The operation of ‘online estate agencies’ has changed substantially in the relatively short few years of their existence: I have spotted three significant changes in the past, with another likely on the horizon in the near future.
The original set up was when the first online operators sprung up, effectively as pure listings services. Those days were long before the dominance of Rightmove and Zoopla, so the agencies simply provided platforms for individual vendors to upload their own details and photographs.
The agencies, if that’s what they really were, therefore advertised their stock on their own websites, populated by sellers’ own words and images. Some of these agencies had marketing budgets as large as £1 million - substantial in those days - but still they fell by the wayside.
Then came a change. As portals became dominant and it was clear that buyers’ searches started on Rightmove in particular, onliners changed their marketing to emphasise portal access.
Some platforms like Tepilo made a point of saying they were moving to become proper agencies with advice centres, online and by telephone, to help sellers.
The next change was much more recent, and triggered by Purplebricks. By emphasising its hybrid nature - an online operation with some boots on the ground, no matter how few or how ill-informed those boots may have been - Purplebricks forced other online operators to follow suit.
Before the emails hit my inbox, I know some rival operators like EweMove say they created the hybrid concept first - but let no one doubt that it was Purplebricks’ championing of it that led their online rivals to start calling themselves “leading hybrid agents” and the like.
So far, so well known - and now we’re having another change.
The past few months has thrown a light on the performance of Purplebricks and other online/hybrid operators; publicity about the now-legendary Jefferies analysis concentrated on Purplebricks’ 51.6 per cent sales figure over a 10-month period, but many other online firms performed even less well.
This weakness in the online business model has been taken further by the Rix & Kay report publicising what traditional agents have been saying for some time now - the absence of any sales progression by most online firms makes their clients the weak links in chains.
Online agencies deny this, of course, but just as they have changed their models in the past - to include portal listings in their service, and to call themselves hybrid by using people-on-the-ground - so I suspect another change is likely in the near future.
Therefore, onliners will use sales progression teams to deliver something more like the sales rates achieved by traditional agencies.
To not do so would be to risk more periodic publicity like the BBC probes into Purplebricks’ sales figures - and publicity like that will ultimately cost business.
The trick for the online agents will not be their change of heart - they will simply throw money at marketing. The bigger trick will be how they can afford to introduce sales progression and still keep their charges well below those of traditional estate agencies.
That’s their problem, of course; but I bet you that sales progression is coming to an onliner near us in the near future. Watch this space.
*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn