This post was written by me during my tenure at the Massachusetts Association of REALTORS. Original article here.
As REALTORS®, staying in touch with clients throughout their home buying and selling life cycle is critical to repeat business and building your network of referrals. But why do past clients refer friends and family to you? A hint: it’s not the delicious fruit basket you sent after closing the sale, nor is it the free calendar you send every Christmas. They refer others to you because of your reputation as an expert in your field.
The Internet has removed the geographic constraint that led many buyers and sellers to the nearest agent. Now they use the Web to find the best agent, which will likely be the one with a history of insightful opinion mixed with market facts. This expertise, and the positive reputation that comes from it, is your most valuable asset in the social networking world.
Your Menu of Online Options
While there are offline options for maintaining contacts and building your reputation, they cannot compare to the online options: email, message boards, blogs, instant messaging, social network websites, etc. These tools are much more valuable than their traditional counterparts because communications are stored and searchable online forever; you can easily see your social graph (your network of connections) to leverage your social capital (the value of that network), and you can build a quantifiable reputation.
When thinking about the power of storing conversations online, consider this simple example. A potential client asks your advice on why now is a good time to buy. You provide a concise yet thorough answer backed up by research you recently read in a MAR monthly housing data release. The prospect is convinced, and they become your client on the spot…. the problem with this scenario is that this conversation only took place between two people. Once the conversation ends, and memories fade, no one else gets to benefit from your expertise. However, if this conversation took place at an online message board or blog it could be found by anyone in the world with a similar question. The exceptional answer you provided could convince others of your expertise, giving you additional opportunities for building relationships having done little more than make your expertise available online.
Opportunities for Messaging
There are many online message boards that provide opportunities like these. ActiveRain.com, which provides free blogs and social networking for the real estate community, hosts a Q&A section where consumers (and even other agents) can post questions. Any member of ActiveRain can answer the questions and gain two advantages: a valuable contact with whomever submitted the question, as well as participation points.
ActiveRain uses a point system to identify the most active members of their website. Posting or commenting to a blog gives you points. Inviting new members gives you points. Even fleshing out your online profile gives you points. With online tools it’s very easy to see who the most active members of a community are, and these members will have a far-reaching reputation built on their consistent involvement and contributions.
Another site with a very active community is Trulia’s Voices – trulia.com/voices. Lured by Trulia’s home searches, buyers and sellers post hundreds of questions a day. Much like ActiveRain’s Q&A section, agents can answer these questions which not only build connections to potential clients but also contribute toward their reputation in the community. Trulia also uses a points system to track their most active members who are listed in their Top Voices section. In addition, all answers an agent provides on Voices are also included in their profile, giving a consumer an instant history of that agent’s expertise. The more numerous and helpful the answers, the more valuable that agent looks to the consumer.
One of the easiest ways to get your knowledge online is with a blog, which is a simple tool to create a newsletter-style website; however, blogs are much easier to start than they are to maintain. A recent survey from Carlson Analytics found roughly 70% of new blogs are abandoned in the first month. One strategy to avoid this fate is to start with very defined goals and follow them to the letter. What is your blog about? Who will write the posts and how often? Will you have guest writers, etc.? Most blogs are free and have a few key features, such as: the ease of posting new content; a variety of plug-ins for adding audio; video and other media; a system for submitting visitor comments; and the ability to automatically create a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed. Using an RSS reader you can “subscribe” to a website and be notified when new information is posted so you can quickly and easily find what’s relevant to you. (You can read more about RSS feeds in the July 2008 Technology Tuesday Newsletter on BayStateRealtor.com.).
A blog can cover any topic imaginable, but the best blogs are those that maintain a specific focus with timely, relevant information posted on a regular basis. Blogs are written in a conversational style as opposed to websites, which tend to be more of a marketing vehicle. Successful blogs highlight the writer’s personality while providing information; then engage readers to post their own opinion in the comment areas. As visitors contribute comments, blogs give you, the agent and author, a chance to further connect with that consumer on what interests them. If that consumer values your content they may “subscribe” to your blog with RSS, giving you an instant way to deliver them news without the downsides of e-mail.
