OnBlog: The Onboard Informatics Blog

Conversations on the Art and Science of Information

Transformation in the Air

with one comment

Change is coming!

Change is coming! (Image: FloridaLightning.com)

“If you don’t like transformation,

you’re going to like irrelevance a lot less.”

– General Eric Shinseki, US Army

Do you ever get the feeling that things are falling into place? An unspoken and inarticulate sense that something approaches. The faint smell of ozone as a thunderstorm approaches.

In 2008, I get the feeling that the real estate industry is entering such a time of transformation. Things are falling into place. That it’s happening in the midst of a sustained downtime in the industry as a whole is not wholly unexpected. We will come out of this downcycle, and while keeping an eye on the ball here and now is important, I thought to take things up one level and offer some thoughts on what the real estate industry that emerges from the darkness might look like.

At any given time, there are innovations and trends that bear watching. But recently, three disparate and apparently unconnected events struck me as something falling into place. I share them with you.

Prime: ActiveRain launches Localism.

Now, I have no way of knowing whether Localism will be successful or not. Jon Washburn, CEO of ActiveRain, has no such doubts, claiming that Localism.com will have more traffic than Trulia and Zillow combined in 24 months. Perhaps. As the saying goes, that’s why you play the game on Sunday.

The fact of Localism.com itself suggests, however, that there is something shifting underneath the surface of real estate. I believe it is a very subtle shift, but a seismic one. I believe we may be entering into a new era where real estate becomes centered around community instead of property. These are uncharted waters.

What is meant by “community”? It goes beyond simple geography. Realtors are already familiar with ‘neighborhoods’ — Onboard clients more so than others, perhaps (go go gadget plug!). But community is not just a neighborhood. It goes beyond place.  Community is not mere geography. It is an emotional/psychological geography that encompasses the land, the buildings, the people, and the services that surround them.

My community is far more than just my little house; it also includes my neighbors’ houses.  The guy up the street who has a very angry dog that he keeps chained up in his yard is a huge part of my community.  So is the pizzeria in town that serves delectable gourmet pizzas.  The train station, the bike shop, the cafes, the little boutique that carries Prada and Helmut Lang, the summertime concerts in the park, the diner where the locals get together for Sunday brunch — these are part of the fabric of community.

Localism.com’s purpose is to tap into that community, to capture its essence, as well as all of its local information and flavor. Again, whether it is successful or not, only time will tell. But the motivation behind it, the reason why ActiveRain thought to bring this to market at this time, will remain as strong as ever.

Secundus: MLS 5.0 Manifesto.

Saul Klein, of InternetCrusade and Point2 Technologies, penned a detailed proposal (more like a call to action really) about the “MLS of the Future” that is generating quite a bit of conversation around the RE.net.

While I have my criticisms and questions about the vision of MLS 5.0, the interesting phenomenon is that the responses — almost all of which are negative, some even downright hostile — do not take issue with the basic concept itself. The negativity is almost entirely about the role of the National Association of REALTORS®.

The issue, then, isn’t with the idea of a single national MLS that simplifies business-critical tasks like syndication and listings exposure; the issue is who controls that resource and its distribution rules. The idea of a single standard and what that enables — that idea everyone loves.

But consider what the admission of the need for a single system means psychologically for real estate. Once upon a time, it was almost as if the value of an agent was tied entirely to his ability to deliver access to the MLS. Wasn’t that the whole point of the DOJ lawsuit? And yet, even as NAR and the government duked it out in a battle royale, there was a shift going on underneath the visible surface as individual agents and brokers realized that if the business of real estate is to serve as a human user interface module to MLS data, they are in deeper trouble than they had thought.

The explosion of agent blogs, of real estate blogs, of social networking, of twittering, and so on is but one response to the fundamental shift away from interface-to-listings towards something new.

