What is REAL?
The Short Answer
We’re not real estate agents.
We’re not a brokerage.
We’re a couple of real estate enthusiasts that have built a brand and website promoting real estate on Oahu.
Additionally, we offer home staging.
The Long Story
For a while now, I’ve thought that the real estate market has been long overdue for disruption. It’s one of the few industries where technology hasn’t successfully transformed how traditional business models work. Zillow and Realtor.com have done a great job at improving the real estate search experience, but the majority of the market prefers to work with their local real estate agents, and rightfully so. Buying (or selling) a home is a big deal.
About 4 years ago at a backyard barbeque in Kaneohe, a friend and I spoke about a vision to create a new real estate lead generation system in Hawaii; one that could set the foundation for a new brokerage. There were a few national brokerages that were (and still are) innovating, like EXP and Compass, but their focus was split between acquisitions and mergers and providing agents with better tools to serve buyers and sellers. Our focus was on lead generation or connecting with clients first in the Hawaii market.
A real estate lead generation system could look like many different businesses. For example, it could be a simple website where we sell leads, a SAAS software where lead generation is a fixed-price supplemental service, or a marketplace like Zillow that earns revenue from referring leads to agents. In our case, we initially chose the latter. In theory, whoever connects with clients first has the opportunity to influence the market and test different business models. With those leads, you could be a marketplace, a brokerage, or a SAAS company, but one thing was for sure, we needed leads. That was the goal. The big question was “is it doable?”
It’s fairly easy to run a Google or Facebook ad campaign and get tons of leads, but the vision was much larger than that. For years, Zillow has had a monopoly on the real estate lead generation market using search engine optimization (SEO), but recently, a local brokerage called Hawaii Living started inching up and in some cases beating Zillow’s position in search engines. This spoke volumes because the majority of online leads come from search engines and a local company with substantially less capital than Zillow was successfully competing with them. This was enough proof for me that our vision was possible.
Another consideration was capacity because this vision would take years to build but most of my time went to running Mix Plate Media, a local marketing agency.
So, instead of doing our own testing or proving if this idea could work (usually a good idea), I decided to fold it in as a fun side project for my marketing agency. Agency life is filled with tight deadlines, late nights, and clients who have the final say, so this project would be an opportunity for me and my team to have fun and control every aspect of the brand and product.
The journey began and it all started with the name. Like any new business, a name is vitally important but is often underrated and undervalued. And without the pressures of a deadline, we were able to take our time and bend our approach to creating a brand from scratch.
From a traditional marketing perspective, there are a lot of steps that go into creating a brand including naming, positioning, identifying core values, mission, vision, and purpose statements, brand attributes, and visual identity. Generally, the process is sequential and it helps to better organize information and effectively communicate with clients to get approvals in a timely manner. For this project though, everything was worked on in tandem. In other words, we went through more iterations than I’d like to mention and concepts were often brought back to the table and compared with other concepts.
The process was challenging and rewarding at the same time, but at the end of the day, a brand was born. Introducing REAL, an acronym standing for Real Estate And Living, and the official legal name of the company is Real Estate And Living Hawaii.
Next Up: The Website
Now that the brand was created, Druscilla Santiago, Mix Plate Media’s Art Director at the time, took the lead on UI/UX design for the website. Druscilla has an amazing eye and I believe her to be one of the best modern well-rounded designers here in Hawaii. She’s well-versed with print design and UI design, not to mention what she’s most known for - her illustrations. You’ve probably seen her stickers around Hawaii that often include bright colors, thick lines, positive messages, and avocados.
Using a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach, we quickly jumped into discussions about features, sitemaps, user stories and wireframes. It really is enlightening to look back at work that was done years ago.
We started with a “Netflix-style” homepage design showcasing homes by categories rather than breaking down the homepage into different types of content. Industry-standard features were included in our first iteration but I quickly realized that nearly all features were industry-standard. For example, favoriting properties, home valuation, saving your search, searching for properties via a map - it’s all commonplace. Zillow, Redfin, Realtor.com, and Trulia have all explored different features and functions on their sites but aside from their brand and user experience, there was nothing significantly different than the other. Sure, Zillow’s home valuation algorithm is proprietary and might provide a more accurate way to learn the value of your home, but most real estate sites have some version of a home valuation tool, so it ain’t exactly an indisputable reason why users should choose one tool over the other.
