Getting You Where You Live

By Steve Smith

Mobile, like politics, is local. According to the latest mobile consumer study from BIA/Kelsey, searching for local services on a cell phone far outstrips out-of-market searches. Only 11.1% of mobile users are searching for products and services outside of their local area, while 18.5% are searching for local sources.

It may not be surprising, but the statistics are worth remembering. As much as we like all of those branded apps and leveraging the phone to activate TV programming and out-of-home advertising experiences, users do not always conform to the fantasies of national brands. The mobile competition for mindshare will be fought on the ground, close to home — and over the information that is most relevant to the user here and now.

And the contest for mobile mindshare also may not be as dependent on devices as we think. While all of the market research (including BIA/Kelsey’s) point to smart phones as the real driver for mobile data adoption, when users have a well-mannered tool on their phone (just about any phone), they will use it.

An interesting case-in-point is Smarter Agent, a real estate MLS search application now available on just about every handset imaginable. The company just announced that its application is available on Verizon Wireless, but it has been a downloadable offering on a range of handsets and carriers for a while, including Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile.

The Camden, N.J.-based company has learned a lot by pursuing ubiquity. Brad Blumberg, CEO, tells me that the BlackBerry and iPhone implementations of Smarter Agent get the most activity. “But we also noticed that when we get users on an LG or a Samsung, they use the app just as much as the iPhone and Blackberry user,” he says. “Even if you have a RAZR, you will use a good downloadable app. They will use it as much as anyone with an iPhone.”

Smarter Agent does a local search of houses for sale and apartments for rent. Blumberg claims a new user downloads the app across its many venues every 1.5 minutes. When users start searching in the product, they look up an astonishing 40-50 properties per session and they log in on average 12 times a month.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Smarter Agent model is its distribution approach, which is also highly localized. The company works mainly through real estate brokers and local agents. Anyone can go to the site, of course. The site will sniff out your phone when you enter the cell number and direct you to the right download source, be it iPhone, BlackBerry, or a feature phone on one of the major carriers. When you load that app, a banner on top will show the local broker and a “Call to See” button that connects you with a nearby agent. But the most promising distribution channel is through the brokers themselves. Smarter Agent has partnered with national brokers like Prudential, Century 21, Coldwell Banker, etc. to get direct access to over 450,000 local agents.

“We are selling down to the individual broker,” says Blumberg. Brokers can have their own Smarter Agent app to push to their own clients. The app has each broker’s name on it, and his clients have access to all MLS listings. Smarter Agent charges the broker a nominal monthly fee to maintain the individually branded version of the app in much the same way a local Web marketing company maintains Web sites for small businesses.

But in this case, the agent-client is also a redistributor of the app. According to Blumberg, every broker gives the app out to 20 new people a month. End users can get pushed to the app via a simple SMS on printed material or from the broker’s Web site. Clearly this is a distribution model that works, since Smarter Agent is doing no advertising and still sending out scores of downloads every hour.

The functionality is appealing because it is not just local but personal. If home shoppers are hunting neighborhoods for houses, the geo-location features in the app will give them a map of for-sale listings from where they stand. If they drive by a house they like, shoppers can place a call with their own broker or a major realtor on the spot to make an appointment.

Eventually, I expect Smarter Agent can become a local ad play. The services and product that cluster around a move are impressive — from actual move-related products to local services that want to get in a newcomer’s head early on.

Whether this distribution model has longevity is anyone’s guess, but it is a novel way to crack a very hard nut in the digital space. From the time I started covering digital media back in 1995, the local market has been in a constant state of becoming. Getting small and local businesses to buy into digital has been tough. I have seen models that try to leverage existing sales forces at newspapers, in phone and business directories, colleges, and even door-to-door AmWay-style sales to neighbors. At least the real estate segment represents a highly motivated hub of local representatives who can distribute an app that adds some value to their client relationship.

Selling advertising into the space is another matter altogether, of course. But the initial results from Smarter Agent remind us how much of mobile is really about local. More than that, mobile is compelling not because of devices but because of real-world, on-the-ground, immediate needs. Give people information that is relevant to their immediate needs, and they will use any device to get it.