Imagine a real estate industry awash with data, the way that financial services are awash with data.  Basic information about a property will be everywhere.  With a common standard, pushing listings from your laptop to a hundred websites, blogs, and microsites throughout the world could be automated.  Real personal syndication direct to consumers — along the lines of RSS readers — can become a real possibility.

If you are a real estate professional in that industry, what do you compete on?  What is your value proposition?

We are entering uncharted waters.

Tertius: Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate launches the Clean Slate Blog. (Disclosure: BHG is a client of Onboard Informatics)

Better Homes & Gardens, the most important strategic initiative launched by the industry giant Realogy in recent years, has an official corporate blog. This is a HUGE development. There is no company that is more important — nor more conservative — in real estate than Realogy. For a Realogy brand, and to boot its most important brand in years, to have a corporate blog is an incredible development confirming the power of blogging and social media in general.

If Realogy can get into corporate blogging, then any real estate company can.  Furthermore, if Realogy with its billions of dollars, TV advertising, and hundreds of thousands of agents, is going to leverage the power of social media… you had better keep up.

But what is that power, at the end of the day? I actually believe that BHG’s embrace of blogging, Web 2.0, and social media will be seen a couple of years from now as the peak of the Web 2.0 movement in real estate. We’ll refer to it with the same wistful tone with which we talk about the days of $128 Yahoo shares.

I know this sounds extremely negative, but it isn’t really. Social media — and its cousin social networking — is but one piece of the overall puzzle.  Arguably, it isn’t even the most important piece.  But while blogging and social media have taken center stage in real estate as they have for the past few years, true progress has been blocked.  Like infants who discover that they have these things called hands, we have been picking up just about everything we can reach, to play with it, put it in our mouths, without too much consideration about business value.

Now that even major brands are adopting it, perhaps we can put down the shiny new toy and start focusing on actually delivering customer value which involves far more than simply blogging about a listing.

The Connection

These pieces are interconnected, although at first glance, it’s hard to see how they hang together. They hang together in pointing the way to how the post-bubble, post-Internet real estate services may be conducted.

At the end of the day, real estate is about service.

No matter what the technology, no matter what version of the Web we’re on, no matter how many social networks we are part of, the solid ground underneath everything in real estate is service. The delivery mechanisms might change, the speed and efficiency may be dramatically improved, but the substance of the value will remain service.

Brokers and agents get paid for the service they render to clients. The shift in the definition of what service it is that a realtor provides to a customer is being pushed by the trend towards data ubiquity and pulled by the trend towards hyperlocal information.  Both are rooted in consumer desire to leverage the power of the Web and databases to understand more about the most important purchase of their lives.  Prior to the real estate bubble bursting, realtors still believed that they were in the business of providing access to various trading platforms and data systems. Those who still do are doomed to irrelevance. Data wants to be free; data wants to be standardized; and data wants to be shared.

Because simultaneous with this trend towards data ubiquity, consumer emphasis is shifting away from the property itself to the surrounding community. Localism and initiatives like it start to showcase agents, brokers, and others who are truly experts in the town, neighborhood, the community. Consumers themselves find that they care very much indeed not only about whether their house has a fireplace or not, but what the Walkability Score is. They find that they care greatly about what shops are nearby, what parks, what transportation facilities, what restaurants; they find that they want to know if they’ll fit into the life of the community, or if they would be standing out like sore thumbs. They want to work with real estate pros who know the inside scoop about the community — as well as being experts on housing and the transaction.

The agents and brokers who survive and thrive will realize that their expertise and knowledge of the local community may be more important an asset than how many listings they have. They will come to realize that the consumer can get listings from every site, blog, and Twitter around, and realize that the service that the consumer can only get from the local realtor on the ground is his or her knowledge of that particular local market. This is the principle and insight that Onboard Informatics has been founded upon. That the world is coming around to how we’ve always seen things is, well, gratifying.

And of course, at the same time, social media is moving into the mainstream. When even the major brands are getting into blogging and social media, there are three big implications.

