Real estate professionals — including some who are wary of changes the Internet has brought to the industry — are flocking to a Web site that helps them set up their own blogs and raise their online profile.
The Active Rain Real Estate Network, which hosts real estate blogs and forums, uses the same model employed by hugely popular sites like MySpace and YouTube. The site’s developers provide a free portal, but it’s up to users to supply the content.
The “user-generated” content created by Active Rain members generates traffic and more users, boosting the site’s popularity in a self-perpetuating cycle. Although the Active Rain has only been up and running since June, this week it broke the 3,000-member mark and is growing at an exponential rate as word of mouth spreads.
“The first week, we were adding six users a day, then 10, 15, 20 … I think we’re now getting 70 new users a day,” said Active Rain co-founder and CEO Matt Heaton. “It’s just one of these viral things — as we get new users, they bring their friends.”
There’s no shortage of Web sites offering to help anyone start their own free blog, including Google’s Blogger.com. For a fee, companies like BloggingSystems will help real estate professionals design blogs and optimize them for search-engine results. In addition to Active Rain, there’s another free blog host site that’s geared specifically to real estate professionals: Wanna Network.
But Wanna Network, which got a slight head start on Active Rain by launching May 23, has less than half as many users as Active Rain, and serves as more of a directory than a forum for blogs or discussion. There are fewer blog posts on Wanna Network, and many lack the depth and breadth of those found on Active Rain — even though the sites share some members.
Active Rain members contacted by Inman News said one factor in the quality of posts on the site is a points system that’s intended to reward members for posting information that’s relevant to others, rather than blatantly self-promotional in nature.
Posts on the site range from informational articles about professional practices to opinion pieces about changes in the industry and personal missives about the up-and-down nature of the business.
“Has anyone ever attended an absolute real estate auction?” asked Shannon Moore, a North Port, Fla., real estate agent, in a recent post. “I went to one this afternoon. It was quite an experience. What a deal! This house that was listed a few weeks ago for $399,900 just sold for $250,000 plus a 10 percent buyers premium and closing costs. I was going to look into the auction process for my listings and now I think may start bringing my buyers to the auctions instead.”
In another post, Southport, Conn.-based home loan consultant Nima Rezvan asked for ideas for effective marketing campaigns.
Teri Isner, a listing and buyer specialist in Kissimmee, Fla., advised Rezvan that “one of our best and most memorable marketing campaigns was a series of ads that featured animals — puppies, kittens, birds, horses — all with catchy lines like “need more space” or “room to grow.” The pictures were priceless and we even had Realtors asking when the next one was coming out.”
Tampa, Fla., Realtor Jonathan Greene commented that for-sale-by-owner letters — handwritten, hand-addressed, and 39 cents apiece — worked best for him, but a quarter-page newspaper ad only generated two leads.
While a typical blog post will earn its author 200 points, one that’s “very informational, well written” and “generates a good discussion” is worth 400 points, according to the Active Rain’s scoring guidelines. A post that’s “purely advertising, not informational in nature,” or spam earns no points.
Points are also awarded for recruiting new members, linking to Active Rain from another site, and providing help to other members. Heaton said the point system was borrowed from “massive multiplayer online games,” where users compete for bragging rights.
“Real estate agents are just as competitive in that way, and we can use that to grow the network,” Heaton said. But the points system can also have its drawbacks.
“I think people get carried away, posting comments on every single blog just to get points,” said Moore, who is ranked fifth on the site, with nearly 40,000 points.
“When I first joined, there was no limit on how many times you could post,” said Bryant Tutas, a Poinciana, Fla., seller’s agent. Some users would post 15 or 20 times a day, Tutas said, because they could earn points for every post regardless of its content.
Active Rain’s developers are responsive to such concerns, modifying the rules to keep users from gaming the system. To prevent “blog dumping,” members now can only earn points on two posts per day, and the site is policed for copyrighted material that is sometimes cut-and-pasted directly into Active Rain blogs.
