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Everything Real Estate Photographers Need To Know About Tours

February 19th, 2013

HuiTourIn the last few months I’ve gotten quite a few questions about tours so I though it would a good time to revisit the subject.

The central question is are tours important? Should real estate photographers provide tours? Here are some basics:

  • What’s a tour? Historically the term virtual tour meant a series of 360 views. Nowadays the term has evolved to refer to anything from a simple slide show to a video slideshow of the property and everything in between.
  • What’s the benefit of tours? A tour much like a little website dedicated to marketing a property. It’s a template that you can add stills, video, 360s maps etc. If done well a tour looks much better than most of the regional or broker websites. To me the single biggest thing a tour allows is larger photos. Most broker and regional sites have photo sizes that are too small for my taste. If the quality is good, big stills come across much stronger than dinky ones.
  • Connecting tours to For Sale signs: Tours can be a very powerful marketing tool if a potential buyer and agents can access the tour from their SmartPhone or tablet when they park in front the listing. You can do this with either a short URL or a QR code on the For Sale sign.
  • How many agents use tours? In 2007 & 2008 I did a survey of listings on the Seattle NWMLS and found that in 2007 only about 8% of listings over $300,000 had links to tours. In 2008 14% of agents used tours. In both studies upper-end agents used tours significantly more that low end by a factor of two. Tours impress home sellers, so many times promising the home seller a jazzy tour can help the listing agent get the listing contract. Tour usage seems to vary widely from place to place.
  • Why are tours popular in some places and not others? The big tour companies have spent a lot of time over the last 12 or so years that tours have been available, marketing their tour products to agents. The products that big tour companies sell are as much a property marketing system as it is just a tour. Tour companies are present at real estate conventions and many come around to real estate offices selling their products. All this marketing to agents has worked, so many listing agents are totally convinced they need a tours. My personal experience is that when you are competing for listings anything the listing agent can do above and beyond the competition helps and tours can be one of those factors.
  • Do independent real estate photographers need to provide tours? A tour product is not essential. Many real estate photographers build a fine business just focusing on doing great photography and let the agents supply their own tour. However, some established tour companies sell tours and a photography shoot bundled together so if you are going to compete in the same market as an independent, it can be very useful to be able to supply a high quality tour that has some or all of the features the big guys have.

How do independent real estate photographers supply tours without having to build them themselves? There are two popular companies that host tours that are designed to be resold by independent real estate photographers. That is, you purchase the tours and either resell them or bundle the tour with your shoot:

I have used both types of tours and recommend both. They have similar but not the same features and both are very reasonably priced (they start at $9 to $12 depending on how many you purchase). Check the websites for details.

I believe it makes great business sense to be able to supply one of these tours with your shoot if your client desires. Tours will likely give you a marketing edge with some clients. If you are in a market area that has one or more of the big tour companies operating in it you may have to offer a tour just to compete. To some agents a tour is as important or more important than the photos.

By the way, in the interest of full disclosure I have no financial arrangement with either Tourbuzz.net or pfretour.com. In years past I’ve done paid advertisements for Tourbuzz.net and in 2010 I partnered with the guys that built pfretour.com. I no longer do either because I feel I can give more unbiased advice and opinions in posts like this if I don’t have financial relationship with the companies I’m talking about.

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19 Responses to “Everything Real Estate Photographers Need To Know About Tours”

  • in my opinion (as an agent and marketer) that the ship has sailed for tours. The only place I would use it is a low cost house that isn’t worthy of real marketing and even then its to appease a seller and still a waste of time. Video is the future and it is now.

  • Larry,
    Some very good points and food for thought. Connecting the tours to for sale signs is a great idea that I have not seen in my area yet.
    The lack of compatibility with mobile devices for real estate tours is astounding. When we were shopping for our current home just last year I was often travelling out of town for work. When my wife would forward me a property she was interested in and the tour, (photos/360) was not compatible with my mobile device it was annoying to say the least. I am literally just starting out, but from the beginning I have designed everything to be cross platform, including MAC/PC and iOS/Android/Balckberry It really does not require that much extra effort.

