Sucking the Wind out of Sails: Why Mobile Won’t Matter in 2010

Joel Burslem, whose intelligence is matched only by his ability to eat samgyupsal and drink soju with native Korean boys, opines on 1000watt blog that 2010 will be the year of mobile:

In my presentation yesterday at Virtual RE Bar Camp I made the case that 2010 will be the year the mobile finally matters in real estate marketing. But its not mobile by itself that matters…

2010 is the year the mobile web really begins to matter. In 2009, the mobile web grew 110 percent according to Quantcast. And just as advertising dollars flowed from print to the web, soon I suspect, they will flow from the desktop to the handset.

As much as it pains me to disagree with Joel, in this case, I’d like to offer two points to temper his (and others’) enthusiasm.

The Law Cometh

First, we all should recognize that efforts to curb or outright ban the usage of mobile devices while driving are underway in just about every state of the union.  And even diehard libertarian conservatives (like me) can get behind such proposals.  From the NY Times:

When its legislature convenes this year, Kansas will consider banning motorists from sending text messages. South Carolina will, too, and debate whether to prohibit drivers from using phones altogether, or requiring them to use hands-free devices when they call. New Jersey lawmakers have proposed banning drivers from manipulating a navigation system in a moving car.

In all, lawmakers have already proposed 200 bills to curb distracted driving, and policy analysts expect to see dozens more in the coming months. (Emphasis mine)

It is impossible to deny that using your hands and fingers to text, or to zoom in maps, or to do anything else with a mobile device while driving is a serious hazard.  One recent study showed that drivers who “text” are 23 time more likely to crash than drivers who are “not distracted”.  I don’t want to share the road with such people; I really doubt you do.  I don’t want to be driving my two boys around my neighborhood and get sideswiped by some fool looking at the Zillow App and not paying attention to the road.  Do you?

Soon to be banned…

It’s great that Joel wanted to whip out his iPhone the minute he crossed over into Canada and push one of a dozen buttons on his smartphone.  It’s a matter of time — and I think it’s months, not years — before virtually every governmental organization limits or outright bans the ability of people to use smartphones while driving, their soul be damned.

Plus, “texting” (and I include the vast majority of using any app or mobile web feature in this) while driving is well on its way to being about as socially acceptable as doing tequila shots while behind the wheel.  “I found this great house while driving around” will be met with cold stares, sudden awkward silences, and a quick change of topics in a not-too-distant future.

The Problem of Power

Solve this problem first.

Even if mobile-webbing while driving is a no-go, there is still the matter of urban residents who might be walking while using the App or some similar mobile web to look for condos and apartments.  Sure, that’s probably the most likely target market.  For brokerages and agents whose business is predominantly in dense urban areas, a mobile strategy probably makes a ton of sense.

However, I have had smartphones for the last four years.  In all of that time, I have used maybe 10% of what I could do with the phone because of one insurmountable reason: battery power.

My Droid barely lasts the whole day on a full charge, and that’s with the GPS turned off most of the time, no streaming video, no listening to music on the built-in player, or using the internal camera regularly.  Nearly every iPhone owner I know simply can’t be parted from their power cord, and recharges their precious battery everywhere they go.  Or, they carry bulky extra battery add-ons.

When I do use it for non-essential things, like Foursquare, or even Twitter, the key is that all of those things are non-essential.  I don’t want to miss a call, or not get an important work-related email, because I’ve been messing around with toys and fun stuff on my phone.  I doubt most consumers do.

Which raises the question of whether looking for a house is an ‘essential’ activity for most consumers.  When in the moment, when they are actively in the market and on the hunt, I suppose it could be.  But looking for a house strikes me as fundamentally different than looking for a decent restaurant nearby; it is not nearly as impulsive as finding a place to eat.  If consumers are using mobile to look for places to live, it is only at the tail end of their search process, once they’ve located the neighborhood, looked online to get a sense of the properties available for sale/rent, and are now walking around (on foot) trying to narrow things down.

Technologies like augmented reality, real estate search apps, and mobile web are all useful and will make an enormous impact… down the road sometime, once the issue of battery life is solved.  Unless I’ve missed some major announcement, that won’t be happening in 2010.  There is no breakthrough battery or power technology anywhere near the horizon.

