Just like many other Stanford students about to switch from full-time student to full-time in the business world, I’ve spent the past 1.5 months looking for housing. Last year, my housing search prompted me to write about the search itself. This time, I want to focus in on Facebook Marketplace’s “Rentals” housing tab. Instead of a typical “product teardown,” I’m going to focus on a few changes I’ve seen Facebook make to Rentals, and discuss how these tweaks have transformed the usability of the platform in the housing search.
Facebook Marketplace is in many ways an updated Craigslist: people can buy and sell a wide variety of items in several different categories. Thanks to integration with the overall Facebook platform, users can rely on the underlying trust mechanism of public information from users’ Facebook accounts, transforming the song-and-dance of emailing anonymous Craigslist postings into something that feels more like a conversation with a real person.
The category I’m focusing on, Rentals, allows people to post rooms and houses they are looking to rent or sublet, with direct communication usually happening over Facebook Messenger.
I frame this product transformation with the overarching goal of increasing the usefulness (and competitiveness) of Rentals, perhaps with specific success metrics about number of reach-outs, increased amount of listings clicked on and viewed, number of “sold” (“rented”, in reality) listings recorded on Rentals, and percentage of successfully rented listings. Using both percentages and total transactions helps balance overall growth (more homes rented) with incremental usefulness of the platform (larger % successfully rented).
Removal of Homes for Sale
Before I get into additions to Rentals, I want to take a moment to acknowledge Facebook’s feature pruning. We all love shiny new features, but reducing complexity is a great design goal to strive towards, especially since it can improve overall usefulness of the platform. Back when Rentals was just “Housing”, Facebook had a page to list entire homes for sale or rent. By focusing on rentals only, Facebook provides a narrowed scope to more successfully build its reach into real estate. Given that Facebook Marketplace’s demographics likely skew younger (as does most tech), and younger people have a higher propensity to rent than buy homes, there’s more people available in the rental market to build a critical mass.
One simple change I’ve noticed is simply greater availability of rental listings on Marketplace. The platform has certainly grown over the past couple years, and more familiarity with using it for buying and selling other goods may have increased the propensity of landlords to post their listings on the site. By increasing the number of listings, people have more opportunities to find suitable matches in the market, increasing several success metrics related to conversion.
One smart way Rentals created its original mass of sellers was through a partnership with Zumper, mutually beneficial to expand both companies’ reach in the housing market. Since two-sided marketplaces are hard to develop, and even with a huge base of potential buyers on Marketplace (signup and switching costs are negligible for buyers who already have Facebook accounts), Facebook needs continued effort to ensure that landlords and other agents notice others posting on Rentals, and want to do the same. Zumper was a good start, but the big appeal of using Marketplace is being able to instantly connect real people, not having to deal with large rental companies. For Facebook specifically, keeping things in-platform instead of sending potential buyers to other sites is generally desirable.
Although more listings are good for the marketplace, rapid growth means a growing number of scams are appearing on the platform. There are a few fairly new Facebook profiles posting tons of rental listings, which is an easy way to spot a scammer. Unlike sites like Craigslist, where the fault of getting scammed is expected to rest squarely on you, Facebook might be the target of ire from scammed customers, and will need to factor this into its longer-term plan with Rentals.
Perhaps the most important change I’ve seen on the platform is the addition of a map view, which is a very popular feature (at least from personal and anecdotal experience) used on other sites. A couple months ago, I discovered map view implemented on Facebook’s app platform, but I prefer to do a lot of my housing search on a computer (writing down information on potential listings is easier to do). It appears that Facebook has now integrated this map onto its online site, much to the platform’s benefit.
With map view, listings are more easily viewed in groups by city. Zooming in, individual listings appear with their location and price. The two dimensions of price and location are the most important characteristics renters are looking for, according to an ApartmentGuide study, and it seems Facebook prioritized accordingly.
Increased supply through more listings, coupled with the demand-focused implementation of Map View, have greatly improved the usability of Rentals in Facebook Marketplace. With additional efforts to increase listings while reducing scams that plague the online housing search, I think that Rentals has great potential to improve the overall housing search process.