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Agents' PropTech Toolshed: Virtual tours - fab or fad?

Firstly, my sincere apologies - it has now been over a month since my last PropTech blog, doesn’t time fly! 

In the last few weeks, there has been The ESTAS and FUTURE:PropTech, not to mention the UK PropTech Association inaugural awards, so a very busy few weeks.

There’s also been the fun preparations for GDPR or ‘silence of the spams’ as I have now seen bandied around social media (presumably with the key villain being ‘Spammable Lecter’).

Without further ado, I turn my attention this week to virtual tours. A sector which, in recent months, has seen a surge in adoption by agents across the UK and is becoming more and more commonplace. 

I am going to focus on the three best-known operators I see in the marketplace: eyespy360, giraffe360 and Matterport. I am aware there are a multitude of others, but these are three different operations with leading market share.

I think Eyespy360 offers the best route into virtual tours for those who are not really sure where it will fit in their organisation and also want to explore the technology while incurring minimum expense. 

Available to use with any 360 camera (and you can buy entry-level smartphone ones for less than £30), these guys are the only operator I know that offer a FREE package option!

You can take the images yourself or outsource this (we have our own camera but have our pro photographer shoot these for us when doing our standard images and floorplans) and you then use their very intuitive dashboard to create the tours yourself. 

Once you’ve done a couple, it literally takes a few minutes and they can be as info rich or as simple as you like. You can create just a tour or you can embed floorplans, videos, links to streetview, embed still images, labels - whatever you want. 

Excitingly, once the tour is live, you can easily embed this on your website and share via social media channels. If you have a webcam, you can create video tours (EyeSpyPLAY: a pre-recorded virtual tour of the property) and also host tours online, inviting all relevant parties (partners, other tenants, etc.) to guide them round the property from your desk using EyeSpyLIVE. 

Premium packages range from £9.99 to £99 per month, depending how many tours you want to host and it gives you the ability to brand, longer PLAY versions (up to 30 mins instead of 2), unlimited LIVE hosts as well as access to LIVE online. 

Floorplans are not currently available in their offering, however I know this is under development and due to be deployed in the near future. 

The quality of the tours will vary according to the quality of camera you use, so my advice is to start with something moderate (such as the RICOH Theta range). As soon as you are sure you will commit, it’s well worth looking at buying the best quality camera you can afford. 

EyeSpy360 currently has just over 7,500 clients across 70 countries and is growing at 700-800 per month, with the greatest volume of new clients coming from the USA.

Meanwhile, Giraffe360 works exclusively on a subscription model - the camera is leased to you for the duration of the agreement. One of Girafee360’s key offerings is that you will eliminate the need to use a photography and floorplan service, thereby enabling you to off-set these cost savings against the price of the agreement. 

One of the service deliveries they are most proud of is their ‘human quality control’. While all your content is generated automatically, it undergoes a human quality review before being sent out in case white balance and light levels etc. need adjusting to deliver the best visual experience. No small thing indeed! 

As such, by using their service, you can get your tour, floorplan & professional quality wide-angle images from one supplier using one bit of kit. There are currently no video or hosted virtual tour features on offer but this may evolve in the future. 

Giraffe360 is fast-approaching serving 1,000 UK branches (with that pretty much 50/50 between residential and commercial) and also operates in another eight countries across Europe. 

Prices start at £480 per month and vary according to what package options and volumes you want to deliver.

Matterport is probably viewed by most as the market’s premium offering (and acquired the original virtual tour company we trialled with, Virtual Walkthrough). 

Its offering has two operation models - you can buy one of their cameras (three models priced at £2195-3295 + VAT) you then pay a £16-24 ‘processing fee’ per shoot (or model as they call it), alongside a monthly subscription rate of £39/79/119 per month based on what tour capacity you want (or you can pay an annual package subscription with discounts of 16%+). 

Floorplans are again on offer but these are billed separately at £13 per space. Alternatively, their cameras are used by freelance operators and companies who can deliver a Matterport tour and other content. From what I can see, prices start at around £135+VAT for a ‘dolls house’ tour, floorplan and photoshoot but prices vary according to the size of the property

From a features perspective, the ‘dolls house’ presentation really does give a unique oversight of a property and its layout - especially for house and properties/buildings over multiple floors. 

The viewing experience is also much more akin to Google streetview, where you get the feeling of walking through a property much more than hopping to a singular location in each room where the imagery was captured.

One of the biggest hurdles currently faced by these companies (and us, their users) is the level of  adoption and expectation from our customers. 

While I use tours on all of our listings (where possible) our applicant engagement is still disappointingly low. 

One of the key reasons for this is the apparent apathy by the likes of Rightmove, Zoopla and OnTheMarket to feature this content more heavily. 

In reality, they are really the ‘gate keepers’ in this respect and I feel that agents and suppliers taking up virtual tours should actively push for the portals to expedite this. 

The more front and centre these are featured, the greater impact they will have on your marketing and the more applicants will come to expect this level of content and rate agents who do. 

Some agents are being very clever in driving up virtual tour engagement - Nigel Stephens of Edward Mellor runs a regular ‘Where’s Nigel’ challenge (like Where’s Wally) on Twitter which has seen engagement numbers soar.

I also think that if you just look at virtual tours as a marketing tool you are missing out. We have been shooting tours of our interim property inspections for nearly a year now and these have been received by landlords with amazing success. 

The caveat I will add is that you should/must have a clause in your tenancy agreement about these (as it could be perceived as a breach of their privacy) and you will have to respect tenants that refuse this (even after signing said clause). 

Another viewpoint is the insight that you instantly give your staff of new instructions. How many times as a neg have you had a property come on, been told it has XYZ features, take a perfect applicant along only to discover other issues or lacking features? 

How many wasted viewings does your office undertake because your negs don’t know the properties well enough? How many of these can you eliminate, creating a better and more stream-lined applicant experience? This can free up your staff to deliver better service, call out more applicants, do more canvassing…whatever you feel their free time would be best applied to.

As always, and as I say every time, the successful application and uptake of virtual tours, both internally and externally, depends on how you as a company approach them. 

If you add them on as something you ‘just do’ without any emphasis or change of process then don’t be surprised if two years from now you wonder why you even bothered. 

Encourage new applicant enquiries to take a tour before a scheduled viewing takes place, use it to reduce viewing shortlists from five-10 listings to their top three, use it to train your staff on your stock, ensuring every neg takes a property virtual tour within one working day of it going live.

Also, you can amaze your managed landlords by giving them the ability to undertake their ‘own’ interim inspection. Whatever your intentions, plan it, train for it, implement it and keep reviewing it…and don’t forget to give your chosen supplier regular feedback so they can hone and enhance the products on offer to deliver what you and your customers want and need. 

I have only mentioned three suppliers here, but there are others so do undertake your own, broader research, to ensure you fund the product and company that matches your operating requirements.

That’s it for this week. As always, please do get in touch with any comments, feedback, thoughts and ideas on how I can make these pieces even better and deliver exactly what you want and need from them. 

Next time round, I will be looking at website engagement tools such as instant online valuations, webchat and enquiry responders.

*Kristjan Byfield is company director and co-founder of base property specialists and co-founder of PropTech compliance startup The Depositary.

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