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.
Commercial property website project

The new world of websites

Tenants and buyers of the commercial real estate industry have changed. That same level of self-serve convenience they get from banking to watching movies to taxis to travel. Well now they expect and demand it from the world commercial property.

RIP to the “dead” brochureware website.

Hello to a rich, dynamic self-serve, instant gratification experience. This means 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 into a supported leasing or sales flow.

Everywhere CRE businesses are looking to upgrade their websites. However, all is not as simple as it seems. Let’s walk through the challenges of a new CRE website project experience.

Commercial property website fail

A CRE website project car crash in slow motion

We hope this will never sound familiar…

A short story: A CRE business (property fund / property manager or agency/brokerage) wants a new, customised shopfront that better reflects their professionalism and unique service offering. They talk to a creative agency who can do this. The creative agency provides beautiful creative and quotes, at an eyewatering number. CRE business successfully negotiates the agency down, and with starry eyes, the project is greenlit. Work starts. As the work progresses, the bad news starts coming: project timelines start creeping out, requests for more money come through, credibility gets burnt. In the end, the project is either massively descoped, or aborted.

We’ve seen this move from every side of this fence. Generally things start 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. In unpacking these 5 reasons below, our goal is 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. It’s actually a Pandora’s box of business needs. If you don’t believe us, here is how the conversation goes…

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

Website person: “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 data backend… We can give you that. Anything else?”

“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”

“I also want to be able to see which units have updated and not. 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 is useless.
Can you give me brochures? I want a customer to click on a property, or a unit, and get a brochure”

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. You do know that these types of properties are different, they store different information, and they must show different information?”

WP: “To be honest I never thought about it. But you are right. 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 information is different between units.
And remember, this stock is changing all the time. I 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. You may also need to help me understand these new words and concepts I’m hearing too”

“Cool. 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 funnel. I would also like to assign people to these leads, and do reporting on them”

WP: “Cool. So you want a CRM. Do you also want to track who you talk to, and have reminders?”

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

WP: “I got you. While we’re thinking about it, you happy for everyone to sell 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. 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 that. And permissions for contacts and businesses, and lease access 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? And also documents against my units?”

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”

“And I will need to be able to do this on my phone too. Can I have this?”

WP: “Cool, can do. Just as well you let me know now”

“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. But they are not obvious up front.

Reason #2 Strategic missteps or under-funding

  • Cost is underestimated, the CRE website project is under-funded
    • If you were to build an effective website, from the ground up, you’re looking at conservatively 18 months, and $1.5M. This excludes the ongoing cost to maintain and enhance.
    • While this doesn’t seem obvious, the bulk of the cost of the website, probably 95%, goes into the 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)
      • UX – how it operates
    • Solution: As with many things, and particularly software, it’s cheaper to own that rent. You want to avoid “reinventing the wheel”.

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

  • Skills required are not known
    • As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link
    • The CRE website chain is dependent on 6 disciplines or competencies all pulling together, all the time
    • If one these 6 chain links break, the project will fail
    • These are unpacked in detail, because they are important
      • 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 it probably accounts for 90% of the website’s cost and complexity.
      • Engineering skills
        • Moving data from APIs, from backends etc.
        • Delivering a performant website
      • UX (short for user experience design)
        • In simple terms, UX addresses how easy the website is to use. You generally know a lack of UX when you become frustrated, have to think, get lost, experience irritation. A sign of good UX is the absence of these negative emotions. You can have a horrible looking website, that works well. Similarly you can have a beautifully designed website, that you find yourself moving away from
      • Design and creatives
        • Does the website look professional. Can you feel your brand, what you stand for coming through to you. Is the information displayed in the right order, and is it easy to digest.
      • CRE domain IP
        • Commercial property is incredibly complicated, and there are many secret handshakes and knowledge vaults. Most people on this planet have not dedicated the 10,000 hours needed to understanding how CRE works. Without the 10,000 hours (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.
      • SEO
        • Is the site an effective marketing tool? Is it built to rank in search engines? Are you building your search engine marketing on foundations of solid rock, or is there risk of throwaway.

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

  • To get a quote
  • To build the website efficiently

In software the mantra is “it’s easier to throw away ideas, than design, than code”

Because your own company website is a new invention, it is going to iterate. This is inevitable. You rather want to iterate where it’s cheap. This is in the first two phases of ideas and design, than code.

So spend the time up front, with all parties, to get an idea of what you want it to do, to define wireframes, and then to get a design of what the website will look like. Only then bring in the expensive and time-consuming software developer hands. Once the cake is half-baked, it’s too late to change the ingredients

If you want to apply the buzzwords to your CRE website project, i.e. if you want to be Agile and have an MVP etc., apply this mainly in the idea and design phase.

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 number 1 reason they fail: building the wrong thing, based on the wrong or untested assumptions. And a CRE website project is no different.

This risk is most often due to a lack of what is called domain IP.

The people in charge of project management (client side) can sit too far from the CRE experts (who have implicit knowledge), and are not provided the deceptively deep levels of support they need to excel. Project managers, while excellent at running complex technical projects,  are seldom deep experts in CRE. Further, the domain IP obvious to CRE experts, but often not articulated, is not obvious to the PM – who can’t fairly be expected to “figure it out” on the fly. The project thus 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

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

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

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

  • 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 talks to your brand? If so, to what extent?
  • Can they handle data at volume (if required)?
  • What are their turnarounds / SLAs?
  • 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 six links 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

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

The first and thing you should ask for every CRE website project feature: ‘should we build this’?

Over 50% of build effort typically translates to no measurable value.

Even if it’s easy but adds no measurable value, don’t do it. Why? Building more means more to test, more that can go wrong, more to deploy, more to support, more to document, more to consider.

Thank you to Dave Lynch of D9 CRE for your help on this

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