NAR likely to cede social media listings policy to MLSs

Inman News

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The National Association of Realtors is one step closer to adopting a policy that would leave it up to individual multiple listings services whether or not to allow member brokers and agents to display for-sale listings represented by other consenting members on social media sites.

An MLS policy statement approved Saturday by NAR's Multiple Listing Issues and Policies Committee would, for the most part, let MLSs that choose to allow the display of shared listings on social media sites write their own rules.

But the policy statement -- to be voted on Monday by NAR's board of directors -- would prohibit MLSs from requiring that their member brokers and agents allow their listings to be distributed through social media, or other non-traditional  channels such as text messaging.

NAR had considered adopting a blanket policy for the display of shared listings on social media sites that would have applied to all MLSs affiliated with the trade association-- in effect, taking away from MLSs the decision on whether to allow the practice or not.

But NAR leaders backed down after a number of MLSs raised objections about the difficulty of policing social media sites for compliance with rules that govern the display of shared Internet data exchange (IDX) listings on websites operated by MLSs, brokers and agents.

Instead of amending its policies governing the display of IDX listings so that those rules also governed the display of IDX listings on social media sites, NAR is creating another avenue for the display of a different set of shared listings, outside the context of IDX policy.

"We're taking a different approach here -- give the MLSs that want to go down this road the authority to do it," said Cliff Niersbach, the NAR staff executive who serves as liaison to the committee. "We're basically saying OK, we want to participate -- we'll identify issues (as they) come up. We tried to be all knowing, and that approach didn't work."

It's an important distinction, because the high rate of participation in IDX allows MLS, broker and agent sites to display all, or nearly all, of the homes for sale in a given market.

Third-party sites like Zillow, Trulia, and Realtor.com cannot display IDX listings -- the companies that operate those sites must obtain listings directly from MLSs, listing syndicators, or brokers (thanks to its ties to NAR, Realtor.com receives listings from nearly all of the nation's 900 MLSs).  
Brokers have the option of "opting out" of distributing listings they represent to third-party sites, so listing coverage on those sites can be spotty.

Brokers who want to participate in IDX, however, are either "all in" or "all out." They can't choose whether or not to display listings represented by other participating brokers on their own websites, or prevent listings that they contribute to the IDX pool from being displayed on the websites of other participating MLS members.

Broker participation in IDX is nearly universal in many markets. Consumers are drawn to websites that provide access to a nearly comprehensive set of listings, and not offering access to IDX listings in markets where IDX participation is high could put a brokerage at a competitive disadvantage.

If the only option for brokers with strong objections to their listings appearing on social media sites was to withdraw from IDX altogether, the system might begin to fall apart. If IDX participation dropped, MLS, broker and agent websites might no longer be able to offer consumers a comprehensive set of listings, and lose an important advantage they hold over many third-party sites in some markets.

While NAR's decision to separate the display of shared listings from IDX policy could protect the IDX system from controversy, it also leaves brokers who want to display shared listings on social media channels at the mercy of their MLS.

The policy statement approved by the committee Saturday, and scheduled to be considered by NAR's board of directors on Monday, reads, in part:

"MLSs may but are not required to give participants the ability to authorize electronic display of their listings by other participants outside the context of the (IDX) policy and the Virtual Office Website (VOW) policy and rules.

"Participants may not be required to consent to display or distribution of their listing through non-IDX and non-VOW channels as a condition of participation in MLS or as a condition of participation in IDX."

In other words, while MLSs can't force their members to allow listings they represent to be displayed on social media sites, they can refuse to put a system in place that would facilitate the display of members' shared listings outside of the approved IDX channels.

Brokers and agents are always free to publicize their own listings on Facebook and other social media sites, but some social media and marketing experts say that's the wrong way to go about using such sites.

NAR's former director of social media and online engagement, Todd Carpenter, ran down a long list of companies he said had tried and failed to use Facebook to make sales: Starbucks, Sears, Ikea, Wells Fargo, Delta Airlines.

"People use Google to find things," Carpenter -- now Trulia's senior manager of industry engagement -- told members of the Multiple Listing and Issues and Policies Committee. "People go to Facebook or other social media sites to find people."

There are many successful real estate professionals using Facebook and social media, Carpenter said, "but it's because they are connecting with people."

Before voting to approve the MLS policy statement on social media, a few committee members expressed reservations about leaving the matter in the hands of MLSs. Some  doubted that MLSs would be able to solve some of the knotty problems that came up when the committee tried to amend IDX policy to accommodate display of shared listings on social media sites.

But the policy statement passed in a nearly unanimous voice vote.

The proposal does "exactly the right thing, to allow local associations to move forward," said committee member Bill Lublin, CEO of Century 21 Advantage Gold. "Every time you hear (a problem raised) it drills down to the local level," he said.

In some respects, NAR is merely putting an official stamp of approval on events that are already transpiring -- many MLSs currently allow members to display IDX listings on social media sites.

Real estate app developer N-Play reports that 40 MLSs representing 300,000 Realtors have signed up in the last 90 days to offer members the company's IDX listings search application for agent and broker Facebook pages.

If approved by the full board on Monday, NAR's policy statement would guarantee the right of brokers that belong to those MLSs to opt out of having listings they contribute to IDX feeds appear on social media sites, while remaining in the IDX program.

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