Hoby Hanna, President and CEO, Howard Hanna Real Estate Services.

Hanna CEO chooses 'disruptive' path to retain listing control 

Hoby Hanna recently made waves by pulling listings from IDX — a move that effectively keeps Howard Hanna Real Estate listings off of competitors’ websites.

June 30, 2023
6 minutes

Key points:

  • Howard Hanna’s switch from IDX to VOW affects only its Cleveland area-listings — so far.
  • Hanna is working to keep its listings on major real estate portals like Zillow, which he sees as a benefit to its clients and agents.
  • The industry is closely watching whether this will work, as it could lead to other brokerage companies following suit.

Howard W. "Hoby" Hanna IV, newly minted CEO of the nation's largest independent brokerage, has made a bold move that will effectively keep Howard Hanna Real Estate listings off of competitors' websites.

So far, it's only affecting the Cleveland metro area. But it has set off a social media reaction that caught Hanna by surprise.

Hanna has opted to switch from an Internet Data exchange (IDX), a widely used way of connecting a brokerage's listings to its Multiple Listing Service, to a Virtual Office Website (VOW), which serves the same function but isn't as easily accessible.

Competitors' listings will remain on the Howard Hanna Real Estate site, but Hanna listings will only appear on other brokerage sites if they are VOW-enabled — and most aren't.

It's an interesting gamble for the longtime family-owned company. On the one hand, a Howard Hanna listing in Cleveland won't get as much exposure because it won't appear on as many sites. On the other hand, Howard Hanna agents have more control over their own listings, providing what they think is a better overall customer experience.

In an interview with Real Estate News, Hanna, who served as president of Howard Hanna for six years before additionally taking on the CEO role last month, provided insight into the company's decision and discussed what they might be doing going forward — and whether he thinks this will catch on in with other brokerage companies.

The motivation behind the move

In a YouTube video, Hanna said the company made this move to help its agents retain more control over their listings.

"We know so many of you go out and get a hard-earned listing and that gets marketed and scraped by so many different people as opposed to yourself," Hanna said.

Hanna said they are also working with major home search portals like Zillow and Realtor.com to feed listings to their sites, noting the value of the high levels of traffic they bring, particularly from out-of-town buyers just starting their search.

The move to VOW means users will need to provide some basic personal information, like a name and email address, to gain access, but in exchange, the registered user will be able to get more details about a listing, Hanna said.

"VOW allows us to basically give them… everything an agent can see," Hanna said. "It gets to this more interactive, deeper level of experience for the consumer to see everything… and get to that level of transparency."

Getting ahead of potential changes in the industry

As the leader of a family-run business, Hoby Hanna has grown up in the industry and watched it evolve over time.

About 20 years ago, he noticed a change in how companies view MLS listings. What started as a business-to-business practice of "here's my listing, and I'll cooperate with you and you bring me your buyer" has, with the use of IDX, become more like "you give me your listings and see who can scrape more leads or take more leads of unencumbered customers" — customers who don't know which agent is actually knowledgeable about the property. 

Switching to VOW helps address those concerns, he said.

And why now? Because he believes change may be coming, particularly in light of the buyer agent commission lawsuits making their way through the courts.

"There's a likelihood that [the class action lawsuits] could change part of how we do business," Hanna said, adding that having a more robust website with registration features will help them adapt and be in a better position to explain the changes to customers.

Northern Ohio as a testing ground

Cleveland is Hoby Hanna's hometown, and he has spent much of his career there. He knows the agents well and values their opinion, so it made sense to start with the greater Cleveland area as a test case to gain insight into how the switch to VOW is working.

And perhaps more importantly, Howard Hanna has a strong market share in the area, so the move could have a significant impact on its agents.

It could also affect the competition. Let's say an area of Cleveland has 60 homes for sale and Howard Hanna has 25 or 30 of the listings. The company is betting that potential buyers will choose to view properties via the Howard Hanna website — with all the listings — instead of another site, even if it means they have to register to gain access.

Hanna said they plan on taking a hard look at the data coming out of Cleveland before considering expanding into other regions. But the early results look good.

"Even though it's only been a week, we've been seeing great energy and great enthusiasm. Consumers are saying this makes a lot of sense when explained correctly," Hanna said.

The portals still matter

Hanna acknowledges that his company needs to walk a fine line when working with listings aggregators, as the goal is creating partnerships that benefit Howard Hanna agents.

While major portals have some ties to the brokerage realm, Hanna sees Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com and Homes.com — the places that many buyers go at the beginning of their home search — as important advertising vehicles. 

He said he has been reaching out to discuss partnerships and has already started a dialogue with some of the portals.

"We're optimistic that it could lead to some really fruitful success for our clients and our agents," Hanna said.

Will this listings strategy catch on?

The short answer, said Hanna, is yes. 

In the brief time since making the change from IDX to VOW, Hanna said he's been getting calls from friends in the industry who are curious about the decision — and want to know if it's working. 

"They're like, 'Hey, this is interesting, it's disruptive, it's change," Hanna said, noting that the idea has been out there for years but no action was being taken.

"I do think this will lead to a discussion, and there are some companies much bigger than us that might be able to take this premise and really change on a larger scale."

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