There are two trends in the MLS industry that FBS has been asked to participate in and there’s confusion about what we’re willing and not willing to do right now, so I’m writing this post to clarify that. I’m hopeful this also is an opportunity to expand on a discussion I started with my presentation at the CMLS conference before last when I outlined challenges with how vendors are implementing (or not) RESO’s Web API.
The first trend is what I think others in the industry have called “system of choice”, which is being explored by several large regional MLSs such as CRMLS in California (and even now in Lousiana, I believe), Northstar in Minnesota, Stellar in Florida, and likely others. The core idea of “system of choice” is that a regional MLS can remove an obstacle to consolidation if the regional agrees to support the “system of choice” of the MLS they’re trying to acquire.
For example, in Minnesota, FBS serves several MLSs that Northstar wants to work with, so they want to be able to offer that MLS the opportunity to stay with Flexmls to make it an easier decision to consolidate. This is a strategy that’s been successful for CRMLS and others, and FBS’s position has been and remains that we’re happy to continue to provide our system to our MLS customers either directly or through a regional effort as we’re doing in CRMLS for our customers in Ventura, Pasadena, and Palm Springs, or as we expect to be doing for our customer in Bemidji in partnership with Northstar.
The second trend is what I’ll call “agent choice” (or what others might call “front-end of choice”) where an individual agent in a regional can choose from any one of multiple front-ends, independent of the choice of their Association or MLS. The big difference here, of course, is that selling to individual agents is a much different business than selling to the MLS as a whole. Currently, FBS has a division called Broker Agent Services that is dedicated to selling IDX products to agents and brokers, but we have never sold Flexmls itself to individual agents before and neither the product is set up for that nor are our sales or support teams or processes set up for individual sales.
Importantly, FBS strongly supports the concept of “agent choice” and has for many years through our support of RESO standards and the development of the Spark Platform, including the Spark API and Spark Store. I’ve often said that the goal of RESO standards and the Web API is to put an end to the days of difficult MLS conversions.
Despite (or perhaps because of) our support for agent choice, I made a presentation at CMLS the conference before last entitled The Long Road to Standards. During the presentation, I made the point that the original vision for the Web API was for applications to do real-time queries of the API but that the majority of vendors implementing the Web API today are using it to replicate or copy the data to their local system. There are a lot of practical reasons for why this is the case that I covered in the presentation, but what’s important here is that replication means systems remain quite independent from each other, which makes it much harder for a user to switch from one system to another (“agent choice”) without losing data such as saved searches, user preferences, etc. The bottom line is that true agent choice remains more theory than reality.
Even if systems were using the Web APIs as they were fully envisioned, there remains a significant business question that has yet to be resolved, namely whether “agent choice” in MLS systems or front-ends is something that will be supported and supportable long-term by MLSs and vendors. Again, the concept of choice seems very sound. After all, choice creates competition and competition is good. That being said, how many systems can MLSs actually train on and support? And at what price point will such systems be offered and successful in the market? Selling to individual agents is a far different cost and value proposition than selling to MLSs as an organization, and businesses like FBS will have to do a lot of research and planning before deciding to commit to such a business model.
To sum all this up, FBS is 100% behind supporting our MLS customers if Flexmls is their “system of choice”, regardless of whether that’s part of a regional or not. We’re also interested in continuing to explore and even advocate for the idea of “agent choice” but we’re not yet convinced that the industry is ready — either from a business or technological perspective — to support such an approach for their members. The years ahead will remain interesting as we explore these issues together, and so we hope all of our current customers and future customers consider FBS your partner in making the market work.