Zillow's billion dollar seller lead opportunity

Last week, Zillow announced its latest financial results, and the stock dropped 25 percent (losing $2 billion in value). But the story everyone is missing is the Zillow Offers iBuying business, and the huge potential of seller leads.

Why it matters: Last week I was quoted on MarketWatch saying, “If you’re thinking about Zillow doing iBuying and you’re not thinking about seller leads, you’re thinking about it the wrong way.” Seller leads are the real billion dollar opportunity.

Slowing premier agent growth

Here's the reason why Zillow's stock tanked 25 percent last week, in one chart:

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Zillow's premier agent program accounts for over 70 percent of its revenue, or nearly $1 billion. Growth is slowing down. I'm not sure why this surprised anyone on Wall Street; I've been writing about it since early this year (Zillow's revenue growth slows and Zillow's strategic shift to iBuying and mortgages). I believe it's the primary reason Zillow has aggressively expanded into adjacent businesses.

The value of seller leads

Zillow's iBuyer business continues to grow, and the latest results crystalize the opportunity in seller leads.

Zillow says that since launch, nearly 20,000 homeowners have taken direct action on its platform to sell their home. Of those, it has purchased just about 1 percent of homes (around 200). That leaves about 19,800 leads who remain interested in selling their homes.

If Zillow simply sold those leads at $100 a pop, they're worth nearly $2 million.

But the real opportunity is giving those leads to premier agents in exchange for an industry-standard referral fee, about 1 percent, if the property sells (similar to the Opcity business model).

Here's the kicker: Zillow claims about 45 percent of consumers that go through the Zillow Offers funnel end up listing their home. That's a high conversion rate reflective of a high intent to sell; about 10 times higher than Opcity's conversion rate.

Assuming a 1 percent referral fee, a $250,000 home, and a conversion rate of 45 percent, those 19,800 leads are worth $22 million in revenue to Zillow, almost all profit.

Compare that to the estimated profit of its iBuyer business (1.5 percent net profit), which, on 200 houses, is $750,000. The value of the seller leads is worth almost 30 times the profit from flipping houses!

Total addressable market

Zillow says that based on its current purchase criteria, if Zillow Offers were available in the top 200 metro areas in the U.S., sellers of nearly half of the homes sold in 2017 across the entire nation would have been eligible to receive offers from it to buy their home directly. That equates to around 2.75 million homes annually.

Last quarter, Zillow said that it received offer requests from around 15 percent of the total for-sale stock in the Phoenix market. Interestingly, that number increased to 25 percent in September and 35 percent in October. That's a reflection of the strong lead generation power of Zillow Offers across its various web properties.

Based on these numbers, if Zillow goes national (200 metro areas) and sees 35 percent of the for-sale stock, it would receive 962,500 offer requests each year.

The billion dollar opportunity

Taking the latest numbers, which have been validated to the tune of 20,000 offer requests over five months in two markets, the total opportunity becomes clear with a national rollout.

Seller leads can be a billion dollar business for Zillow if you believe the current numbers. Even if a national conversion rate is lower, or the % of for-sale stock fluctuates, it's still worth several hundred million dollars in revenue annually.

Should Zillow even buy houses?

Given the value of the seller leads, should Zillow even be in the business of buying houses? Yes, if it wants a credible product for consumers. The real question is: What proportion of houses should Zillow actually buy?

Zillow's "big picture" is 5 percent national market share, which equates to buying around 10 percent of all offer requests (it is currently buying around 1 percent of offer requests). At a 1.5 percent net margin, that's around $1 billion in profit.

But to reach that scale, Zillow would need to spend $68 billion to purchase 275,000 houses annually. Assuming an average holding time of 90 days, it would need a credit line of $17 billion to fund the effort. Big numbers.

A more realistic target would be to only purchase around 1 percent of requests. Nationally, that would be 27,500 homes, which is only around double what Opendoor is currently doing, so it's feasible.

In any case, the point is clear: Zillow doesn't need to actually buy and sell a lot of houses for this model to generate significant profits for the company in a national rollout.

Strategic implications

Zillow is a lead generation machine, and its recent foray into iBuying is no exception. 

If you're in the industry and your value proposition to agents is seller lead generation, there's a new game in town. Zillow will be able to generate a massive volume of seller leads with higher intent than almost any other source. If successful, this will have significant implications across the industry.

Further analysis

If you're looking to dive deeper into the world of iBuyers, consider the following:

Mobile contact form analysis

Inspired by a recent talk on the importance of mobile experiences, I've conducted an analysis of the mobile contact forms for the big real estate portals. These are the forms that turn visitors into leads.

Why it matters: Mobile is huge. My research of the top real estate portals shows that, on average, 70 percent of leads come from mobile. Mobile contact forms should be optimized to be as efficient as possible.

