REA Group, Domain, and the non-battle for top spot

It's earnings season! In the past week, a number of portals announced their financial results, including REA Group and Domain, the two top Australian portals.

Why it matters: The numbers reveal interesting trends and insights, significantly around the difficulty of building meaningful adjacent businesses, and the non-battle between the #1 and #2 players in various markets.

Adjacent businesses are tough

Like many portals worldwide, REA Group and Domain each launched adjacent businesses, with goals to expand along more of the transaction, reduce consumer friction, and capture more revenue.

But as I've written before, the businesses have very different strategies. REA Group acquired a majority stake in an existing mortgage broking business, while Domain launched a number of joint ventures and partnerships. Different strategies, different outcomes.

REA's finance business continues to chug along, building revenue and generating meaningful earnings ($5.8 million EBITDA over the last six months).

 
 

By comparison, Domain's adjacent businesses (finance, insurance, and utility switching) generate similar revenues but with continued -- and mounting -- losses. The latest six months show a loss of $4.3 million.

 
 

REA's strategy is delivering a positive financial impact, while Domain's businesses are still in a heavy investment phase after more than a year.

The "battle" between #1 and #2

The battle between the #1 and #2 portal in each market is fascinating, and Australia is no exception.

One metric to compare portals is overall revenue generation. In general, the #2 portal generates between 25 and 40 percent the revenue of the leader (read my portal report), and that number doesn't fluctuate over time. In fact, in the case of REA Group and Domain, the leader is growing faster than the number two.

 
 

Domain is the underdog in Australia, and the evidence suggests it will remain that way. Overall situational awareness is important: It would be a mistake to assume Domain will overtake REA in any capacity.

U.K. portal wars -- what's changing?

Along the same lines, the real estate portals in the U.K. recently released traffic figures for the start of the year. It offers yet another fascinating glimpse into the competitive tension between top players -- and the complete lack of movement.

The figures released are for January 2019. And while the absolute numbers are generally rubbish, it's the comparison between portals and the year-on-year growth that's insightful.

 
 

Rightmove's numbers have hardly changed, and the delta between the number one and two is still the same. For all the investment on product, marketing, and inventory -- the all important consumer habits haven't shifted.

The variable, however, is the upstart portal OnTheMarket (read my past analysis). OTM has raised over £30m and is aggressively spending on marketing in order to drive traffic to its site. Its traffic has doubled since last year -- but does it matter?

For all of the tens-of-millions of pounds spent to build an alternative to the established portals, what impact is it having after launching four years ago? Zoopla's traffic is marginally down, but it reports that leads are up over 30 percent. The top two portals are equally and exactly as dominant as they were a year ago.

Strategic implications

There are a number of key takeaways for portals around the world:

  • Launching successful adjacent businesses is hard. It takes an incredible amount of investment, and there are a variety of execution strategies.

  • The evidence doesn't suggest that the #2 portal can overtake the leader -- let alone make a dent in its leadership position. It's not a horse race; it's static trench warfare.

  • Trying to launch a new portal and compete against the leaders is at best expensive, and at worst futile. Consumer habits are hard to change.

Zoopla's private equity strategy shift

Zoopla recently announced that it has removed all non-property advertising from its listing pages. This is one of several significant strategy changes after its acquisition by private equity firm Silver Lake.

Why it matters: The benefit of being a private company is that Zoopla can be more aggressive, focus on longer-term opportunities, and be less sensitive to a stock price that focuses on short-term earnings growth. This move is an example of that strategy in action.

The advertising revenue dilemma

A number of real estate portals generate revenue from non-property advertising on their listing pages. Zoopla's move puts it in line with arch-rival Rightmove by banishing banner ads from listing pages.

Note : REA Group and Domain do not have advertising on featured property listings, but do have non-property advertising on "normal" listings.

Note: REA Group and Domain do not have advertising on featured property listings, but do have non-property advertising on "normal" listings.

Banner advertising can be an important source of revenue for portals. However, it comes at the expense of the user experience. If a visitor clicks on a banner ad, their attention is diverted away from the property listing, reducing its effectiveness.

Often times user experience loses out to finances, especially for publicly listed companies under pressure to deliver revenue growth. And given that core revenue growth is slowing at a number of mature portals, the decision is even harder. But for a private company that's focused on the long-term opportunity, the decision is easy.

A shift in strategy

Aside from jettisoning nearly its entire management team, Zoopla has been up to quite a bit post-acquisition; there is the appearance of a significant change in strategy.

Zoopla's aggressive diversification strategy has been a leading factor making it unique in the world of real estate portals. It's been a world leader in acquiring adjacent businesses to dramatically grow revenues (for more on this, check out my 2018 Global Real Estate Portal Report).

