Some time ago, in preparation for an industry publication, another industry consultant asked me, "What are the most significant issues facing the MLS by 2020, what actions do you propose be taken to address these issues and what are the desired outcomes?" Following are my answers:

Expand what cooperation via MLS means.  If the perception of MLS is just about a place to advertise the homes with some private fields, MLS is very vulnerable. If we make it more explicit that cooperation is about a lot more than that, the MLS can grow stronger.

To accomplish that, we can:
  • Develop standards for compliance and enforcement: data standards and business rules, data distribution, maintaining "fair" online advertising using the compilation (IDX / VOW) and other uses.
  • Develop core standards for MLS data integrity business rules.
  • Consider the kind of government regulation the industry could be facing with regard to wire fraud and get ahead of it - MLS can be a part of that, if organized. Information security practices will be a part of that - much of the steps needed to deal with wire fraud take place during the "cooperation" phase where the MLS is, or could be, involved.
  • Develop and implement standards for brokers and agents ("With teeth") re: responsiveness to showing requests, participation in secure electronic communications and transaction management. Develop these as MLS monitored areas with supported core functions as needed. As elements of cooperation, these would seem to fall within the jurisdiction of MLS. What other areas, technological and otherwise, could be considered "cooperation" and be an MLS function?

There are many challenges ahead for MLS - I think it would be ideal to firm up its value and capabilities in this area.

Consolidation: A unified industry would be more capable of managing risk.

To encourage consolidation, we could:
  • Develop and mandate core standards for MLS, based on CMLS best practices.
  • Drive recognition of strategic issues driving consolidation BEYOND the local service needs and Overlapping Market Disorder (OMD) - for example, managing risks described in the DANGER report, information security, and legal challenges (without depending on subsidy from the national level). Positioning based on OMD alone was unfortunate because that is only one of the drivers for consolidation.
  • Determine the MLS consolidation end-game (per my earlier blog on the subject). When I speak on the subject or consolidation or am helping MLSs achieve it, I create a map based on consumer-oriented data that allows us to productively discuss the end-game. This market-driven endgame map should drive tactics to achieve consolidation, driving them based on consumer needs and the professional access needed to serve the consumer rather than existing industry structures. Add the other broker and core standards factors and we should have a better picture of the end-game we are aiming for.
  • NAR itself could get the right people from each organization sit down together to work consolidation out. Peer to peer asks have had some effectiveness, but progress is slow. Not everyone comes to MLS conferences like the Council of MLS or the Clareity MLS Executive Workshop to understand why consolidation is so important.
  • Some of the states have, in the past, worked against consolidation - this must be discussed at the national level. Shared services at the state level solve some problems, but are stopping others from being solved.

Front End of Choice

Most MLSs are not ready to unbundle for FEoC: providing a core "pipe" of information and allowing for product choice, including products provided through the MLS organization, through brokerages, and purchased by agents themselves. Though I don't think this is an especially important trend to move forward - other others described above are much more urgent - I don't think this trend is going to go away. If the industry is going to support this trend, potentially incompatible licensing processes and the per-user cost bundles MLSs have created will need to be addressed. A few large MLSs (MRIS, CRMLS, Northstar MLS)  developed the technical infrastructure to support this - and it is not easy! Others have focused on providing FEoC for alternate means of MLS data access while providing a single core MLS system.  Once further data standards are created that are needed to support this type of business, there may be increasing competition for this core infrastructure.

Now, brokers are dealing with a similar issue today, with some deploying suites but many more deploying best of breed products, integrated as best they can without data standards. While many brokers are happier when they create this best of breed solution, but it's expensive and difficult because of that lack of data standards. There's more inertia in the MLS space to stick with the single-vendor suite plus a few integrated products approach due to licensing models, but data standards in the MLS space are more advanced than in the broker space and alternate front ends are starting to emerge - so I expect this is going to happen. Again, "How urgent and important is this?" is a question that needs to be asked when considering this initiative - and the answer is not going to be the same for every MLS.

Other Issues

Every MLS has different issues to address in strategic planning. For example, in the last few plans I have facilitated in 2018, "Front End of Choice" didn't come up at all from subscribers or the leadership, while the other two issues did in one form or another - along with other local issues. Some of those local issues are ones I've seen recently in several organizations and could well be covered in another blog post.

