It was 5 years; almost to the month that Trade Me made its ill-fated blunder. A very costly blunder, a blunder that continues to hold strong memories within the minds of many in the real estate industry.
Trade Me implemented a new pricing policy. That in itself was not the issue, as price changes are a part of any evolving business especially as 5 years ago digital marketing was still evolving and establishing itself as a core element of property marketing. The real issue that took a poorly-thought-out pricing strategy and turned it into a costly and damaging blunder, was the handling of the communication coupled with the reluctance of Trade Me to engage with its customers and really understand and acknowledge how little they understood the business they had been operating in for 7 years.
The repercussions of that pricing strategy involved the Commerce Commission, a lot of lawyers and a window of opportunity for the industry owned portal Realestate.co.nz to seize a golden opportunity.
Realestate.co.nz had been up until 2013 playing a role as a challenging #2 specialist property portal to Trade Me’s #1 generalist classified platform of which property was a critical financial vertical, but sadly not managed with a clear understanding of the sector or the industry customer relationship. With the industry’s reaction leading to a boycott of Trade Me in the fall out of the pricing strategy blunder, the whole industry of agents, business owners and real estate companies rallied around Realestate.co.nz to bolster the industry-owned site. It appeared at that time that the future was bright for Realestate.co.nz which just might result in ascendancy to market leadership.
So much was going right for Realestate.co.nz through 2014. Real estate agents across the country where advocating the site to their clients, ensuring 100% adoption and strengthening the brand awareness. Additionally and importantly these agents were preferencing, like never before the platform as part of marketing campaigns, whilst playing down or rejecting marketing on Trade Me. The industry was swelling the marketing coffers of the company through the advertising dollars spend on premium products. Trade Me meanwhile was losing customers and importantly losing listings.
From a time when Trade Me was an undisputed leader in inventory, the tables were reversed and Trade Me slumped to barely 80% of the total market inventory. This, rightly or wrongly became the battle ground upon which these two played out their competitive battle of the next 5 years.
Realestate.co.nz decided that this ‘win’ of superior inventory was to be the strategic marketing advantage they could leverage from that day to now to win this fight - the marketing spend was massive as the company ploughed almost all net earnings into marketing.
In my opinion this strategy was a massive mistake, for 3 reasons.
Inventory superiority was never going to be a unique advantage that could be sustained - that has now come be true and will now haunt them.
I contend that whilst the industry is fixated on inventory; after all it is the single most important metric as listings precedes sales, and inventory showcases real estate brand. However to the consumer what relevance is there in inventory? When a consumer goes to Trade Me and searches for listings for sale in Greytown - they want to see what is for sale. If they use Realestate.co.nz they will also see what is for sale and likely they might use both sites or both apps, but do they bother to look to see how many listings there are for sale - NO. For information Trade Me shows 40 listings of property for sale vs Realestate.co.nz at 36.
Focusing everything on marketing was dumb. Building brand awareness is key, but surely someone at Realestate.co.nz was aware that brand advocacy and recommendation of the user experience of the core product (website or app) is much more important than endleslys repeated advertising shouting about inventory. Sadly it would seem that nobody thought to ask this this question or challenge the investment in marketing vs. product development, as over the past 5 years (as judged from consumer perspective) hardly a dollar has been ploughed into product development. The core web site is still the same website launched in 2010. A ‘new site’ was launched in June 20017 but still remains in beta. And let’s not forget the apps - the iOS app last got an update in July 2016, is only compatible with iOS 9 (this is n-3 for the geeks out there) and last got a refresh back in March 2014. The Android app was last updated in August 2016 which was purely a cosmetic change.
The Crumbling Inventory Advantage
Let me come back to the first of these - building a competitive advantage on inventory. The fact is this advantage is over. Trade Me can now legally challenge the claim that Realestate.co.nz is “the property site with the most listings”. The fact is Trade Me holds supremacy as the site with the most properties for sale - with 4% more properties for sale at this time.
As at the 10 October Trade Me Property features 26,317 listings of properties for sale including lifestyle properties but excluding bare land and building sections whilst Realestate.co.nz features just 25,146.
Realestate.co.nz has now got to work out what to do - I don’t envy them. The odds as I see it are stacked against them. The catalogue of problems they face keeps growing:
They have no CEO (the previous CEO left speedily in June)
They face massive competitive threats from both Homes.co.nz and OneRoof
Their web platform is a disaster - the classic site is still live and trusted but is showing age from a competitive standpoint around the user interface.The new site is still buggy and not trustworthy, I still personally rely exclusively on the classic site.
There is no awareness of their Automated Valuation Model that is so critical these days and is so much a part of the appeal of Trade Me, Homes and OneRoof to home buyers
The mobile apps are neglected and so far behind the mobile platform expectation and their competitors
The services they provide to agents, both in reporting of listing performance and insights as well as agent brand profile are way behind Trade Me with OneHub and Homes agent branding offering
I could go on, but I think these 6 are sufficient for the board to take on at this time. The industry has placed a huge amount of trust, faith and dollars into the industry-owned site over these 5 years. Now as a part of the industry I personally hope that someone on the board or someone amongst the shareholders wakes up and realises that this business is vulnerable and is potentially fated.