Location, Location, Location

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Digital adopters look to SXSW in Austin each spring for nods on the newest mobile trends that will make life exponentially easier for everyone. Alright, I can't even type that with a straight face. When you're able to use your phone to instantly find a date, sketch search parameters with your fingertip, and size up the chicken cacciatore of the restaurant you're standing in front of just by pointing your phone, you start to wonder where this can possibly go next. With the never-ending barrage of applications and attentions spans that have dwindled to 140 characters, predictions from Austin are more important than ever. And earning the SXSW stamp of approval means big things are in the works for your project. Heard of Twitter? It came to light in Austin in 2007. Foursquare? Touted at 2009's conference.

The DynaTAC 8000X <i>somehow</i> missed the cut.

This year it wasn't one particular breakout app that caught everyone's attention. Time named location-based applications as the top tech trend of 2010.

"But even if [Gowalla and Foursquare] remain niche distractions, location isn't going away anytime soon. The Web's social giants also want you to start sharing your whereabouts: Twitter has already added the ability to add location to tweets, and Facebook reportedly plans to roll out a similar feature in their status updates before the summer."

It's only going to get even more expansive. Borrel research forecasts that location-based spending will reach $4 billion in 2015. According to Ad Age, the looming "geolocation apocalypse" will represent a 12,000% increase from the meager $34 million spent on mobile location services last year.

Prepare to be bombarded.

Not just for social networking

GPS-tied data has powerful implications for real estate. Several players have harnessed this Smartphone feature to enhance the home search experience. For instance, our clients at Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate use community data to give users on-the-go access to neighborhood/home sales info as well as details on nearby businesses and points of interest. (You can read more about what's going on with real estate GPS-tied data in a recent Seattle Times article.)

So what's next for mobile real estate? If Time is correct, "location, location, location" will no longer simply pertain to the lakefront house near the business district. Real estate developers will continue to push the envelope to satisfy the mobile consumer.

The geo-fencing concept

The market is started to become saturated with technologies that are able to pull spatial data in on demand. But what about passive real estate search?

Last week I talked to Chris Thorman, who has an interesting concept for real estate companies. Chris writes for Software Advice, a company that provides reviews of software for property management. He is a proponent of geo-fencing, a type of location monitoring that can be adapted for the real estate mobile market.

Geo-fencing merges buyer requirements, location, and timing to send push notifications when buyers are near houses that meet their criteria. Chris' blog explains more about the concept, which is still in the discovery phase. Inevitably I had a few questions about the idea and how it can be built out:

OB: Where did the idea for real estate geo-fencing come from? CT: I came across the concept of location-based mobile marketing from the advertising company Placecast. They have a new tool call ShopAlerts, which are being used in retail stores such as Old Navy and North Face. ShopAlerts sends out automatic marketing messages to shoppers in the vicinity of those stores. When I read about this, I thought it would be great for marketing real estate properties.

OB: Didn't geo-fencing originate as a monitoring system for businesses to track employees whereabouts? CT: That's been one of the long time uses of geo-fencing, in addition to notifying parents when children leave a certain area. Most of the "normal" uses of geo-fencing are used to notify a user when a subject leaves a certain area. I've twisted that around with this mobile real estate marketing idea. Now, the user is notified when they enter a certain area.

OB: What type of homebuyer is geo-fencing for? CT: Geo-fencing real estate is geared towards the home buyer who may not have an urgency to their home search. It's for the home buyer who doesn't want to actively search for a house but doesn't want to miss an opportunity should it arise. And obviously, it's for the geeky homebuyer as well.

OB: Do you think this will create or automate a lot of the work for an agent/broker? CT: Well it's not replacing a current task that an agent/broker does. It's adding a new element to their marketing. The work is minimal - all a user needs to do to get set up is to get the real estate agent their home preferences. Since an agent would be getting these needs anyway, they might as well use them to do location-based mobile marketing.

OB: Is this type of technology time sensitive? So if I were flying by my dream house on a nearby highway, would I still be notified? CT: It's not time sensitive. It's entirely based on location. If the geo-fence extends to the highway, then you would be notified if you entered that area. There would be a distance variable when setting up these geo-fences. A real estate company could theoretically make the geo-fence as small or as large as they want.

OB: What level of development would be required of a software company to bring this idea to fruition? CT: The nice thing is that this technology actually exists, just not specifically for real estate. Companies such as Placecast and Xtify are using geo-fencing marketing already. Their service would have to be tailored for real estate and that means incorporating MLS data into the geo-fencing service.  The mobile real estate marketing service would also have to integrate into a company's customer relationship management software. That way, the mobile real estate leads would be tracked just like every other lead in the company.

OB: How does this technology mesh with what's currently on the market? CT: There are many services in the real estate industry that use GPS to help find homes. The difference between my concept and most of those services is that my idea is a passive way to search for real estate. Instead of firing up an app on your phone and searching your nearby locations for homes, my concept "pushes" that information to you instead of you having to pull it.

Other perspectives on geo-fencing:

What are your thoughts? Have consumers caught up to what is offered in mobile yet? Are we in the early stages of development or are buyers already well equipped with enough home search tools?