  • I have to disagree with Jason that tours are a waste of time. With the new tours offered today, video is an integral part of the tour. Most of my clients are still quite happy with a professional, well done tour, with or without video. To shoot a professional video production (which I only recommend for the high end of the market) cost are several times over that of a standard tour. Most of my clients are not willing to pay the difference. If a tour is well done and incorporates stills, 360 degree panoramas, audio narration, and some video introduction it is a great marketing tool. This varies with the marketplace but I see tours being around for a long time here. Our tours are supported on mobile devices and support 360 degree spins on devices which support gyroscopic operation. The QR codes should be printed on a weather-proof surface with an adhesive backing (thus can be changed on the sign rider).

  • I have to agree with both Jason and Andrew.
    1. Video is the future, but not ready to put my name behind it yet. I am happy to say that my stabilizer ability is progressing nicely from looking like a blitzed out of mind drunken sailor, to just drunk. Seriously though, our local MLS may have inadvertantly hastened the demise of tours a few months ago. The contracted with a tour company and automatically (unless the realtor elects otherwise) creates a tour as a “free member benefit.” Most Realtors don’t even know they have a tour on their listing, including one of my clients, who before this freebie existed, explictly did not want a tour and now has one. The problem is twofold. First, the low end quality of the tour, and second, it’s recirculating all the photos taken by Realtors (nuf said). The demise is with the general public always getting a low end tour when clicking on the link, will stop clicking on the link. Unfortunately, that is the only field the Realtors have to insert a video link, so a true video will be labeled “virtual tour” within the MLS.

    2. Compatability with mobile devices is an issue, but even broader is useability behaviors when compatable. I use Tourbuzz as my underlying engine and it is compatable with moile devices. However, as I created my Realtor website I created a tour (stills, embedded video but no pano) to present my photography and iframed in the “simple” version of the tour, I discovered a problem. It autoruns and transitions on PCs and Macs, but when I went to show the website on the iPad, totally different behavior. Have to manually start with “Click image below” message, opens in new window, transitions but no Ken Burns effect as on PCs, and halts at embedded video requiring manual start and know to manually enlarge from thumbnail.

    Ignoring the issue above, agents like it when I include a video within a tour. It really stands out as no other photographer offers it. Typically, the clips I use are ones with normal action – gates opening in gated community, front door opening (excellent transition from front exterior to house interior within tour), pool fountains, etc.

  • The above comments remind me of a fact that I’ve gotten in touch with only in the last year or so. That is different geographic locations evolve through and use the available technology at different rates. Video is clearly the leading edge technology and in locations like Brevard, Brisbane and Seattle etc. it is used heavily and those that use it have an advantage. At the same time there are many locations that aren’t even using still photos effectively yet. So part of being in this business is understanding where on this continuum your local market is, selling to it and helping it to move forward.

  • That’s so true. Most of my clients have stopped using Virtual Tours (the slideshow type) because it makes them feel “dated.” They’re industry leaders and wouldn’t be caught dead using 5 year old technology to market a home.

  • As soon as video becomes the norm everywhere, the industry will start using laser imaging devices to generate full 3D models that customers can virtually walk through while wearing their Oculus headset. And then of course we’ll have out-of-body machines that instantly transport our senses to the physical home while our bodies rest comfortably on our couches. But by that time we will have abandoned the idea of real estate entirely, instead living inside morphing robotic pods that shapeshift into whatever utility or entertainment device we need at that moment. I’m not worried though.

  • Today’s tours need to be sophisticated and exciting in addition to containing good photography. Packaging a tour with your photography only works if you are really good at manipulating the features of each tour to create a unique viewer experience branded to a specific real estate agent. I personally use both TourBuzz and Real Tour Vision’s new Fusion to create exciting product for my customers. I find that the higher the value of the home, the more sophisticated the tour needs to be along with sometimes, not even using a tour – but putting the “bucks” into a stronger photographic image set.

    From basic slide shows – to integrated multi-media tours – to video tours, these are marketing tools that require some learned skills to be proficient. Remember, the agent can always buy “single tours from places like tour factory” but most agents can’t take correct real estate photography images. – its the photography that ultimately sells the home. The tour just helps the home get found in more places.

  • We use an interactive floor plan tour here. last year we started offering them and we only started because the demand was so high. Combining the photos with the floor plan gives the tour another dimension. We are looking forward to integrating video into the tours this year. I don’t know how much longer pan and zoom slide show tours will be relevant once video becomes more popular.

