A recent blog post by 100watt’s Joel Burslem got forwarded to me recently. It was in reference to Estately’s new mobile app, which he was raving about. While some of his claims are a bit over the top (sorry, but adding events to a calendar is not a new iOS7 feature), the Estately design is well done. There was one comment he made, though, that really stood out for me:

Real estate search is moving to the handset.

He’s right, but not quite 100% right. I don’t believe that real estate search is moving to the handset, it has moved to the handset.

Why am I certain it has moved? Just take one look at the stats from Zillow, Trulia and Realtor.com. They are killing it in mobile. Whether it was by accident or by design, they invested in mobile early. The rest of the industry left the door open, and the portals stepped in. They continue to invest and improve the mobile experience, partially funded by investors, and partially funded by those who pay to advertise with them.

So should brokerages give up on mobile? Should they cede that platform to the portals? I would contend they shouldn’t, that all is not lost. Brokerages still have a lot to offer over the portals. However, they need to rethink their approach to mobile and figure out how to effectively use it in their business.

I see way too many real estate companies that spend lots of money on branding initiatives, their desktop website, social media platforms, SEO, pay-per-click advertising on Google and Facebook, advertising on Zillow and Trulia, and then little or nothing on mobile. They settle for simple templated mobile sites or responsive websites that only care about screen size. Neither of these incorporate what differentiates a broker from its competition or the portals, let alone incorporating mobile features to deliver a unique experience to the user.

So how can brokerages up their game in mobile? Here are a few of my recommendations based on my experience working with our clients:

  1. Articulate your strategy
    Before rushing into mobile, identify what your strategy is and how you plan to differentiate your company. Then look at how mobile can help you achieve those goals. In other words, don’t let mobile drive your strategy. Identify your strategy and identify how mobile can help you achieve it. In other words, start by asking why?
  2. Reflect your image and brand
    Many companies are treating mobile as a separate entity instead of including it as part of their brand. Mobile needs to represent your brand just as well as your website, print ads, social media presence, brochures and yard signs do. Don’t treat mobile as a second class citizen. For many consumers, your mobile presence could be the first (and only) contact a user has with your company and brand.
  3. Engage the user
    Create an experience on mobile that users will want to use and come back to. As a hint, most template sites I see these days aren’t cutting it. Consumers expect more than that from mobile. Things like strong visuals and imagery, the use of gestures, or simplicity in the user interface can create a more engaging user experience.
  4. Incorporate local knowledge
    Brokerages are (or should be) experts in their local area. Whether it’s knowledge of neighborhoods, schools,restaurants and shopping, things to do, market trends, or preferred vendors, figure out how to incorporate these into your mobile presence in a way that provides value to your clients.
  5. Use context
    Mobile devices are unique in that they provide information about a user that can be used to determine user context and intent. As an example, if a user loads your app while standing in front of a property for sale, what do you think they are looking for? Hint: it’s not why you’re the best company in town. The information that a user provides through their mobile device can dramatically improve the mobile experience and make it much easier for a user to get the information they want quickly and easily.

It’s time to rethink the mobile experience in real estate. As Joel states, Estately has raised the bar for everyone, and that bar is going to get raised even higher going forward. As a brokerage, it’s time to start taking mobile seriously, to invest in and take control of your mobile presence. Otherwise, you’re going to find yourself funding the portals through your advertising to build ever better products. Worse yet, you may find yourself having to bid against your competition for advertising space on those same portals to purchase, or buy back, one of the most valuable items in your business – your leads.