Case Study: Sotheby’s Uses Mobile iPad App to Attract High-End Buyers

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Consumers purchasing multi-million dollar properties want to see more than just static photos and written descriptions when researching homes online. According to John Passerini, vice president of interactive marketing at Sotheby’s International Realty, high-end buyers want to understand the “context” of the properties they’re viewing, and where those properties are located in relation to nearby amenities like golf courses, vineyards, theaters, and restaurants. To satisfy this need, Sotheby’s used LBS-technology to create a “lifestyle overlay” for its mobile iPad app, which the company launched earlier this year.

Why was it important for Sotheby’s to create a mobile iPad application?
It all started with the device itself. It’s such a beautiful piece of engineering, and the way it displays photography lends itself perfectly to our brand. We’ve always been about photography playing a central role on our website — it’s what most people who go to a real estate website want to see, and the iPad just lends itself to that. Plus, [there’s] the mobile nature of it. The across-industry stats we’re seeing [show] that mobile searches are going to surpass searches on computers in the next year — maybe even six months — so you have to be on these mobile platforms. So that’s where it really started.

Can you walk me through some of the key features?
First and foremost, anything we do has to be global. You’re not going to find [other] real estate apps out there that have international search capability. That’s one thing we’ve brought to the table. That’s probably the most unique feature of it. In addition, we’ve added a lifestyle overlay. Where the data is available, you can overlay the golf courses, vineyards, movie theaters, and restaurants in the context of the property itself. Consumers of real estate expect the lifestyle component to tell the story of the property—where is the house going to be, where am I going to live, where am I going on vacation. Those types of things have to be incorporated.

Is the lifestyle component important to all people shopping for homes, or your high-end clients specifically?
For us in particular, this is a very aspirational brand. I think more so in our sphere, people are looking for the local amenities. The restaurants, the movie theaters, the vineyards, and all that local amenity stuff just lends itself more to our clientele. But I think overall in the real estate industry, consumers expect more information about whatever it is they’re buying. When they’re looking at a property, they’re going to look for the school information and they’re going to look for local amenities, so you need to tell a story about the context of the house where the family is going to end up living. I think industry-wide that’s very important. For our brand in particular, it’s even more amplified because people are looking for that lifestyle and that aspirational information.

How does the iPad app differ from the smartphone apps you’ve put out in the past?
The version for smartphones has been live for about two years now. The key differentiator is the differentiation between the devices. The iPads fill a different niche than the smartphones and the PCs. We try to take advantage of the ability to show large photos on the tablet versus the smartphone. The [iPad app] incorporates a lot of the same functions, though. It has the GPS capability like the smartphone apps do, and it integrates search results for a given area. It includes all of our Sotheby’s International Realty listings, and it also incorporates any local listing information provided through each of our local brokers in the areas we serve.

Did you partner with an agency to get the iPad app built?
Yes. The company that powers our mobile solution is called Smarter Agent. You can consider them a leader in this category, particularly in real estate, and they’ve been a fantastic partner to work with. They have an immense amount experience in data and how to build mobile apps. We’ve worked with them not only for the smartphone but for the iPad as well.

Is the iPad app built strictly for consumers, or are Sotheby’s agents using it, too?
Agents are definitely embracing it. They’re our most vocal users of this app. Just think about an agent taking a client out for the weekend. If they’ve got a tablet with them, they could pull up any available listings in their area just by tapping on the app. Of course that worked with the smartphone versions, but the tablet itself [offers] such a great presentation. It’s elegant to have that iPad in your hand, and [agents] can find what listings are available right on-site or right as they’re in the car. By passing it around to clients, they can have that experience and they can narrow down the search as they’re driving through town.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from customers since the iPad app debuted?
Consumers and our network of affiliates just absolutely love it. The feedback from clients is that it’s really giving them a great experience, from the real estate perspective. It does tell a good story about the property, with great photos and lifestyle information. We’ve gotten great feedback, and we’ve also seen good download rates. I mean, we’re not going to be in the Angry Birds category, but we’re certainly seeing [results]. Per week, we’re seeing about 500 downloads. Legitimately speaking, the iPad app has only been live for a couple of weeks. We did release it in March, but we considered that a live beta because we didn’t have all the bells and whistles. So we’re very happy to see the growth so quickly. We’re going to look to build on that and add more to it.

What features are you looking to add?
Just like we do with, the most significant thing we’re going to do is translate it. is currently translated into 15 languages, and we don’t use machine translations or computer translations; we have people who do it. That goes into our whole brand strategy; you can’t do things for the sake of doing it, you have to do it well. So, we use a company that specializes in human translation for the real estate industry, and they’re engaged in a project to translate the app so it lends itself better to the international community. That is going to be the major thing. The other thing we’re going to add is a currency converter, which you see on, and we’re going to add components that we’ll develop to be more akin to the social media sharing experience. We’ve added some components so you can share and “like” things, but we want integrate that a little further.

Stephanie Miles is an associate editor at Street Fight. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.