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AE Profile: MLS of the Future

May 20, 2013

In her more than 30 years working with and leading MLSs, Merri Jo Cowen, RCE, e-PRO®, has witnessed the industry transform from listing books to mobile apps. She is the CEO of My Florida Regional Multiple Listing Service, a consortium of 15 REALTOR® associations and boards that represent about 32,000 members. She is also the current president of the Council of Multiple Listing Services, serves on the National Association of REALTORS®’ MLS Issues and Policy Committee, and was named one of the 100 most influential real estate leaders by Inman News. Here she shares her insights with RAE on the future of the MLS.

Q1. What is the single biggest issue facing the MLS industry today?

The biggest challenge is use of the listing content provided by our participants, specifically: how it should be used, who can use it, and how to identify unauthorized uses. This issue goes way beyond participants’ right to distribute listings where they choose. It’s a technological challenge to find reliable tools to track data licenses and unauthorized uses; it’s an organizational challenge to allocate the resources; and it’s a philosophical challenge, complicated by the varying opinions of participants and volunteer leadership. There are no easy solutions or crystal balls. It will require much diligence from the industry.

Q2. If you could re-create the MLS industry from the ground up in an ideal world, what key features would it have? 

After letting go of the notion that we could please everyone, I would start with the need for data standardization across the board. In other words, full adoption of the RETS standards for all service providers who want to play in the real estate listing sandbox. That alone would give participants the freedom to use their listing data more easily and it would allow for less stressful provider changes, more innovation by third parties, and a much easier transition to regional MLSs. When I say “regional” I’m not saying that there is no room for statewide MLSs or multistate MLSs. If I were in charge, I would lay the groundwork for consolidation (I absolutely believe that the economy of scale in larger organizations allows for top-notch services and products to participants and subscribers) but I can’t see one national system meeting the needs of everyone. What I can see is that by clearing a few technological obstacles for consolidation, we’ll see a natural progression toward change the industry needs.

Q3. What’s your response to pundits who say the MLS as we know it will soon become irrelevant?

I absolutely do not believe that the MLS is heading toward obsolescence or irrelevance, but I do believe that the MLS as we know it today (900-plus MLSs) is ripe for change. We must address the key issue in our industry: the data. Without rules to govern use and content requirements, without data licenses and standards, without an organized structure for brokers and agents to enter listings into a database, we are looking at chaos. If not the MLS, then who? Will the MLS of the future look different? Absolutely! Will there be casualties as MLSs resist change? Absolutely. There will be changes, and those MLSs that adapt and make decisions based on what is best for their respective members will be among those that define the MLS of the future.

Q4. A dizzying array of vendors sell what could broadly be termed “MLS add-ons.” What types of offerings are most useful?

There is no way that an MLS can incorporate every product in the market, but the innovation and technological advances that we see daily among these vendors bring more opportunities to brokers, agents, associations, and MLSs. Electronic appointment setting, integrated public records, and a robust mobile application, to start with, are the key technology components that will provide the functionality users need.

When we look at other tools, our focus is on bringing value to users; features that will make their work easier. In Florida, we offer a transaction management platform, enhanced statistical products, and services that help users connect potential buyers with financing options. And our door is open to licensing data to third parties who want to offer more tool options to our user base. We’ve picked a few not-so-successful products. But when making decisions on additional MLS options, ask yourself, will this tool offer something that isn’t easily and affordably attained elsewhere—not based on fluff, but based on value?  

Q5. Some MLSs have launched advertising campaigns (similar to that of REALTOR.com) to local home buyers and sellers, touting the fact that only MLS sites have accurate data (not the Zillows or Trulias). What do you think of this approach?

Although there are still large numbers of consumers who believe everything they see on the Internet, I can see that there is a shift happening. If that shift happens as fast as technology changes, it’s just a matter of time before even more consumers want to know that they are reviewing the most current and complete information available when they are shopping online. Knowing that the source of the information is current and hasn’t been “handled” by multiple parties before being displayed is definitely worth touting—the more the consumer hears or sees that message, the sooner it will become more relevant in their minds. I think that this is an excellent message for broker sites, MLS consumer sites, as well as Realtor.com to share.