Editor’s note: The following is a guest Q-and-A format tech column.
By STUART ROBBINS
Q: Are there ways that the independent Realtor with a limited marketing budget can get the same breadth of exposure that the large corporate real estate companies get? Are there more efficient ways that the small guy can compete? –Chuck, Palo Alto, Calif.
A: For most businesses, the Internet is the great equalizer. A well-designed website by an individual can draw as much attention as those sponsored by large companies.
The real question may be whether you want or need to draw that much attention: as with any technology solution, success depends upon accurately identifying your target audience (do you really need responses from the United Kingdom?) and delivering value to that audience.
You can launch your company’s Web presence at a very modest cost and improve it over time by responding to customer feedback.
In less than an hour, and avoiding the cost of an outside designer, you can select from their wide library of page templates and Web tools.
Broad exposure? These companies, for a fee, offer services that help to boost your search-engine ranking. Whatever approach you take, you want to make sure your site is designed to be found by search engines.
If you’re looking for something a bit more unique, and are willing to spend a few hundred dollars for a Web designer to create and publish your company’s site for you (perhaps you don’t have the time, or simply don’t trust yourself to do it alone) — there is a great way to reach all the unemployed programmers in this economy who are looking for part-time work.
You can advertise your project with Elance and receive proposals from a variety of technologists.
Perhaps the most innovative way to ensure a truly unique Web presence without a major investment is to contact local universities and sponsor a contest where the winning design not only receives compensation (whatever fits with your budget), but perhaps acknowledgement in the press as an award-winner.
Many computer science students, during their tenure, need to find projects to augment their portfolios and enhance their resumes, and tapping into this resource pool might deliver some very unusual (i.e., brand exposure) website designs for you to consider.
A final point to consider: the key issue is not to compete with the larger firms, but rather becoming the kind of small business that does what they cannot do.
While it may seem that they have unlimited resources, it is also true that their technology teams are overworked and burdened with supporting large, in-house systems that take many months to change.
As a small businessperson, be what those firms cannot be: personable, responsive, and nimble. And your technology should mirror those characteristics.
Q: Are there must-have features to consider? For example, what would be the best use of social media to spread the word? –Chuck, Palo Alto, Calif.
A: The incredible adoption of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a variety of blog providers cannot be overlooked. While their long-term usefulness remains open to debate, no one wants to be seen as a latecomer in the marketplace, or even more embarrassing — someone lacking in vision.
The history of the technology industry is replete with now-infamous aversions: the computer company executive who stated in the 1980s that personal computer sales wouldn’t pass the 100 mark, or the Silicon Valley executive who, in the early ’90s, instructed his research and development team to stop any investigations of browser-based applications.
That said, I’ll once again emphasize my opening statement: first, you must define your audience (target customers) and determine what that audience needs/wants from your new company.
It may very well be that a basic website is all you need to serve an aging audience that doesn’t use Facebook (and wishes their children spent less time doing so) in which case, having their iconic logo on your website may be less important than it would be if you were marketing your new service to college graduates.
I repeat again: know your audience, then determine what products and technologies make good business sense.
Ultimately, the broad variety of social media technologies is about creating a sense of community. The collaborative wisdom of your peers and clients is a resource that adds value in ways that you would never know, capturing and publishing what "many minds" are thinking rather than one.
Keep this in mind: while these technologies may be "free" or very modest in monthly cost, there is a time commitment on your part to be responsive. Set aside an hour each day to read and respond to those in your community, or it will become stale.
In the end, the true value of those technologies is dependent, in large part, on your engagement with and responsiveness to the audience you serve.
Focus on those social media technologies that help you market yourself in unique ways. Don’t know which to choose? There are other small businesses that can help, such as the marketing gurus at FFWD.
Q: As the playing field equalizes, and the customer now has direct access to what used to be private information that the Realtor supplied to the customer (e.g., multiple listing service information), where do you see Realtors adding value for the customer? Are there new services or technologies that contemporary Realtors can provide for their customers to add additional value? –Chuck, Palo Alto, Calif.
A: Realtors have experience gathered from years of doing this, while most of their customers have, at best, knowledge from only a few purchased properties or loans.
Subsequently, as your business grows, two important milestones/options are: a) increasing one’s services as the customers become more sophisticated, and b) broadening your market reach to include more potential customers.
There are "lessons learned" from numerous industries, from technology vendors to the medical community, when their core product has saturated their vertical market and their profit margins begin to flatten.
Those, for example, who delivered technology to the pharmaceutical industry learned to adapt their products to serve government entities that also have regulations.
Similarly, you might originally opt to provide a suite of property management solutions to one geographic region, then later consider franchising your core business to those in other geographies by providing your "portal" to other independent agents who will become an ecosystem in areas you cannot or do not want to serve.
Increasing your services, however, involves something less precise, and is connected to the responsiveness to your audience that we touched upon earlier.
Over the course of time, as your become more engaged with your audience, you will be challenged to give more and more of your time. It is much more difficult to individually respond to 2,000 e-mail questions than it is to respond each night to five or 10.
At that point, your company has reached the stage when other technology investments make sense.
The first is by considering the library of knowledge that you have accumulated, and delivering access to a repository of that expertise (allowing you to repurpose the very smart document you wrote for a client) by maintaining a document archive.
This might include your own set of templates (listings, contracts, dispute resolutions), originally prepared for individual transactions, that can be made available to a broader audience. Gmail and Google Docs, for example, allows users to store documents on its servers for later retrieval.
You can organize, expand and reuse this online library of documents whenever and wherever you have Internet access.
Finally, it is your brand, and your unique set of services — that "special sauce" that worked so well for your early clients — that becomes the source for long-term growth.
Make sure that you have a "Feedback" tab on your website, or to start out, a simple feedback@(companyname).com e-mail link, to interact with visitors. Consider conducting an online survey, or an informal focus group-style meeting, to take the pulse of your customers’ needs.
If you are engaged with your audience (really listening, not simply going through the motions of "read-and-reply"), they will tell you what else they need; only then should you consider the technologies required to meet those needs.
Your ability to constantly respond to the needs of your customers will always highlight the "next steps" for your business.
Stuart Robbins is an executive technology consultant, business coach, and author with more than 20 years of experience in information technology management for companies in the Silicon Valley and beyond. For more information, see www.srobbinsconsulting.com.