I Have Glimpsed The Future Of Property Portals!

And, sadly, it doesn’t look very exciting.

In fact when the area rep, whilst showing a group of excited estate agents a screen shot of the forthcoming OnTheMarket website, said the words “Just like Rightmove”, I think I may have groaned. Audibly.

The UK estate agency world is all a-quiver about the forthcoming launch of a new property portal.

In January, OnTheMarket will be hoping to nuzzle its way in between the two giants, Rightmove and Zoopla, to become the nation’s second favourite property website.

And what makes this venture so exciting for agents? The site will be owned by the agents themselves (each will be a shareholder and will gain, financially I guess, if the site makes money). And, the agents hope, it will provide a credible alternative to the two very expensive portals that currently have a virtual duopoly.

If agents don’t have to spend so much on their internet presence, they will be able to put more money into other aspects of their business.

Marvellous, isn’t it?

In principle, yes it is. But let me play Devil’s Advocate for a moment.

You would think that this incredible opportunity would have been welcomed and snapped up by estate agents up and down the land. At a meeting I attended yesterday, though, it became clear that despite all the marketing that has been done to drum up support (phone calls, emails, meetings, presentations at conferences, etc etc), less than 40% of estate agency offices have actually signed up to the new platform (although, I’m sure, this number will swell as we approach the launch date).

One of the reasons for this election-style apathy may be fear, also known as the new site’s contractual obligation that anyone becoming an OnTheMarket agent will be allowed to advertise on ONLY ONE of the other two sites.

Agents, understandably, might be worried that – having won business on the strength of their clients’ properties appearing on the two biggest property websites in the UK – they may lose face (not to mention instructions) if they suddenly have to withdraw from one of them. And how will they choose which one to drop? What if Client A loves Zoopla, but Client B prefers Rightmove? They won’t be able to please all of the people all of the time.

Then, there’s the aim. The nation’s second favourite property website. This would mean – according to yesterday’s figures on Alexa.com (analytics to the stars … well, to anyone who cares to look, to be honest) – that OnTheMarket will need to attain a place between the 22nd & the 55th most popular in the UK … that would put it higher in the table than Marks & Spencer, Booking,com, The Daily Mirror, ITV, John Lewis… all of which have been around for years.

When you consider the millions of pounds that have to be spent to push a website up the rankings so high – TV and press advertising, search engine optimisation, internet banners, and the rest – it’s a very bold aim, and one which, I would imagine, is likely to take a little while to achieve.

Will the house-buying public rush to use a site that offers properties from, perhaps, around half the country’s estate agents? If they don’t, how will OnTheMarket attract more agents? After the launch, there will be a push to recruit “Bronze” members; those too timid to commit up front. This type of membership will be charged at a higher monthly rate than the Silver and Gold agents will be paying.

I presume OnTheMarket will need this to happen to enable them to continue their advertising and SEO investment. But will agents who have already made the big decision to stay with the other two sites be prepared to make the switch? Not for a year or so, I would guess. That’s a long David vs Goliath battle.

OnTheMarket has set its stall out to promote High Street agents. Those that operate solely online have been – well, there’s no nice way of saying this – banned. The online estate agency industry has only a small share of the overall market at the moment, but – in time – one can imagine that this sector will grow. You only have to look at the rise of internet shopping, Amazon, ebay, Ocado, to realise that more and more people are making consumer choices using technology rather than on their feet.

If the sector grows and OnTheMarket is not part of it, will the site lose credibility?

Interestingly, at yesterday’s meeting, I’m sure I heard their representative tell a concerned agency owner that, because he had a High Street office, there should be no problem with his online business being included in OnTheMarket. One wonders, therefore, if this isn’t just going to result in “hybrid” agencies – those who operate predominantly on the web, but who have a High Street presence (somewhere in the known Universe) – neatly skirting around the ban.

If one hybrid agency who, let’s say, does just 5% of their business online is allowed on, what can be done to stop one that does 10% online? And then, 20%, 30% … and so it goes on. How long before the ban has to be relaxed altogether?

And if there’s a willingness to bend this rule, how long before estate agents will get their way and be able to expand their advertising back into whichever portal they had to drop, thus diluting the need for OnTheMarket?

Here’s another question. How can a new portal, with no track record, with fewer properties, and with fewer features (for both the subscribing agents and the consumers) than its competitors, make its mark?

Here are two more. Will Rightmove and Zoopla both lie down and accept defeat, when they have hungry shareholders to feed? Will OnTheMarket be able to compete?

I genuinely hope OnTheMarket succeeds. I, for one, would be very happy to spend less on internet advertising (it is, for a small company like ours, one of our biggest expenses). But I’m not convinced our clients will be so happy if their properties are not being as well exposed by us, as they would have been by the agent down the road who might have taken the decision to stick with the “big two”.

As a professional industry, estate agents constantly strive to point out to their clients that they are getting value for money, even if the charges they are being asked to pay are considerably higher than the cost of someone sticking an advert on Gumtree and expecting the vendor to carry out the viewings themselves.

Should we be applying the same value for money rules to our advertising budgets?

To be frank, I have not committed to OnTheMarket. Not yet, anyway. I might do, I haven’t decided. I am curious that deadlines keep being reset (the original Silver letters of intent, for example, had to be submitted by one date, then another later date was announced; and according to one email I received, final contracts had to be signed by the end of October yet, at yesterday’s meeting, we were told that agents were still signing up). This, again, suggests that the site has not been, shall we say?, oversubscribed.

Perhaps I’ll sit and wait. Give my clients the exposure their properties deserve for the time being, then join OnTheMarket later. By then, there may be some clear indication whether their clause stopping me from choosing where else I can advertise my clients’ properties breaks competition rules or not.<