A Short Preamble

Clareity’s annual MLS Executive Workshop took place in Scottsdale, Arizona and, as it has every year, the event was sold out. Responding to our post-event survey, MLS executives made comments like:
  • “Great event this year. Always the best networking.”
  • “Informative and insightful. Can’t wait for next year’s workshop.”
  • “As always – groundbreaking and “explode your brain” wonderful!”
  • “For me, this meeting truly does start the conversation for the year.”
  • “Love the size. Good content, all substance.”
  • “This was the best MLS Workshop ever.”



Here are some takeaways from the Workshop:

Welcome / State of Industry

Gregg Larson shared observations from 2017 and an outlook for 2018 and beyond. This included a broad roundup of consumer technologies, covering the MLS and tech vendor merger and acquisition trend, and focusing on new brokerage models and what they could mean for traditional brokers and the MLS. While many in the industry describe these brokers from a point of fear, Gregg’s focus was more about how these companies seek to meet consumer needs and how we all can adjust to industry change based on those needs. Later in the Workshop, Clareity gave both Redfin and OpenDoor an opportunity to explain how they work well within the MLS community – more on that later in this report. Gregg also thanked the sponsors that let us run a quality show at a low cost for attendees.

Major Brokers Demand Better MLS Security

HomeServices of America is advocating for vendors to adopt more stringent security measures – including MLSs. HomeServices’ CIO, Alon Chaver talked about how they are beginning to work with several MLSs on this and how they intend to expand on that effort with other MLSs. Clareity’s been beating the security drum for over twenty years now, so we welcome HomeServices to the effort.

Alon’s takeaways for MLSs:
Minimize outbound data distribution- provide only the necessary data, data sets and data fields required to perform the contracted services. Require contractual assurances at contract renewal – commitment from vendor(s) to secure the data they receive. That includes not sharing data with third parties unless authorized and vetted for security, minimizing programmatic access via APIs, requiring breach notifications, insurance coverage and indemnity provisions.

If your organization hasn’t yet begun an organizational security program or just wants a fresh set of eyes on your security practices, please contact Clareity’s Matt Cohen to discuss moving forward.

Managing Compliance for the new Mandatory Waiver Policy

Carolina MLS has had a waiver policy in place for a while now. Steve Byrd explained the various conditions where his MLS allows waivers, the scope of waiver use, and their 3-part process for catching “cheaters”:
  1. Using Listing Data Checker software to look for co-listing violations. Since subscribers are not allowed to co-list with non-subscribers, they use the tool to search for keywords such as “co-listed” and related terms as well as listings with an email address, web URL or phone number in the Public, Agent and Company Remarks, or Directions field that might be a sign of co-listing.
  2. Clareity’s SAFEMLS + RISK product works as a constant deterrent. Nonetheless, using the tool Carolina MLS issued 19 notices/warnings to subscribers for password sharing and unauthorized use of the MLS and issued four significant fines for password sharing.
  3. Reports by Agents. When agents ask what to do if the selling agent is not an MLS subscriber or can’t find that agent in the roster, the MLS investigates. Carolina MLS has fined and back-billed six times since 2013.

Leadership Lessons

In a session facilitated by Denee Evans, Two CMLX3 graduates, Colette Stevenson and Stan Martin, shared leadership lessons learned from their CMLX3 experience. There’s no way to sum up such a complex conversation easily, but one of the most interesting parts of the session was when Colette and Stan talked about learning about their strengths and weaknesses as a part of the process and how they improved their management capabilities as a result.

Blockchain: What does it mean for the MLS?

NAR / CRT’s David Conroy explored Blockchains, which provide a verifiable and trustworthy record of events or transactions, and David showed how this new technology could evolve to:

    Improve property records
    Greatly reduce cost of business for all parties
    Reduce risk in real estate transactions
    Help buyers & sellers get to closing table faster

Standards Evolution Supporting New Innovations

CRMLS’s Art Carter presented information about the growth of RESO, casestudies from myTheo, Homes.com, and other demonstrations of RESO successes, as well as highlight videos from RESO’s DataComp event and how standards evolution is supporting true innovation in the real estate technology space. In the myTheo example, that company reduced product time to market from 6-7 weeks down to 3-4 weeks and reduced staffing resources needed to launch in a new MLS market by 30-40% – all by using a certified RESO feed.

