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Blue-sky thinking

Are you with the new trends in agency software? It’s not just about the ‘cloud’, says Andrea Kirkby.

The Negotiator

agency software imageThe whole software world is going through major changes at the moment, with mobile, social media and cloud computing all now picking up momentum. Estate agency software hasn’t been immune, and things are changing very rapidly.

Stewart Anderson ASPASIA image

Stewart Anderson

According to Stewart Anderson at Aspasia, the cloud message is getting through. “Eighteen months ago,” he says, “we were practically the only people who dared to mention the word ‘cloud’, now everybody is using it.” Aspasia Cloud has now gone live with clients, albeit in beta, and the cloud will make huge changes to the software environment over the next five years.

Eighteen months ago we were practically the only people who dared mention the word ‘cloud’.” Stewart Anderson ASPASIA

“Some larger outfits are definitely of the view that this is the way everyone is going,” he says, though the concept has got a bit watered down with a number of web-based systems as well as true cloud products. Anderson is certain that new cloud products will continue to come to the market, this, he says, is the way of the future.

Even so, cloud software companies have a fight on their hands. Over the years, agents have invested huge sums in hardware and software to support their businesses, and some will want to stick to what they know. Stewart Anderson says, “Bigger companies which have quite a powerful IT department which has spent a lot of money on a Microsoft infrastructure can be quite slow to open their minds to new ideas.”

Estates IT also provides a cloud version and Nick Hubbard confirms that the cloud is taking off. “Most new clients are going on to our cloud version,” he says, “and a lot of our desktop clients are swapping over.”

He says that the decision is often motivated by clients realising how much they would need to spend on their hardware and on other software systems to meet the specifications for a new client-server software. By moving on to the cloud, they save the investment. PC Homes Plus includes Microsoft Office as standard within the package, and also reduces costly network support. It can also support a mix of devices including Macs, iPads and smartphone access, as well as PCs, which is good for agents who want to support mobile or home working.

The savings can be considerable. One five-branch agency switched to the cloud product with old Windows XP machines, and 22 users. They effectively saved £3,740 on licences while getting an upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft software. Of course this relies on Estates IT’s strong integration with Office, which Nick Hubbard says is different from other cloud providers. “Everyone who takes our cloud version gets Microsoft Office with it,” he says, so that PC Homes Plus is “a complete business in a box.” Best of all, most staff already know how to use Office, so there’s no need to retrain them.

BELLS AND WHISTLES

While the cloud is changing the way IT infrastructure works, we’re also seeing huge changes in the way people communicate with each other. Stewart Anderson says that it’s important to distinguish bells and whistles, individual technology applications, from the real revolution in conceptual thinking. “There’s a big transformation going on in terms of how information is being delivered,” he says, “and the way agents are going to communicate to their customers is going to change radically.” He also believes that technology will enable agents to transform their businesses. Software is no longer about automating basic processes; it can enable them to change the business completely. “We have provided the mechanism for agents to break down their service in any way they wish,” he says, so that an agent could offer separately costed services ranging from flat-fee tenant finding to a complete property sales service.

Yet despite his visions of a technology future, he’s less than enamoured of the second big trend of the day, saying that as far as he’s concerned, “the jury is still out on social media.” Not everyone agrees with him.

Chris Haines EVOLVIN imageChris Haines, at Evolvin, believes that social media is one of the two big trends driving technology at the moment, as well as the cloud. Other software firms appear to agree, DezRez, for instance, launched apps in February including a Twitter feed widget, while Reapit not only believes in social media, but has Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn buttons on its website.

Agents should be tying all their online presence together. If it’s on the website, it needs to be on Facebook and Twitter.” Chris Haines EVOLVIN

Evolvin is so convinced of the future of social media that it has now set up a second company to provide outsourced marketing services using social media. Evolvin has historically provided web sites as well as software for estate agents, and Chris Haines says “over the last eighteen months those sites have become more integrated with Twitter, Facebook and so on. We saw there was an opportunity to help our clients get more out of social media without a huge investment of their time.”

social media platform images

How many platforms for your products are there? 1000000’s.

Evolvin Agency Software system allows agents to automate feeds to social media, as well as allowing all the agency business processes such as viewings, marketing, and matching applicants to properties. For instance, as Chris Haines notes, one thing every agent has (by definition!) is stock, new stock coming on the market, price reductions, ‘property of the week’, that can all be fed into social media as news items. Average prices in each area, average time on the market, price rises for year to date, and other statistics can all be derived from the inventory data and publicised as news items or in articles.

“They definitely want to be tying all of their online presence together,” he says. “If something goes on the website it needs to go to Facebook and Twitter. Pinterest is a new big one; and it needs to feed smartphone apps, too.” Evolvin also generates an automatic YouTube video for any property that has more than five photographs.

