Car Salesmen Should be More Like Real Estate Agents

I was on Trulia the other day helping my partner set up an ad campaign for his real estate business. The experience, which I’ll go over in just a bit, made me realize that the real estate business has already addressed some customer experience pain-points that exist yet remain unresolved in the car shopping process.

The Trulia Experience

When we landed on Trulia’s homepage, we immediately got what the site was about: real estate property search. Being location-aware, the site displayed the latest activities in the Los Angeles area, including local forum questions, local listings and recommended agents.

trulia

On the top right corner of the page was a grey button that read, “For Professionals”. We clicked on it and it took us to Trulia’s agent experience flow. It’s where agents sign up for an account on Trulia, manage their profile, add their listings, ..etc.

Before creating an account, we were presented with a persuading argument of why we should be advertising on Trulia. We were offered several products ranging from the Trulia Pro that helps agents promote their listings and generate more leads to the Mobile Ads that promises to put the agent in touch with “transnaction-ready” clients.

We pretty quickly decided on the Mobile Ads product. It was a no-brainer really since we all know that people spend way more time on their phones and ipads than they do on their computers.

mobileads

The Agent Experience on Trulia

After creating an account, we selected the zipcode(s) we wanted to advertise in and called Trulia to activate the ad campaign. The agent service representative, Jake, was very nice and extremely informative and helped us pick the right plan for us. We paid and and in 15 minutes, our ad was live.

We filled out the profile page, uploaded a picture and tweeted out the link to the newly minted profile. For every single one of those actions we received points, which would eventually earn us badges and get us more exposure on the site. It’s Trulia’s way of gamifying the experience and making engagement with the site fun and rewarding for agents. The points are accrued and after a certain amount you get to have a “VIP” badge next to your name.

One way of getting a quick 100 points is through client recommendation so we asked previous clients to write a review. As the reviews grew in number, so did the points.

Another way to earn points is through blogging and engaging in forums. Trulia’s forum is called Voices. The more you participate in Voices, the more points you accrue and the faster you get to sport that exclusive “VIP’ badge.

voices

In the first three days of launching the ad campaign, we received over 12 leads. Trulia gets on average 20 million unique visitors a month as of February 2012. It’s too early to tell, but so far it’s been working as promised.

Trulia for Car Salesmen

This fun experience got me thinking about the parallels in the automotive industry. I work at Edmunds.com and just recently we held a hackathon around rethinking the car shopping experience. It just so happened that the two winning teams, MyMotive and TEGRITY, focused on solving the biggest pain point in the car shopping experience: the car salesman.

There’s no trust or connection between car buyers and the dealership. Buyers are leery that they will get screwed by the salesman. The biggest part of the problem is that car buyers have no idea who’s a good salesperson and who’s shady. They have no way right now of differentiating between the two so they walk into a random dealership with a defensive attitude and the expectation that they would be badgered, lied to and gypped.

What both MyMotive and TEGRITY proposed was a client recommendation system for car salesmen. They wanted to give the power back to the consumer to decide which salesman they want to engage with based on previous client ratings, which is very similar to what Trulia has done.

On Trulia, real estate agents are free to promote themselves and set themselves apart from the competition through client recommendations, answering forums, checking in at open houses, writing blog posts, reviewing a neighborhood, …etc, in order to get more and better leads. But the most important of all is the client recommendation piece. It’s been shown that consumer reviews play a critical role in our buying decision and I do believe the same applies to choosing a real estate agent or a car salesman.

If I were MyMotive or TEGRITY, I’d take a look at how Trulia (and Zillow, Redfin and others) promote real estate agents and copy a page from their book. Both ideas focused on rating the car salesmen but not on empowering them to manage their own brand on the website.

If we empower the car salesmen with tools similar to the ones Trulia has for real estate agents, I believe we could lessen if not totally eliminate the pain-points associated with walking into a dealership to buy a car.

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

117478738 Crucial Lessons for Fledgeling and Mature Companies

I started reading Eric Ries's blog, "Startup Lessons Learned," back in October 2008. I was quickly impressed by his technical acumen and the simplicity of his writing. I also enjoyed the breadth of topics covered and how engaging they were.

Needless to say, I was glad to hear that he was going to distill all his knowledge into a book, and now that I read the book, I'm glad to say that he didn't disappoint.

The book defines a startup as a 1) a human institution designed to 2) create a new product/service under conditions of 3) extreme uncertainty.

Notice how the definition doesn't address the size of the venture or its backers or its origins. As long as it is a team building a product with high uncertainty, it is a startup.

The book also covers the entire life cycle of a lean startup, Figure 1.

Lean-startup

Figure 1.
Build-Measure-Learn Feedback Loop that's at the core of the lean startup (image source)

Eric puts a huge emphasis on "validated learning" as opposed to "failure as a way of learning." He says, "a failure to deliver results is due to either a failure to plan adequately or a failure to execute properly." He's all about accountability, which is sorely lacking in so many institutions these day, with the most egregious being Wall Street.