  • The problem with Virtual Tours is not necessarily the platform, but rather, the photography. Bad photography, and heaven knows the real estate industry has more than its share, never does the job properly, but cheap sellers (read agents) will always be cheap. Look for the clients that understand that the potential buyer is a bit more sophisticated these days, and the agent that does not “get with it” continues to stand out as someone that you don’t want to market your home.

    As for video, it’s going through a current resurgence again. Yes, read that “again”. Having been in the photographic industry for over 50 years, I’ve seen the argument for video for a very long time, and I’ve also seen the abuse of just that. There are few people that understand how to apply, yet alone use, video. It can be irritating, lack the ability to show the property, and in the end, be a dismal failure. So can still photography. What is really needed is working with someone that knows what they are doing, and when it comes to real estate, your pickings are slim.

  • Having been in the real estate “tour” business for over 13 years I’ve seen many companies come and go. I’ve been attached to some of the bigger national companies for a while until breaking ties a few years back.

    A tour is a tour, no mater what you put in there it’s still a “virtual” tour… you tour the home virtually by looking at pictures, panoramas or video. Unfortunately it could be as simple as a slideshow and to most real estate agents it is just that. The path of lowest cost and least effort. Most brokerages by now have a system in place that takes the pictures captured by the agent and weaves these into a tour/slideshow they now call a “video” as it has an MOV file extension and can be placed on Youtube.

    Sadly this type of attitude is a disservice to the seller who has hired a real estate professional to represent them with the sale of their home. If they truly consider themselves to be a professional they should provide professional photography / video as part of the marketing package. Most don’t, why? Because the seller doesn’t demand it. So it’s not entirely the fault of the agent, if the client is not asking for it why should I go to the expense of providing it, right? (I know it’s wrong).

    I’ve seen multi-million $ properties with the minimum of (lousy quality) photos attached to the listing. That’s unconscionable, but again if you can get away with it why not. Personally I could not do it, my standards and expectations are way too high. I am also somewhat educated and would demand from whomever I hired as a Realtor foremost a high quality visual presentation.

    I feel video provides a unique opportunity to market not only a listing but the agent as well. But the only way to hook some agents is to provide them with an “affordable” marketing solution and I say “some” agents because after 13 years in this business I know not all agents are full time real estate professionals and from those who are only a small percentage will opt for the “professional” marketing presentation. Larry mentioned that only 15% of agents used tours and in my humble opinion we will never get much beyond that number, especially because the other 85% is of the opinion that they too provide the seller with a tour… it just happens to be a crappy one.

    When we added video to the mix it was in the middle of the real estate bust and the only way it would work was if it was priced relatively closely to what the agent paid before for a “tour”… somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 – $200. No one would spend substantially more (in our market) for any kind of marketing, video or not. I’m sure there were/are exceptions to this, but we’re talking average home and average real estate agent.

    For anyone in the business of real estate marketing… this is a volume business, like it or not. And you can only attain a fair level of (financial) success by providing great quality at affordable cost to the real estate community, and “affordable” of course is relative.

    The other issue is that many photographers/videographers can produce great photographs and movies but there are no easy ways to roll both into a nice presentation. If you take pictures you’ll send the pictures to the Realtor and they will put it on the MLS. If you do video there’s no way you can put it on the MLS. So uploading a video to Youtube or Vimeo is not a real estate solution. All agents need still photos, there’s just no if’s and but’s around this. So if you are keen on providing video services to the real estate community you need to also be able to provide them with stills.

    You could sign up with some of the “major” tour providers as some offer a nice presentation, but very few (to my knowledge) offer a video solution. This prompted us to come up with our own solution where “video” was the centerpiece of the presentation. We created a real estate video marketing platform where stills and video are part of the same single property web site solution. I’m happy to say we’ve had great success with it in our market, with agents who want to differentiate themselves and understand the value and opportunities it presents for them. This platform can be scaleable and made available if you feel it may provide additional opportunities for you as a photographer/filmmaker… or Realtor.

  • Matti Lahtinen, Good post.

