CRE website project? 5 reasons they fail. And how to win

We have seen more CRE website failures than we should have. These failures are expensive, time consuming and terrible for the reputation of those involved. Here is our stab at laying out the pitfalls. We unpack where things go wrong, but, most importantly provide, in our opinion, the questions to ask and actions to take to avoid failure.
5 reasons CRE website projects

The new world of websites

Tenants and buyers of commercial real estate have changed. The tools people use have changed. Think about that that level of self-serve convenience tenants and buyers get from banking to watching movies to taxis to travel? Now these same people expect and demand that experience from the world commercial property.

RIP to the “dead” brochureware website.

…And hello to a rich, self-serve, instant gratification experience. How? A website that people can interact with – get insights from, use to ask questions and get answers, pull detailed or high level information from, leave with a brochure, move seamlessly into a supported leasing or sales flow.

Everywhere CRE businesses are looking to upgrade their websites to a more customer-centric experience. However, all is not as simple as it seems. There are pitfalls on the road to success.

This post is broken into three parts

  1. The context
  2. The 5 challenges
  3. The 5 solutions

We start off with the challenges of a new CRE website project experience.

Commercial property website fail

A CRE website project car crash in slow motion

A short story, we have seen.

We hope this will never sound familiar…

A CRE business (property fund / property manager or agency/brokerage) wants a new, customised website. They want a digital shopfront that better reflects their professionalism, brand and can talk to customer needs. So they talk to a creative agency recommended by a close friend in marketing. The creative agency provides beautiful creative, and quotes an eyewatering number for the website. Being good negotiators, said CRE business successfully negotiates the agency’s price down.

With starry eyes and much excitement, the project is greenlit. Work starts.

As the work progresses, the bad news starts coming… Key pieces are misunderstood. Project timelines start creeping out. Requests for more money come through. Rewrites are requested. The phrase “out of scope” gets thrown around a lot. Stress mounts, and credibility gets burnt. In the end, the ambitious project is either massively descoped, or aborted.

Which is sad. Because the business’s needs have not changed – they still need a new website. What’s even worse, the failure is not really anyone’s fault. Everyone involved is competent, with the best intentions.

We’ve seen this move from every side of this fence. Generally the process starts failing around one or more of the five points below. It’s like a car crash in slow motion, and it’s painful.

Why the failure? It’s explained by a trite saying:

“We don’t know what we don’t know”

… for the creatives, the client, the builders.

Our goal, in unpacking these 5 reasons below, is to make the unknowns know. To give you a housekeeping checklist of items to consider, to leave you more informed and more savvy – without paying a cent of the “school fees”.

Commercial property website failures

Reason #1 . The website is only the “tip of the iceberg”

A website is only one part of the puzzle. And it actually sits on top of a Pandora’s box of hidden business needs. For you to have a practical example of this, please read on.

A typical conversation

Here is a conversation between a CRE business wanting a new website (i.e. you), and the website provider:

I would like an interactive website for my company. Can you help me?

Website provider: “Sure, happy to help. How are you storing your date?”

“We’re storing our data in Excel, Ppt brochures, folders, and a back end. We would probably want something better that keeps our data in one place – that can talk to your website. Can you do that?”

WP: “Okay so you want a website, plus a data backend… We can give you that. Is that it?”

“Not just any backend. It needs to store both property and unit data, and it must store images too. It needs to have quality checks in place to ensure my data is not duplicated”

WP: “Less simple, but this we can do”

“In order to manage my date, I also want to be able to see which units have updated and not, and when. And I’d like to slice and dice for units not updated in the last month. Is this doable”

WP: “Can do. I thought you just wanted a website :)”

“I do, but, now that I think of it, I also need these other things, otherwise my website will not be used.
I am also going to need self-serve brochures? I want a customer to click on a property, or a unit, and be able to get a brochure, with my branding and colours”

WP: “We do design, so we can. It’s not easy to do well, but it should be doable”

“I will however need different brochures for industrial, and different ones for office, and different for retail. You do know that these types of properties are different. This means they store different information. So they must show different information on the brochure?”

