This week’s volunteer for my Site Review Monday post is Alfie John, founder of Victoria, Australia-based Freehouse.
Freehouse is an online classified ad Web 2.0 site where you can post real estate, houses, apartments and rooms (“Single room with polished floors, furnished, share with 2 humans, mature, quiet and a cat, immature, cunning”) to rent, share or buy. Listing and viewing listings at Freehouse is free; like many Web 2.0 sites, this micro-ISV makes its money off Google AdWords.
I think micro-ISV web apps can make money, in fact lots of money, but before we get to the money, let’s cover the three large defects in Freehouse’s current approach.
(The Unique Selling Proposition a.k.a “the elevator pitch” should be the first thing the visitor sees, communicates the value of the product and must immediately be relevant to the visitor.)
Freehouse does not have a USP. Or for that matter, any explicit description of what it does:
Now I know in the Web 2.0 world less is more, and that it’s pretty easy to guess what this site is about from the above, but why make it at all difficult on your visitors? Especially since Freehouse does a great job of handling the plumbing – the site is fast, images are very crisp and clear.
What’s more, of the top five sites I found for “rentals” by searching at Google Australia, 4 were stuffy, complicated, flashing ad affairs and the fifth site would not load. Digging further, I found http://flatmates.com.au/ and http://www.gumtree.com.au, Freehouse’s two closest competitors.
Flatmates is an old style mid-nineties site that requires registration to see or post; gumtree is more with it, but it doesn’t show the photos of what you’re considering unless you go the extra step each and every listing. This type of competition should be easy meat for a well done Web 2.0 site like Freehouse.
But you have to tell people what Freehouse is about!
Here’s a couple of possible USP’s for Freehouse:
- “Find your next flat in seconds, post your rental in minutes! For free.”
- “Freehouse is a free service for both Australians looking to rent a room, sell a house or share a flat or who want an uncomplicated preview of their next home, office or holiday stay.”
What is the right USP for Freehouse? A lot depends on what Alfie decides to do about what I say after this next issue.
Ask not hard questions
The second defect Freehouse needs to look at is that the very first thing it asks a visitor for is which suburb they’re interested in. Now this may sound like an innocuous question, but look at it from the site visitor’s point of view – odds are good they may be looking for a rental or real estate purchase in a number of suburbs, or in an area that’s not properly a suburb at all. It opens a can of worms right off.
Instead, it’s time to put Google Maps to work in a mashup of your data and Google’s maps. Maps are the most logical, and familiar, and relevant way of displaying and selected geographic-related data I know of.
By the way, there’s an excellent book out there by Steve Krug, “Don’t make me Think!” (five stars, 329
reviews!) that walks you through and around this common web site pitfall: making the visitor have to refocus on what you mean for them to do instead of just being able to do it. I recommend it.
All things to all Aussies?
The third thing I recommend Freehouse do is drop commercial listings. In fact, I could argue Freehouse should drop (at least for now) holiday listings too. And selling/buying real estate. And everywhere else than its core market, Victoria. Freehouse is making the all things to all people mistake – instead, focus on one segment, in one place. Freehouse is trying to cover the whole of Australia – a near impossible feat.
Then, and only then, can Freehouse start doing the things that will bring its numbers up to the point where it can be making a profit.
Numbers = revenue
Any site or blog or Web 2.0 application that is going to be ad supported needs visitors, and lots of them. Here’s a few ways how to your numbers up:
- Get the word out. Even – and perhaps especially – free services need marketing and publicity to build a following. Let’s start with my favorite way of getting the word out, a blog. Should Alfie do a blog with 5 different ways of saying how great Freehouse is? No! Should he do a blog focusing on all the things it takes to rent a room, flat or house successfully either from the point of view of people renting? Absolutely! Topics could include everything from the best way to handle deposits when sharing a house to who’s offers what deals in Melbourne for move out clean ups. And a few dozen other related and relevant topics. (city pleasures vs. suburban ease, rental prices going up or down, taking good snaps of your flat to post, etc.).Done right, a good localized blog focusing on the issues facing someone trying to rent out there room, flat or house will get the online attention Freehouse needs.
- Get the word in. In the student commons at universities during the first and last few weeks of each term. In church, sport, civic newsletters. In pubs and clubs in areas with more mobile populations. Yes, I’m talking paper (recycled), old fashioned fliers that cost next to nothing to run off and absolutely need to lead with Freehouse’s USP.
- Get the word over the airwaves. While no newspaper in its right mind will take ads, radio is another matter entirely. Especially small, locally owned stations unencumbered with a chain. Not long winded 60 second spots, but quick and snappy 15 second pops (“Need a place to live next term? Visit Freehouse.com.au today. It’s free!”) What’s more, more than a few small stations will be happy to provide the talent and help you with your copy (keep it short though). As a listener I’m not a big fan of traditional advertising, but for bulking up numbers, nothing beats non-permission advertising because it’s all about getting the numbers.
- Look to the social networks. Web 2.0 micro-ISV sites and online social networks are made for each other – at the very least Freehouse needs a presence on the Australian versions of Facebook, Myspace and Digg.
- Did someone say Google? What struck me as odd was that while checking Google Australia for this review, I saw not one Google AdWord listing. That might be because Google AdWords is smart enough to not serve its adverts to someone in the states, or it could be there’s no one advertising. If the latter, and you’re prepared to spend money before you make money, AdWords can make great sense if you carefully control spending and use smarts to keep the price down. Check out Dave Collin’s weekly posts here for more info.
So where’s the Money?
Monetizing a Web 2.0 site is in many ways like monetizing a blog, and while I could type a few thousand words here going over what I covered in Clear Blogging, let me send you to the Aussie who know the alpha and omega about monetizing blogs: Darren Rowse at http://problogger.net. Plan to spend a good check of time at Problogger – there’s simply no better online resource.
Freehouse is a well executed Web 2.0 site that has the potential to make good money, if and only if it does three things:
- Narrow its focus considerably. A site for student housing, a site for alternatives to expensive hotels, a site for the buying and selling of certain kinds of commercial real estate – all would work, but not combined into one. Pick the one with the kind of people you want to be around with and focus.
- Develop a catchy and compelling USP that it can lead with, leverage in all of its marketing activities and differentiate itself from similar sites.
- Develop a marketing plan, and execute it.
[tags]Web 2.0, Freehouse, micro-ISVs, Site Review Monday[/tags]