Eric goes on to explain the principles of the lean startup with andecodotes of successes and failures in business. One of the most fascinating and very telling for me was the SnapTax story. The fact that a giant company like Intuit could spawn an innovative startup (i.e. a team + a product + high uncertainty) was a nice validation for my unsuccessful push for an R&D department within the companies at which I worked in the past. SnapTax was a team of five individuals that was given freedom to experiement while held accountable throughout the process. The results were impresssive.

If nothing else, the reader, especially those running mature companies, should pay close attention to Eric's conclusion. He stresses the points of validating assumptions, rapid testing of ideas, and most importantly, "stop wasting people's time."

I think that's the most valuable lesson in the entire book. Mature companies that continue to waste their talents' time with banal and insipid tasks are bound to lose those talents and will only be left with lazy, oftentime overpaid individuals that are too comfortable, too politically secure that they can't produce anything new or original even if they tried.

Startups are a "human institution" first and foremost. If the right team isn't in place, you do not have a startup. Nurture those talents and don't waste their time. Only then will the trappings of success adorn your business and you.

Illustration: Google+ and The “Actionable” Social Web

This is a followup to my previous post on Google+. Here's a very simple illustration that explains what I mean by the "actionable" social web:

The image below shows a post shared by Steven Levy on Google+. The post talks about a book he recently wrote called, "In The Plex."

BeforeThat's all good, except, that post could be so much better if it allowed Levy's followers to actually buy the book right there and then. This post could be enhanced as follows:

AfterDo you see the Amazon "Add to Cart" button below the post's description?

Now that's a much more meaningful post to people interested in the book. Now they have the option to buy it without leaving Google+.

Before Google+ came out, I was hoping that Facebook would do something like this. But here is why I think Google can easily succeed in making the "actionable" social web possible:

  1. Google understands data: unlike Facebook, Google's bread and butter is understanding data on the web for ranking and relevancy.
  2. Schema.org: Google is pushing for structured data through schema.org. With website getting more structured, the more accurate the understanding of their content becomes.
  3. Sparks: You can follow a particular interest on Google+ by creating a Spark.

The questions now becomes this: when will be see enhanced, "actionable" posts like the one below on Google+?

After2I hope the answer is: very soon!

Relevancy and The Future of User Experience on Facebook

Gs-450h Last summer, I had a friend over for dinner. When he got to my house, he pulled into the driveway in a brand new Lexus GS 450 Hybrid. I congratulated him on his new purchase and told him that I was looking to lease the same car next year when my current lease was due. He had no idea. My response was, "yeah, I posted something on Facebook like a week ago about it."

Evidently, he didn't see my post.

I went on to ask him when he got the car and how much he paid for it. His story was fascinating. The way he pit dealers against each other to get the best deal possible was revelatory. He didn't step foot in one dealerships; He did it all over the phone, and ended up getting the car plus all the fees involved for below market value.

Dumbfounded, I confessed I had no idea he was such an aggressive negotiator and that I wanted him to negotiate my next car lease. His response was, "I'd love to." But then he said, "I'm surprised you didn't know about this since you're on Facebook all the time. It's all over my Facebook page."

I was surprised as well since none of these posts made it to my wall. I only saw links about real estate from him (he's a realtor,) but none about cars.

The point of my story here is this: Facebook does not recognize or elevate relevant content between friends.

It would have been awesome if Facebook somehow realized that my status update in which I mentioned I was looking to lease the GS 450h was related to my friend's posts about his purchase experience and somehow got us to connect.

But Facebook doesn't work that way (yet.)

Right now, relevant content is discovered on Facebook by chance. My ability to find relevant content to me is depending on 1) the frequency in which my friends share content and 2) the time at which the content is shared and 3) the time at which I check my wall. All three conditions have to align for me to see that one piece of content that's relevant to me.

It sucks, doesn't it? If I'm willing to sift through countless irrelevant posts from my friends, the least of my expectations is that the relevant posts are brought to the top of my wall where I can easily see them.

But how do you define "relevant?"

A Real Opportunity

Since I do work for @Edmunds, I automatically switched to "find a solution" mode. When I got into the office the next day, I talked to my colleague @HowardOgawa about my experience. After bouncing ideas off of each other, we decided to take this on as a challenge.

Our objective: Elevate Relevant Automotive Content and Conversations to Friends That Care About Them within the Facebook Ecosystem.

We decided to build a Facebook app to do this. Our app at a high level would passively listen to the stream of activities (i.e. status updates, links, checkins, photos, ..etc) coming from the app subscribers and try to mine the data for automotive relevancy. As relevant data is found, other subscribers are notified. Subscribers would also get to indicate some of their friends as "auto experts," which in turn will render automotive content coming from those individuals even more relevant to that user (granted they subscribe to our app, of course.)

Soon after we started looking at the data in a user's Open Graph, we realized that we couldn't mine that data efficiently. Something was missing from the structured data. As we dug deeper, we were convinced that for the data to be meaningful for us, it had to be segmented or categorized.