WP: “To be honest I never thought about it. But this makes sense. Can you give me detailed info on how you would see it working?”

“I don’t have time to give you detailed info. But generally, some properties have lots of property-level information, and some have little.
Some have lots of units with much information, and some have few with little info. Some units are sub-divisible and comprise complex space.
Some properties have expense information, while others don’t. Same case with TIA and parking info.
Sometimes this expense, TIA or parking information is different between units.
Also, some properties have lots of images, and some have few images.
I also want property-level brochures, and unit-level brochures.
And remember, this stock is changing all the time. I will need you to build brochures that I can make at the click of a button, that use the latest info”

WP: “Okay, wow. Commercial property is complex! How do you cope…

For our team to do a decent job on this, I am going to need very detailed information. Also to build this right, we are going to need to understand these new words and concepts. Can I ask for a couple days of your time for you to help me understand the industry a bit better”

“Cool, I can do at some point.
How about leads? Where will my leads come into from my website? I would like a system that stores these leads, and tracks them as they move through the deal funnel. I would also like to people in my team to these leads, and do reporting on deal progress”

WP: “Cool. So you want a CRM. That manages contacts and businesses, working in a deal. Would you also want to track who you talk to, when, and have reminders?”

“Definitely. Without this my website will only be half effective”

WP: “I got you. While we’re thinking about it, are you happy for everyone in your team to see all deals. And while we’re at it, you comfortable for everyone to see all properties?”

“No. Hell no! Mike and Sue work together, so they must always see each other’s deals. And me – I need to see everyone’s deals. But Angie works by herself, so only her and I must see her deals. However everyone must see Ben’s information, always. And I don’t want the industrial guys seeing office properties”

WP: “I see. Okay. So you would like a permissions engine for your website back end?”

“Yes, we definitely need these permissions. Plus these permissions for contacts and businesses, and access to lease data too. I also need the system to automatically allocate certain people to properties, based on rules I define. And, while we’re talking about properties, since you’ve added them, is it possible to store my documents on the properties, on businesses and on deals?”

WP: “Sure, most things are possible with tech. It’s a function of time and money”

“To be clear I will need all this in the cloud, behind security. So I can access this when I’m on the move”

WP: “Cool, can do”

“Also, I am often on the run or out and about, Therefore I will need to be able to do a lot of this on my phone too.
Can I have this?”

WP: “Phew, just as well you let me know, now. Yes we can look at this”

“Since the website is a marketing tool, I presume it will also be able to send and track marketing mailers. And yes, the website must also handle properties and units for sale. Can you do that for me? And, before I forget, I need a chat widget. I also need to track usages – of my website and the back end. Can you give me access for my tenants? My MD doesn’t want everybody to be able to see all vacant properties, only some people”

You can see how it goes…

All those requests are good requests. Great requests in fact – in order for a business to see efficiencies and get adoption, a business needs a finished product. But, the point here, these needs are not obvious up front.

Reason #2 . Under-funding (or strategic missteps)

How? Underestimation or under-funding of a CRE website project are different sides of the same coin.

To clarify costs being underestimated… How much do you think a website would cost? (Please take a moment to think about this)

Answer: if you were to build an effective website, from the ground up, with perfect requirements and knowledge, you’re looking at conservatively 18 months, and $1.5M. Most importantly, this is a once-off number, and excludes the ongoing costs to maintain, support and enhance.

While this doesn’t seem obvious (more information below), the bulk of the cost of the website, probably 95%, goes into the following invisible or “iceberg parts” you can’t see:

  • The back end
  • Engineering to making the website dynamic (you want interactions to be friendly and fast), and to implement SEO
  • UX – how it operates

Therefore, because of this tendency for cost and complexity to be under-estimated, projects can be set up to fail, from the beginning, due to under-funding.

