Editor’s note: In this in-depth four-part series, Inman News tackles the exploding trend in real estate blogs. We chat with some of the most well-known and prolific bloggers in the real estate brokerage, mortgage and title insurance industries to see what makes these blogs tick. (Read Part 1, Part 3 and Part 4.)
Newsgathering and number crunching
While some bloggers are content to offer readers their thoughts on the issues of the day, others are venturing into territory that once belonged to news reporters. Bloggers routinely gather, crunch and interpret numbers, interview industry movers and shakers, and break news before the mainstream press.
For some, part of the incentive is to counteract what they see as the negative or oversimplified reporting on the real estate industry that’s done by professional journalists. But often the news and issues discussed by bloggers wouldn’t otherwise be covered at all.
Opinions are in plentiful supply on the Internet, but Matrix, a blog created and written by real estate appraisal executive Jonathan Miller, has become known as a reliable source of statistics, which are presented in a context that helps readers understand their significance.
“I don’t see myself as a reporter, but I do see myself as a conduit for a lot of information,” Matrix’s Miller said. “My goal is to parse it out for the reader so it’s interesting and informative.”
Miller isn’t content to take the numbers released by industry groups or the government at face value. He questions the assumptions underlying the data, and uses graphs and charts to reveal what’s worth taking notice about them.
“In the beginning, I was systematic about it. When NAR (the National Association of Realtors) or OFHEO (the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight) releases stats, you’d jump on it,” he said. “After a while it gets boring, because the news media already covers that. So the idea was to parse out why the data was even worth talking about.”
Matrix has built a following among government officials and members of the news media, and Miller now finds himself in a position where academics and others with studies and statistics to release provide them to him. Employees at the Federal Reserve complain when he’s late to post, he said.
“I’ve become less a regurgitator of national news, to generating original content or finding an angle on something that’s interesting to me,” Miller said.
Each post usually takes an hour, and some consume as much as three.
“The objective is to have a more fully informed public,” Miller said. “You always have a spin; the NAR does not realize the damage they are doing to the industry. First they were trying to come up with a new name for the housing boom, it became the housing expansion. Now it’s the housing rebound. It’s almost like everything they say is targeted for their membership, not the public. They erode the public’s confidence in them when they talk like that.”
Kris Berg, who writes the San Diego Home Blog with her husband Steve, said a recent coffee shop interview she conducted with Redfin founder and CEO Glenn Kelman, podcast on BloodhoundBlog, doesn’t mean she’s planning to put aside her career in real estate.
“It happened quite by accident that I was thrown into situation of playing journalist for a day,” Berg said. “Glenn called me, knowing I’m not a huge fan (of Redfin), because he was planning on moving into the San Diego market, and knew (meeting with a blogger) would get word out online. He called me, and Greg Swann (founder of Bloodhound Blog) said get a podcast. I happened to have coffee with the guy, turned on a tape recorder and that was it.”
Not afraid of controversy
Some bloggers, afraid of scaring away potential clients, might shy away from covering “hard” news or discussing issues in which the industry is not always portrayed in the most favorable light. Not the bloggers who talked to Inman News.
Maureen Francis, a Birmingham, Mich.-based broker and the author of miOaklandCounty, has been writing her real estate blog for two years and says she is “a voracious watcher” of community public access television.
“I follow every city council and village council meeting, because that’s really relevant to where our communities are headed,” she said. She tracks zoning laws and other issues that might affect property sales, and “is always blogging about local politics” around election time. Last fall, Francis even endorsed a slate of candidates for the Village of Beverly Hills, Mich., council on her blog, miOaklandCounty.
Swann said a client he had done almost a dozen past deals with told him he would no longer do business with BloodhoundRealty because of something he said on his blog. Swann doubts the blog was the root of the problem.
“I said, ‘There’s something else going on, why don’t you tell me what the real issue is,’ ” Swann recalls. “We are a forum for debate, whether it’s clients or real estate professionals. This is a free country.
“I really do like the idea of not pulling punches, no holds barred. Bring it all out there. I learn so much from the other people because of the debate. This is true for everyone — you’re wrong half the time, you just don’t know which half.”
St. Paul, Minn., broker and blogger Teresa Boardman’s recent visits to several foreclosed properties with a buyer made an impression on her — impressions that ended up in a recent post on St. Paul Real Estate Blog:
“Holes in the ceiling do not bother me or my buyer, what is getting to us is the sad story these homes tell. They are often vacant, but still have some of the personal belongings of their previous owners in them. We find baby blankets, dolls and other toys. We see rooms decorated for teenagers, and bikes on the front porch.
“The homes themselves have a lonely neglected feel to them. We find holes in the walls, water-damaged ceilings, broken windows and sometimes dirty dishes in the sink. In one home we found an (intravenous) stand, and wondered who got sick and if that is why they couldn’t make their house payments.
“When we start on these house-hunting missions we are usually both fairly talkative, but after going through several homes we drive back to his car in silence, thinking about the homes we saw, and wondering where the families that belong to the personal possessions in the homes are today.”
Boardman says she thought twice about writing a post about the reality families face when the dream of home ownership turns out to be just that — a dream. But the post didn’t generate a controversy. When Boardman let a guest write about for-sale-by-owner listings, however, that ruffled some feathers.
Boardman has one guest writer on her blog. “I call it Teresa’s day off,” she said. “He is not a Realtor, he’s a FSBO. I let him write two posts on the joys of being a FSBO, and the real estate community was outraged. I got a big kick out of it. It adds a lot to have a homeowner.”
