With the the first of Property Portal Watch’s interactive polls about to close, it’s more interesting to note the vehement responses it evoked than the results.
The poll, launched a fortnight ago admittedly started with a highly controversial question, “Will OntheMarket Survive In the Market Long term”.
For those of us who play in the property portal market, especially in the UK, it’s an interesting conundrum with many parameters the agent-owned and operated platform currently finds itself in, and there’s no doubt most people will an opinion.
OntheMarket, which was launched in 2015, is still a relatively new player, not just in terms of a property platform in a highly established market with existing dominant players, but also as a business, like any other trying to make a dollar—or in this case, a pound.
Agent sites weigh in
Within a few days of posting the poll, OnTheMarket emailed me requesting an explanation of how I will ensure “the poll isn’t hijacked and that the result doesn’t end up skewed” and complaining “It seems an extremely unfair poll to run”.
The same day, leading UK real estate industry news site Property Industry Eye posted a story claiming “Furious OnTheMarket slams new poll as to whether it will survive” which complained the poll could be rigged and suggested “The question for this poll feels like rather a leading question”.
Just in the last two days, the UK’s second leading property industry site Estate Agent Today added a follow up, having politely requested the number of votes received.
The EAT article, which focuses on the inadequacy of the sample to provide a reasonable picture of public opinion on the matter, includes some juicy, unpleasant comments and a statement from OnTheMarket, also received by Property Portal Watch:
“Compared with the very limited number of people who participated in this poll, there are currently more than 6,400 offices listing on the website.
“OnTheMarket has grown considerably this year in terms of agents listing on the portal and traffic visiting it – we achieved more than 8m visits in June.Which other recent market entrant has achieved so much in such a short space of time? We are here to stay.”
5000 unique users in under 10 days
It’s true. Scientific studies wouldn’t count a sample of 220 people as “statistically significant” given the market we are talking about.
But in the world of online news, this represents a robust figure for the number of property portal industry people who felt motivated enough to part in an online poll. After just over a week online, the poll reached over 5000 unique users of which 5 per cent engaged with it.
But it was the response to the poll which prompted me to ask myself why the debate about OnTheMarket touches such a raw nerve in the UK.
Initiated by a consortium of agents disaffected by the increasing advertising fees they were locked into with the leading property portals in the market, OnTheMarket offered a great deal of promise.
“Agents around the world have business models defined by property portals they have no ownership over,” observes UK-based Digital Marketing Bureau founder and real estate portal industry expert James Dearsley.
Dearsley, who describes himself as a global evangelist and speaker on the use of PropTech in the real estate market says the opportunity OnTheMarket offered was one the average agent could feel a part of, one they could own and direct as their businesses evolved.
“I think the issue of ‘gaining back a bit of control’ was a very powerful psychological win for OTM but now, realising that perhaps this isn’t going to happen, is upsetting to most.”
Legal battles bite
One of the most debated aspects of the OntheMarket concept is its ‘one other portal rule’. Most likely intended as a strategy to engender loyalty, the rule enforced contractually has been criticised on a number of fronts from its failure to break the hold of leading portals to being anti-competitive.
OTM parent company Agents’ Mutual is currently facing the UK’s Competition Appeals Tribunal on this front.
“The legal issues are mounting,” Dearsley agrees.
“That cannot be denied. In early July there were 50 separate businesses setting out their legal position in a Letter Before Action therefore this is all getting serious.
“OTM need to listen because I am sure they can stop the legal claims but the allegations are worrying.
“Misleading early adopters to the concept as they sought to drive sign ups has contradicted their early and very transparent policies.
“This is particularly worrying over the issue of subscription fees and whilst I believe they can resolve the legal issues, I am not sure they can resolve the trust issues that will result.”
Does OTM have the stuff to make it long term? Nearly 84 per cent of our voters said “no”.
“Personally, (I think) no,” Dearsley puts in. “I don’t think OTM has the financial backing to cause serious damage.
“I can’t comment on the operational business model side but it seemed healthy. They hit the nerve and sign ups were looking strong. However, what cannot be underestimated is the money needed to create a brand, let alone an online portal relying on traffic.
“I believe a lack of understanding both in the industry and also from within OTM about its own sustainability as a stand alone portal relying on site traffic to keep it in the hearts and minds of the agents (let alone people using the platform who were already happy with other portals) was a big shortcoming.
“You can develop the worlds best portal but unless you have a/ proven traffic quickly and b/ perhaps more importantly, returning traffic growth that continues to escalate, there is no future.”
Heed the feedback
However Dearsley argues OTM may still succeed with the disruption it aimed for.
“If nothing else, the concept shows to other portals that agents are not happy,” he says.
“That is what other portals should take from this whole experiment. Pushing prices up over time is not a sustainable business model when there is a clear duopoly, is not right for the core market. It may please shareholders but it will not please the customers.
“Portals need to understand the upset and work with their client base far more for the long term health of the portal market.”
He adds OTM should be a lesson, albeit a rather expensive one, for those trying to force the change
“Talks need to open between portals and their paying clients,” he explains. “How can we work together to continue the huge strides we have all made over the past decade? Lets be honest, it has been a clear symbiotic relationship up until this point.
“Both portals and agents have benefited but I think there is clear ill-feeling at this point that large portals are benefiting a little more than the their clients. Not a good position to be in.”