Real estate portals are well aware that it isn't only people actively seeking a new place to live that view their pages. Absent-minded gazing of real estate listings whether to source content for social media or just daydreaming has undoubtedly increased since the onset of the pandemic in 2020.
These dreamers represent a quarter of Hemnet's users. The leading Swedish portal and its approach to 'dreamers' was the subject of a very interesting recent academic study published by Ella Johnston.
They may not be on business plans or product road maps but Johnston thinks that both management and product departments at real estate portal companies can benefit from thinking about the dreamers out there...
OMP: What got you interested in window shopping property portal users as a thesis topic?
Ella Johnston: So it started when I decided to work together with Hemnet, the leading property portal in Sweden, and then just sort of brainstorming around what kind of users are there? What users do they have? Is there any group that is under-researched?
I eventually sort of landed on an area where there was potential and there could be more improvements made.
OMP: Has this subject been looked at before in other academic discourse or in other industries or is it quite underserved?
EJ: I'd definitely say it's quite unserved. The work that I found was focused on other areas... and most of the research I found, never actually talked to users so there's a lot of guessing going on through the business side of it.
My guess is that a lot of work might be done in this area, but not on the academic side. It could be done within a company and not published anywhere because, you know, keeping your secrets close.
OMP: So you said you worked with Hemnet in Sweden. What are the categories that Hemnet uses to define its users and what percentage more or less do they represent?
EJ: So they have four large groups that they talk about. They talk about 'active sellers' - so people who currently have an ad on Hemnet now trying to sell the property.
There are 'active users' - people who, if they found a place now that suited them, they would buy.
Then you have the researchers. So that's more people who are looking to buy maybe in a year or are generally kind of figuring out exactly what it is they're looking for.
And then the last group, which is the one I'll be looking at, is dreamers. They are a very broad group. They [Hemnet] estimate that about 25% of the users every month come from this group, which is equivalent to about 50 million visits per month.
OMP: I remember from your thesis, you said Zillow was maybe a bit of an exception when it comes to 'dreamer' users. Why was that?
EJ: The big difference between Hemnet and Zillow is that on Zillow, you can look at pictures of objects that are no longer for sale. And so they have a completely different way of thinking about retention.
On Hemnet, as soon as an object has been sold, everything disappears. The only things that you can see left on it are the address and most of the time the price but nothing else.
And I think this has a huge effect on how people use it because there's a lot of behavior that is seen in connection to Zillow, which doesn't exist on Hemnet.
OMP: So what exactly did your work with Hemnet involve?
EJ: So there were two parts to it. First, I did an investigation into how Hemnet actually works with dreamers and their perspectives on it. I did a few interviews and I also looked at the documentation that they have.
The other part was the user side of it. I think there were 10 users and the in-depth interviews took about an hour for each.
I asked general questions about their behavior, what they were looking for and when and how they were using it [the portal] trying to keep a very neutral outlook and just let them talk. And then based on that, I used Google Analytics to test some of the ideas that we got from the interviews.
OMP: What were the findings? Were there any particularly surprising findings from your work with Hemnet?
EJ: Sometimes the findings were what I had expected, but I guess they will a little bit surprising in that nobody has looked at this before.
One of the major things, at least for Hemnet, is that there is this aspect of retention. People really want to return, they really want to be able to start to think about what they're looking for and how Hemnet could help with that.
The other part is just the importance of having a definition [of dreamers]. So Hemet doesn't have a clear strategic definition of dreamers. They talk about the user group on the product level, but when I spoke to a person at the board level they didn't have a specific definition of dreamers.
This meant that they weren't actually involved in the sort of strategic direction. Window shoppers are more something that just existed. They [Hemnet's management] knew that they had them. They knew that they were there. But they weren't discussing them on a high level.
OMP: Were there any specific features that you recommended or that Hemnet kind of realized that they might get more use out of when thinking about dreamer users?
EJ: I think keeping pictures. So like how Zillow does it with saving pictures and maybe not having to keep all the pictures of the particular listing - this was one of my findings. That was something that Hemnet will need to figure out - how to get the rights for all the pictures.
Also, just the sharing aspect of it. At the moment, if you want to share an object from Hemnet, you have to copy the link and you have to do it externally.
So what I was looking at was, is there a way of having this entirely internally?
OMP: What about recommendations not necessarily for product managers, but for management in general? How to think about these window shoppers, these dreamers? Was there anything that you recommended from the thesis?
EJ: Include dreamers in your strategic direction, even if you decide not to focus on them, which is natural because they're not the primary user group... 25% is quite a large group of all your users.
Also, make sure that you're not designing with only one user group in mind when you design things. One of my findings was that people move very fluidly between the different types of behaviors. People will be actively trying to buy something or actively trying to sell something and then two weeks later, they're into their dreamer behavior.
You can read Ella's thesis in full here.