MLS Copyright and the “Spark” of Creativity

Matt Cohen moderated a panel including Mitch Skinner, Claude Szyfer, and Brad Bjelke to discuss the copyright office re-evaluation of whether MLSs can copyright the compilation based on “creativity”. A status update on the copyright office discussions and NAR’s role in them was provided. In an especially fun part of the session, Brad role-played making arguments on behalf of the copyright office while Mitch and Claude argued against him in an adversarial fashion. We discussed what MLSs could do to increase the creativity of the compilation. We also discussed whether use of data standards (common field names and enumerations) could reduce creativity of MLS compilations and cause issues – the answer to which is “yes, at least some” – but that can’t get in the way of data standards adoption and there are lots of other ways these compilations are creative. We need to better demonstrate just how creative they are to the government.

Future of IDX and VOW

Matt Cohen, homes.com’s Andy Woolley, and Fantis Group Real Estate & Clientopoly’s Tony Fantis talked about the myriad issues of the current IDX and VOW policies, and presented some visions of how policy could be changed to allow brokers and their vendors to provide more innovative uses of IDX/VOW data. One vision was very large in scope but evolutionary, while the other vision was more revolutionary. The reasons for each approach and the pros and cons of each was discussed. We hope those in the audience on relevant NAR committees – and those that influence those committees – will pick up the ball and run with it.

Should MLSs be Supporting Successful Agents?

Xplode’s Matt Fagioli presented a vision of how agents will be successful going forward with technology and what MLSs could be doing to support them. Many tools were discussed, but some MLSs said there was one big takeaway for them: figuring out how to help their agents take advantage of Instagram, since according to a 2017 Forrester report, Instagram has a 2.2 percent per-follower interaction rate vs Facebook at only 0.22 percent.

MLS Consolidation

T3 Sixty’s Kevin McQueen gave the audience some interesting statistics to think about: we’re down to 677 MLS organizations: 88 Regional MLS serving 80% of REALTORS® and 20% served by the remaining 600 or so MLSs. Kevin described how a useful tactic to initiate discussion is to take inventory – looking at duplicate listings, subscribers, and listing agents, and quantifying the waste of the inefficiency – putting a dollar figure on it that makes sense to stakeholders. He suggested that the important thing to do to get the ball rolling on consolidation is to get groups in the room together – sometimes with state association leadership, with 2-3 larger MLSs (not just one “gorilla”), and involving brokers. Kevin suggested we may want to focus on the most severely overlapping markets, especially the nine states containing over 350 MLSs.

The Future of Brokerage and What It Means for MLS

Rob Hahn & Sunny Lake Hahn ended day one with an entertaining look at brokerage. They described a barely profitable traditional brokerage model, the increasing pressures brought by agent teams that “own the kitchen table” where the relationship with consumers is formed, additional pressures brought by 100% commission shops, and even more pressure being brought by technology brokerages. They described a potential future for brokerages being run like a professional services firm, with equity partners and employee associates, and a future where there may be fewer brokerages and agents. Perhaps MLSs will need to establish a different financial model to address shrinking membership, and MLSs may need to continue to evolve policy with relation to teams.  In summary, Rob and Sunny exhorted MLSs to stop fighting, understand the pain brokerages are experiencing, and help “save them.”

A Tragedy of the Commons

Redfin’s Chelsea Goyer presented Redfin’s pro-MLS point of view, countering a “think tank” article that invoked Redfin’s name and painted MLSs negatively. She talked about an article she and Glenn Kelman had written about this called “A Tragedy of the Commons”.  According to Wikipedia, “The tragedy of the commons is a term used in social science to describe a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action.” In the view published by Chelsea and Glenn, it’s important for brokers to support the shared-resource system that is MLS. Chelsea also talked about the need for MLSs to consider how membership should be (and feel like) a privilege, how MLSs could be more transparent, how it can be modernized, how important data standards are, and how MLS consolidation should make things better for brokerages. This was a great session!

Zillow’s Listing Ecosystem

From listing input to listing distribution, Zillow’s Errol Samuelson described how they work within existing MLS infrastructures. The Bridge Interactive API provides RESO platinum certification including the data dictionary and additional fields and extended datasets. He demonstrated a management interface with a great design, and reporting capabilities.  Errol also explained how the solution could be used to not only manage data distribution from a single MLS, but also to “bridge” multiple MLSs into a single feed for brokers and their vendors. He also showed a mobile-friendly listing input system that complies with MLS business rules. This solution is live in Atlanta, and coming soon to Rhode Island, Huntsville, Boston, and Oakland / Berkeley.