One, social media is no longer ‘out there’ — it is as mainstream as it can be. It is no longer a fad. It isn’t a passing fancy. Transform, or become irrelevant. The message could not be any clearer.

Two, the likelihood of truly radical innovation coming from social media is now rapidly approaching zero. Once a technology moves into the mainstream, it ceases radical innovation.  Consider if our laptops are really that dramatically different from the Apple II.  Instead, the next period is one of adoption, integration, and evolution. Blogs, social media, and social networking have yet to prove true ROI in real estate — and it will become more and more difficult as more and more agents realize, “I gotta get on this blogging thing.” Many of the resulting blogs will be bad; some will be great; the vast majority will fall into that middle area of mediocrity.

What will move the industry forward is not some new technological breakthrough, or some new way of doing the same old thing. Instead, it will be finding a way to do brand new things using proven mainstream methods of social media.  That is what true adoption and integration means.  Sending someone the same old MLS listing via Twitter to their iPhone is not “new service”.  Arranging an online chat between the home seller and the buyer might be.  Doing a WebEx demonstration of the house and its local community, complete with a presentation by the home inspector, and the mortgage broker, to an audience of invite-only potential buyers might be.

Three, the age of the amateur might be coming to an end.  Social media done badly is an advantage only when professionals are busy doing something else.  Plus, it’s too hard to do truly outstanding social media marketing. (In part because it bears no resemblance to “marketing” as we have understood it to date.)

Of course, the definition of a professional might be changing.  The old skills will also require transformation or suffer irrelevance.  In an industry where personal and uniquely individual service delivery is the basis of competition, how does one do branding?  What does it mean to have consistent message?  These are but a couple of the questions that the marketing professionals — of both old and new methods — will need to wrestle with.

In the Glass Darkly

It is, of course, impossible to say what the final shape of the industry will be.  It is unknown whether a single data standard can be established.  Whether Localism.com spurs on new change, or dies on the vine, too far ahead of its time, is unknown.  We see these things as if in a glass, darkly.

What is important to keep in mind is that transformation is coming.  We may not know what will change, but we do know that change will come.  Flexibility, preparedness, and strategic insight are key skills to have so that your organization can indeed transform successfully.  The alternative is irrelevance.



Written by -Rob

September 9, 2008 at 5:26 pm

DIKW: Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

with 2 comments

Here’s the thing…data is useless.

Now, given what we do—or are at least perceived by the world at large to do—I should probably qualify that, huh? Honestly, though, I think the statement can stand on its own. While data seems like it’s useful, it’s trash, and this fact causes me no end of angst. We’re constantly referred to as “data providers”, even by members of our own team and marketing collateral, but in actuality we do not provide data.

We don’t provide data because it’s useless, meaningless, without value. Data is a collection of unrelated facts, the “product of observation”, with no meaning beyond its own existence. At their most basic levels, our products and services provide information, and go up from there. We’re information providers, and—much more importantly—knowledge providers. If you’re a data-geek, those distinctions and the DIKW “knowledge hierarchy” concepts probably aren’t new and the next bits are going to seem a bit “Applied Information Science 101” to you—go on and bail, my feelings won’t be hurt. If you’re not a data-geek, but interested enough in information science for business or other reasons to be reading this blog, it’s probably a good distinction to start making. Note: if you are a data-geek and you haven’t read Ackoff’s “From Data to Wisdom”—go read that instead of this.


  • I have three Things.
  • One of the Things is reddish-brown, two Things are grey.
  • One Thing weighs about two tons, one Thing about 10lbs., and one about 20g.
  • One Thing has a trunk, one Thing has a tail, and one Thing has a publicist. Yep, a publicist.

No fair drawing correlations and/or conclusions yet! “Data” is exactly what you see there in that pile. We now have some facts (and even that’s an assumption at this point) about three “Things”. That’s it, no more, no less. That’s data. See what I mean? Useless. So if data is useless, what the hell are we doing? Well, if you take data and apply some processes to clean it, standardize it, and create some relationships between its constituent bits and pieces, you get information.



