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How should brokers and MLSs navigate new world of listing distribution?

By February 9, 2015 One Comment

Real estate listing distribution will change significantly when ListHub and Zillow split in April. Brokers and MLSs are rushing to ensure that their listings remain on the most popular consumer advertising portals.

Those brokers and MLSs need to take great caution in their next steps. Moving too quickly could undermine the relationships between these organizations — as well as the protections that real estate agents and their clients deserve.

Technically, any decision-maker should understand modes of transmission, model content license agreements, opting mechanisms, real estate transaction standards (RETS) and distribution entities. If that sounds like Greek to you, then you’re not alone. Boiled down to plain English, however, the players and their inherent roles aren’t difficult to grasp.

Authors, publicists and magazine publishers

Look at the publishing industry for an analogy. Real estate agents are local authors. They write stories. Their sources, the clients, provide the basic facts, and the writers supply the surrounding storylines.

Brokers are the media publicists for these authors. They make sure that the work they create is exposed to the local trade organization (MLS) as well as the national media market (portals).

Portals are nationwide magazines. They aggregate stories from authors across the country. These stories increase readership for the magazines as well as exposure to the authors’ work.

RETS, translation and plain English

Authors come from different regions of the country and speak different dialects of English. Like local real estate brokerage data, these authors’ works need to be translated from the local dialect into “plain English” for uniformity on a national scale, a style guide. Getting this standardized feed from every author allows the magazine’s content to be relatable nationwide.

RETS is real estate data translated into plain English. A feed of real estate data in RETS format is your local data translated into the national real estate language and is the mode of transmission for distribution. National magazines want a plain English translation of all of their stories. Portals want a RETS feed from every broker or MLS.

The “distributing entity” — more than merely delivery

Translating dialects to plain English (and local listings into RETS) is relatively straightforward. Properly distributing that content to national outlets can be much more complex. The distributing entity can be the publicist or trade organization (in real estate, the broker or MLS). This distributor must do more than just deliver the content to the publisher. It must assign and enforce rules upon the content to ensure it is used correctly.

The original authors might have intended for their content distributor to require proper attribution of sources, bar any association with racy material or limit adjacent advertising. If those rules aren’t delivered upfront, though, the final product produced by the magazine might be nothing like what the original author had imagined.

That’s the danger when the author’s publicist, as the distributing entity, sends out raw content to be manipulated by magazine publishers without enveloping it in a protective agreement. Those unprotected stories will have each magazine publisher’s arbitrary preferences applied to them. The publicist or distributor needs to define a single set of rules for the content before delivering it. Any magazines that wish to use the authors’ content must agree to those rules before they receive it.

Strategic distribution

Authors (agents), their publicists (brokers) and their trade organizations (MLSs) have an inherent interest in keeping the rules of distribution within their sphere of influence. Each market can decide which group should be writing the rules and distributing, but all groups should concede the others’ value.

If the trade organization becomes the distribution entity, it can negotiate with the national magazines for all of its members, supported by their uniform backing. It must, at the same time, give its publicists the option of opting out of delivery to certain magazines that they deem unfit for their authors’ work.

If the publicists become the distributors, they will need to either band together in large numbers or use the existing support network of the trade organization for their negotiations with the magazines. With support from the publicists, the trade organization can negotiate a minimum standard of proper display with the magazines that will benefit all of its members. The publicist can then either use those boilerplate rules or attempt to negotiate additional custom rules for itself and distribute to the national outlets directly.

In either case, the rules attached to the content take effect before it leaves the distributors’ hands. The distributors create agreements that bring certainty and predictability to the media market. They keep the power with the content creators, not the publishers.

Translating back to real estate

Relating a practical strategy back to real estate brokers and MLSs takes a bit more delving into the technical side, but much of the work has been done already by some industry pioneers.

Large franchisors like Realogy, RE/MAX and Keller Williams already have agreements in place with portals that are favorable to their agents and brokers. They can sit tight. Independent brokers, smaller companies and MLSs have help. Under the banner of REDPLAN (Real Estate Data Protection Legal Association Network), MLS executives, industry attorneys, the Realty Alliance and consultants like Clareity have been providing volunteer work in the development of the Model Content License Agreement. This is a draft data distribution agreement that can be the foundation for any organization’s development of its own fair display guidelines and negotiations with portals.

Find guidance to speed the process

There are plenty of advisors who understand these topics and can speed up the negotiations as well as reduce the costs of creating contracts and feeds from scratch. This list is certainly not exclusive, but some of those mentioned frequently for technical or strategic guidance are:

Some agents may be scrambling for answers as to how their listings will stay on Zillow. There is still time to negotiate contracts that benefit brokers and agents before April. If an agreement isn’t reached by that time, though, and a stop-gap measure is necessary, agents can manually input listings on portals in the interim, as they’ve done for years. It will be cumbersome and inefficient. It will also be a far better temporary solution than abandoning the MLS’s or broker’s long-term strategic interests by committing to a direct feed designed by, and weighted in favor of, an advertising platform.

Research, negotiate and cooperate

Start with REDPLAN and its model content license agreement. Attempt to find consensus, or at least understanding, between brokers and MLSs as to which will be the proper distribution entities. Get an opting mechanism in place that allows the agent, broker and the MLS, to opt in or out of distribution channels in real time. Develop a data feed agreement that puts brokers and agents in the driver’s seat because they’re supplying the valuable content that drives portal profits. At the same time, be cognizant that agents value portal exposure and negotiating in good faith with a value-for-value proposition is in the industry’s best interests.

Data display rules might not seem particularly consequential at first glance, but below the surface there is a significant power struggle for control of the data upstream. The moment real estate data leaves the broker’s or the MLS’s hands, it needs to be wrapped in the protections that are necessary for it to be properly displayed. Whether those rules come from an MLS, a conglomeration of brokers, a franchisor or a single broker, the ability for the content creators to demand the fair display of their data is essential to a level playing field in real estate advertising.

Sam DeBord is managing broker of Seattle Homes Group with Coldwell Banker Danforth and a director for Washington Realtors and Seattle King County Realtors.

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