Founded in 1995, CityRealty is the great-great-grandfather of real estate websites. In March, the company launched a revamped, more comprehensive site with a new mix of editorial reviews, data, imagery and listings. We chatted with CityRealty General Manager Jim Schoenburg about brand reinvention, user engagement and good data visualization.
BuzzBuzzHome: First, could you talk a little bit about your background?
Jim Schoenburg: For about 20 years, I’ve worked broadly in the online world, mostly in business development, operations and sales roles. I went to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, and I got caught up in the dot-com craziness of the time. In 1993, I started producing interactive content for AT&T Downtown Digital. I co-founded a couple of startups that created play-based marketing vehicles — essentially, games designed to achieve marketing goals — for other companies. I’ve sold behaviorally targeted advertising and rich media ad-serving tech. Most recently I helped run and manage a brand-design firm called MSDS. I’ve worn a number of hats, all of them around the creation of content or marketing solutions for digital media.
BBH: CityRealty was your first foray into real estate. What attracted you to CityRealty?
JS: CityRealty is, as far as I know, the oldest, longest continuously operating real estate site, period. When I joined the company about a year and a half ago, CityRealty was poised to reinvent itself; I saw that as a very appealing challenge. It was an opportunity to use my experience to help the company modernize the brand and user experience and to really compete more effectively in today’s market.
BBH: How has the company evolved to keep up with changing consumer needs over the last few years?
JS: I think we’ve changed dramatically; we used to be a listings site, with very good building reviews and ratings. We reimagined CityRealty as a complete knowledge and information center for buyers and renters of NYC apartments.
Our focus on New York residential has not changed, and our general business model has not changed; what has changed is where we see the market moving, which for us is slightly more high-end, towards condos and newer developments. We started looking at the integration of historical sales data, which is available from the city of New York. Other [sites] have it and display it, but don’t do enough with it in terms of making the information user-friendly and accessible and customizable.
BBH: With the wealth of real estate statistics available online, how do you curate/present data in a meaningful way to users?
JS: We don’t just integrate historical sales data to show what a particular apartment has sold for; we use that information in combination with data from current sales listings to create some pretty powerful insights. We’ve given users unique tools to let them easily research data at the apartment level, the building level and the neighborhood level.
We also present the data visually, so that patterns, trends, and relative values are immediately clear when someone queries the database. Data in and of itself can be boring or even off-putting, so we wanted to make it very accessible and useful to the broadest audience. Good data visualization is very important to us and our users.
BBH: When searching for a home, people will have different criteria and look at the same pieces of information differently. How do you create a user experience that accommodates a wide variety of clients?
JS: We tried to give people different ways to access information based on their ability, their appetite and time, their level of interest, whichever way they might relate to information about NYC apartments.
We’ve always had written reviews and ratings; then, we added in new elements, features that leverage historical sales data and more visual features — for example, if somebody from overseas hadn’t been to New York very often but was interested in better understanding the area around a building, we created the Aerial Tours using Google Earth and produced some voiceovers to accompany the videos. This allows people to get a good sense of where the building is and some information about the building itself within a minute and a half.
We’ve created indices that allow users to track and compare top properties in different areas of the city and we publish Weekly Market Snapshot reports for quick, consolidated apartment sales information. And we have a more comprehensive bi-monthly report in the works.
We’ve really tried to cover the many different ways that people might enjoy researching or learning about New York City apartments.
BBH: Could you speak about the new Market Insight section that CityRealty recently launched?
JS: The Market Insight section is really the main center for data research on CityRealty. Throughout the site we have information available at the apartment unit level, the apartment building level. The Market Insight section really offers data at the neighborhood level, where you can drill down and do a comparative analysis of, say, two-bedroom co-ops in different neighborhoods of the city over different time frames, going back ten years to several months ago. You can also use our tools to compare the value of different currencies in New York City real estate, so if you wanted to see the buying power of the euro versus the yen now or historically, you could do that in Market Insight.
There’s been an uptick of traffic generally in CityRealty, and a healthy portion of that is going to the Market Insight section. We’ve been kindly received by the press; we’ve been used and cited regularly not only by trade publications, but national and international publications as well. We’re quite happy by the way it’s being used by our power audience, our users and the real estate community.
BBH: What’s the next step for CityRealty?
JS: Right now we need to continue doing what we’ve been doing really well; developing innovative new ways for our users to understand the market for apartments in New York City.
Thanks for buzzing with us Jim!