The solution or issue is strategic: What is your core business? As with many things, and particularly software, it’s “cheaper to own that rent”. Wherever possible, you want to avoid “reinventing the wheel”.

Reason #3 . One of these six “links in the website chain” is missing

As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

The CRE website project chain is dependent on 6 disciplines or competencies all pulling together, all the time. Therefore, if one these 6 chain links break, the project will fail. These “links” are unpacked in detail, because they are important:

Link 1 – Data (integration, storage, management)

In websites you hear about a CMS (or content management system). In a data-heavy world like CRE, this is the engine room of your website. And, as per above, it probably accounts for 90% of the website’s cost and complexity.

Link 2 – Design and creative

This talks to your first (visual) experience of the website.

Does the website look professional? Does it cope across different screen sizes – i.e. work on phone or on a laptop? Can you feel your brand, what you stand for, coming through to you? Is your website unique and differentiated? Is the information displayed in the right order, and is it easy to digest?

Link 3 – UX (short for user experience design)

In simple terms, UX addresses how easy the website is to use.

After your website has ticked the box of looking good, it has to feel good. That is to say it must intuitively allow your users to meet their needs, easily.

A lack of UX is marked by these signs: you becoming frustrated, “having to think”, getting lost, experiencing irritation. Likewise, a sign of good UX is the absence of these negative emotions. You can have an ordinary-looking website that works well (Amazon is a good example of this). Similarly you can have beautiful-looking websites that don’t feel great, and you find yourself moving away from.

Link 4 – Engineering skills

These are a non-negotiable to solve the technical complexity sitting in CRE website projects (and the challenges inherent in the complicated world of commercial real estate). Engineers will need to be able to

  • Work with APIs,
  • Understand complex business needs,
  • Work across both the back end and front end of the website,
  • Deliver a performant website (that can handle high data volumes, and resource-intensive processes like search)

Link 5 – CRE domain IP

Commercial property is incredibly complicated. For instance, for outsiders, it feels like a series of secret handshakes and knowledge vaults. Most people on this planet have not dedicated the 10,000 hours needed to understanding how CRE works. But this 10,000 hours is needed for a successful CRE website project. Without these skills, or access to various people with a lot of time and dedication to assisting the project on a micro-level, a website development project is dead in the water.

Link 6 – SEO

Certainly it’s critical to have an amazing website. But what happens if your customers cannot find you on the web?

Is your site an effective marketing tool? Is it built to rank in search engines? How efficient will your search engine marketing spend be? Does your end to end solution encourage backlinks? (The SEO link above gives you the background  here.)

Reason #4 . Planning – fail to prepare, and prepare to fail

Inadequate planning up front will torpedo your CRE website project.

Planning is required for two reasons

  1. To get a quote from a service provider
  2. To build the website efficiently

In software the mantra is

“it’s easier to throw away ideas, than design, than code”

Because your own CRE website project is a new invention, it is going to iterate. This is inevitable.

Our recommendation, you want to iterate and be agile where it’s cheap. To talk to buzzwords like Agile and MVP: you want to iterate in the first two phases of ideas and design, rather than code.

How? Spend the time up front, with all parties, to get an idea of what you want your CRE website project to do. This means a) getting images of what your website will look like, and b) creating wireframes of how it will operate. Make as many changes as you see fit. Only then, bring in the expensive and time-consuming software developer hands.

The last thing you want to be doing is drip-feeding in requirements late in the day. Once the cake is half-baked, it’s too late to change the ingredients!

Reason #5: Building the wrong solution

You can hit the bulls eye, but what happen if you’re shooting at the wrong target?

This is a classic issue in software projects, and the most common reason why well executed projects fail: building the wrong thing (based on the wrong or untested assumptions). A CRE website project is no different.

The root cause of this risk? A lack of…

Domain knowledge

Firstly, website developers, while they may have a working knowledge of residential property, may not have the detailed knowledge of commercial in order to make strong decisions.