Obviously, automating or outsourcing is vital; few agents will have enough time to feed all these various media with content. But the bonus of online media is that agents can get a detailed analysis of the data and see exactly what return they are getting on that investment.  For instance, Chris Haines mentions one client that only saw a 10 per cent rise in web traffic, but Evolvin was able to show that almost all of it was new traffic. “Because this stuff is online,” he says, “we can get very hard statistics, 100 people followed this QR code to your web site, the average time they spent was five minutes, this percentage of them were returning visitors, this percentage were new.”

NEW PLAYERS

His mention of Pinterest, though, brings up another issue of which agents need to be aware. Social media is always evolving, Pinterest began in 2010 and only really took hold in 2011, so it’s  important that agents choose not just a software that currently supports the major social media, but one with a commitment to finding and supporting the new growth media.

For the moment many agents don’t use social media much, if at all, Chris Haines reckons the proportion is less than 20 per cent. But he says they definitely should. “There’s this whole world of stuff that costs a fraction of what you have been spending on marketing.”

Nick Hubbard Estates IT

Nick Hubbard, Estates IT

Estates IT, on the other hand, still doesn’t support Facebook or Twitter; Nick Hubbard is not particularly enthusiastic, and says “no one’s been screaming ‘I want to tweet in PC Homes’, so we  haven’t embraced Facebooking or tweeting from our system.”

He believes the web is still more important than social media for most agents. So PC Homes now includes a content management system, “and we all know content is king,” enabling agents to add news articles or explanatory features to their websites. Estates IT has also worked to automate feeds to more portals and sites such as Gumtree. “We think we’re the only software to feed Gumtree,” he says. PC Homes also supports clients wanting to send information out in datafeeds to different apps.

PC Homes Plus is a complete business in a box. It comes with Microsoft office so anyone can use it!” Nick Hubbard, ESTATES IT

The old days of just feeding the website and Rightmove are long gone. Whether it’s Facebook, YouTube, or a third party Energy Performance Certificate provider that’s involved, or integration of mapping into the agent’s website, estate agency software now needs to work with third parties, in many cases by sharing an API (Application Programming Interface, basically the specification that allows two software products to talk to each other). The software you buy is no longer a discrete system on a box, but an open system that need to deal with other suppliers, with portals and other devices.

MAKING IT ALL WORK

That’s the case whether or not the software is on the cloud, but it’s absolutely critical with cloud systems. For instance, Aspasia is based on integration with Google services, which can run on any device, and which include the Google Market payment mechanism and Google Documents as well as Gmail. “We looked at Microsoft and Google and Apple,” Stewart Anderson says, “and we believe that Google is more advanced in moving the public into a cloud universe, so we are integrating Aspasia into the Google vision.”

QR-code on smartphone image

Can you see what it is yet?

While cloud and social media are the big trends, there are plenty of other new things happening in agency software, such as QR codes, which allow people to take a picture of the code with their mobile phone camera and go straight through to the relevant web resource. Estates IT now generates QR codes to individual properties automatically; agents are starting to put them on signs and window cards, but Chris Haines suggests they could also print them in the newspaper, reducing the size of the ad and linking to the newest stock.

But beyond the functionality, Nick Hubbard says, agents also need to make sure their software is doing a technologically literate job. For instance, websites created by Estates IT comply with the W3C standards, and have the right metatags, so that they can achieve cross browser compatibility. “Does it work in Safari, on Chrome, in FireFox?” he asks, because if not, you are saying goodbye to customers who don’t use Internet Explorer, and that’s more and more of your potential market. He believes that iPhone and similar apps are probably a fad. On the other hand, Estates IT plans to add smartphone websites next year, the difference being simply that smartphone websites don’t demand that the user download software first. Also, it’s worth ensuring that the site should work on any smartphone, not just Apple devices.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Let’s not forget though that although all these newfangled bells and whistles are much in demand, the key to agency software is that it lets agents do their job efficiently – organising viewings, marketing properties, and getting contracts signed.

However, there has been a slight shift of focus recently, from marketing properties to marketing the agent, according to Nick Hubbard. “A lot of our development comes from the angle that at the moment there’s a shortage of stock, so we need to see what we can do to help clients get more instructions, as well as helping with the day to day task.”

He knows that if Estates IT doesn’t provide that help, someone else will. This remains a very competitive market, with a large number of different software providers, and new players starting up all the time; the leaders don’t by any means have an impregnable position.

Besides, the continually changing nature of the market forces the software companies to continue innovating; indeed the rate at which they’re doing so is accelerating as agents start to pick up on developments such as mobile and social media, and begin to adopt innovative business models. “When I started in this business seven years ago,” Nick Hubbard says, “you didn’t have to develop at the rate you do now. You really have to move fast these days.”

May 9, 2012

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