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

If you were asked to name a social networking site that can claim as members a heavy equipment operator from Alaska, a nurse from New Mexico, and an insurance broker from Hawaii, you’d probably be right if you said MySpace.

With more than 110 million members, MySpace boasts a user base representing people from all walks of life. But you might be surprised to learn that the social networking site with the diverse membership listed above was created by Chase International, one of the nation’s most prominent brokers of luxury properties.

Zephyr Cove, Nev.-based Chase International launched its social network, ChaseNation, on April 1 — April fool’s Day. But there’s nothing half-baked about the site.

ChaseNation relies on an open-source code developed by "white label" social networking provider Ning, which was customized to add additional capabilities and a sophisticated look compatible with the Chase International brand.

If you’re wondering why a real estate broker known for handling some of the most exclusive listings on the planet is entering the realm of companies like MySpace, the answer is simple: to connect agents to clients.

ChaseNation not only allows agents to create their own profile page and blogs where they can post their insights about the local market (plus photos and videos), but gives them the power to create and join groups where common interests are discussed.

What’s revolutionary about the site is that anyone — including the agents’ clients and professional colleagues like title insurance agents — can create content, too.

Of course, allowing everybody to join in is what social networks are all about. But even though many real estate professionals have created their own personal blogs and some brokerages have company blogs, ChaseNation is thought to be the first example of a real estate broker creating a social network.

Although Chase International had several agents doing a lot with their personal blogs, "We could never really put our arms around blogging as a company," said President and Chief Executive Officer Shari Chase.

Most agents won’t set up their own blogs, Chase said. But the new social network not only provides a place for each agent to blog, but makes it easier for them to connect with each other and their clients.

"It’s fun — you’re having this conversation with people you’ve worked with for years but who you wouldn’t chat with once a month," Chase said. A social network "Let’s you see who their friends are, what they are saying — for the agents alone, it’s been just wild. They are just ecstatic."

Although the site has only officially been up for a week, membership had already hit 239 members by Monday (including 117 Chase agents).

The site’s members include heavy equipment operator Derek Winchester of Anchorage, Alaska, and Karl Brennecke, a 65-year-old retired driver for Railcrewxpress, a company that provides transportation for train crews.

Brennecke, ChaseNation member #216, said Chase Agent Mike Robinson clued him into the site.

Robinson "helped with buying a condo in Reno and we got along well," Brennecke told Inman News in an e-mail. "I am interested in Reno real estate and would like to do some more investing in that market. I haven’t fully explored the site as yet but so far I like what I see."

The site’s goal is "to create a conversation about Reno-Tahoe real estate and the Reno-Tahoe lifestyle," said Chase, who credits agent Diane Cohn — "one of the most avid and successful (real estate) bloggers in the nation" — with much of the vision behind it.

Cohn said the site lets Chase’s partners and the public chime in on the conversation, whether it’s title agents or home inspectors writing about issues of interest to consumers, or people living in the San Francisco Bay Area or Los Angeles who are "thinking about moving here, or who already have a place in Tahoe and want to see what’s happening in the community."

Social networks are different from blogs in that not only can anybody contribute, but it’s easy to follow what other users are doing or saying — whether they are forming or joining groups, or commenting on each other’s posts, for instance.

"There’s this real nosy factor that kicks in," Cohn said. "It’s fun to see who’s been on the site … you can click on a profile and see what they are doing on the site. It’s a big Chase family of clients and friends. It’s fun."

If the site is fun to use, that’s in part because of the considerable work that went into creating it.

To create ChaseNation, Chase International tapped Cohn’s husband, Ted Cohn, for his expertise as the president, chief technology officer and founder of another social network, Fohboh, a business-to-business restaurant industry site that’s also Ning based.

Ted Cohn said that while Ning is "quite extraordinary" in providing a free open source code and additional premium services, ChaseNation required the addition of many features to the stock Ning architecture.

Cohn helped Chase modify the source code to provide a more sophisticated blogging platform that allowed for categories, indexing and search. Other custom features include an MLS search tool, a Google Maps application that allows users to find other members by location, and the ability to search for members based on whether they are Chase agents or not.

The behind-the-scenes modifications also allow site administrators to highlight selected content, including a "featured agent" box that shows up on each page.

While the site embraces the democratic aspects of social networking sites, MySpace it is not. There’s a customized header, and the black and white head shots of agents are uniform in their presentation, with each professionally lit and each agent attired in a dark, collarless shirt.

"It’s not for the faint of heart," Cohn said. "If someone wants to build a vibrant, dynamic community, it’s really a lot of work."

ChaseNation is essentially brand new, but already boasts more than 50 groups for discussing specific topics. The most popular groups include "Reno Real Estate Market," "technology", "Reno Nevada Luxury Homes, "Ultimate Deals Tahoe-Reno."

The site is not just for connecting agents to prospective clients, but can help them keep tabs on each other. There’s even a group for agents — Chase Agent Exchange — with membership by invitation only.

Discussions aren’t limited to real estate, either. The group "Hawaii-Lake Tahoe Connection" was created by Chase agent Kristine Mitchell, who says many locals and visitors to Lake Tahoe and the Sierra also spend time in Hawaii.

"Whether you prefer a tropical paradise getaway or seasonal mountain retreat, connect with others who share the aloha spirit," Mitchell wrote in creating the group.

Although social networks may be cutting edge for real estate brokers, they are rapidly becoming passé for those most connected to the ‘Net. Ning alone boasts tens of thousands of social networks, and there’s a danger that what’s hot today could become tired tomorrow.

The issue of "network fatigue," is a valid issue, Diane and Ted Cohn agree, but ChaseNation has the advantage of providing a specific focus — Reno-Tahoe real estate and lifestyles.

"I think people will gravitate toward services depending on what they use them for" Ted Cohn said. In the same way that users of a "vertical" like LinkedIn may use it in a fairly specialized way – to make their resumes available and keep in touch with business contacts — ChaseNation is a "very niche vertical," he said.

Diane Cohn agrees there’s a danger of "social networking overload" among the most connected. But ChaseNation has "the first mover advantage" she said. Cohn noted that although she joined the real estate blogging and social network ActiveRain right after it launched, it took several months before she came back and started using the site.

"The agents themselves are all really engaged," Chase said of the site’s launch. "They’re thinking the market is down, the media is down, this allows them to open new doors, talk about new opportunities – there’s an energy you can feel throughout the entire site."

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