By All Means, Do Mobile

Which is not to discourage well-capitalized companies from exploring mobile.  By all means, create a mobile app, and make sure your websites are mobile-friendly.

But given the legal and social environment, and given the technological limitations of battery life, I would urge moderation in expectation and caution in how much of your overall marketing spend you allocate towards mobile.

A brokerage like Corcoran in New York City, or Zephyr in San Francisco, should invest something into mobile if only as a learning experience.  They have the right market, the right audience profile (urban walkers), and the money with which to experiment.

But I rather doubt that 2010 will be the year to put huge bets down on mobile.  Wait to see what happens with regulations, and monitor technology news for word of a battery breakthrough.  I hate to be the killjoy partypooper, but that’s how it is.


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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22 thoughts on “Sucking the Wind out of Sails: Why Mobile Won’t Matter in 2010”

  1. Hi Rob –

    I agree that the future of mobile is probably less than all the hype about it, but there are ways to conquer the problems that you point out. I know of many people who drive around with passengers in their cars – and haven't yet heard of proposed laws outlawing texting while riding. They also make chargers that plug in to cars for those of us who have limited battery life!

  2. Text while driving is outlawed here in Chicago already. We are actually spearheading a campaign as a brokerage to not only encourage but mandate (as we can) our agents do not text/email while driving.

    But that aside – I think that one thing you overlook Rob (and I agree with you on your points above) is that this is one more thing for a brokerage to throw in front of a seller to secure the listing. Unfortunately, this is kind of the mentality that really guides many marketing decisions employed by companies.

    Does it bring in money or leads? – maybe, maybe not.
    Will the seller be “wowed” by this and think this is a great idea? – probably

    I was talking to an agent from another company the other day and she was telling me that one of the things she has worked into her listing presentation is an ENTIRE 2 pages on how she will market her clients' home using Social Media. I then asked her how she did this without breaking the Dollinger-Law of spamming your listings. She then told me that she put a link to the Virt. Tour on her wall, Tweeted it once, and a link on her linkedin page. She has 1000 FB friends, 2000 twitter followers, and 600 LI connections.

    Moral of the story – it's how you spin it. She's a great salesperson so I have no doubt that she presents it well. The same can be said for mobile apps in my opinion (and only mine). The “whiz bang” of having one is great for a brokerage b/c they can SAY they have it and LOOK forward thinking, etc. I am yet to see how many BUYERS (not agents!) have 1. downloaded a BROKERAGE app (not zillow/trulia) 2. how many leads have been fostered to closing through mobile (total number – not “this one time at band camp”)

    The power and safety issues are definitely one part of the equation – however I think it's spending alot of time and money creating/marketing to the 1% of mobile-tech-jet-set.

  3. Hey Vicki –

    The two issues are separate, actually: for the Driving set, the legal issues are bigger, the battery issues negligible (due to plugin ability). For the Walking set, the legal issues are non-existent, but the battery issues are huge. I should have clarified that.

    As for “texting” while riding… I suppose if the target market is “Two or more people looking for homes while driving around”, okay, I think that probably works. Question is, how big is that market? And where in the RE search process is such a couple (or trio or quartet)?

    I'm not saying Don't Do Mobile — I'm saying, moderate your expectations, and invest your dollars (and your time) accordingly.


  4. Yep, I see the whole “it's bait for sellers” angle. Then it's just a matter of ROI: how much $$ and time to invest in mobile vs. how many additional listings will you get as a result.

    That calculation applies with equal force, by the way, to singing telegrams, smoke signals, and telepathy. If you can get a seller to believe you, and list with you as the result, hey — great investment. 🙂 Otherwise… might want to look at the whole marketing portfolio, y'know?