    Top real estate professional DO use virtual tours. But they use them differently than the average agent does. Virtual tours do just as much to sell the agent as they do the property. In fact, probably more so. The agents we work with don’t get a virtual tour to sell the listing, necessarily – they get a tour to sell themselves to the neighbors around that listing. Who would you list with… the guy with a for sale sign and a point and shoot, or the tech savvy gal with pro photos and video? duh! A virtual tour is the vehicle agents use to promote themselves – not just the property.

    When agents provide a virtual tour for their listings, buyers and sellers post it on facebook and twitter, and they share that tour with everyone-they-know; neighbors, friends, and co-workers. That translates into POWERFUL word-of-mouth advertising for agents and their photographers. They’re not just sharing the listing, they’re sharing the agent and showing the world what that agent does to market homes, vs. the competition. The top agents have figured this out.

    The other thing is Zillow and Trulia, and websites like it… those sites pull data from the MLS, and the listing agent rarely if ever gets credit for the listing. But when a virtual tour is provided, it’s an opportunity for that agent to connect with the massive amount of buyers that search these sites daily. Again, top agents understand this.

    Check Out This Impact Chart. http://blog.previewfirst.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/flat-color.png It represents 695 unique visitors (Potential Prospects) that were introduced to the agent over 90 days, because of the virtual tour. More prospective clients will get introduced to you from a single virtual tour, than from any other marketing source.

    Lastly, I’m always shocked that few photographers have figured this out… “Virtual Tours are the secret sauce to grow a photographers business!”. By providing virtual tours with your name (or brand) on them, you make sure to get credit for your work. Otherwise, nobody knows who took the photos. How do you grow your business if nobody knows who you are? Instead, photographers simply provide the photos to the agent, who provides them to a virtual tour company, and that company gets the credit for your work. It’s crazy ridiculous not to provide virtual tours.

  • You CAN put video on the MLS – it really depends on the local MLS. They’re all different. I’ve been putting full screen slide shows AND a full video tour on the MLS systems in 3 states for nearly 8 years. It depends on your MLS and it depends on how you put together your presentation.

    I always tell clients, especially in a much better market as we’re experiencing right now, that doing a great job with your marketing, photos and videos is more about your NEXT listing than this particular house! Houses are selling rapidly here with multiple offers, over asking offers, etc. But I’m still crazy busy, because these folks know you have to “LIST TO LAST” in this business. And with listings actually selling, they want MORE listings because they’re selling quickly!

  • Clarifying… I meant “video” on the MLS. I know you can put a tour on the MLS which has a video, as we too have been putting them there for many years. However, to my knowledge you can’t just upload a video ( at least not our local MLS) like you can to a Showcase listing on realtor.com. Nor can you upload a YouTube link to the MLS.

  • @Matti- Fred is making the point that even though you can’t put links to YouTube on your local MLS. All MLSs are different and there are many MLSs in the US that allow links to YouTube videos.

  • @larry @fred It would be nice if all the MLS’ came up with a standard (set of rules) that would work the same across all of them… Wishful thinking, but it sure would make life easier. In our area there are at least 3 MLS’ and each of them have different rules for almost everything.

  • I have to say, the promise of quick and easily turned around property specific websites is a marvelous one. Unfortunately, in my own experience, the execution to date that I’ve seen has been somewhat lacking. I have demoed Tourbuzz.net and admire in principle what they are trying to provide. However, while the platform is pretty good and they are great in helping with SEO, the actual website design seems to me a peculiar weakness given that it is what I would have thought would be the easiest part of the equation to solve. I haven’t found one of their templates that didn’t seem somewhat dated. Their front end design team needs to focus a little less on gimmicks such as the Ken Burns effect, and focus more on clean, elegant contemorary web designs. For now, I’ve resorted to creating my own template but I admit, I’m not thrilled with it and will continue to search for a better alternative or create one myself, eventually.

  • Mark Singer, You can have TourBuzz design a custom template for you. You can manipulate their templates to change up the colors.

    In our market a photographer does need to have virtual tour as an option.

    I am a TourBuzz fan and love that I can create a walk through of the home using still shots and partial panoramas. I have also been incorporating video clips of the Realtor and some voice over sections. Keeping the price more reasonable than doing a full blown video. TourBuzz also has the capability to turn the tours into video for uploading to YouTube.