Personas as a Way of Better Understanding Subscribers

MLSListings’s Dave Wetzel presented a different approach to understanding subscribers better using personas. A persona is a fictional character who embodies certain essential characteristics, such as attitudes, goals, and behaviors, of a particular subset of the users of a product or service. Personas are constructed using sample data collected from actual users. Constructing personas creates internal focus and understanding of your users across your teams and organization. They help internal teams empathize with users, including their behaviors, goals, and expectations. They help the company talk in terms of user needs, and they support better decision making where users are concerned. Dave described the five personas they identified in their MLS and suggested other MLSs do similar research to create their own personas to guide their efforts.

Managing the DANGERs and Other Risks

While managing risk is an important business function, many MLSs feel the risks we face are too big to manage. Matt Cohen helped explore what can MLSs do about the DANGERs (from the NAR D.A.N.G.E.R. Report) and other risks, as discussed in “MLS 2020 Agenda”. Some risks are too much for smaller MLSs to manage – which is one reason MLS consolidation is important. Some risks may even be too large for larger regional MLSs, and may take cooperation to address. The session covered five risks, re-evaluating them for probability, timing, and impact, and providing an initial set of risk mitigations for discussion. For example, mitigations for the information security risk include:
  •     Security Assessment & Remediation
  •     Strong Authentication
  •     Anti-Scraping (MLS resources)
  •     Anti-scraping (IDX requirement)
  •     API Security
This session should inspire good conversations during MLS strategic planning!

Homesnap (Broker Public Portal)

Gregg interviewed Guy Wolcott, the Founder of Homesnap. He asked probing questions about measuring success of the effort, and about how the company plans to achieve greater success in the future.

How to Capture, Communicate and Close in today’s “On Demand” World

Realtor.com’s Bob Evans described Realsuite, their new product which includes “Respond”, which quickly delivers responses to client inquiries, “Connect”, which provides a contact management system and includes market data reports, and “Transact”, which organizes documents and tasks and includes form integration and electronic signatures.

Power of the Network and Site Licenses

Matt Cohen moderated a panel including Lone Wolf / Instanet Solutions’ Joe Kazzoun, Showing Time’s Michael Lane, Real Safe Agent’s Lee Goldstein and CSS’s Kevin Hughes. Panelists described the conditions under which products are optimally site licensed, versus “a la carte” licensing or provided as one of several choices. Each described the benefits of site licensing for their product, and the panel discussed the hybrid model of licensing core features but upselling additional capabilities to individual users. Finally, we discussed data standards and how companies may choose to share data – or not share it – with business partners, competitors, and the consumers. While standards make it possible to move data more easily, business, legal and privacy issues all affect whether data will be shared.

OpenDoor.com

Gregg Larson interviewed Kerry Melcher, GM from OpenDoor.com, the original and leading iBuyer in the country. The way their brokerage works is that sellers request an offer, the brokerage creates an offer to buy the property itself – rather than trying to find a buyer to buy the property immediately. If the seller is interested the brokerage then conducts a home assessment and, if repairs are needed the seller can make the repairs or deduct costs from the offer and the brokerage will make the repairs. Payment then happens in just a few days. OpenDoor then maintains the property and finds a buyer.  As discussed during the session, it’s important to note that the company buys at retail and sells at retail – this is not about buying low and flipping homes. OpenDoor works with buyers too. Buyers can use their app to gain access to the homes they have for sale, and every home comes with a 30-day satisfaction guarantee.

While a lot of people are afraid of the change that iBuyers might bring to the industry, Kerry made it clear that they work cooperatively with other agents all the time and conform to MLS rules. Also, by making the transaction easier for consumers, they believe their approach will result in more transactions and more money for the real estate industry overall.
Final Words

It’s “business as usual” at Clareity. If you want more information on our professional services (strategic planning, MLS regionalization, public speaking, security audits, etc.), please contact Matt Cohen or Gregg Larson. If you want information about Clareity’s security and SSO products, please contact Troy Rech.

Clareity packed a lot of perspectives and content into a ton of sessions over a day and a half – but the Workshop is about more than content – it’s about relationship building. We’ve listened to those attendees with ideas of how to make the event even better – besides the meals together and fun outings on arrival day, the longer breaks have improved the networking possible during the event. Over the past 17 years, MLS executives and their guests have enjoyed our event which, we’ve heard in post-event surveys, is “just the right size” and “full of takeaways.”  We promise to continue to improve the Workshop based on attendee feedback.

Thank you for your support!

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This blog is for informational purposes only. The author shall have no liability in connection with any inaccuracies or omissions herein. All trademarks are the property of their respective holders. The views expressed on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer. Non plaudite, modo pecuniam jacite.