1 reddish-brown 10lbs. has a publicist
2 grey 20g has a tail
3 grey 2 tons has a trunk

I’d argue that this stuff—information—is only mildly less useless than data, but it’s a start. It’s organized and has at least the potential(!) for allowing us to manufacture knowledge from it. It’s important only because if you get this part wrong, then any derivative knowledge is also suspect. Truthfully though, unless you know what you’re doing this stuff is almost more dangerous than raw data (more on that in a minute). The only reason we provide it in this form is because some of our customers have the desire and acumen to manufacture their own knowledge, and just want to make certain that they have the very best raw materials for doing so, and advice on the best way to go about the process.

But that begs the question, what is knowledge? Basically, you take your set of information and apply a cognitive process to it, one which actually draws correlations and conclusions, hypothesizes causal relationships, etc. This is done using a variety of mechanisms, which all boil down to human analysis. Algorithms, models, simulations—at the end of the day it’s just what some human being or a group thereof decided would be a useful way to process information into knowledge, signal from noise.



1 reddish-brown 10lbs. has a publicist tabby cat
2 grey 20g has a tail mouse
3 grey 2 tons has a trunk elephant

Well, that’s much more useful! It tells us what each of the entity-instances (records) is, and some of their attributes (fields). Feeling warm and fuzzy, now? Here’s the punchline: this last table, the one describing the knowledge we rendered from the information, which was in turn cobbled together from the data…as described herein, it has the potential to be both incorrect and incomplete. Remember the old adage about “it’s not what you don’t know that messes you up, it’s what you know that isn’t so?” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

So how could our example be wrong? In the knowledge set we drew the, not unnatural, conclusion that #3 was an elephant. What if it’s a Chrysler 300? That fits the available information (grey/2 tons/trunk). It could be something else altogether, though. How might our example be incomplete? In #1 we correctly assessed the “Thing” to be a tabby cat, but failed to differentiate it as Morris the Cat (ergo, the publicist)—a fairly important piece of knowledge, and a conclusion that might have realistically been drawn by a sophisticated enough model. Now take it up a step, to the information. What if the aggregation process failed and the #2 record has the trunk, #3 the tail? Well the probability that #3 is, in fact, an elephant just increased. But maybe #2 is actually Stuart Little, or Fievel. I mean, how many other mice do you know with trunks?

Which brings us to wisdom. Wisdom is basically a local phenomenon—strangely topical given that the focus of recent conversations in the RE.net seems to be revolving heavily around localism as the most significant agent/broker value proposition. I’ve heard it phrased as “local knowledge”. Not to belabor the semantics, but I feel the phrase “local wisdom” is more applicable.

I mean, we have knowledge. From evaluating the information Onboard organizes from the data that we aggregate, I “know” that the schools are “great” in an area, and maybe I can therefore help home-buying parents find a starter home. The local agent, though, can tell them that the HOA for the home they’re looking at just voted in a real PITA who hates kids and doesn’t let them ride their bikes without sign off in triplicate, and that speeding seems to be a problem. You probably won’t find that in our databases. Yet :-).

For the purists, I know I skipped Ackoff’s “Understanding” layer—formally defined as the “appreciation of why”, as opposed to “who, what, where, when, and how”, and nested between knowledge and wisdom. This is by design. First, the common wisdom (loaded word in this context) in information science circles seems to be to steer away from some of the more…metaphysical aspects connoted by his treatment of the subject. Second, if you look at my treatment of the “Knowledge” layer you’ll see that I tend to combine in the one layer both the deterministic processes defined by Ackoff’s version and the probabilistic/interpolative processes he espouses for his “Understanding” layer. I don’t really see the benefit in a separation, and actually feel that the cognitive processes involved are complimentary enough to warrant combination as a matter of course. And if he doesn’t like it, he can just come find me, huh? Battle Royale!

