Clareity Goes Back to the Future Beyond Syndication

Back To the Future
“Marty! I went back in time before Listhub! It was amazing!”

My friends at Clareity, Gregg Larsen and Matt Cohen, have just released a white paper they co-authored titled Beyond Syndication that is worth reading in full if you’re interested in this sort of thing. They include an overview of where things stand today, and then make a recommendation or two. Despite the fact that I declare Syndication dead as an issue a couple of years ago, it’s like a zombie that refuses to go away, so I have to write on it to see what I think about it.

At the same time, I think this white paper is significant in that it strikes a different tone in some respects, and perhaps we can consider it a step forward in putting the syndication issue to bed once and for all.

Having said all that… I was expecting something a bit more… ah… dramatic given the title. I suppose the role of the dramatic overstatement and questions no one wants to ask is mine and mine alone. 🙂

So let’s get into it.

Headline vs. Conclusion

One would think that with a title like Beyond Syndication, we’d be looking at conclusions that really go beyond syndication. But that’s not what we get here. The conclusion that Clareity draws at the end of the paper is this:

As the market has shifted to a seller market and as the “Big Three” publishers have established their dominance, we see an opportunity for brokerages and MLSs to reclaim their rightful place as the authors and stewards of the listing data—but to do so, they must get intimately involved in every aspect of how that data is managed and marketed, and stay involved as the market evolves to ensure they are maximizing its strategic value at every point along the way.

It looks increasingly as though MLSs are going to take back responsibility for listing distribution the way they did in the early days of listing syndication. This likely means re-evaluating the value of the “long tail” of low performing websites and likely cutting back the number of sites the data is sent to, focusing on those providing significant traffic so there can be a focus on better value exchange and increased satisfaction with the results. When brokers want to syndicate on their own, MLSs should facilitate it as best they can, but they will have to remind brokers that compliance, and the potential liability, for their listings online becomes entirely their issue. [Emphasis added]

Basically, the conclusion restated sounds like this (to me):

  1. Hey, MLS — you don’t need Listhub
  2. Hey, brokers — pay attention to syndication
  3. Hey, everybody — the Big Three are here to stay; cut off the little guys instead (see #1 again).

I’m sure that’s not how Gregg and Matt would put things, but that’s what I conclude after reading the paper.

But… that’s hardly going “beyond” syndication. That’s more of a “Back to the Future” move, returning to the days before Listhub, for the MLS to take more control over data distribution. Couple that to the recognition — that some have been arguing for a while now — that Zillow, Trulia and aren’t going anywhere, and we basically have:

“Get rid of Listhub, so you can limit your syndication to websites that matter, okay?”

It’s solid advice, actually, but hardly… dramatic. So let’s get dramatic, shall we? I know that’s what you love about this here blog: the drama that rivals Puccini.

Dramatic Point Numero Uno: Living in the 21st Century

Does the real estate industry realize that we are living fourteen years past Year 2000? Let me observe a few things we all have taken for granted then.

Google Maps updates in realtime, on the fly, as I’m driving from Point A to Point B. As far as I can tell, there is no “maps data feed” that takes place every 15 minutes.

Try as I might, I cannot find a place on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Google, WordPress, Salesforce, or any other major web company where I can get a “feed”. Instead, I find API’s all over the place. Like this one. Or this one. Or… well, you get the picture.

Speaking of API’s, Clareity writes: “If the portals establish a standard API for reporting listing / consumer activity back to the MLS and broker systems, ListHub reports could have even less value.” Oh, you mean something like adding to these Zillow API’s? Or these from Trulia? Or perhaps one of these 40 real estate API’s?

My point is… we’re living at a time when APIs (Application Programming Interface) are not exactly cutting edge high science. In fact, it might be high school science by now. Yet, we still have this amazing paragraph in Clareity’s paper:

On the subject of listing distribution delays, according to Celeste, ListHub provides updates to publishers four times per day. However, Clareity notes that since ListHub does not provide incremental updates and it takes portals hours to process the huge file they get four times a day, this approach is contributing to the delays. Smaller incremental updates would provide better results for everyone. [Emphasis added]

Process. The. Huge. Files. In 2014. And we are seriously talking about implementing smaller incremental updates as a solution.

As Tone Loc once said, “It’s the 80’s and I’m down with the ladies.” Like, gag me with a spoon, oh my gawd!

Here’s a crazy thought. What if we got rid of “files” altogether, huge or otherwise, and implemented an API? I know RESO is at work on such a project, and has released a Web API. Of course, I don’t know who has implemented such a cutting edge risky experimental technology to obviate the need for shuttling giant files back and forth, but maybe by the Year 2035?

This is not a technology problem. It’s a political problem. But it will stop being a political problem once the technology gets implemented, as it will, as it must. Even real estate must yield to the realities of living the 21st century. Trouble is, such yielding will leave a trail of bodies behind it; I’d rather avoid that if possible and get ahead of the issue.