Moore and other users said that they get a feel for a person from reading their posts, and can decide who is and who is not worth reading regardless of how many points they have.
“You gravitate toward certain people, and other people I don’t bother with,” Moore said. “I see their picture (next to a blog post) and I go, ‘Aw, they don’t usually have much to say.'”
But bloggers with the most points do show up on the top of Active Rain rankings. If a visitor to the site looks for a real estate agent in a particular city, for example, the agents who have amassed the most points show up on top.
For now, however, Active Rain users say they are more likely to use the site to learn and make professional connections than to drum up business.
New Orleans Realtor Eric Bouler, who specializes in warehouses that have been converted into condos, said Active Rain allows him to pick the brains of distant colleagues. He said he feels free to contact them and have open discussions because they are doing business in other regions of the country.
“They don’t mind sharing (information), when they wouldn’t want to share with a competitor,” Bouler said. “I can be very honest with them, where you’re not going to be open with someone who is 50 miles away.”
Another Active Rain blogger, Craig Schiller, is an interior designer with a background in advertising and marketing who does “staging” for people selling their homes. Staging is an emerging specialty in the real estate industry in which interior rooms are arranged to maximize the selling price of a home.
“I call it my brain dump,” Schiller said of his Active Rain blog. “It gives me a place to put my thoughts down. People can comment on them, and I can expand on them more. It’s really helped me capture and hold my thoughts.”
The dialogue, Schiller said, is “Generous, playful and fun. It’s education without pressure.”
Although Schiller said he isn’t trying to sell himself on his blog, it has helped him find customers, and he’s become something of an authority on staging without even trying.
“I’d never blogged before — I didn’t even understand what blogging was,” he said.
Tutas said he’d never blogged before, either, and although he’d had a Web site for years, he considered himself “not very computer literate.”
Now Tutas’ blog posts are among the most discussed on Active Rain, and he’s ranked among the top 20 users in points. His Active Rain blog now appears ahead of his own Web site in search-engine results, which doesn’t bother him because his blog is linked to his Web site.
The cumulative work of the network’s bloggers — creating content, recruiting new members, and linking to Active Rain from their own site — has helped Active Rain build traffic and climb in search-engine results, which Heaton has acknowledged in his own blog.
Some members have said they are worried that the Active Rain network is too good to be true — that one day they will be asked to pay for the services that are now provided for free, or that the site will become a lead-generation tool.
Heaton is critical of Internet-based lead generation sites in his blog, some of which he claims “provide very little value to the real estate transaction and … remove the decision-making power from consumers.”
“I can search on most real estate terms and find the top results cluttered with companies that want to grab my personal information as soon as possible and farm me out wherever they can make the most money. Does this really benefit the real estate industry or the consumer?”
Top-rated Active Rain blogger Linda Slocum, a Santa Clarita, Calif., real estate agent, has even stronger views, calling such ventures “real estate parasites” on her blog.
Active Rain, Heaton wrote, intends to pass all of the traffic the site generates “back to our members. We want to remove the barriers between the consumer and the agent, instead of create them.”
For now, the Active Rain target audience is primarily real estate professionals, but “I know consumers are going to come, that they have access to it,” Tutas said. “I want the consumer to be able to find my personality in my blog, and to give them an inside scoop as to what Realtors do. It’s not advertising.”
Heaton said broadening the site’s appeal to consumers by categorizing posts they might find useful is indeed a goal for the future. That, in turn, will make Active Rain a more effective tool for connecting consumers with agents.
But Heaton promised that all of the services Active Rain offers today will remain free, although the company may create and charge for some “value-added services.”
There are plans to offer segmented discussion groups, either by region or profession; categorize content so it’s more accessible to consumers; and make the site more useful as a referral network.
“We’ll never take anything we’re offering now, and make it a paid service,” Heaton said.
Sounding a bit like executives at YouTube, Heaton says Active Rain, which makes lead management software, is in no hurry to make money from the network.
“At this point … monetization is not at the forefront of our minds,” Heaton said. “We’re concentrating on building the community.”