  5. Rob… your thoughts are a great counter-balance and reality check. There are a lot of unknowns and likelihoods that are going to impact mobile going forward. Many of us can get carried away by the opportunities that the mobile web presents. Love your proactive thinking and openness to expand views on issues that are important to all of us. – Peter

  6. As usual Rob a great read…and I think you nailed it with the “urban walkers” analogy. In California talking/texting while driving has been banned for a year now with little impact on what I think the heart of mobile is. To me it's more about being untehered from the office and being, “Free to move about the country.” Even at home I find myself using my iPhone more to interact with customers and agents vs. sitting down at the PC or logging onto the laptop. The issue of battery life must be solved and it's worth investing in a charging pad or a charger I cna connect to my netbook if on the road. It will get there and the simple fact is mobile allows us to work/play/live all at the same time.

  7. Interesting post with equally interesting comments. However, in an effort to offer a “reality check” to this reality check inciting what could surmount to a legion of counter reality checks – being in the passenger seat typically removes the issue of legality while using a mobile device while driving and using a MiLi Power Pack… as I do, pretty much removes the issue of battery life.

    There are two things I would offer to ease everyone's mind:
    1. You can bet Joel B. safely obeyed the laws of the road when driving over the holiday
    2. Mobile already matters and 2010 is still an infant.


  8. Rob, Rob, Rob.

    Sorry I missed you at the Inman.

    Once again – I always love your contrarian, thought provoking thinking. The experience on the ground at the goodlife team tells a substantially different story. From our perspective, mobile engagement is already here, and has been for quite some time.

    As you know, we've spent a lot of money and time on our conversion and tracking systems, and what I can tell you is that people call and text at all stages in the process – and that anything that comes off the sign is highly convertible when compared to any of our other sources. We do 1/3 of our business from web and I can tell you that I'd take a sign lead of any flavor over a web generated lead in a heart beat. YMMV, of course, but I'd like to think we're doing it right both at the sign and on the web. For dinner or a nice scotch I'll share my theories on why this is the case.

    Anything that improves the consumer engagement experience from the mobile is a plus, in our opinion. Whether the law says they have to stop or not is really a secondary issue from our experience with mobile texting. People will still text or mobile browse if they are curious – the mobile device creates the channel for instant gratification, and I can see no law that will remove that from the humans.

    And do people text our signs whimsically? Absolutely. We get hot leads, looky loos, everything. Sometimes the first time people think about a real estate decision it *is* a text (or mobile browse) , not a web hit, that happens. We're helping a couple buy a house right now where first contact with anything related to real estate was texting a sign in the neighborhood they lived in already to get an idea of what things were selling for – and 4 months later we're helping them buy and sell.

    So yeah – actually, I hope all the other realtors believe your gloom and doom story – but we're going to keep doing some things with mobile that work for us.

    I've said too much already – so back to converting those leads…

  9. Jack! Jack, Jack. Jack. 🙂

    You're on for dinner and a nice scotch (Caol Ila would be my preference).

    Let me unpack what you've said here — because Allah knows you got the data and the experience.

    1. One-third of your biz is from web. Does “sign lead” equate to one-third, or is that more like two-thirds? Or do you consider “mobile leads” (which presumably includes phone calls now) as part of “web leads”?

    2. Texting to a sign –> not much different from calling the phone number on the sign, right? You don't need to build an iPhone app to do that, I'd imagine. So the question is, how much of your marketing/tech budget (and precious attention/time) will you be spending on developing mobile apps rather than simply putting more phone numbers on signage — which, you're already doing?

    3. A couple texted a sign in the neighborhood. So likely they weren't cruising around the streets looking for a home.

    4. Last I looked, Austin was a pretty densely populated metro. Not exactly your suburban market like say Millburn, NJ or Rockville, MD.

    I'm all for doing whatever makes sense and generates ROI. I do feel, however, that the current wave of messaging/hype is that if you're an agent/broker and you don't have a geo-aware iPhone app of some sort, you're a loser. And I just don't buy that.

    There's “mobile engagement” which could be as simple as putting your cellphone # on the sign (which, I assume at this point, EVERYONE does already) and then there's “mobile platform development” which could cost many tens of thousands of dollars for custom app development. As I've said, all I'm suggesting is that some folks moderate their expectations and take a closer look at what their target market's actual consumption behavior looks like.


