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Mobile Apps as a Member Service

September 1, 2010

By Carolyn Schwaar

From their iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Androids, real estate professionals are accessing listing data, market reports, virtual tours, and interactive maps. They can even use their iPhones as a lockbox key and buy a latté at Starbucks with their Android. In fact, nearly all REALTORS® under 40 (93 percent) use smart phones to conduct real estate business, according to a recent survey by the National Association of REALTORS’ Center for REALTOR® Technology.

So how are you reaching and serving members through their smart phones?

Several savvy REALTOR® associations have begun creating smart phone applications as a member service, positioning themselves as top providers of real estate business-building technology.

“Since the first of the year, we’ve released more than 20 free mobile applications for our members and continue to work on more,” says Mark M. Flavin, director of information technology at the Bay East Association of REALTORS® in California. Bay East members can use their phones to access information about the local housing market, look for properties on the “mobile MLS,” and find and contact agents via the mobile roster search. They can also update their membership records or pay their bill via mobile device.

Size matters

Smart phones are, in effect, mini computers with Web browsers. Mobile applications are downloadable pieces of software for these handheld devices. Although smart phones can access any Web site, size matters. Navigating a full Web site, say, REALTOR.com, on a touch screen half the size of a piece of toast is frustrating. That’s precisely why the market for smart phone software (called mobile apps) is booming.

REALTOR.com launched an app for the iPhone (and others) that’s an easy-to-use, streamlined version of the full site, yet it still features a wide variety of search options for more than four million properties nationwide.

Your tech-savvy members probably already have dozens of mobile apps for real estate on their phones, such as mobile versions of Trulia, Zillow, and, of course, Google Maps. Other apps, such as SmarterAgent, offer property searches for all publicly available data from local MLSs (in hundreds of markets) and offer real estate practitioners a branded home search app with their name and logo for clients to download.

Do you need your own app?

With so many real estate mobile apps—and more popping up every day—why would an association invest in creating its own?

One main reason is exclusive data. Association-owned MLSs have created mobile apps that can -easily trump other mobile home searches because they feature all MLS data fields. These apps, such as the one recently released by the San Diego County MLS, Sandicor, are password-protected and available only to MLS members. Associations can also offer mobile versions of other data they create or collect, such as local market reports and statistics, along with association publications and news.

The California Association of REALTORS®, which was the first association to create its own mobile app, My C.A.R., in 2009, now markets its -iPhone mobile app to other REALTOR® associations as “My AOR.” Both the New Jersey Association of REALTORS® and the North-Shore Barrington Association of -REALTORS® in Illinois, have launched customized versions of the My AOR mobile app. My C.A.R. features market data for 21 regions in California, current loan information, plus highlights from the association’s newsletter, Inman News stories, and other association resources.

The Chicago Association of REALTORS® launched a mobile app in April featuring market data by neighborhood, education schedule, and member benefit information. “More than 400 members have downloaded the app from Chicagorealtor.com and we haven’t even begun marketing it,” says Jessica Kern, the association’s marketing communications manager.

Location, location, location

One of the great features of a smart phone is its “-location awareness,” or the fact that its GPS knows where in the world you’re standing the minute you turn it on. This is ideal for members who want to search for nearby listings while out with clients. Bay East’s open home search tool and its school infor-mation app support location awareness.

NAR’s Center for REALTOR® Technology has developed a new iPhone app called PlaceTags, which tags addresses on a smart phone’s mapping application. This enables REALTORS® to add photos and notes associated with a specific location, like a house and the surrounding community on that map.

Anyone can create a mobile app

To create a good mobile app today, you still need programming knowledge, but that could be changing. Google, for example, is launching a simple building-block system that, it claims, anyone can use to build an app for the Google Android.

A startup called Sweb Apps, aimed at small and medium-sized businesses, enables you to build a simple iPhone app using a series of Web forms “in as little as 5 minutes,” according to the company.

Plus, there’s a growing crowd of customizable mobile app templates as well as companies that will build your custom mobile app for you (grapplemobile.com, iSites.com).

Associations strive to deliver business-building information and tools to members wherever they are. Increasingly this means on the go—and on their smart phones.


Is Your Association Web Site Pocket-Sized?

If your association Web site takes 60 or more seconds to load on a smart phone and looks squashed onto the small screen, you have a problem. Having a mobile-friendly version of your association Web site is becoming increasingly critical as more members use their phones, not their laptops, to get online.

NAR has created a mobile version of REALTOR.org, called NAR Express for the iPhone. It offers easy access to hot topics, popular headlines, calls for action, special offers for members, as well as sales and marketing resources.

If your Web site designer or tech staff can’t create a mobile version of your site (or a mobile app out of your RSS feed or blog), a multitude of services exist online for optimizing your association information for mobile phone users. There are free solutions (Google Mobile Optimizer, Mippin, Wirenode, Zinadoo, Winksite) and monthly fee options (MoFuse, 2ergo, MobiSiteGalore, iSite).


The Mobile MLS Question

More than 75 percent of REALTORS® say they have access to MLS listing information through their smart phones, according to a recent survey by NAR’s Center for REALTOR® Technology. However, 11 percent of REALTORS® say they do not have access to listing data via a smart phone because their MLS does not allow it. MLSs face technical, financial, and other challenges to enabling listing access via mobile, but according to Mark Lesswing, NAR’s CTO, “access to MLS listings on mobile devices is rising and will be commonplace in late 2011.”

However, when it comes to consumer access to listing information via IDX sites, some MLSs interpret the IDX rules as allowing mobile apps to display listing data, while other MLSs do not, citing that a mobile app is not technically a Web site, which is all the IDX rules specifically permit.

MLSs that permit mobile apps accessible by consumers under the IDX rules usually require that the mobile app comply with the IDX rules with regard to displays, including the local re-quirement that the listing broker is identified (if the MLS has that requirement). MLS access via a smart phone that is offered by the MLS and only to MLS participants (i.e. password access only) is not subject to IDX rules.

Clarification on whether, and how, IDX rules apply to mobile technology is expected to come in November at NAR’s REALTORS® Conference & Expo. A workgroup of the MLS committee will present its recommendations on the possible enhancement of the IDX policy to permit participants to display other participants’ listings using RSS feeds, social media, SMS, and more.