What’s the point of all this? The point is that data is useless, information is only as good as the systems and assumptions used to process it, and the quality of a knowledge set is a factor of both its constituent information and the cognitive processes used to manufacture that knowledge. Ultimately, the way you determine whether a “data provider” is worth a damn is by looking at the people who make up the team which aggregates and organizes that data into information, and whose grey matter and diligence is responsible for transforming that refined information into useful knowledge.

Final note: this shouldn’t be construed as the only legitimate treatment of knowledge management, or as a comprehensive description of our thought processes at Onboard. In many ways this methodology is limited, and doesn’t—at least not intuitively—take into account the dynamism inherent in knowledge of any significantly useful complexity. My intention was to use this as an introduction into the amount and nature of thought that goes into creating knowledge, and identify the sharp difference between a product and “data”. Data may be fungible, but knowledge…is…not. And, knowledge-wise? I’ll put our team up against anyone else’s.

As for wisdom? It’s probably overrated, and almost certainly to remain a uniquely ineffable human endeavor. We’re working on it though. This’ll have to do for now:

Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is THE BEST…
Wisdom is the domain of the Wis

– lyrics from Frank Zappa’s rock opera, “Joe’s Garage”, Act III, Scene XVI

Written by liamdayan

August 20, 2008 at 8:37 pm

Local Media Blogs & Real Estate

leave a comment »

A Cornucopia of Local

A Cornucopia of Local

The New York Times, in a bid to stay relevant in the new media environment, has weighed in on the phenomenon of local place-blogging:

Suburban bloggers, though, spawned a subgenre of narratives about diaper changing, neighbor trouble, temporary traffic snags and other subjects rarely considered worthy of publication in previous eras.

Back then, it was hard to tell whether these lonesome scribes could sustain the chore over the long run, and if they did, what sort of audience they might attract.

Nearly a decade later, bloggers in the suburbs are starting to answer those questions. Many have let their sites go untended, but a few have built serious local journalism operations, while others have developed a following on certain topics and bask in the muted limelight of Internet fame. These survivors offer newly minted bloggers a pixilated blueprint for how to rise above the chaos of the blogosphere. For readers, the blogs are providing news in ways unseen in traditional local news media.

Interestingly enough, not one of the local blogs that the Times profiled was written by a real estate agent. Granted, this may be the result of bias on the part of “journalists” to highlight those blogs that are “newsy” in nature. But there may be something more going on here.

In fact, I believe every real estate blogger should take a good hard look at the websites mentioned in the article: Baristanet, Red Bank Green, Hoboken411, WestportNow, and New Haven Independent. Unless your hyperlocal blog is getting 82,000 monthly visitors (the number that Baristanet.com gets), you might want to think about emulating what is obviously working.

For myself, what immediately stands out that differentiates these local blogs from realtor local blogs is that they are media companies and operated as such by media people. The most important impact of this is that these blogs are relevant for people who are not looking to move into the neighborhood. They are relevant for people who just live there.

In contrast, most local realtor blogs are completely irrelevant to current residents. As a result, they cannot offer the kind of news, insights, and a feel for actually living in that town that the local media blogs can.

I mentioned in the comments of this post that I really liked Perri Feldman’s NJRealEstateWire site. And I do, so take the critique with that in mind. The problem here is that while I appreciate the site as someone in the real estate industry, I have no reason to bookmark it and visit it as a resident of Millburn — a town that Perri covers. As it happens, Millburn doesn’t have a local media blog like Baristanet, but if it did, I would bookmark it and visit it constantly.

Just as a comparison, look at the top three most recent posts right now on the frontpage of NJRealEstateWire and on Baristanet:

NJRealEstateWire has:

Baristanet.com has:

Is there any question that if I were interested in getting the feel of a town, I would get more out of Baristanet (for Montclair area) than out of NJRealEstateWire (for Millburn area)?

