These days, it seems you can’t go to a gathering of more than two Realtors in the same room without "social media" coming up in conversation somehow. The real estate industry has embraced social media the way Wall Street has embraced bailout money from the feds: often badly, and without understanding consequences.

In fact, there is precious little consensus on what the term "social media" even means. To some, it means a bunch of new places to tell people about their listings or how great they are; to others it means a gigantic 24/7 "chat-fest," like teens circa-1996 discovering AOL chat rooms for the first time.

These days, it seems you can’t go to a gathering of more than two Realtors in the same room without "social media" coming up in conversation somehow. The real estate industry has embraced social media the way Wall Street has embraced bailout money from the feds: often badly, and without understanding consequences.

In fact, there is precious little consensus on what the term "social media" even means. To some, it means a bunch of new places to tell people about their listings or how great they are; to others it means a gigantic 24/7 "chat-fest," like teens circa-1996 discovering AOL chat rooms for the first time.

Still to others, social media represents a whole platform for managing relationships. Recognizing that opinions are like … um … "belly buttons," since everyone has one, I nonetheless believe there are some things worth considering.

What social media is

First, social media is media. Second, social media is social.

So much of the confusion, I believe, can be cleared up if one considers carefully the meaning of both words.

As media, social media constitutes a permanent public record. That funny photo your friend took of you with the lampshade on your head is a private joke the two of you share. Put on Facebook, it is part of the "You York Times." And since the Internet never truly forgets anything, assume that every future employer, client, and significant other can eventually find that photo. Most of this, we all know as common sense.

What is not as well considered is that the value of media is dependent almost entirely on credibility, which in turn relies heavily on at least the perception of disinterestedness.

There is a big difference between how we think of a report on, say, Iraq by the U.S. Army (a government spokesperson), by a CNN anchor (a Democratic Party spokesperson), and by Michael Yon (an independent journalist).

For Realtors who make a living on buying and selling properties in a particular area, if you’re engaging in social media, you really need to consider how your posts, tweets or Facebook pages are going to be perceived.

On the other hand, if all you’re blogging about is your dog, and all your tweets are about your morning bagel, with no real value being added — whether op-ed or actual news — then that, too, is hardly "media." That’s more like chatter, like you would find in some Internet chat room.

Few people are going to care how credible you are about what you had for lunch. This isn’t social media — it’s social networking, where you chitchat with your friends online — and is a phenomenon as old as DARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.

I rather think old telegraph operators in the 19th century probably spent a bunch of time asking each other what they had for lunch, too.

Also, social media is social. Far too many real estate people treat social media as yet another broadcast channel to get the word out. We see this most clearly on Twitter, where a guy has 4,592 updates but not a single one that is a reply to anyone else. All he’s doing is broadcasting into the ether and trying to drive traffic to his Web site or to his seminar or whatever. One-way communication is antisocial media, whether that happens on newsprint or on Twitter-on-next-gen-handphones.

If you don’t care about others, and couldn’t be bothered to engage with people, then you’re in the broadcast business, not social media. …CONTINUED

What social media ain’t

First, social media is not technology. The single biggest source of confusion about social media arises from experts getting overly excited about some newfangled technology or another and making others believe that using that technology means they’re doing social media. No, no and once again: no.

Having a blog is not doing social media. Nor is having a Facebook profile, a LinkedIn group, or using Twitter.

Using your iPhone to post photos from your walk in downtown Knoxville via Twitpic to your Flickr account, which linked to FriendFeed and other RSS feeds, to be pushed out to all 17 of your blogs, your Facebook page and Twitter is not social media.

Technology makes social media possible for the vast majority of us, just like the printing press made newspapers possible, but the New York Times is no more its printing plants than social media is the technologies used to create it.

Second, social media isn’t social networking. We touched on this above, but if all you’re interested in doing is updating your network of friends, colleagues and clients about whatever you want to update them about, that is chit-chat and play, not social media.

At the same time, social media and social networking are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are mutually reinforcing. As you publish "media" content, then seek to engage with others to seek their opinions, thoughts and reactions, that engagement naturally builds relationships and networks.

Chattering with such engaged people only helps to drive your credibility and often helps to establish your disinterestedness. "Sure, we’re Facebook friends, and we’ve seen each others’ family photos, but I’m telling you that your house just ain’t gonna sell for more than $310,000" is how that works.

OK, so how do I do this social media thing?

Essentially, you want to be acknowledged as a credible authority within a constantly running conversation, but a conversation that is taking place in public with a permanent transcript. Seems impossible?

Actually, there is already a media channel that has been successfully doing precisely this for decades: talk radio. Take a show like Mike & Mike in the Morning on ESPN Radio, for example. They are clearly a form of media, with credibility in the world they cover (sports). When the hosts are being "serious," they often interview some of the biggest stars in the sports world, break stories, and do interesting analyses of games, teams and even specific plays.

They are social, since their readers can call in to the show, send e-mail to the hosts that may get read on the air, and there’s plenty of engagement with each other, with guests and with audience members.

And they chatter — the running gags about Greenie’s metrosexuality and Golic’s stupidity are just that: gags. But they are effective for setting the tone for the show, and help the audience relate to Mike and Mike as human beings.

The best social media practitioners are like talk-radio hosts: engaging, authoritative, authentic and conversational.

Robert Hahn is managing partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. He is also founder of The Notorious R.O.B. blog.

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