The willingness to blog about controversial issues — or even those that don’t show the industry in the best light — can give bloggers credibility with readers.
Bells and whistles
Once you’ve started producing content, there are a mind-boggling number of tools that can help promote and distribute it.
Some tools, such as providing a way for readers to subscribe to your posts via RSS, ATOM or XML feeds, are built into most blogging platforms.
It’s also a good idea to make it clear how readers can contact you.
Francis has embedded an instant messaging application, meebo, into her blog, allowing clients to initiate live chats when she’s online.
“People were not using the ‘contact us’ button. I very rarely get anything through that,” she said. “If people see the little green light that says I’m online, they feel very free to ask questions.”
Although Francis has been successful initiating IM chats through her blog, it is “not a lead-generating machine,” she says. “I’d probably be better off going to parties and talking to people, but the blog gives me a reason to call people up and say, ‘What’s going on with the Birmingham Farmer’s market?’ “
“I quickly realized the blog was never going to be a direct lead generator,” Berg said. “Nobody’s going to call you because they like your blog,” although it can generate leads indirectly, she said.
Other applications allow bloggers to learn more about their audiences — who they are, what stories they’re interested in, and what brought them to their site. (See sidebar, “Bells and Whistles” for more details.)
The temptation to try every new widget can distract from the never-ending process of producing content.
“You’re not only battling the content demons, but from a functionality standpoint, you’re trying to keep the software systems chugging,” Berg said.
Swann said he’ll give the latest applications for bloggers a try — he was one of the first bloggers to embed REMBEX, a search engine that indexes real estate blogs — but woe to the application that doesn’t deliver the goods.
“What (BloodhoundBlog readers) like is good writing,” Swann said. “I’m not really interested in lots of bells and whistles. I have gotten rid of a whole bunch of it, and I am more likely to cut something than add it.”
BloodhoundBlog features a list of nearly 200 real estate-oriented blogs that have been painstakingly vetted to weed out blatantly self-promotional sites and “splogs” — spam blogs created to boost search-engine results rather than for actual readers.
Swann is excited about plans to deliver more podcasts and video through the site, although he worries that the site is already slow to load. He’s looking at acquiring a dedicated server for the site, which would give him the bandwidth “so you have something in front of your eyes as soon as you hit the screen.”
Francis switched over to WordPress in September, and said the learning curve was fairly steep.
“I’d been blogging long enough I knew some HTML, which you are going to need to know,” she said. “You are going to run into some problems.”
“I never blog about a listing, because I think it’s kind of boring,” she said. “It’s a little too hitting them over the head. There is a link on the blog that goes to all the listings on my site.”
Where do the hours go?
Done right, a blog can become a huge drain on time. But the rewards can be great.
St. Paul Real Estate Blog’s Boardman says she spends about two hours a day blogging, and about half of that time is spent reading other blogs.
“I read about 100 blogs a day — about half directly industry-related, and other like TechCrunch and BoingBoing, don’t ask me why. My whole product is imagination driven, and input from other sources helps me write.”
She rises at 4:30 a.m. each morning and goes to her computer, a dual-core Pentium with 2GB of RAM running Windows Vista through two flat screen monitors.
“I have to budget my time,” Boardman says. “It takes discipline. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to do this blog’ and not do it. Time I would have spent doing other prospecting is going into this, but the payoff is tremendous.”
Boardman’s commitment is typical of other top bloggers.
“It’s very time consuming and it takes a lot of effort to do it right,” said miOaklandCounty’s Francis. “Anybody can get their free Blogger.com blog, but to create an audience for it and get the inbound links you need to get indexed, that’s a lot of work.”
With two companies, a wife and four kids competing for his time, Miller said he had to adjust his schedule to find time for his Matrix and Soapbox blogs.
“I watch a lot less TV, and I’ve changed what I read,” he said. “I used to be a voracious reader of books. Now I read a lot more online, a lot more newspapers and business publications.”
Although Miller uses the news aggregator Bloglines to keep up with other writers, “There is not enough time in the day to read every one I like.” He’s also fearful of reading other blogs before he writes his posts because he doesn’t want to rehash their work.
The creators of these blogs say they not only generate business but in many cases have raised their professional profiles and stature. As members of a blogging community, they have access to knowledge and connections their competitors lack.
Berg said she and her husband have a great time blogging. It’s not only “group therapy,” but being part of the blogging community exposes them to opinions and keeps them informed about industry issues that are important to their clients.
Miller is in constant demand by print, radio and TV journalists (he’s posted video of 21 recent TV appearances on Matrix). Although Miller is in demand because of his analytical expertise, the blog has raised his visibility.
“It has helped raise my profile, because I’m afforded respect for being willing to lay it on the line every day, whether people agree or disagree,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t say the blog is the only reason (for invitations to appear on TV), but it certainly hasn’t hurt.”
Boardman said the recognition her blog has received, including awards from other bloggers, has also heightened her profile.
Although some real estate bloggers have figured the game out, there’s always room for more. Berg said she’s just noticed a competitor in the San Diego market’s new blog, but she’s not worried it will take the spotlight away from hers.
“There are no secrets,” Berg said. “The more the merrier. Being early has its advantages, but eventually everyone’s going to be doing it. It’s all been done. Any agent’s goal in marketing themselves is to take what’s been done and improve upon it. The minute someone takes what I’ve done and improves on it, I’m going to take what they do and improve on that.”
Tomorrow: Catch up with leading mortgage bloggers. Find out what they are writing about and how they are leveraging blogs for business.