The sad thing here is that the local realtor blogs end up working against its goals: reaching people who are interested in a particular neighborhood and its goings-ons. It’s impossible to brand yourself as a local expert in the community when the local people aren’t reading your blog, and there is no conversation going on.

Look again at the number of comments on Baristanet, and compare that to the number of comments your typical local realtor blog generates. There is no comparison.

What’s ironic — perhaps tragic — about this is that perhaps the local realtor is often best suited to be running a local media blog. As part of her job, the local realtor is going to know quite a bit about the feel of a neighborhood, the shops, the city council actions, schools, in short — what’s going on. But because she aims so much at trying to sell houses and getting leads off her blog, she will end up producing content that most people are completely uninterested in reading.

At the same time, as licensed real estate professionals, realtors are under certain regulations that the non-realtors are not. They have to be careful about what they say or write about a particular area in a way a journalist does not. What to do?

Free Advice

Keeping in mind that advice is often worth what you’ve paid for it, here are my thoughts.

1. Decide what business you are in when blogging

Are you in the home-selling business when you’re blogging? Or are you in the local media business? Decide, then act accordingly. This could mean that you setup a separate operation for your local blogging and avoid tainting it with overt commercialism. Or it could mean that you focus simply on realty blogging, understanding that you will be at a major disadvantage when up against a real local blogger.

2. Create an Ecosystem for your Local Blogging

Since most realtors are actually in the business of helping people buy and sell homes, it doesn’t make much sense to start a second job in local media. This means that realistically, what you need to do is to create an ‘ecosystem’ of local blogs in your neighborhood. Encourage someone to start a local media blog, with both content (you can write about local real estate issues) and with cash (advertise on their local blog). Reach out to other people who may be able to write about one aspect of your town, then bring it all together under one local media operation.

Just because you can’t directly compete with the likes of Baristanet does not mean that you have to cede the real estate advice area to someone else. Become the local real estate columnist and write all about the local market, constantly.

For example, like this.

3. Separate our your professional marketing and your blogging activities

Make sure you have a website for your brokerage operations — a clean, well-designed brochureware/search site that is aimed at those who are looking for representation. At the same time, don’t let your blog become just an advertising platform for your brokerage business. I can’t think of a quicker way to lose credibility than to use your blog to overtly troll for business. This is also the hardest thing to do.

Even we here at Onboard Informatics have issues with this. When you’re passionate about your business, you can’t help talk about it. Our mantra here is to use the blog simply to converse and communicate, but sometimes, we find it hard not to talk about our services and products. So cut yourself some slack, but at the same time, remember to at least try and maintain a Church and State separation.

Local blogging is the next wave. People are inherently more interested in news that affects them personally. But what they want to hear about is local media — news, opinions, etc. Real estate only plays a part of that picture — an important part, but still only a part.

So start talking to your neighbors — form that ecosystem. And give your neighbors (and visitors) what they’re looking for.


Written by -Rob

August 20, 2008 at 3:11 pm

Picture This

leave a comment »

Imagine being able to walk the streets of a neighborhood from virtually anywhere.  You get to see what it looks like.  You see who lives, works, and plays there.  Yet you haven’t even taken a step in its direction.  You are viewing all of this from 1,000 miles away.

The ultimate experience may still be science fiction but photo blogging gets us closer than ever before.  Photo blogging simply combines two things;  blogging and photos.  Blogging being the ability to quickly post content to the internet.  And photos being the content most often posted.

Applied to the real estate market this could be especially useful in conveying the look and feel of an area to prospective home buyers.  A scenario I could envision would be a website, or section of your website, devoted to a geographic area (neighborhood, subdivision, community).  A group of trusted users, agents and home sellers, would be able to quickly and easily add photos, videos, and other content about that area.

ShutterFly launched, Share Sites, which makes this possible. 

 Although it suffers from some of the issues with free services (lack of customization, external links) it does provide a model for allowing mainstream users an easy way to

share content.  The New York Times also points out that they intend to expand their service offering by enabling users to upload video and embed the content into any blog or social network.