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Notable UX highlights

Pre-selecting checkboxes is a real-world example of behavioral science (specifically nudge theory) in action. In the U.S., Zillow and realtor.com take different approaches to encourage (or discourage) users to request additional financing information. Overseas, Propertyfinder, PropertyGuru and Otodom do the same when it comes to signing users up for property alerts.

Trade Me has the unique distinction of having the easiest and most difficult mobile form. On the positive side, it is the shortest form from my survey, simply asking for a message. On the negative side, it requires users to sign in to send a message. Luckily, almost the entire population of New Zealand is a member of Trade Me, but in the case of a new user (or someone who isn't logged in), this introduces a significant form completion hurdle.

The more required fields, the more difficult to complete a form. I know Germans can be formal at times, but does salutation really need to be a required field for ImmoScout24?

Redfin has split its form across three screens, each quite simple. But the additional effort to click a submission button three times instead of one, plus additional page load time, adds significant (and unnecessary) overhead.

Hemnet has decided to do away with forms all together and simply list an email address, leaving communication entirely in the user's hands!

Mobile usage

Many thanks to the portals that were willing to share their data with me (both anonymously and on the record). The collective intelligence is a benefit to all!

The percentage of leads that come from mobile (native app or mobile web) varies greatly: from 40 percent in Poland (Otodom) to 91 percent in Singapore (PropertyGuru). 

The biggest markets average somewhere in the middle: around 65 percent in the U.K. (Zoopla) to 72 percent in Australia (Domain).

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On average, around 70 percent of all leads come from a mobile device, underlining the importance of a smooth mobile user experience.

User experience best practices

Best Practices for Mobile Form Design is an incredible resource for designing simple and effective mobile forms. Looking at the mobile forms from this survey, there are several best practices to remember:

  • Avoid dropdown menus (dropdowns are especially bad for mobile).

  • Don't slice data fields (when asking for a first and last name).

  • Mark optional fields instead of mandatory ones (don't use asterisks).

A number of real estate portals do a great job at keeping the mobile experience simple and easy by following best practices and keeping the form as short as possible. My hope is that next year the forms will be even easier for users to complete. And if you're wondering just how important leads are, just ask Zillow.


Before entering the high-octane world of real estate tech strategy, I was a product guy. My master's degree was in human-computer interaction, and I spent the first years of my career as a user interface designer. So I'm passionate about great design!

Opendoor's pivot to agents

According to a report on Inman, Opendoor is launching a new preferred agent partnership program where it is co-listing a growing portion of its for sale properties with partner agents.

Why it matters: This is a significant pivot for Opendoor, aligning it closer to agents in a major way. It signals that working with the traditional industry -- rather than trying to disrupt it -- is an important part of its growth strategy.

Working with agents

Opendoor's new preferred agent partnership program brings the company much closer to agents. As opposed to the company's hallmark of buying and selling direct to consumers, with a do-it-yourself open home model, this latest move represents a big pivot.

Before this program was announced, the way Opendoor sold its homes was fairly uniform: it would list direct without an agent, offer self-guided tours, brand everything Opendoor, and not pay seller agent fees since it was selling direct. But things have changed:

An unknown question is how Opendoor is compensating co-listing agents. There are three possibilities, listed in order of likelihood:

  • The agent receives a referral fee (likely 1 percent) for representing Opendoor.

  • The agent receives a fixed fee ($1,000) for representing Opendoor.

  • The agent receives no direct compensation, but benefits from potential leads while hosting open homes.

Why the pivot?

This is a big move for Opendoor, and it would only make a change if there was a business benefit.

Opendoor is moving towards an agent-centric model, where it's co-listing and co-branding with a traditional real estate agent (and the traditional process it is aiming to disrupt). That's a non-trivial shift. And assuming Opendoor is compensating co-listing agents as outlined above, there's a significant economic shift as well.

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Opendoor is in the business of buying and selling houses. So any pivot must enhance that capability, leading to two possible reasons for the change:

  • Sell more houses, faster.

  • Attract more agents representing sellers (buy more houses).

For a co-listing arrangement to make business sense, it must enable Opendoor to buy or sell more houses. Either its existing process isn't quite where Opendoor wants it to be, or there's an external reason to cozy up to agents...

The Zillow factor

There's one other factor to consider, and that's the relatively recent arrival of Zillow to the iBuyer game. As a reminder, Zillow's angle is to include agents in each step of the process, using its premier agent network to represent all sides of the transaction.

Opendoor's latest move puts it squarely at parity with Zillow in terms of agent involvement and the value proposition for agents.

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Now, if you're an agent, the benefits of working with Opendoor are the same as working with Zillow. For Opendoor to make this degree of change, and give up image and economic value in order to appeal to agents, it must really want to work with agents!

