How REA Group is creating an enhanced digital playground

Chief digital officer, Val Brown aims to provide ‘intuitive, personalised experiences’

REA Group's Val Brown
REA Group's Val Brown

Property seekers on realestate.com.au can take a walk through their potential new home using a virtual reality property app, one of many digital initiatives being deployed by the online property site to cater to shifting consumer demands.

“The market is changing very quickly, so it’s important for us to support our current offering, but also to play with different types of innovation, whether it is innovation that is very relevant for us,” REA Group head of digital, Val Brown, told CMO.

Brown leads a team of more than 120 people in Australia, bringing together the functions of product management, design and engineering to create what she said are “intuitive and personalised experiences” that help individuals make great property decisions.

The realestate.com.au virtual reality app, which Brown claimed was the first of its kind when launched in November 2016, delivers tours of houses and estates for sale inside Google's Daydream View VR headset. Users can inspect properties in minutes rather than having to trek across town to do in-person viewings.

REA Group's VR app
REA Group's VR app


“The market is becoming more and more fragmented in terms of channels, so we need to make sure we are experimenting with innovation, but also investing at the right time: Investing when we think things are going to go mass market,” she said.

As part of her digital remit, Brown is on a mission to promote ‘personalisation’, a task she’s familiar with given her passion for product, design and engineering.

She has been with REA Group for more than eight years and held several leadership roles across consumer and customer product, product strategy, mobile and personalisation. Prior to REA Group, Brown’s experience spanned across a number of industries including automotive, FMCG and classifieds, operating in both domestic and global markets.

Brown said she’s passionate about product development and improving the lives of everyday people through technology.

“I can see a real opportunity to help consumers navigate what is a complex property journey,” she said. “The impact that you can have on consumers and everyday Australians, is really high.”

Digital is pivotal in that it helps and supports consumers navigate one of the biggest decisions that they will ever make in terms of buying or selling a home. “Digital is a channel that can actually make things very transparent for consumers,” Brown said.

Personalised touch

As an example of digitally fuelled personalisation, Brown said the company redesigned its app last year to move away from the traditional ‘burger’ style menu to a navigation bar at the bottom of the screen. The redesign enabled the company to deliver a more personalised experience to consumers.

“This was a big foundation piece that enabled us to integrate new experiences more easily and better develop personalised experiences,” Brown said.

“Most of the changes we made to the app’s functionality last year were about making it simpler and easier to use, as well as making it more flexible, more personal and more intelligent. Our product designers also focused on making the app more helpful for the consumer when they’re not using it. For example, you don’t need to respond to a notification the moment it arrives anymore because you can check all your alerts when it’s convenient for you.”

Another recent addition are ‘notifications,’ which automatically sends alerts to just the people who’ve shown a lot of interest in the property in question.

“People no longer need to ‘save’ or ‘follow’ a property to receive a notification. We know which users are interested in which properties based on their behaviour on our site, and have designed the app to ‘have their backs’ so to speak,” Brown explained. “If their interest in the property fades, or they find themselves out of the market, those notifications simply go away.”

‘Collections’ meanwhile, enable users to create folders within the app – whether that’s houses to buy, apartments to rent, investment opportunities, or bathroom inspiration.

“Signed in users have historically been able to save their favourite searches, but now they’re able to organise and better manage properties they’re interested in, in a way that suits them,” Brown said.

As people become busier and the amount of information at their fingertips grows, it’s important for REA to ensure people get the right information at the right time, Brown said. “This means understanding more about what they’re trying to do and their unique circumstance, which is where consumer behaviour, feedback and data becomes important.”

REA Group is making a “significant investment in data” in a bid to consolidate and provide rich personalised experiences that leverages the company’s information on behavioural insights, Brown said.

“Last month, our audience size was just short of 6.1 million uniques. We leverage the behavioural insights from that significant footprint and combine it with what consumers declare along the way - whether that be an application for a rental property, or an inquiry for a particular property, we bring the two together and leverage that single view of the consumer to then drive truly personalised experiences,” she said.

And there’s more digital moves taking shape. REA has launched a new digital listings site called Spacely, which Brown claimed will make it easier for Australian businesses and startups to find short-term commercial rentals and co-working spaces. She noted research showed almost 600,000 Australian businesses rented short-term commercial spaces last year alone, and co-working spaces are popular choices in the tech and startup community.

Mobile moves

Brown has spent the last couple of years leading the mobile apps and personalisation effort within the company, and said mobile is the channel “that carries the context of experience”.

A recent highlight was delivering a mobile application called ‘suggested properties,’ a feed based on the consumer’s relationship with realestate.com.au and what the company knows about the customer.

“As a user of social media, whether it is social or Linkedin, it is the concept of pushing relevant content to consumers in the channel that they prefer,” she said. “We have started to play around in that space, but also plan to broaden that experience out so it is not just property, but potentially down the track we look at content that is relevant to that consumer.”

And while its core business is around transactional buy and rent listings, down the track the company plans to broader its property offering and provide tailored content for consumers. “As an example, we can help property owners better understand the value of their property and we can deliver that to consumers in many different ways,” Brown said.

“It could be in the form of a feed, it could be a suggestion, which may play out across all of our channels.”

Brown agreed we’re moving to a world where the consumer is at the centre of the customer experience.

“We deeply understand the individual consumer and the relationships they have with property so that we can really tailor the experience to that particular individual consumer,” Brown said.

The fact REA is a digital pure-play makes it easier to wave the digital flag and promote digital spending, she noted.

“Anything we invest in is invested in our digital assets because our product is our digital assets. That makes it easier,” she said. “We’re not fighting to put digital on the agenda at a company like realestate.com.au because it is our product and it is our channel to market. It does allow us the opportunity to then go ‘very deep’ in digital.”

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