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Primetime for Digital Property Group

publication date: Aug 22, 2011
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Mark Milner, DPGBack in the nascent days of property portals, when there were a dozen or so already established, a group of estate agents decided that the UK market needed another portal to serve the market. They formed a consortium of more than 200 agents and created a new, agent-owned portal which, during its formation, was known as Fastcrop.

In the burgeoning portal market of the new millennium, agents having a financial share in a portal was a very attractive proposition. In January 2001, with seed capital of £11 million, a great deal of noise and high level support from many of the UK’s leading property firms, including Savills and Hamptons, CEO Ian Springett and CFO Charles Rees, launched the new portal, which bore the elegant name of Primelocation.

Ten years on, what shape is Primelocation in?

Primelocation was an instant success; classy, popular, efficient, the agents who owned it, liked it, but in December 2005 it was sold to A & N Media’s Associated Newspapers, part of The Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) for a princely £48million; not a bad ROI in five years and a nice payback for the 200 investor agencies.

Associated Newspapers had, the previous year, paid £13.8 million for Findaproperty (launched in 1997 by Andrew Pendery) as part of its digital strategy. Having been strong in the UK classified property advertising in printed media, Associated Newspapers knew that digital media would become more important, so when Primelocation became available, they saw the potential for two very different brands, accessed by very different consumers, to make excellent bedfellows.

Associated Newspapers ran them as two separate brands and although there has always been speculation that one brand would eventually go, this didn’t happen; in fact they welcomed another portal into the fold in 2009, with the purchase of Globrix, which had been launched in 2008 by Ian Parry, Dan Lee and News International. Again, this portal was different, with a free to list business model, a strong contrast to both Primelocation and Findaproperty’s paid for system.

Mark Milner (pictured above), CEO, says the three brands came together under their parent (formed in 2008) The Digital Property Group (TDPG) which rebranded as Digital Property Group (DPG) in May.

“We haven’t merged the three portals together because they work much more effectively as three separate brands – and despite regular gossip that we will, inevitably do so, we don’t plan to!”

It is all to do with branding of course, says Sheraz Dar, Marketing Director Sheraz Dar (left), Marketing Director. “In the same way as some of us shop in Waitrose while some prefer Sainsbury’s; the majority of the things we buy will be the same wherever we buy them (Heinz beans etc) but we choose the environment and the experience that we prefer.”

Sheraz has a point, it’s a bit like having all the supermarkets available in the same town and DPG’s portfolio strategy certainly seems to be working; the cross-over between all three brands is just five per cent, a statistic borne out by my own straw poll among friends, not a single friend out of ten that I spoke to had even heard of all three brands, yet they had all visited one of them. What’s more, comScore, the web traffic ratings organisation, reported in May 2001 that DPG visitors don’t spend time on competitor portals either; 50 per cent of DPG visitors don’t visit Rightmove, 64 per cent don’t visit Zoopla.

Another interesting fact lies in agent behaviours and perceptions. Richard Shamsi, Chief Operating Officer at DPG, said that when they talk to clients, “almost every agent mentally aligns their firm with one or other of the portals – Findaproperty or Primelocation, even though when they upload properties which are automatically listed on both, perceiving that ‘most of their business comes through Primelocation’ or ‘our buyers like Findaproperty’.”

Before the days of terrifyingly deep and accurate data collection (and more on this later) the perception would be unchallenged, but now, with monitoring and reporting tools that provide a battalion of information on every click that the visitor makes, the agent – and indeed the portal – can see exactly where the leads come from, which can be a huge surprise.

To continue the supermarket analogy, some of us buy Lanson champagne in Waitrose, some buy it in Tesco, it’s still the same product, it is just where it suits us, so the idea that all one’s clients are Primelocation people is a little... uniformed, perhaps.

And agent numbers are growing, says Sheraz. “In the three years since May 2008, our branch advertisers, even in this challenging market, have risen by 38 per cent.”

The reason for this is partly the service standards, “The value we deliver to our agents has increased. According to Nielsen, we’re spending more on our marketing than any other portal and its delivering results (fastest growing portal in May 2011 – comScore absolute unique visitors). We’ve also started Customer Service initiatives like Saturday opening – a first among our peers.”

ComScore also state that visitors to Findaproperty stayed on the site for 20 minutes, five times more than their rival site.

All these statistics, all this good news, has DPG got it all right? No wrong moves? Well, in some ways yes, says Mark Milner, “I wish we had developed our new business tools three years ago – Market View is just so useful for agents; we didn’t launch it sooner because we wanted to get as many agents involved as possible, to find out every single thing that they craved, data wise, and that takes time, but I wish we had done it sooner!”

Richard ShamsiHe also wishes that they had done a better job of convincing agents to understand the multi branding strategy, as they can be unsure of why their properties are on three sites, “In spite of all our efforts, they still think one or another will close!” he says. “We used to be seen mainly as a transactional partner, just providing a listing service, and that was it. Now, with our new business services. Market View, Insight and Mobile, we are becoming more of a business partner – the portal is one element but the assistance that these three services provides is incredible.”

Where do you see portals in the future? “We see great development in the new homes market, our special portal section is attracting the big developers now, so in time the smaller ones will come onboard”, says Richard Shamsi, and the market is obviously very close to our core market.”

“The future will see more change in the portal market, of course it will,” says Mark, “while we and Rightmove are both making a huge investment in developing our businesses to be more than ‘just a portal’ others may not share our long view.”

And what about the phrase that estate agents hate ‘For Sale By Owner’? Will your portals ever go direct to sellers? “We have spent time building our services to agents and our relationships with them. We have a clear business model, commitment and a strategy that sets us firmly with agents listing properties and working with them on other services, it is a partnership. To go direct to those wanting to sell their own house would be entirely contradictory.”