To illustrate my point, take a 20 minute walk around our office at 90 Broad St.

Written by Ira Monko

August 14, 2008 at 3:40 pm

Why More Data Makes People Happier

leave a comment »

When potential buyers consider what they want in a community, what comes to mind? Are they young hipsters looking for an apartment closest to the most live music venues? Or are they looking for a chiropractor in the vicinity? The priorities consumers have when buying are as varied as the consumers themselves, and it takes a warehouse full of information to satisfy them all.

Local Amenities, one of the most important products and services Onboard Informatics provides for its customers, is the transformation of raw data into meaningful information about the services available in a particular community. Each month sees new additions to the data records we maintain, meaning that the overall picture of a community that can be created is even more inclusive.

Last year at this time, Onboard was supplying 2,221,609 Amenities records to its clients. Currently that number stands at 4,084,253 records, almost double that.  New categories have been added that give a more comprehensive overview of community offerings. If you can think of something you’d want to have in the place you live, chances are that the data is there to tell you whether or not it’s available.

In 2007, if you were a health nut looking for eating and drinking establishments that specifically sold health foods, you were out of luck. But organic food fans, never fear — new Amenities records can help you find the nearest Whole Foods. Working parents who need childcare services? The most recent Amenities data lets you search for nearby Gymborees.

As for education, new data about student housing and vocational schooling has been added to existing records on Catholic, public, and private schools (as well as higher education). In addition to the information Onboard offers about education under Amenities, clients also have access to School Profiles and Reviews. The increase in data records can be seen here, too, since we’ve added about 5,600 reviews over the most recent month.

The more data you have, the more informed you are. As data records in areas like Local Amenities and School Reviews continue to increase, the results can only be more knowledgeable and more satisfied clients. Plus, now they’ll be able to search for the nearest spas in a community — does it get any better?

Written by Tara Powers

August 5, 2008 at 6:19 pm

Geo-Marketing: Possibilities

leave a comment »

Ooo, pretty colors!

Ooo, pretty colors!

One of the more interesting things I’ve heard at Inman SF in July was in hallways and during the Q&A of sessions. Apparently, a number of brokers are seeing an increase in foreign buyers of U.S. real estate. This is something that has been going on for a while, as this series on Inman illustrates, especially in the higher-end luxury market, but we are apparently starting to see foreign buyers spreading out of the top end luxury markets.

The response from the brokerage industry, of course, is an understandable desire to do some international marketing. If 15% of your customers are coming from Germany, it certainly makes sense to do some advertising in Berlin.

By all means, do international advertising. But while you’re at it, consider applying the same concepts to your local marketing as well.

Geo-marketing is not something that only applies to strangers from a strange land, where you are automatically thinking about where your buyers are coming from, and what you’d want to tell them in order to have them contact you. This notion can and should apply to your domestic, local clients as well.

A number of Onboard Informatics’ clients get detailed neighborhood data from us, including some of the best local neighborhood boundaries. What I’ve found a bit odd is that while our financial clients tend to use that data for internal data analysis, our real estate clients almost never do. They use neighborhoods only to enable consumer tools, such as local neighborhood search. Such hyperlocal search is a wonderful tool for consumers, so we encourage our clients to enable it. The utility of neighborhood information, however, is not limited simply to using it on your website.

With relatively simple GIS systems, a brokerage can map where their customers are coming from, especially if you have access to detailed neighborhood boundary information that can be uploaded to the GIS system. That could lead to some interesting insights.

For example, let’s say you’re a broker in suburban NJ. You know that some percentage of your buyers are coming from Manhattan, fleeing the extraordinary housing prices in the City (over $2m for a 2BR condo in June of 2008). You take your customer list over the past three or four years, and upload them into the GIS and map them to specific neighborhoods (you do have the former addresses of your clients, right?). You discover that over half of your buyer customers are hailing from downtown — specifically, Soho and Tribeca. This is shocking because you always thought of your buyers as people who work on Wall Street and live in cramped little boxes in some anonymous building in the Upper East Side.

