Nobody can dispute that the real estate market in New Zealand has been heating up in the last few years. As competitive pressure increases among real estate agencies, each one has been trying to do more than the other in the battle to get more business.
"We are New Zealand's largest full service retail company. We are a franchisee business. We have got about 22 franchisees around the country, with just over 70 offices. There is a lot of growth, lot of different things happening around the country and different markets going on," says Simon Billings, online manager at Bayleys.
"Bayleys website is the one stop shop front- the one brand piece that brings it all together. It is crucially important to our business. It represents the brand and all of our offices under one umbrella to the public."
The website was built on a technology that was six years old and proprietary.
"As that product was getting on in age and technology it was well overdue for a rethink. That was what this project was about, going back to the drawing board, rethinking about what our brand and our entire business around the country needs, and how we can provide that," says Billings.
The website refresh project coincided with an internal campaign to do to go above and beyond in terms of customer service.
"That combined with the fact that the technology of the old website had gotten to a point where it was incredibly hard to maintain and keep up to date, not to mention plan for future. All of that came together for a fairly clear decision that we needed to rebuild it on a new technology platform and obviously while doing that there was an opportunity to rebrand the shop front of that website image," says Billings.
Method to madness
Having made the decision to relaunch the site, Bayleys and its partner Cucumber Software invested a lot of time in the planning process.
"It was crucially important, especially being a franchisee process, that each of the owners of the business were represented correctly. We put it out there and asked for people who wanted to be involved in the process.
"Then, between myself and other senior members, we also selected others to participate in the process - people who we felt needed to be there to represent the business across all services and all the offices. We created a large project team and flew in business owners from around the country to attend planning sessions," says Billings.
Three workshops were conducted over a two-month period. The intense planning sessions led to identification and refinement of user personas and improvements in the site's search function.
As Billings says, "The number one reason people visit the site is to search through our property listings. As a full-service business, we deal with a wide range of properties, and can have over 8,000 listings on the site at any one time. Being able to relay all that information to customers, at a glance, but also in a really simple, non-cluttered way, was crucial."
The planning sessions also resulted in additions to the site including email alerts; notifying users whenever a new property that matched their search was added to the site; and ‘saved searches’, a function enabling repeat visitors to save their search criteria.
With search identified as a key requirement in the new site, Bayleys went searching for a CMS to replace the existing technology.
"The previous solution was a proprietary build by previous development solution. That wasn’t supported for last two years by the company because they had moved away from that product. It was clear to us that we needed to get a product that was going to be supported moving forward.
"We did look at a number of different solutions but the thing that drew us to Sitecore was the massive amount of R&D that they put into the product to keep it up to date, and they are constantly bringing out new pieces of functionality, new versions, major upgrades to bring to the latest tech to the forefront of those using the technology.
"The decision was also made based on the fantastic marketing tools that Sitecore came with. It is a full marketing suite. That was going to allow us to grow with the business and allow us to develop the Bayleys online environment into a truly personalised and state of the art experience for our customers."
According to Billings, the team has been using more and more of Sitecore's functionality since its initial deployment and want to do a lot more with the app.
"The only thing is Sitecore is not quite off the shelf. You need to build with Sitecore in mind, build a Sitecore site. You need to partner with a technology business that understands how Sitecore works and build a site that uses it," says Billings.
The current site is hosted in a Revera data centre environment with full redundancy and fail-over capacity, which was critical for the business.
Bayleys started the process to relaunch the site in early 2011, but it wasn't until August 2012 when it went live.
"Data would be the main hold up. With our listing data we have got properties and data associated with them. During this period we were not only building a new site with new functionalities, but also rebuilding the central database that held all the data. That was underpinning the entire site and structure.
"As part of that we ran the clean up of all the data and listings of current active listings. We have around 9,000 listings live at any one point. They all needed to be reviewed, refined, tidied-up and then reinserted into the new database," says Billings.
According to Billings, it took a lot of time to coordinate with all the 70 offices and go through the necessary process with the listings they held. The database was built by the four-member IT team, with help from external architecture and database specialists to oversee the process, as well as developers as and when necessary.
"The developers who built the site were also responsible for building the import process. And with the build of the new database there had to be a new import process built. That was quite an extensive project along with the build of the database. The crucial part was to take all the data from the entry listing tool and bringing it into the correct tables and structure within the environment," says Billings.
According to Billings, one of the key challenges related to the relaunch of the site was also related to data.
"Quality control was a challenge and having the business take responsibility to make sure all of the data was correct, before the site was launched. We had the site in beta environment for two months.
"We charged the business to double check the data and listing information, but it is always quite hard for the business to appreciate the impact of not doing that in time. That was a fair challenge to make sure it was coordinated and there was a clean up after the site went live with the business realising that data not being correct in some places," he says.
A process of improvement
Bayleys online team continues to roll out incremental changes to the site including changes to the actual data entry tool to ensure that the correct data is entered in the right format and process, and that listings cannot be submitted without all the necessary information.
"We have been adding new layers of data that we can use on site. That has involved updating the database, improving the import process and adding that back-end data content that we can utilise on the website. A big part of that is looking at customer experience, considering what is not working on the new design, and reacting to that with enhancements and conversion optimisation tactics," says Billings.
The team is currently working on the concept for a new shop front for the site. Billings does not expect it to take shape for the next couple of months.
Meanwhile, the team continues to look into other areas for potential online marketing including mobile, social activity such as blogs and video, and CPC (cost-per-click) advertising on targeted websites.