Editor’s note: Real estate agents are learning that online community sites can be useful in reaching their target audience. Agents can use community Web sites to raise awareness about their services and drum up local business, while consumers can use the sites to rate, review, recommend and reach agents in their desired locations. This three-part series uncovers how a few savvy agents are using these sites and building their own.

Editor’s note: Real estate agents are learning that online community sites can be useful in reaching their target audience. Agents can use community Web sites to raise awareness about their services and drum up local business, while consumers can use the sites to rate, review, recommend and reach agents in their desired locations. This three-part series uncovers how a few savvy agents are using these sites and building their own. (See Part 2 and Part 3.)

Be where the people are: It’s a basic principal in advertising – and real estate professionals are learning that online community sites can be useful in reaching their target audience.

While there are examples of online communities such as MySpace that attract a global audience, others tap into the old real estate adage of “location, location, location” by drawing users from a specific geographic area.

Real estate professionals can use such sites to raise awareness about their services and drum up local business, while consumers can use the sites to rate, review, recommend and reach real estate professionals.

These days, word-of-mouth referrals aren’t always spoken – they can be typed, too.

Judy’s Book is an online community that is focused on the Seattle market and is building an inventory of reviews for other markets as well.

The site features “Social Search,” which allows site members to search for relevant information that is written by people in their personal network, as well as a “TrustScore” that can help users “evaluate the quality and trustworthiness of reviews.” There is also a basic five-star rating system for a range of business types, including real estate brokerage.

“The idea of going local is not new,” said Andy Sack, Judy’s Book co-founder and CEO. Sites like Citysearch.com, which offers user ratings for businesses in metro areas across the country, have been around for years, he noted. But he sees a trend in increasingly local content. While Judy’s Book and other sites are focused on city-level and metro-area content, the evolution may be toward “neighborhood or street-level communities,” he said.

Ben Straley, director of marketing at Judy’s Book, noted that real estate “is inherently local. Local community sites are a great place for the real estate community and agents to spend a little bit of time and listen to what folks are talking about.”

While there can be a fine line between business promotion and valuable consumer information, Sack said, “We err on the side of the consumer,” adding, “What’s neat about the Web, it’s really a place where consumers and businesses can have a dialog.” The site allows real estate agents and others to respond directly to positive or negative reviews they receive from consumers.

Wendy Leung, a Realtor for John L. Scott Real Estate in Seattle who has received several reviews at Judy’s Book, said her husband told her about the site and she joined last year. “It’s a local Web site. I thought I would like to support the … site. I thought it was a good opportunity to get exposure.” She sometimes recommends the site to her clients, and one client found a nanny using the site, Leung said.

While Leung has received some phone calls from Judy’s Book users, she said the site hasn’t yet generated any solid leads for her business, though she said it’s still early. When using online community sites to find business services, Leung said she usually defers to those reviews written by friends. “I know if a person giving the review is a friend of mine I trust their feedback and reviews,” she said.

Some real estate blogs might also be grouped with online communities, as they may allow readers to participate by offering comments. Leung maintains a Seattle Condo Review blog, for example, that she says has been a solid lead generator. “I’ve been getting a good response,” she said. “Recently my blog is (generating) more and more … quality leads.”

Curbed.com, a real estate blog focused on New York City neighborhoods, built a community of readers up in its backyard before branching out into other markets with the launch of sister blogs for Los Angeles and San Francisco. And the creator of Brownstoner.com, a Brooklyn-focused real estate Web site, called upon its existing community of readers in launching a separate real estate broker ratings Web site, Brokerate.com.

Some online communities feature less formalized recommendations and reviews of real estate professionals, such as the Berkeley Parents Network, a site created in 1993 by Ginger Ogle, a former computer science graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.

The network is an online forum for parents in the Berkeley, Calif., area featuring newsletter digests that are sent by e-mail to subscribers 10-12 times a week. The network has about 13,000 members, and members share comments about a range of services.

Tim Cassidy, a real estate agent for Red Oak Realty who works in the Berkeley area, received a recommendation at the site from a couple who he worked with. “Tim is patient and extraordinarily hard-working and he found us a home that was under our budget … that has many of the qualities we were looking for,” according to the member recommendation.

Unfortunately, Cassidy said, his phone number was incorrect in the original posting, though it has since been corrected. Cassidy said he has used the network to search for services in the area, and he has also referred clients. “I think (such sites) will grow in that people get more used to the idea of online communities. But the information they have is always going to be subject to your own filter. They are never going to be completely perfect,” he said.

Most of Cassidy’s real estate business is generated through referrals from his own clients, he said.

Craigslist.org features classified listings and other community-specific postings for a range of metro areas across the country and internationally. Some agents have used craigslist sites to promote their services.

Jon Hunter, a real estate agent in Seattle who is featured at Judy’s Book, said he hasn’t yet received any calls from consumers who mention that they found him at that site, though he said it could serve as another online marketing tool.

“Judy’s Book is one of those new, cool fad kind of things. You always try to increase your marketing – increase your grassroots efforts to … solidify your name in the community,” he said. As sites become popular, there is always the risk that they will become crowded with ads and spam, Hunter said. Also, there is always the possibility that reviews and ratings are ads in themselves. But, he said, online communities serve a useful purpose in supplying consumers with another research tool.

“As a consumer I’ll always research. If I’m looking into doing business with a certain landscaper I’ll do my homework. I’ll jump online, do a Google search, (look at) Judy’s Book, maybe even craigslist. I’ll look at what other people are saying before I refer them out to a client,” he said. “I don’t think consumers go to a Web site to say, ‘This is the agent I want to use.’ I think they go to a Web site to vindicate what they already know.”

There definitely seems to be a higher comfort level with online communities than there has been in the past, he said. “I think there is somewhat of a paradigm shift in online communities. More people are getting wired. I can’t see this as a fad that’s going to go away.”

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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