Dramatic Point Numero Dos: The New Social

Riffing once again on the theme of living in the 21st century… has anyone else noticed a funny thing about the new landscape of social networking? The two hottest companies in social networks are Snapchat and WhatsApp.

Snapchat turned down $3 billion from Facebook. WhatsApp did not turn down $19 billion. Why? Here’s Twistimage on the phenomenon:

What we’re now seeing is motion away from all of this publicness that we have been experiencing at the hands of social media for the past decade, or we’re simply seeing the mass development of a completely different type of private online social networking. In fact, if you look at where the venture capital dollars and user growth is currently happening, we could well arrive at a juncture which finds consumers much less interested in the public chest beating of their semi-consequential day-to-day accomplishments on social media, and a much more focused desire to use technology as a communications platform to add more personal meaning.

Who can blame us? When people are getting fired for some photo on Facebook, or not getting hired because of an Instagram picture, who the hell wants to post anything to the whole wide world?

I’ve personally lived in the public social since the beginning, and it sucks. Many of my friends in real estate have pointed out that I don’t post photos of my kids anywhere. Yeah, I don’t. That’s not something I want to share with the world. And I’m hardly alone in living the private-public life with social media.

Nearly every post I put up, I get private messages and emails from people who want to make a point, but don’t want to do it in public. They worry about their jobs, their reputations, their Boards of Directors finding out, whatever. But get them behind closed doors, and it’s amazing what they actually think.

Why am I bringing this up in the context of going beyond syndication?

A year ago, I wrote about Off-MLS Listings. We know it today as “pocket listings” and boy is it a hot topic. One of the people I spoke to was David Faudman, Founder and CEO of Top Agent Network, and I found this video:

In 1995, calling around to a network of agents, and in 2005, sending emails to hundreds of agents, were both a kind of a pain in the rear. In 2014, sure, you can join some “Top Agent Network” website… but in reality, most of the “pocket-listings” activity is happening on secret Facebook groups.

It is so easy today to share listings with the select few that one seriously wonders what the real value of putting a listing on the MLS is for some agents. Private networks are proliferating in our daily lives, sharing photographs with friends. Why would it not proliferate in our professional lives, sharing listings and buyers and leads with friends?

The New Social is not about everybody; it’s about the select few. It’s about the circle of trust. It is permeating all of our lives, everyday. It would be foolish to think that such behavior and such culture of dividing the public and the private would not also filter into the professional realm.

Forget syndication; we have to worry about the marketplace (the MLS) itself.

Dramatic Point Numero Tres: About that Long Tail…

The funniest thing about the syndication kerfuffle is just how little people want to deal with the issue of the longest of the long tail. Let’s start with this from Clareity:

This likely means re-evaluating the value of the “long tail” of low performing websites and likely cutting back the number of sites the data is sent to, focusing on those providing significant traffic so there can be a focus on better value exchange and increased satisfaction with the results.

The advice is solid: no point in syndicating to But you know what’s the longest of the long tail?

The IDX website. (Oh my gosh, yes I went there. Again. Still.)

Every single time the syndication issue is brought up, and someone (usually me) asks why those considerations do not apply to IDX websites, there’s a whole lot of handwaving and harrumphing going on. I’ve shot down all of the arguments on this blog before, so I don’t feel the need to rehash them, but fact is, there is no difference between IDX and syndication, except who gets to make money using someone else’s listing.

So if we’re truly going to go beyond syndication, a good place to start might be to examine why it is that one data feed (syndication) is treated like radioactive dog poop, while the other data feed (IDX) is treated like the holiest of holies.

If brokerages really get intimately engaged with data and how its value is maximized and so on and so forth, shouldn’t the very first place they turn their eyes be IDX? Let’s cut out all the hazy grey areas, like well, we share listings, or, well, they’re in the business in our local market, etc. etc.

What exactly is the value for the listing broker to allow a buyer agent who has no listings and never will, who is located 50 miles away, to display its listings on her website for the purpose of generating buyer leads? There are no reports from that IDX website. There is no reciprocal value exchange. That agent, that brokerage, doesn’t do listings and never will. That agent has no idea about the town or the neighborhood of the listing, and couldn’t service the buyer without violating at least the Code of Ethics if not the law of fiduciary responsibility. Shouldn’t that be the first “feed” that gets cut off?

Dramatic Conclusion

So in summary, I love the title of Clareity’s white paper, because I think we are indeed going Beyond Syndication. But to me, it means really going beyond syndication, into the world of API’s, private agent networks, and the elimination of different treatment between types of “publishers”. It means brokerages and MLSs getting real about technology, about the world we live in, about the times we live in, and about human nature.

Sure, we can still call that “syndication” since it is still about distribution of advertisements of homes for sale to where potential buyers might learn of them. And I’m sure we’ll face enormous problems with that way of doing things.

At least they’ll be new and different problems though….


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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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