Content Segmentation and Relevancy

It's hard to determine whether a link a user shares on his/her wall is a link to an article, a YouTube video, a Flickr image or an audio file. The type property of the link object in the Open Graph always returns "link." Sure we have access to the optional message the user attaches to the link and the description that is captured with the link, but that isn't enough to determine the type of that link, and most importantly, the category into which the content of the link falls.

Howard and I went back to the drawing board. It was pretty clear to us at this point that in order to truly recognize relevant content on Facebook, the Facebook structured data had to include segmentation or category.

A shared YouTube link about the President giving a speech in Egypt should be categorically distinguished from a shared YouTube link about Arcade Fire rocking out at The Hollywood Bowl. The former falls under "politics" and the latter under "music."

When that segmentation is embedded into the Open Graph, relevancy becomes much easier to discern and users can specify what content they care about from what friends. I'm sure many of my friends on Facebook would rather see less of my political posts and more of my entertainment ones. With segmentation, they will have that choice.

Facebook Committed to Relevancy

About three weeks ago, a Facebook spokesperson was quoted in a New York Times article saying, "We’re always looking for better ways to help people discover the most relevant content on Facebook…"

This was great news to me! As a Facebook user, this would help me a whole lot. But according to the article, the approach that Facebook is taking won't help me in my particular use case. The same questions remain unanswered: How will I be able to see relevant posts from my friends? How can I specify what specific topics I trust which specific friends with? How can I ensure that my wall is 80% relevant to my real life needs?

Potential Solution: schema.org

Schema Interestingly enough, around the time the Facebook story broke, TechCrunch reported that Google, Yahoo and Bing were collaborating on a structured data initiative, or schema.org. The goal of this initiative is to help websites optimize their HTML and crawlable data structures to make their content more accurately searchable.

The question here is, why isn't Facebook working with these companies on this initiative?! Facebook already has the social sentiment component that all three of these companies lack. All it needs now is to ensure that the content people share to their wall is meaningful and structured, which in turn will help with the relevancy goal and will help me find the content I really care about.

Imagine if Amazon uses the right semantic tags to describe items on their pages. When users share an Amazon link on Facebook, it's no longer just a "link." It's now a "link to a book called ABC by author XYZ and it's currently listed for $xx." This granularity adds meaning to the "link." Meaning that is translated to metadata that algorithms can computer, manipulate and correlate, all of which can easily produce true relevancy.

The Real Business Potential

Creating a relevant experience on Facebook is great and I'm pretty sure Facebook will get there one day. But there's a potential here to create an experience that far surpasses that. An experience that's not only great, but awesome.

Facebook knows how to do social very well and its objective is to keep users on its platform for as long as possible. But to do that, showing relevant content isn't enough. They need to think about creating a user experience that is detailed, localized and actionable. But in order to do that, they would need to partner with subject matter experts in each content segment (e.g. travel, retail, automotive, finance, …etc) to provide the missing data points that will enhance the relevant experience Facebook is building and make it detailed, localized and actionable.

What do I mean by detailed, localized and actionable? Here's an example:

Mary just read a review of "Under the Tuscan Sun" by Frances Mayes on oprah.com. She decides to share that review with her girlfriends on Facebook and she does.

What Mary doesn't know is that oprah.com's content is semantically structured which allows Facebook to understand what the content of this link is all about. Also, Mary doesn't know that Facebook uses Amazon.com's APIs to enhance the experience for Mary's friends by offering them more detail about the book (i.e. price) and locality (i.e. availability at Borders down the street) and a call to action (i.e. Amazon buy button.) All of which is customized to each friend as they see Mary's post on their wall.

The next day, Kirstin, one of Mary's Book Club friends and Facebook friend, logs on to her Facebook. Kirstin has previously indicated in her Facebook preferences that Mary was a good source for literary/readying content. As a result, Mary's book link is now at the top of Kirstin's wall since it's a piece of content that is likely relevant to her. Kirstin is so compelled by the review she goes ahead a buys the book, by clicking on the Amazon link attached to the post and without ever leaving Facebook!

This could be applied to any segment. Facebook can partner with @Kayak to allow users to find travel deals to Heathrow when reading a link about London. Facebook can partner with @Edmunds to allow users to see the price of a vehicle and contact dealers nearby when watching a YouTube video about Toyota Prius.

The possibilities are endless.

What I'm talking about here could be huge. Google, Yahoo and Bing can get the structured data, but they don't have the social sentiment. Facebook has that, but what they need to do now is ensure the content shared on the platform is structured. Once that's accomplished, partner up with subject matter experts in every segment and use their APIs to enhance the content.

The resulting experience is not only social, personal and timely; it's relevant and actionable.

When a simple Facebook search returns all the relevant content that friends (and all of Facebook users when privacy allows) are sharing in realtime with specific calls to action that meaningfully transition the online experience to an offline transaction, why bother go somewhere else?

Does this make sense? Am I missing something? I'd love to hear what you think. You can leave a comment here or find me on Twitter at @ielshareef