them. That’s right: perception, known by many as reality, will determine RPR’s fate, not the beauty of the interface or the undoubtedly sincere motivations of the NAR team to do right by members.
Secondly and more importantly, this may be more than just an episode of bad marketing and communications strategy. It may suggest an underlying incapacity on the part of a massive trade association – even a for-profit spin-off of said trade association – to effectively manage a large Web play with complicated constituent and competitive factors.
“So, smart-ass, what would you do?”
Right now I’d go dark. I’m not kidding. There’s very little to be gained from feeding this beast. I’d wait until the product launches before I made another peep. Between now and then I’d hunker down and get some messaging religion. Of course, I’d continue to work deals, take meetings and hammer out contract details with MLSs with whom I am actually negotiating, not bloggers.
I’d do what should have been done eight months ago – the things I’d recommend to any organization planning a major initiative:
- I’d create my story – the message I would like to communicate – after talking with lots of people in my target market. I understand there were working groups, committees and like in the run-up to the announcement of RPR. But my guess is those did not reflect a true diversity of opinion. I want the people who never aspire to a committee membership on their resume – the people I’m going to have to sell to. This story would be carefully crafted and articulated from launch forward in positive terms focused on benefits. The RPR has from the start been defined in largely negative terms (not an MLS, not a public play, etc.)and the positives (help Realtors keep up with their own customer, make “Realtors look great with the click of a mouse”) are either too vague or truly problematic only in the perverse calculation of the rightly vulnerable. But I digress.
- Once that story was crafted, I’d determine where it was to be told, by whom and under what terms. I know I’m breaking a sacred social media taboo here, but “listening” – especially in the early stages – is a crutch for the unprepared. Stay on message, all the time.
- I’d create a “rude Q&A,” a tactic most notably employed with Microsoft. It’s simple: channel your most vicious detractor and create a list of questions they’d put to you in a public debate. Think about the things you never want to be called on, the weak spots that keep you up at night. Confront them. Prepare for them. Because they will come up. And you must be ready.
- I’d set expectations – honest ones – out of the gate. How will you measure your success? More importantly, how should your market measure your success? These are critical questions. I still don’t know how many MLSs RPR needs in order to fly. I don’t know who I can expect to sign on and who probably won’t. That’s an invitation to speculation.
- I’d respect the power of silence. People never trusted PR flacks and they don’t trust flacks in “social media manager” clothing. Every blog need not be commented on; every tweet need not be either retweeted or argued with. Most things – if you’ve laid the groundwork above – flame out quickly. Don’t stoke the fire by trying to extinguish it.
I’m still genuinely undecided in my position on whether or not the RPR is a good thing, even though my equanimity is being tested by the ham-fisted way it’s being brought to market. But I do find the whole spectacle fascinating, infuriating – and full of lessons to learn.