On Sunday nights, you’ll find real estate agent Gabriel Fernandez at work in his laundry room. But he’s not washing, drying, folding or ironing his clothes for the coming week. Instead, Fernandez spends about 20 minutes there every Sunday night talking about some of the latest homes to hit the Northern Virginia real estate market. And he’s added a useful upgrade to that laundry room: sound-absorbing foam on the walls that improves the audio quality as he records five daily updates for his Amazon Alexa skill, Northern Virginia Real Estate. He talks into his iPhone, recording himself with Spreaker, one of many apps that offer voice/podcast-recording capabilities.
“I used to record daily but there were times I forgot to upload on time,” he explained via email. “Now, I sit down for 20 minutes on Sunday and record for Monday through Friday, and I’ll record for 10 minutes on Friday for the open houses on the weekends.” And the decision to record in his laundry room? “You gotta do what you gotta do,” he says.
That seems to be a growing feeling among real estate agents, in particular. Fernandez’s is one of almost 40 real estate skills currently listed in Alexa’s directory. I found only about 10 skills related to lawyers/attorneys while researching this article and even fewer local doctors and dentists with skills. (I contacted one personal injury law firm with an Alexa skill to learn more about it, but never heard back.) Overall, outside of local media outlets, there doesn’t yet appear to be much adoption of voice technology at the local business level.
That’s why real estate professionals like Fernandez, an agent at Long & Foster Real Estate, stand out. In fact, it was the lack of real estate-related Alexa skills that compelled him to get started this past summer when he bought his first Echo.
Filling A Void
One of the first things Fernandez did after he got an Echo was to look up “real estate” in the skills directory. He found about 15 skills and wasn’t impressed. “Most of them were pretty useless,” Fernandez says. “You could activate the skill for a real estate company and it would tell you their address, website and phone number.”
Fernandez worked with a freelance developer to help create his skill, and spent a couple weeks testing different kinds of content to figure out what would fit best with voice technology. He settled on home listings and open houses — three new home listings each weekday, and three open house listings each weekend day. He chose to offer his skill as a Flash Briefing on Alexa “because that’s what seemed like the easiest way to get the info to the listener.”
While Fernandez has been going strong on Alexa for a couple months, agent Chris Ward of Eagle Realty in South Carolina is just getting started. His Alexa skill, the Myrtle Beach Real Estate Minute, just launched in mid-October. Rather than focus on daily home listings, Ward’s plan is to share information about the real estate market in his area on a weekly basis. “But some of the other ideas we have for briefings and voice commands/requests,” he says, “could be updated daily or provide information in real time — not only about the market but a particular property in real time.”
Ward says the first edition of his Real Estate Minute was primarily a test to understand the process of creating a publishing a skill for Alexa’s Flash Briefing. But he’s sold on the possibilities and convinced that voice technology will play a big role in local marketing in the future.
“Voice-responsive technology is still very front end and will only grow,” he says, “so we want to be first to market to try, test, and adopt that arena to bring value to potential real estate clients and consumers — and Realtors looking to join our team, as well.”
Growth: Users & Developers
In May, eMarketer estimated that more than 35 million Americans will use a voice-based assistant device — such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home — in 2017, up almost 130 percent over last year. Walker Sands surveyed more than 1,600 U.S. consumers for its Future of Retail 2017 report and found that 24 percent already own a voice-enabled speaker and another 20 percent plan to buy one in the next year. There are numerous other projections and surveys like those from the past year or two; the numbers may not always agree, but the trend does: Voice-enabled devices like Alexa and Google Home are growing.
If and when more real estate professionals get on board with voice technology, Miguel Berger wants to be there to help them get started.
Berger and his son, Ami, co-founded Voiceter Pro last year and currently offer four voice-based skills/apps for the real estate industry. The original, simply called Real Estate on Alexa, and known as Real Estate Search on both Google Home and Cortana, lets real estate professionals offer MLS search functionality via voice. A home buyer tells the skill what kind of property s/he’s looking for, and the skill sends the first three matches back via audio and additional listings via email. The home listings are presented by the individual real estate agent/office that offers the skill in their area. Ami Berger shows how it works in this YouTube demo:
The Real Estate skill has proven to popular in its first 10 months with about 1,600 unique users. The company’s newest skill launched in mid-October and lets consumers get an estimate of the value of their home. Berger says it already has about 500 unique users. Voiceter Pro signed its biggest deal in early October with the Long Island (NY) MLS, which has more than 2,300 participating real estate offices and about 25,000 agents — all of whom can now offer home listings via Alexa and Google Home.
Why is the company focusing on the real estate industry? Because Berger also happens to be the President and Chief Idea Officer at Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate Tech Valley, an office in upstate New York with about 35 agents. Berger didn’t know what Alexa was a couple years ago when his son asked him to buy one as a gift. “When I learned what it was,” Berger says, “I told him I’d buy him one on one condition: that he make an app for my real estate business.”
Unlike agents Fernandez and Ward, whose apps are consumer-oriented, Berger and his son are creating apps that fellow real estate agents can use to grow their own businesses. Berger says it hasn’t been easy to get his peers on board with voice-based technology, but the tide is turning.
“I can’t tell you how many people laughed at me,” he says. “They thought I was nuts! But in the last 3-4 months especially, there’s been a lot more curiosity. What helps is that we have real working products, real apps — not just an idea. Being in the real estate business myself helps. I know how to talk to agents about this. I speak their language.”
Amazon vs. Google vs. Apple vs. Microsoft
Alexa isn’t the only voice technology available, but all three real estate professionals I interviewed agree that Amazon has a big lead over its competitors at the moment.
“Alexa is way in the forefront and Google Home is a distant second,” Berger says. “We publish apps/skills for all three [Alexa, Google Home and Cortana] because we’re not sure who’s going to win in the end. But right now Amazon is the gorilla.”
Ward agrees: “Alexa, in my research lately, is easier to have SMBs and such create voice briefings and skills. Google still takes some developer know how, and Cortana/Apple aren’t really there yet.” Fernandez has also focused on Alexa because he sees Amazon as the “number one contender” in voice technology — but he’s thinking about doing something for Google Home, too.
No matter who you talk to about voice platforms, you’re likely to hear a common refrain: It’s still early days.
In its first couple months online, Fernandez’s Alexa skill has picked up about 50 users per month and he can’t specifically attribute any new clients to the skill. But he’s no less optimistic about voice technology. “Branding myself as ‘the Realtor for the digital age’ gives me a great advantage,” he says. “I’m able to incorporate smartphone apps, Bluetooth technology, social media skills, and other similar activities that set me apart.”
For Ward, developing his Alexa skill is about not getting stuck doing marketing the way it’s always been done. He says real estate agents “have to carve out time religiously for trying new tech and platforms. It’s a must to stay relevant and in front of our potential clients. I think voice is still front end, but it’s not going away.”
Berger, whose company is looking to expand beyond real estate and offer apps/skills for other industries, is very bullish on voice technology. “Mobile took about five years to change our lives,” he says. “Voice will take about two years. Think about the players — Amazon, Google, Microsoft. These are huge companies. They know what they’re doing.”
Matt McGee has been involved in local marketing since the late 1990s when he began building websites and handling online marketing for small business clients. After spending the past nine years as a digital marketing/editorial executive, he’s focusing again on local and small business marketing, primarily in the real estate industry. Matt is a longtime speaker at various marketing events and can be reached on Twitter at @mattmcgee.