Personas and target user segments were identified and a lot of online research was done. Types of content were discussed which helped us to formalize the website’s sitemap. It also gave us direction to what content should be included in our wireframes.
There were a lot of moving parts, so a lot of assumptions were made about our IDX/MLS feed data during the design process. We included our lead developer, Almond Mendoza, in our conversations and that’s when everything started to come together. Almond brought a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table that was invaluable to REAL. He’s one of the most savvy and trusted developers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
I’m often asked to build real estate websites for agents and believe agents should have their own site, however, there are many paths to success.
The majority of agents purchase 3rd party applications like RealGeeks, Sierra Interactive, AgentFire, or Wordpress with various plugins. The reason being is it’s inexpensive, includes a CRM, and a way to import MLS data to display properties. You can’t go to Squarespace or Wix expecting to pull in a MLS data feed easily.
Another option to consider is using a general Content Management System (CMS). The thought behind this option is that MLS data is not needed to get leads. Content is king, so while it’s rare for agents to ask for this, in many cases, it could be the best option. There are numerous microsites that target specific neighborhoods, new developments, and niches. If your content is good, you’ll generate leads.
The last option is to go “custom.” In other words, build out your own system that imports all of the MLS data where you have full control over everything. I believe there’s only 1 or 2 agents in Hawaii that have a completely custom site, but if done right, and with a healthy dose of creativity and grit, you could be substantially different than every other real estate website out there. Of course that comes with a large price tag and a lot of frustration, but because I had access to an amazing designer and developer, this is the route we chose.
Some of the hurdles that we faced included obtaining MLS data (since we aren't agents), normalizing the data and translating what each field was for, data archiving, storage and speed, and most of all, how we could creatively use the data to stand out.
We chose a modern tech stack of languages and services that we knew best and began to build our web application.
At the time of building REAL, Mix Plate Media was focused on mobile app development. Several mobile app projects were being worked on and we fell in love with both React Native and Flutter (Google’s mobile app framework). It’s no wonder that I made the fatal mistake of asking to build a mobile app in addition to building REAL’s web app. Mobile apps are popular, they’re cool, they’re “in.” So why was it a fatal mistake? Simply put, mobile apps are expensive, take a lot of time to build, and most of all, take a lot of time to maintain. Below are few screenshots of what this tangent looked like:
While we nearly completed the mobile app, it was decided to pause all development on it, so we could focus on the web app and marketing. On a positive note, it forced us to build REAL as an API-centric application, so all of our data is centralized and it would be very easy to pull that data from 3rd party applications. In layman’s terms, we could build a website, mobile app, Apple Watch app, and Amazon app, and have all those apps work together in harmony.
300 to 20,000
After our web app was released, we literally sat on it for almost a year and a half. Mix Plate Media got busy and REAL was forgotten. It wasn’t until September of 2019 that we began taking marketing seriously.
Our strategy was to focus on creating quality content to build backlinks and authority, and once we had enough authority, pivot to focus on increasing our search engine position with traditional real estate keywords to bring in lead-generating traffic. In our first year, buyer’s guides, sellers guides, investor guides, neighborhood guides, and 39 blog posts were released. Within 1 year, we increased our domain authority from 2 to 24 and went from 300-ish visitors a month to over 20,000 visitors per month where over 90% of our traffic comes from search engines. We’re on a trajectory to hit 30,000 visitors a month by the end of 2020.
In addition to creating quality content, we’ve focused on building marketable tools and features. We have a number of public-facing tools where users can view market reports (updated daily) based on neighborhoods, type of property and more. Additionally, news organizations or other real estate agents can take advantage of our tools by embedding it into their website.
Another unique feature we built was a map-based building and condo search. This was an example of creatively using MLS data to provide unique features to users. Every condo and building was automatically pulled in from the MLS, and then we added unique content for a handful of condos. Additionally, condos and buildings can be filtered by pet-friendly, FHA or VA approved, new development, and more.
Traffic and domain authority doesn’t immediately translate into “getting leads,” but we’re in it for the long game. We don’t want users to register on our site and expect random agents to call them. Building relationships with users, real estate agents, brokerages, and the broader community is important to us, so we encourage you to share your feedback with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you.
In the next year, we plan to continue to build our domain authority via high-quality content creation and backlinking strategies, optimize our UI/UX, specifically with our search, neighborhood, and property pages, and promote our content and market report tools. Additionally, we’ll release our sister brand; a national website devoted to real estate and living across America.