Hitwise figures have had US rental apartments portal mynewplace.com in either 10th or 11th place for a number of months now. In this interview, founder and CEO John Helm covers topics including Google Maps, social media, and what it takes to build a successful real estate portal.
What are some of the major trends and changes you can see affecting US property portals in 2010?
Given the ongoing recession and pricing innovations from companies like mynewplace.com, our industry is definitely headed to a more pay-for-performance model. We’re the only major ILS that varies our fee based on the number of qualified leads we send to the client. However, we hear from our clients that many of our competitors are testing this model in certain markets or amongst a certain strata of clients. I think the flat fee model where all the performance risk is borne by the client will go the way of the horse and buggy.
mynewplace.com has been around since 2005. What have been the biggest changes for property portals since that time?
While I’ve been one of the industry leaders questioning the huge hype around social media as a cost effective resident acquisition tool, I do think that social media broadly defined is gradually altering the apartment search process, and the ability of property managers to maintain a dialogue with their residents.
mynewplace.com was one of the first property portals to integrate text messaging of property information, which now gets tens of thousands of sends per month. We were the first real estate portal to incorporate Facebook Connect, which has seen more modest usage but is growing steadily. User generated content is clearly the next big thing for our vertical. mynewplace.com already has thousands of posts on its city and neighbourhood pages where visitors can ask questions about schools, parks or whatnot and get thoroughly researched responses.
Do you think the addition of real estate listings to Google Maps in the US has the potential to challenge traditional property portals?
Every consumer Internet company needs to both partner with Google and watch its moves closely. In the case of real estate listings, I expect that Google Maps will start driving some material renter traffic but the question is: will owner/managers be able to modify or influence or purchase this traffic? My sense is that this will be more like organic search traffic – controlled by Google’s top-secret search algorithm and really outside of the control of any of us.
mynewplace.com launched an iPhone application and a Facebook Connect function in 2009. What effect did these additions have on traffic to the website?
With the iPhone application, we were fortunate to receive very high user ratings right off the bat, which helped drive usage. (Our present rating is 4+.) Not only has it been a great source of new traffic, but we see very different usage patterns, including spikes on weekends and, not surprisingly heavy use of the “search nearby” function. As I mentioned above, the Facebook Connect usage has been more modest. We’re optimistic that the Facebook changes announced in at the F8 conference in April will spike usage.
The newest addition to mynewplace.com is its RentEngine listing service. What response have you seen to the service so far?
Phenomenal. We signed up more than 1,000 properties in the first month and the sales keep coming. We’ve also learned from our users just how hard it is to manage Craigslist postings. Our tool makes the content creation a snap, but Craigslist’s requirement of manual posting and its limitations on the number of posts do make ongoing Craigslist marketing a chore and an expense. Sometimes newbies to Craigslist get caught up in the “it’s huge and it’s free” aspects and fail to appreciate that there are hidden costs. RentEngine helps simplify the efforts and improves the effectiveness of postings but I think it’s important to reiterate that Craigslist isn’t “free.”
What advice would you give someone looking to establish a new property portal in the US market?
Plan on a hard, long slog. There are no shortcuts to building a successful portal. You need to raise significant cash (no ILS has successfully been built with less than $30 million dollars), and plan on a five to seven year effort. It’s an extremely competitive and crowded space.