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The company's narrative has centered around a cross-sell strategy, where acquisitions are deeply integrated across Zoopla's network of web properties.

I've questioned the effectiveness of the cross-sell strategy, most recently in my Future of Real Estate Portals Report. The evidence didn't suggest a runaway success when it came to integration and cross-sell synergies.

Notably (and here's the big strategy shift), Zoopla's new managing director recently stated that, "Going forward, the former comparison and property businesses of ZPG will be managed largely separately, but we will continue to achieve synergies between the two wherever it is appropriate and relevant.”

To me, that sounds like a "back to basics" approach with a deep focus on the core product: tools for agents with a fantastic consumer experience. Cross-sell synergies and deep integration across the portfolio are taking a backseat.

Which is an interesting development for Scout24, which recently purchased financial comparison site Finanzcheck for $330 million, and Domain, which has been running the Zoopla diversification playbook for some time. Oops?

Strategic implications

Public companies that are focused on short-term revenue growth are at a distinct disadvantage to private companies backed by private equity. And private equity is getting more involved in the sector:

  • General Atlantic acquires a majority stake in Hemnet, December 2016.

  • Silver Lake acquires Zoopla for £2.2 billion, May 2018.

  • General Atlantic invests $120 million in Property Finder, November 2018.

  • Apax Partners offers $2.5 billion NZD for Trade Me, December 2018.

  • Rumors circulate that several private equity firms are looking at Germany's top portal, Scout24.

It's going to be difficult to compete with private equity-backed portals given their fundamental advantage: they can be more aggressive, focus on longer-term opportunities, and be less sensitive to a stock price that focuses on short-term earnings growth.

Trade Me's private equity adventure

In recent weeks, Trade Me, New Zealand's leading classifieds and marketplace portal, has received two, multi-billion-dollar buy-out offers from private equity firms.

Why it matters: There is a growing trend of private equity getting involved in portals around the world, which allows these businesses more freedom of action as private companies -- but with significant change.

Private equity and portals

Trade Me is New Zealand's leading portal, with property, automotive, and jobs classifieds and a general marketplace business. I worked there as head of strategy between 2012 and 2016.

British firm Apax Partners and American firm Hellman & Friedman have both offered around $2.5 billion NZD for the business, a 25 percent premium to the existing share price.

This news follows several other examples of private equity getting into the (property) portal business:

  • General Atlantic acquires a majority stake in Hemnet, December 2016.

  • Silver Lake acquires Zoopla for £2.2 billion, May 2018.

  • General Atlantic invests $120 million in Property Finder, November 2018.

Slowing growth

Since its public debut eight years ago, Trade Me has grown revenues 100 percent and net profit 39 percent.

Revenue growth has slowed over the years, especially recently, in a story reminiscent of Rightmove's growth dilemma.

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The stock price has seen a steady rise with its ups and downs, but has been relatively flat since 2017.

In August of 2018, Trade Me announced a special dividend to return $100 million in capital to investors. This comes on top of the normal dividend, which represents around 80 percent of profits. Returning capital at that scale can be a signal that the company has run out of ideas.

Many businesses believe it is more beneficial to reinvest profits to improve efficiency, expand reach, create new products and services as well as improve existing ones, and further separate themselves from competitors.

Like Rightmove, Trade Me is in a difficult position. With growth slowing, it is less likely to make big investments for fear of depressing earnings and upsetting investors. It's a delicate, public-company balance. Enter private equity...

Upside potential, with change

Private equity invests in businesses for one and only reason: to make money. It's clear that these P.E. firms have evaluated Trade Me's business and believe there is significant upside potential under new ownership and management.

But significant growth comes with significant change. When Silver Lake acquired Zoopla in the U.K., nearly the entire executive team was let go as part of the restructuring. It's the same story in Sweden, when General Atlantic appointed a new management team after acquiring a majority stake in Hemnet.

Strategic implications

If consummated, a private equity takeover of Trade Me would have a number of implications for the business, competitors, and the entire online ecosystem:

  • A private ownership structure will allow Trade Me to be more aggressive, focus on longer-term opportunities, and be less sensitive to a stock price that focuses on short-term earnings growth.

  • Private equity firms demand a return on their investment, and this transaction will be no exception. Expect costs to be trimmed, earnings maximized, and a more aggressive posture on pricing and monetization.

  • If you're competing with Trade Me, expect a dramatically different business to emerge that's tougher, less conservative, and more willing to throw its weight around.

Trade Me has long had a friendly, home-grown feel in New Zealand. New owners -- and new demands on the business -- may change the equation.

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!