There have been many ambitious competitor eager to put a dent in the thick and some-what impenetrable armour of Realestate.com.au - many have come and gone, some remain and yet through it all Realestate.com.au continues to grow, laser-like in its resolve to simultaneously be the default for real estate marketing and at the same time deliver returns to shareholders that has seen the value of the company more than treble in 3 years.
So to hear that the new of the launch of a portal in Homely is not in itself big news after all. There are many who think they can do a better job than the dominant leader in the market and in someway take a mere percentage point of the powerhouse and thereby secure millions of dollars of value. There is though in Homely a few unique aspects that I think are worth pausing to examine.
Not that a brand name is everything but I have congratulate the homely team, that is an awesome brand - it somehow, in a word, defines the emotional resonance that a portal wants to have to engage with consumers around such an emotional experience as house hunting.
The brand name was not though, the unique aspect I was thinking of. The core aspect to which I am referring is that Homely is to my mind in a sense a mirror of Zillow during its early phase back in 2006. If you will recall, Zillow launched into the US market without a single property listing, or at least virtually none. They did however have a core database of every property in the US and an estimate (the now famous Zestimate) as to the value of that property. This compelling content engaged a massive audience around a single fact (or supposition to be more accurate) - an estimate of the market value of your home. Just at a time (pre GFC) when people saw homes as bottom-less ATM’s.
Zillow lept out of the starting blocks with an audience that was the envy of any online business, this audience was of appeal to agents who enthusiastically started listing their properties and so the content acquisition race began. It is important to understand this in that way Zillow built an audience through which it aquired content upon which it then built a business model advertising agents for the listing they acquired, a very different model from traditional portals - acquire content through a Freemium model and an audience will follow.
The parallel of Zillow for Homely is that Homely has a unique database of reviews of a large cross section of Australian suburbia built over a decade, partly assisted ironically by Realestate.com.au with their now ceased Local Voices section. Homely is built and operated by the team who launched an operated Street Advisor, the Melbourne based brothers Jason and Adam Spencer. Their database of user generated reviews of streets is already a an established destination with a ready audience which they have now rebranded and overlaid with listings - sound familiar? They have existing traffic and inherent web linkages which means that they start with an advantage over other aspiring challengers to the Realestate.com.au crown.
In someways the data they hold on consumer ratings of suburbs is more unique and defensible than the model Zillow had, for it is possible given enough budget to acquire sales data and build a smart algorithm, whereas building a credible database of consumer user-generated reviews of neighborhoods is not a scalable model - it takes time, a lot of time, patience and commitment to supporting the community. Hyperlocal news is a much aspired part of the online world but few successful models exist so far, hyperlocal opinions and insights are core to the place people choose to live, it powers a lot of Trulia's success and whilst not judged front and center as key to the success of a portal it does hold real deep value and consumer appeal, if it is well curated and nurtured as any such content not updated and shared will 'wither on the vine'!
Having set this as the core base of the business, Homely has then chosen a bold strategy of saying front and center they want to focus on the listing and in a wonderfully purist principle completely forgo the business model of advertising to deliver a clean ‘ad-free’ site. This they achieve in what I think is a very commendable user experience. Not perfect (certainly missing the key attribute of responsive design) but very appealing.
Will Homely be the one to make a dent in the current market of Australian property portals? - that is the question. I have to say not a significant dent, but I think it could be seen by the real estate industry as a more neutral 3rd player potentially up against Domain's and REA's somewhat ‘big boy’ tactics as judged by the industry. However at the end of the day the property buyers and sellers will be the final arbiters, they will vote it in, or out - either way its core database of reviews and profiles will only be enhanced through this new site which will add value to a future users of such a service.