  10. Personally I view mobility as a philosophy aided by technology. All the apps in the world won't make you mobile unless you have organized your business in such a way that it travels with you wherever you go. This could done with fancy apps, or a well organized notebook with critical information that you carry with you. The ability to access listing information on your phone only benefits consumers if their questions are answered – often the paper flyer does that just fine…

    Mobility and technology are not synonomous. Mobility is a philosophy…technology is a toolset.

  11. Rob,
    I tend to agree with your point that finding a house isn't an impulsive or “essential” function, like finding a place to eat and I think it could be the most limiting factor for mobile growth in 2010. Because the web home search experience is superior to the mobile experience and since the user has the foresight of needing to find a home, they will stay online until the mobile search experience has improved. While Redfin and have done a great job with their iPhone Apps, the truth is that the network (AT&T) is still the limiting factor and until bandwidth and quick image downloads are common place and perhaps even larger screens, as well as improvements to battery life as you noted, mobile may have a limited impact on the real estate industry. But in two to four years from now these issues will likely be resolved and this will be a much different conversation, as mobile may become the primary vehicle for searching for real estate in addition to many other less impulsive verticals.

  12. robhahn>>>>”I'm all for doing whatever makes sense and generates ROI. I do feel, however, that the current wave of messaging/hype is that if you're an agent/broker and you don't have a geo-aware iPhone app of some sort, you're a loser. And I just don't buy that.”

    Agreed. What is your opinion of social media in real estate? Is it “contrarian” and similar to mobile or are you a big adopter given your blog here… I see the value of blogging as an agent as one of your tools and I definitely see the value of setting up a Facebook page, especially given the low barrier to entry and the presence and opportunities to connect. But as far as implementing advanced twitter strategies for listening to relevant streams and/or broadcasting updates or say blogging as your main business activity, I just don't see the ROI potential for the agent or regional brokerage, for that matter… Yet so much time and attention is given to it by industry media. Your comments on mobile echo my gut reaction to much of the social media hype surrounding the real estate industry. With that said, IMO social media has enormous room to grow and it is reshaping the web as we speak, just not real estate with it, overnight.

  13. Rob,

    You have so little faith in Steve Jobs. I'm sure he's already working on the iCar, the world's first real smartcar; where one can plug in their iPhone (which solves the battery problem), their apple tablet and their iPod, while the iCar takes care of all the driving. And you know it's going to look way cooler than anything Lexus or BMW can put out 😉


  14. My views on social media are a bit complicated, but it boils down to this: social media is what is done to you, not what you do.

    The single most important thing is to be a great f'ing agent; your customers will do your social media marketing for you.

    At the same time, if you're doing that, and if the rest of your marketing is solid, and you have some time/money left to go the extra mile, then social media or social networking engagement makes all the sense in the world. But it's such a case-by-case, individual-by-individual basis that blanket strategies don't appeal to me much.


  15. Mobile IS the future; no doubt about that. Question is, how far into the future?

    With unlimited resources, I'd be investing in mobile, in 3-D worlds, in multi-touch technology, in “Army of One” concepts, in Swarm technology, and the like. But resources are never unlimited, unless you're Congress, and even they will run into reality soon.

    At some point in the future, we'll have broadcast power over microwaves resulting in infinite battery life, full 5G global wifi, and single user ID systems enabling easy authentication, etc. We're not there yet, and I highly doubt 2010 will be The Year of Mobile.


  16. I didn't see it mentioned in the comments, and I really am not sure how important Mobile is for real estate since most want to do searches and I don't think mobile is the right place to view it, but when I was at Portland's WordCamp they said that half of the mobile browsing is done at home. I don't know if they had a guess of how much was at the wheel.

    Sounds odd at first but realized I check a lot of my email on line, click on twitter links on my phone, etc. It is simple and there and I can still watch TV or go back to whatever.

  17. I agree to a point, but I think enough folks are Shiny Thing victims that you'll see them walking around airports, trying to figure out why the latest iPhone App sucked their battery dry in 10 seconds…

  18. I agree to a point, but I think enough folks are Shiny Thing victims that you'll see them walking around airports, trying to figure out why the latest iPhone App sucked their battery dry in 10 seconds…

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