The Power of Social Websites
Social networking websites like MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn are probably the most visible products of the Web 2.0 revolution. The power of these sites, besides finding long-lost friends from high school, lies in there ability to expose your social graph and leverage those extended connections. These connections are made through “friend requests” where you ask someone to approve you into their networks and, once connected, you can access more information about them, view and connect with their friends and more, depending on which social network site you’re using.
Next comes leveraging those connections. Think of it this way… you have a question about staging a home. You know Sally, and Sally knows Tom who is an expert on the subject. You can see in Tom’s profile that he’s an expert and contact him directly with your question, possibly making a new connection in the process. Another example is the classic referral. You are a REALTOR® and your friend Sally knows John is looking to sell his home. Since you’re already friends with Sally, John is instantly more likely to trust you as his agent, so he contacts you for more information. This is an example of leveraging your social capital: the ability to turn your social graph (your friends, their friends, and beyond) into tangible benefits. All social network sites do this, but in different ways.
Which Site is Which?
MySpace is the largest social network website in the US. The site is known for an anything-goes approach to profiles and friend relationships; personal pages have almost unlimited branding options and there are no restrictions on friendship requests. Although MySpace can be somewhat visually overwhelming, it is still a valuable Internet property for connecting to clients and posting your photos, video, audio and more.
Now the largest social network site in the world, Facebook has seen explosive growth over the past few years since the introduction of their “apps.” These apps (applications) allow you to add a variety of content like RSS feeds, videos and photos into your Facebook profile as well as play games, send reminders, and even list items for sale.
Facebook profiles are more standardized than MySpace, and personal information is visible only to approved friends. Facebook also has a business tool called “Pages” that allows companies to create a presence on Facebook, track visits, post videos and other media, as well as send special messages to the “fans” of their page.
LinkedIn is about getting business done. The average age is far higher than most social networks and the median income is above $100K. Connections are highly guarded, and highly regarded, on LinkedIn because of the community’s culture and the fact you can only send friend requests to people within 3 degrees of separation. Outside that, you need an “Introduction” or you may connect through LinkedIn’s own message tool called InMail.
LinkedIn also tracks “Recommendations” about members and includes a Q&A section. Similar to the message boards discussed previously, LinkedIn’s Q&A allows you to highlight your expertise in a variety of topics while building your reputation and potential connections/referrals. On its Q&A homepage, LinkedIn features a weekly “Top Experts” list of members who have answered the most questions correctly.
The dynamic nature of social networks ensures that no one site will dominate forever, but online social networks are here to stay. As professional networkers, REALTORS® must be aware of where their client base interacts online and meet them there. If your clients move to a new site, you must move with them to maintain those contacts. Take that with a grain of salt, though, because the quality of interaction on a few choice online communities will be more valuable for your social capital than having a presence on many different sites. But wherever social networking takes you online, you must stay engaged with your network, prove your worth, and build a reputation as an expert in the community in order to thrive.
What some REALTORS® are saying about social networking…..
What’s the best tool to use?
I would say it is both Facebook and LinkedIn. They are both valuable tools but aim at different audiences and offer different features.
Gerry Bourgeois, Towne & Country Realtors®, Leominster
How do you prospect?
I post frequently to online newsgroups and respond to posts from others as often using a screen name that points out I am an agent and happy to help.
Lisa Johnson, Coldwell Banker, Haverhill
What advice would you give REALTORS® new to social networking?
You don’t have to learn it all or do it all in one day. Choose one site, whether it’s you own personal blog or a large site like TruliaVoices, ActiveRain, or Facebook, and write about topics that interest and excite you.
Deb Agliano, ERA Andrew Realty, Medford