Secondly, for those on the client side. A project manager, while excellent at running complex technical projects, is seldom a deep expert in CRE. These people in charge of the CRE website’s project management can “sit too far from” the CRE experts in the business (who have “implicit knowledge”). This domain knowledge, so obvious to CRE experts that it is not articulated, is not obvious to the PM. Said another way, the experts are “unconsciously competent”. To shoot straight, the expectation, for the project point person to “figure it out” on the fly, is not fair. As a result, the project runs at a high risk of not meeting the needs of the client or industry outsider / end user, and the outcome is fairly predictable, and painful.

CRE website project best practices

5 ways to win in your CRE website project

CRE predictions 2020

One-stop-shop required for adoption and value

In our experience, while the initial need is for a simple website, this may sit on top of a Pandora’s box of hidden or concealed requirements.

A website is like that part of the iceberg you can see. Our advice: don’t be shy to explore your requirements, and bring them to the surface.

Without these requirements being met, there is a lower chance of successful adoption of your website, and a higher chance of operational inefficiencies being introduced. This is particularly important for high internal user / team engagement. A potpourri of separate systems and tools is less efficient than a low-friction, one-stop-shop / all-in-one solution. The solution, look at the back end – the content management system (or CMS), and don’t be shy to poke holes at the functionality. Ask about its current weaknesses, and the future development roadmap on it.

CRE predictions Gmaven

Focus on your core, or ensure sufficient resources

Secondly, make the call early on to either rent or own your website.

If you choose to own – i.e. build from the ground up, make sure you have the timing and budget for a CRE website project – now, and in the future. If building and maintaining CRE websites is not your core business, ensure you have very strong reasons for this NIH syndrome, and related total cost of ownership.

CRE predictions 3

Establish service provider expertise

If you choose to “rent” a website solution, you are entitled to establish the following from the service provider…

Basic questions
  • Do they understand commercial property? Do they handle the many complexities of the asset class? Put them to the test!
  • Can they customise your shopfront so it is unique, and talks to your brand? If so, to what extent?
  • Can they handle data at volume (if required)?
  • What are their turnarounds on requests / SLAs?
More advanced questions
  • Ask to talk to existing customers to understand the level of service, professionalism, and previous ease of go live on CRE website projects.
  • How frequently are they updating their solution with new features and functionality? You have the right to ask them what their five last upgrades have been. The guys should be passionate about showing you – if they are not, take it as a warning sign.
  • What are their metrics they use to compare themselves to their competitors, and what are the results of these metrics?

Is the prospective solutions provider aware of the five links (above) required for a website to succeed? By all means ask them what they are. (Note the words used by a provider may be different to what has been discussed above, but hopefully the required concepts are the same)

Gmaven predictions 4

Plan ahead, and proceed systematically

As the great saying goes

Weeks of coding can save you hours of planning

Have you achieved sign off from all stakeholders – from the CEO to the CRE experts operating in the trenches? Is your organisation as a client in agreement on the wireframes and designs, on the objectives of the site, its functionality, the risks it may pose and how to mitigate these, and how you see users using it?

Don’t be shy to phase the project into these phases: 1) design, 2) wireframe and 3) development – and potentially to use different service providers as part of each. Use these phases to achieve alignment and sign off, in sequence.

All this reduces the risk of scope changes, which saves expensive churn and prevents stretched timelines.

Commercial real estate website project

Deep support for the CRE website project head

CRE is a very complicated asset class, and a lot of CRE insider knowledge is assumed and implicit.

Your website point person may be very bright, an exceptional project manager, great at digital marketing, and a very strong communicator.

However, if your website point person does not have the 10,000 hours in the industry, for them to shine, they will need both

  • Service providers with CRE experience, and
  • The buy in and support of all in the business who do have the deep domain knowledge.

As always, the better informed you are, the stronger your ability to gather data.

Better data lowers risk, and improves your ability to make better decisions.

We hope sharing our hard-won experience on CRE website projects has been interesting. But, most importantly, we hope it proves useful and is helpful to you.

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