Hacker Connect January 16 in New York
An event for and by the real estate tech community

SAN FRANCISCO — A blog about popcorn ceilings, the growing use and sophistication of mobile devices, and participation in marketing and networking sites such as ActiveRain.com or Facebook.com may hold clues to the future of Internet marketing, though there is no single magic recipe that works for everyone, presenters said during a real estate conference on Wednesday.

“I think how you use all these technologies is so much more important than the technology itself. There’s no magic bullet — no magic elixir that’s all of the sudden going to change this. I believe you have to have a blended approach,” said Jeff Turner, president of Real Estate Shows, a company that offers technology for real estate professionals to create audio slide show presentations.

Turner said that customized, professionally produced online real estate videos may be the favored approach in some instances, as an example, while his company’s more simplified solution of a sequence of panning photos set to music may be the best fit for real estate professionals in other situations.

A few attendees of the Real Estate Connect SF conference’s Internet Marketing Boot Camp sessions said they were concerned about the potential problems associated with new marketing technologies — such as the potential for agent bloggers to run afoul of libel laws or for valuation sites to interfere with agent and consumer discussions about property values.

Damian Scott, president of valuation site Eppraisal.com, said real estate professionals have an important role in discussing property values with consumers, as valuation sites cannot take into account all of the nuances associated with property values. Even so, valuation sites do provide an additional resource for consumers, he said — “The more information you give, the better.”

Internet technology allows real estate professionals to better manage relationships with clients, said Chris McKeever, strategic architect for the National Association of Realtors’ Center for Realtor Technology. “You can really increase your client load” while increasing efficiency, he said.

Blog postings and networking sites can boost Web rankings and traffic, presenters also said — sometimes in unexpected ways. Jonathan Washburn, president of the ActiveRain real estate network, cited the example of a Realtor’s blog posting about eliminating “popcorn ceilings,” which drew lots of consumer traffic. Washburn said that such natural language communication can serve to draw more Internet consumers to a real estate professional.

Kevin Boer, a San Francisco Bay Area Realtor and author of the 3 Oceans Real Estate Blog, said niche-marketing can also be king in Internet marketing — his blog quickly jumped up in the Google Web site rankings because his blog caters to specific neighborhoods in the market he serves.

Those agents who don’t have the time to contribute multiple posts each week to a blog may find the best solution is to form blogging teams with other agents, Boer said. “As a Realtor you might not have time to write a good post everyday but you probably have time to write a good post every week,” he said.

While individual agents and real estate blogging networks now dominate the landscape of real estate blogging, real estate blogger and consultant Pat Kitano said that brokers are getting into the game, too. Kitano, who publishes the TransparentRE.com blog and serves as managing principal for Domus Consulting Group, said, “Within the next couple of months you are going to see basically team brokerage Web sites that will actually have agent blogs on them,” and he is working to build up these sites.

Those agents who have not joined the Web 2.0 revolution of participating in blogs or social networking sites may find themselves “pulled onto the Internet kicking and screaming” by consumer review sites such as HomeThinking.com or Yelp.com, Kitano said. A negative review could find its way into Google search results, he added, so real estate professionals should take a proactive approach by setting up Google Alerts to notify them when their name or brand appears online.

Business and social networking sites are essentially a new form of Rolodex and “the yellow pages of the future,” Kitano also said, and he encouraged real estate professionals to participate.

Boer said that real estate professionals have essentially already lost the war to keep control of property listings to themselves, as other companies “are selling (them) back to us as leads. The war that’s being fought now is the war for qualitative information that’s in agents’ heads. We’re headed down the road right now of losing that battle as well. Are we going to or are we going to keep that in the industry?” he asked.

The slowing real estate market has led to more focus on buyer leads, said Rick Sherga, vice president of marketing for foreclosure data company RealtyTrac. “Leads are typically coming with a longer lead time as the buying cycles have stretched out.” The buyers today are looking for bargains, he said, and agents may need to do a little more digging to find appropriate house matches for buyer clients.

“I suggest you have to start looking at nontraditional lead sources on the Internet,” he said.

John Chang, vice president of marketing and e-business for the John L. Scott Real Estate brokerage company, said that perhaps 20 to 25 percent of the Internet leads the company receives are “‘low-hanging fruit’ that have an immediate need — maybe the rest are six months out, one year out, or longer.”

The company’s focus has been in responding to its online leads quickly and in maintaining long-term relationships with those consumers, he said. The company has invested about $2.5 million per year in building up its Web presence, he said, and he estimates a 15-20 percent conversion rate for company-received leads passed along to agents.

Education is an important complement to technology, said Marnie Blanco, vice president of e-business for real estate franchisor RE/MAX International. “That’s the first step — education on top of the technology tools we provide.” So-called drip marketing campaigns such as automated e-mails to prospective home buyers and sellers can be most useful if they are personalized and customized, she also said. “Now you have the leads — what do you do now? How do you take it and package it with your value? There’s no technology out there that’s going to ever replace that agent and that broker,” she said.

Heidi Mueller, a broker associate for Prudential California Realty who also presented during an Internet Marketing Boot Camp session, agreed that real estate professionals still have a vital role in helping consumers to sort out all of the information now available online. “(Consumers) are inundated with information. They have nothing but information.”

Real estate professionals can serve as the generators of information, too, but more importantly provide advice to consumers, she said. “It’s a privilege to work with me. I have a lot to give.”

Richard Corbin, an information technology manager for San Francisco Bay Area residential real estate brokerage Grubb Co. who attended the Internet marketing sessions, said it’s important to be proactive rather than reactionary in adopting new online technologies. His company, he said, has invested in mobile technologies, for example, and is also examining how to best leverage agent blogging.

It all boils down, he said, to “what makes sense for you and your company,” and to training agents in adopting the new technologies.