Strategic implications

There's a long history of would-be real estate disruptors that attempted to disintermediate the traditional industry, only to change their minds and pivot back.

It's hard to go against real estate agents. There's just so many of them, and psychologically consumers want to keep using them. Many disruptors start with anti-agent tendencies but eventually come back to the fold. It's easier and more profitable to work with the industry than against it.

This is not a full-scale retreat on Opendoor's part; far from it. But it's the strongest signal yet of the importance of agents to its current growth strategy.

2018 Global Real Estate Portal Report

Looking for more? Download and watch my Global Real Estate Portal Intelligence Briefing, a 60-minute webinar to dive deeper into the key highlights, trends, and insights from my latest report. I'll walk you through the key takeaways and observations from my research, in addition to answering questions.

Why incumbents can't beat Zillow (and the power of network effects)

Recently, several large incumbents have announced big consumer plays aimed at Zillow: Rocket Homes' new consumer portal, and Keller Williams acquiring SmarterAgent as part of its consumer strategy.

Why it matters: Zillow benefits from practically unbeatable network effects in the consumer space. Both of these moves ignore basic strategic principles of playing to your strengths, and picking battles you can win.

Network effects and wide moats

In his best-selling book Zero to One, Peter Thiel provides an elegant definition of network effects: “Network effects makes a product more useful as more people use it. For example, if all your friends are on Facebook, it makes sense for you to join Facebook, too.”

Online marketplaces such as Craigslist, LinkedIn, and eBay are classic examples of businesses that benefit from network effects. The more people that use them -- buyers and sellers -- the more valuable the service becomes.

Businesses that have the benefit of network effects are incredibly difficult to displace. As Tren Griffin writes on a16z, "Nothing scales as well as a software business, and nothing creates a moat for that business more effectively than network effects."

Zillow benefits from the power of network effects. By developing the most popular means of searching for real estate, it attracts buyers and sellers in a virtuous cycle. It has cemented an incredibly strong position with a near-impenetrable moat from competition. This is Zillow's key strength.

Comfortably number one

Logically, the most likely competitor to challenge Zillow's dominance is realtor.com. It is the runner-up portal backed by a multi-billion dollar international media company (News Corp) that also owns several top portals around the world.

But as I've shown in the past, Zillow's ever-important traffic dominance remains constant, undisturbed by realtor.com or anyone else.

 
 

If anyone could dislodge Zillow's dominance, it would be realtor.com. But it hasn't; not for lack of trying, but rather an understanding of network effects and the futility of such an effort (remember, it owns the top portal in Australia and knows the power of network effects better than most). News Corp doesn't want to overtake Zillow because it knows it's impossible.

Strategy basics: play to your strengths

Sound strategic planning requires two key elements: leveraging your strengths, and playing where you can win.

A business should build its strategy around an understanding of its key competitive advantages and operational strengths. Those strengths should be applied in areas where it can win (typically where its competitors are weak).

To illustrate this point further, the following chart looks at four examples of Zillow and realtor.com smartly leveraging their strengths and exploiting their competitor's weaknesses.

Less experienced strategists can be reactionary. They see a threat and attempt to counter it, on a battlefield where they are at a distinct disadvantage to a competitor. Keller Williams and Rocket Homes have done just this; choosing to do battle with Zillow on its home turf, where it is strong and they are weak.

Keller Williams and Rocket Homes

Zillow's strength lies in its massive consumer reach through its search portal. This business benefits from strong network effects and has a wide moat to protect it from competition.

Keller Williams is building a new consumer-facing app to "compete directly with search giants like Zillow and Redfin." Rocket Homes is launching a portal to "rival Zillow," which will "let consumers search for homes and apply for loans."

In their efforts build end-to-end homebuying platforms, both businesses have decided to go from positions of strength (mortgages and agent reach) to ones of weakness (consumer listing portal). It's the most difficult battle possible.

What Rocket Homes and Keller Williams are missing in their end-to-end platforms -- the consumer search portal -- is nearly impossible to deliver because of Zillow's dominance and the power of network effects. There's a certain futility in going after Zillow (or Facebook, or Ebay, or Craigslist).

Strategic implications

Keller Williams and Rocket Homes (part of Quicken Loans), are both incredibly large and powerful businesses; Keller Williams has the largest network of agents, and Quicken Loans is the largest retail lender in the U.S. But in the changing world of real estate, they aren't playing to their strengths.

All businesses should know their strengths. Deeply understand your competitive advantage and what value you offer -- and focus on that. 

By going directly after Zillow, Keller Williams and Rocket Homes demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the power of network effects. There's simply no purpose for these new consumer portals to exist, because they don't meaningfully benefit consumers.

In the accelerating race to build end-to-end real estate ecosystems, businesses should focus on leveraging their strengths to gain advantage over competitors and deliver true value to consumers.