  • There are some great comments here! I didn’t realize tours were so controversial in the photographer community.

    A few points I’d like to make as food for thought:
    1. Tours have a huge marketing impact for the *photographer*. At Tourbuzz we have the idea of a “sponsor” link that goes at the bottom of every tour. It’s designed to be SEO-optimized and many MLS’s even allow the sponsor link on the MLS/unbranded tour! This creates a ton of exposure for your business, especially in the photographer-friendly MLS markets. Many of our customers tell us that using tours with the sponsor links has really helped them grow their business due to this free viral marketing. Photographers that don’t deliver the photography in a tour which references the photographer are missing out on an important and valuable marketing opportunity.
    2. Tours save photographers time. This hasn’t really been talked about much, but a huge part of the value of Tourbuzz is actually the back-end systems. Being able to offer your clients a self-service panel for basic editing of tour info, automatic syndication to Realtor.com and many MLS’s, helping to manage your schedule, syncing your shoot calendar to your phone, managing your photographers, integrated order forms, automated stats emails, a photography download page that is easy to use, making it easy to satisfy client “design” changes (colors, fonts, etc). All of this makes you look uber-professional while taking very little time out of your day. We have had some very large customers switch to our system and have been amazed by how much support time we save them with our client panel (editing, photo downloads, etc). We invest very heavily in trying to get the UI right so agents can successfully use our back-end without having to call the photographer. We still have work to do but we are making improvements every day. Our goal is to give photographers the tools to manage as much of their business as possible and let them focus on the parts that only they can do at the local level — sales and photography.
    3. Video in tours — only a handful of MLS’s have a specific “slot” for videos. This will probably become more prevalent but it will take years. I am not sure why Matti is trying to make a distinction between a “video link” and a “link to a tour with video”, but with TourBuzz we spent a lot of time thinking how to properly integrate video with photos/stills. So if you want you can put the video first and it will be the first thing people see when they click the “virtual tour” link in the MLS, and it’s integrated into the same “timeline” with the photos and panos. This makes it easier for a visitor to be sure that they don’t “miss” the other imagery hidden behind some extra link. Also our export-to-YouTube feature will auto-syndicate the tour (including video and stills) to YouTube, so it’s an “upload once, send everywhere” kind of solution which is really convenient.
    4. Additional features — we have added a lot of features over the years designed to help photographers increase their product offerings. We support interactive floor plans, video, YouTube syndication — all of these features were added at the request of photographers looking for a way to find ways to offer up-sell items to grow their business. We are also about to release a photographer-branded do-it-yourself tour for agents. Not all agents use a professional photographer for every listing, and this offers photographers a way to stay top-of-mind even in the cases where you aren’t doing the photography and also improve loyalty by allowing agents to keep all of their photography on a single system. There are a lot of other things that new technologies will offer in the future (actually the 3D scanning stuff is about to happen for real in 2013) and I think these new opportunities will be important for the real estate photography business. All of this extra stuff also helps independent photographers compete with the national tour/photography companies.
    5. I agree 100% that really the photographic quality is #1. At Tourbuzz, we’ve always felt it’s our job to make the photography the “hero”, while also respecting the truth that in the end, real estate photography is a volume business. So we focus on making your amazing photography look great while also trying to make it very fast and efficient for you to deliver a great-looking tour, stats, and customer service to your customers. We don’t really like gimmicks, and try to resist them as much as possible (though sometimes unfortunately it’s more expedient to just offer something rather than continually explaining why you don’t!).
    6. @LarryG and @MarkSinger — I am not sure when you last saw our templates. We added a bunch early last year that were all professionally designed. You are right in that it is relatively easy to add a new template, and if you feel that a different template is all that is missing for you to be using our system you should definitely let us know! As Carol said, we could either do a custom design exclusive for you, or you could have input into some new designs. We are planning to roll out a few new designs in a few months but we haven’t yet done the design phase, so if you contact us now you can be sure we will include you in our process to make sure that your needs are addressed! We are the only tour company that I know of that offers the breadth of templates that we have. It is really hard to do to have such varied templates, but it is also critical to our customers to have a look (or variety of looks) that they can offer to clients.

    Great conversation, keep it going!

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