In-depth: Joby Russell, CMO at Purplebricks.com

by Jessica Ramesh

Hybrid estate agency Purplebricks.com is one of a new breed of businesses taking traditional high street services online. Success, says new CMO Joby Russell, means marrying digital convenience with human expertise

With high street businesses from taxi firms to dry cleaners taking their services online, brands are encountering a new challenge: how to marry the convenience of digital technology with the loyalty and trust associated with good old human expertise. That challenge is particularly acute when it comes to sectors like property, where we rely on experts who don’t just know the market, but are prepared to get to know us as well.

This has been one of the issues faced by Purplebricks.com, the hybrid estate agency voted number one in the Startups 100 Awards 2015. Launched in April last year, the company has already overtaken Foxtons in volume of sales and is currently the number one online-based estate agency in the country. So how has it established itself in a market that has remained unchanged for decades and where no amount of digital know-how can beat the first-hand experience of locally-based estate agents who know their patch?

Rooms with a review

Initially, explains Russell, the brand used traditional marketing channels such as TV and radio to build awareness as it introduced its service across the south-east. Now operating across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, digital is central to its model. But the newness of Purplebricks’ proposition means it’s faced an issue familiar to start-ups across the board.

“In an established field you know which channels are working simply by looking at your competitors,” he says. “If you want to consider a new channel and your competitors are already there – well, they’re not stupid. If it’s working for them, chances are it’ll work for you. Often the investment decisions you make in an established business where there’s strong competition are based on share-of-voice rather than immediate response rate. In a start-up though, every pound counts. The question for us has been how to tell our story, get the public to buy into it and believe in us.”

The answer to that has involved making use of consumer reviews via Trustpilot. “These provide an amazing point of validation and confirmation for consumers. Trustpilot has been really strong in saying to consumers: there are people like you up and down the country using us and having great results. Trustpilot is very much embedded in our communication strategy. We certainly don’t make a secret of it and we’re very proud of our Trustpilot scores.”

What those scores reflect, of course, is the actual experience consumers have of the Purplebricks brand. And underpinning that is the expertise of Purplebricks’ local agents who, says Russell, represent the brand’s key point of difference. The fact that Purplebricks’ local experts are measured on Trustpilot means that not only must they provide an accurate valuation and all the other services you’d expect. They must also ensure that the sale completes. “We need to make sure that we’re not just accepting someone’s hard-earned cash and publishing their property online. We’re there for them at every step in the process. If we do a bad job our Trustpilot scores fall away and our new business falls away with it.”

Building a social community

More broadly, says Russell, social media channels plays a variety of roles in the business.

“LinkedIn, which we use a lot, allows us to attract the best estate agents to the business. We encourage all our local property consultants to have their own Twitter accounts. We want consumers to know who their local property expert is. People research property online and Twitter is an important part of that, so we ensure our experts have up-to-date skills. We have a digital magazine which we distribute regionally. We can only call ourselves experts if we can demonstrate our local knowledge. These are all things that help do that.

“Facebook performs a similar task. We don’t just highlight the most glorious, exotic Mayfair properties – though we do talk about them. We’re a mass market proposition and we want to appeal equally to someone with a semi to sell in Surbiton. We’re not just for young, cool things who are in to new tech. We’re not just for budget conscious people either. Our properties run from 80k to nine million.”

Moving with mobile

Mobile, naturally, is at the centre of any service designed to fit into the daily lives of users.

“The great thing in a start-up business is that there’s no design legacy. Everything is built to be responsive. There are a lot of mobile opportunities we’re currently looking at. If you’re out and see a property and want to book a viewing you can do so instantly with your mobile. Our platform operates 24/7. In fact, 70 per cent of all the activity that takes place on Purplebricks.com happens when the high street is closed. We have people who accept offers on their properties at 11pm while they’re in bed. A typical high street estate agent will close at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. If you viewed a property over the weekend and you know that on Monday someone else is going to view it, you can make your offer via your smartphone while you’re sitting in front of the TV. The vendor can accept it and at that point the legal process kicks in. Everything happens online or through your Local Property Expert as part of the Purplebricks service.

“It’s also interesting to see the conversations that take place online. Like eBay, we encourage the buyer and the seller to communicate directly. They can choose to negotiate if they wish and what you see is a real honesty between the two parties. That makes for a much easier and more pleasant transaction because at every stage there’s total transparency between the people involved.”

Tips for transition

Before coming to Purplebricks.com earlier this year, Russell served for six years as Marketing Director at another notable disruptor, Confused.com. What other thoughts does he have for businesses looking to take traditional services online?

“The first things is to make sure the proposition you have really is more convenient, provides better value or is a better service than that which exists. It’s easy to lull yourself into thinking that what you’re launching is better when it’s not. As Peter Thiele, who co-founded PayPal, said, if you’re going to launch in a new market you need to make sure you’re at least ten times better than whatever is already there.

“The second thing is that even if you’ve got a product or service that really is ten times better, you’ll be very lucky if the consumer just happens upon it and adopts it. You have to work extremely hard. The guys at Airbnb, for example, worked for years on getting that service to catch fire. Uber was quicker, but you have to be prepared to play with the product, the communications and to educate consumers. There’s an urban myth you encounter in some start-ups: that the business will just come. It won’t come. Things rarely just go viral. You really have to work.”

Feature by Jon Fortgang