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 1 and Part 3.)

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Vikki Morvant’s discussion boards for southern Louisiana neighborhoods served as rallying points for the community – an example of how user-generated content can help clients bond with each other and the sponsoring agent.

The agent has garnered a mailing list of 3,000 to 4,000 names from the discussion boards and gets at least one lead a week from them, she says. As more and more online content, such as social networking site MySpace, is generated by users, real estate agents can capitalize on the trend to market their services, as Morvant has.

As a marketing device, Morvant had already created discussion boards at homeonthenorthshore.com for 34 different subdivisions in the Mandeville, La., area. She had given homeowners passwords to access the discussion boards to learn about the neighborhoods.

When Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, the agent was inspired to put the boards to use in the wake of the storm.

“I realized we could use them to communicate,” said Morvant, who co-owns the Mandeville Keller Williams franchise, which has 130 agents.

“I stripped off all the passwords. I set up a forum and started e-mailing everyone I had listed in my computer to try to track my agents down,” Morvant said. The Realtor was at work at the keyboard before lunchtime on Tuesday, Aug. 30.

“Tuesday I must have gotten 500 hits. By Wednesday and Thursday I was getting 5,000 and 6,000 hits a day and hundreds of e-mails,” Morvant said.

People who wanted to know if their friends or relatives were all right could key the name of their city or subdivision into a search engine and turn up Morvant’s site, then drill deeper to find the discussion boards to see if there was news. Agents could post their whereabouts.

By the time the crisis was over, Morvant’s message boards and her identity had made a strong impression.

Morvant established the boards in 2000 and advertises them on her Web site and on the postcards she sends out to neighborhoods when a house is listed or sold. The agent said she has amassed a mailing list of between 3,000 and 4,000 people who registered on the sites.

“Most real estate practitioners would love to be able to get a message out to 3,000 or 4,000 people for free,” Morvant said.

“Right now, insurance availability here is a hot topic. We just had another major insurance company say it is cutting back on the number of policies it wants exposed here. I view this as a chance to do a public service, send out an announcement, ‘here are some of the insurance companies we as real estate practitioners are able to find writing insurance policies,'” Morvant said.

Every week, she gets at least one lead from the sites, the Realtor said. Visitors to the site can fill out a drop-down menu asking for information about homes for sale in that neighborhood, and these are e-mailed to her.

Only homeowners in the specific subdivisions are allowed to post on the lists, and Morvant is very protective of their privacy. She does not admit anyone, including reporters, to the discussion boards.

“People talk about a variety of things. They give referrals to people who will do work around the house, and referrals to roofers and similar services,” Morvant said. “Good places to shop, specifics about the schools.”

Individuals log in using their e-mail address and password, so the chance of people passing out a generic password to friends is small, the Realtor said. She uses EasyBoards.com, software that helps her set up the boards – she is now up to 36 – and manage them.

Morvant visits the boards regularly to make sure no flame wars or other unpleasantness break out. Generally, she said, people are well behaved, though she has had to send a few warnings and once expelled an individual who was using the discussion board to pursue an argument with a neighbor.

“With today’s software, all message boards are set up so the user can go in and have new comments flagged so you’re not wasting time reading everything twice,” she noted.

Overall, the boards have worked well for her, Morvant said.

“From a business standpoint, I’m getting my name out there. And right after Katrina hit, it turned into a humanitarian effort,” she said. “It’s an excellent way to connect with people you want to do business with. It’s fun because I like being on the computer anyway and if I’m going to be interacting with people it might as well be the people who just might hire me to sell their house.”


Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to janis@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 140.

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