Im too sexy for this blog.

I'm too sexy for this blog.

That insight can completely transform the way you do advertising. Perhaps instead of talking about proximity to Wall Street, you start talking about how your town is a community for artists, designers, and creative people. You update the look and feel of the ad to appeal more to the hip downtown lifestyle, instead of to the suits and power ties of the Wall Street crowd.

Even if you are in a market that doesn’t have pre-defined neighborhoods, you can apply your own knowledge of local neighborhoods to create useful geo-marketing templates. Most towns can be divided into distinct areas with their own flavor, neighborhood personality, and demographics — income, education, profession, etc. Most GIS systems will allow you to define your own ‘neighborhood area’ — then overlay it on top of the underlying data. If you know that there’s a new shopping mall going in somewhere, for example, you could make a custom neighborhood for a 5-minute drive time radius and start sending postcards to the houses in that area letting them know the value of their houses are about to go up (or maybe down, I suppose, depending on the mall and the neighborhood).

The saying that all real estate is local is true. But it is also true that all customers are local. As real estate professionals, we’re all very aware of a property’s location, characteristics, features, and so on. Many realtors are experts when it comes to their local market, and yet are novices when it comes to their customers.

So think about geography. Consider what you can do with neighborhood data, not just for your website visitors, but also for your own marketing and business operations.

(Okay, caveat time: even the simplest GIS system can be a bit of a bear to operate, while the more powerful systems require significant training. If you’re an Onboard client — please contact your Account Manager to find out about our custom GIS capabilities.)


Written by -Rob

August 4, 2008 at 7:08 pm

The Process Behind the Alienation: A glance into the art and science used for a “Best of” story…

leave a comment »

As Onboard Informatics continues to be “the” data provider for publishers, we are proud to be the unsung heroes of the success of this year’s latest and greatest place to reside story.

But how do we go about selecting places to be highlighted by our publisher clients? Well when we aren’t throwing darts at a big map of the United States, while counting our bribe money for letting Gary, Indiana on the list we actually use very exact methodologies that produce the best results possible…

I want to give you a very high level over view of how the process goes; I don’t want to be too specific as to not reveal our secret sauce (As much as I wish, it is not Thousand Islands dressing… L)

So our hypothetical magazine will be Murph Digest, and they want to do a story that will highlight the Best Big City to Live.

In the very beginning of the process is where we unfortunately start to alienate some really great places to live. Sorry Gary, Indiana next year will be your year… But in all seriousness, good screening criteria are vital! It will ensure that the places selected truly represent the focus of the story.. Because our hypothetical story will center on large cities, we will establish a population threshold that Murph Digest considers large enough to consider that place a “big” city. So every city that is left will at least meet the bare minimum in the population field.

Now that we are only left with places that qualify as “big” cities, we can proceed to the next step. While working with the client, we identify what data points they are interested in for their story. We want to know who their readers are and what are their readers are interested in, i.e what market are they targeting. Onboard Informatics experience and expertise is invaluable during this part of the process. Besides the obvious data, we have data on some of the most outlandish things and methodologies for aggregating it that never cease to amaze our clients. So for Murph Digest, low crime rates and the number of divorced women are the only two fields that they are interested in.

After gathering the crime rate data and the number of divorced women for all the places that qualify as a “big” city, we can rank the places. Getting input from the client, we select the best weighting technique (lots of secret sauce here), and we can send over a simple spreadsheet to the client with the data filtered ahead of time. Once the spreadsheet is in the client’s hands, they can play with the weights and base their decisions on their own preferences; and apparently low crime is only worth 10% and the number of divorced women is worth 90% to Murph Digest. I guess their readers are cougar hunters!!!

Written by John Paul Murphy

August 1, 2008 at 3:52 pm