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 2 and Part 3.)
You might not expect to read fish jokes, a tribute to a dead coffee pot, and detailed and sometimes graphic disclosures about the pains of startups at an apartment-rental Web site. That’s where the company blog fits in.
The founders of HotPads.com, an apartment-search company that hit the Web in November 2005, launched a company blog in July 2006 that chronicles the company’s growth and industry trends — and mixes in some humor throughout the journey.
Though the approach can vary, other real estate-related companies, too, are finding that company blogs can provide a human side to the Web and facilitate direct and two-way communication with consumers, customers and other industry professionals.
“It’s nice to give a voice to our company. If you have a blog, there is an ability for people to learn more about the people behind the company,” said Douglas Pope, vice president and director of operations for HotPads. The company can connect with its users through the blog, he said, adding, “It has also been a good way to contribute to the real estate community by … starting a discussion.
“By far the best benefit is the networking aspect of blogging. We read other industry blogs and other bloggers read ours. It has been a very beneficial way to build relationships in the industry,” Pope said.
HotPads.com site users, including renters and property managers, are the target audience for the company blog, though Pope said the actual audience includes potential partners, startups and other industry bloggers.
HotPads allows blog readers to post comments anonymously. “We haven’t deleted any comments other than some spam … anyone who wants to say anything about any post is perfectly fine with us. We’re just glad they’re reading it,” he said. While some companies feature blog posts authored by several employees, most of the HotPads content is created by Colleen Corgan, the company’s “chief bloggernaut,” Pope said.
While the company has used the blog as a platform to announce new features at its rental-search Web site, employees writing in the blog — as you might expect — are tight-lipped when it comes to new features that are in development or on the drawing board.
And then there are those only-in-a-blog posts that don’t seem to fit neatly into any category but definitely provide some comic relief, such as the off-the-wall Feb. 1 post with fish jokes (“What did the fish say when it ran into the wall? … “I’m such a dumb bass,” etc.).
Or the humbling July 18 post about a “boondoggle” in which HotPads “enlisted friends, parents, siblings and unsuspecting computer engineers to schlep around the city taking pictures of every single rental house, garden apartment, apartment community, and many … MANY homes that probably have never donned the ‘For Rent’ sign in the window,” and during two of the hottest months of the year. The company later abandoned this massively scaled picture-taking scavenger hunt.
And then there was the Jan. 9 HotPads blog post about the company coffee maker that “quit, cited being ‘overworked.’ We lost our first coffee maker just before launch in November of 2005. This recent loss comes at another importune time, as we will be launching a new version of the site in the next few hours.”
There can be a silver lining to such brutally honest posts — Pope noted that HotPads received a coffee maker in the mail from the folks at HomeRentals.net when they read the post about the recently deceased coffee maker. “It makes really good coffee too,” Pope said. “So I guess blogs can have both direct and indirect benefits for employees.”
Greg Tracy, a real estate industry veteran who founded BlueRoof, a real estate brokerage company in Utah, began writing a personal blog about three years ago. He wrote about personal events and his family. Those were the days, he said, when nobody was really reading blogs. Then in February 2006 he launched an industry blog titled, “Reality of Real Estate,” which morphed into the BlueRoof.com Blog.
And over time, as traffic has grown, the posts have become more factual and less opinion-based, he said. “The purpose of it is the same: educate and inform the consumer, vent about the industry and also create dialog with people about different topics.”
Tracy, who has been the exclusive author for the BlueRoof.com Blog, said it’s important to showcase personality in a blog. “People should put personality into it even if it is a company blog. Don’t make it a corporate thing — make it a company thing. When people get too corporate it just becomes bland. A lot of times agent blogs are all about personality and company blogs are all about promoting the company. People don’t go to a blog to want to be sold.” Some of the latest posts at the BlueRoof.com Blog address such topics as Valentine’s Day gift ideas, the Superbowl predictions, and homes of the future.
Visitors to the blog are mostly real estate industry professionals, Tracy said, and a smaller group of local consumers. Though it’s difficult to quantify the amount of real estate business that is tied to the blog, Tracy said that many clients are familiar with the company blog.
“People really want that access to information without having the obligation to work with you,” Tracy said, and blogs are one tool to empower consumers.
Writing for the company blog has been a learning experience, Tracy said. “One of the posts in particular I got a lot of heat over was an opinion about the business practices and companies I don’t care for. I don’t do that anymore. I’m more positive. I’m not as critical about certain things in public that might be part of a public discussion,” he said.
“I’ve also learned that blogs have legs — I’ve got some posts I wrote six months ago and they are just now getting traction.” Tracy has plans to open up the blog to other writers and to feature some new types of content, such as some property listings, at the blog.
Home valuation and listings site Zillow.com has a team of contributors to its company blog.
There was a lot of internal debate about whether the company should have a blog and the type of comments and content that should be allowed at the blog, said Zillow spokeswoman Amy Bohutinsky. The conclusion: “If you’re going to do a blog you have to do it 100 percent. It’s not really authentic unless you use that blog as a two-way communication channel for the persons who are reading this.”
The company, she said, has tried to make the blog “a core part of who we are. We are trying to listen to what people say to us and respond to it and take it into account and use it to develop future products and changes.”
A team of about seven company bloggers meet once a week to discuss blog content, she said, and other employees are able to contribute as well. The blog has been useful for the customer service and marketing folks at Zillow, she said.
In addition to using the blog as a communication tool to announce new offerings, the blog has also enabled Zillow to gather direct feedback from consumers and real estate agents who are using the site. That feedback can be as valuable as a focus group, she said.
Some examples of Zillow Blog posts include: moon base construction, tips on blog comments, a mention of another startup that starts with “Z,” and real estate market reports. The company blog has been used to promote ventures such as the Zillow-launched blogging “Carnival of Real Estate” and real estate information at the Zillow Real Estate Wiki.
The dialog created by the blog is useful, Bohutinsky said. “We try to respond to the comments and clarify things and answer people’s questions. We have been able to have good conversations on our blog and on other people’s blogs about what we are and what we aren’t doing.”
The blog, she added, “is one of the most pure channels of feedback you can get, and instant.”
The publicly traded real estate brokerage company ZipRealty maintains a blog, too. Myron Lo, director of product strategy for ZipRealty, noted that public companies have very specific guidelines they must follow, and ZipRealty closely monitors the content at the blog site. Some of the content, he said, is approved by the legal team prior to posting.
All comments at the blog are moderated and offensive comments such as personal attacks are not allowed. Also, registration is required to participate, while some other blogs allow anonymous comments and do not pre-screen comments prior to posting.
Launched in mid-2006, the blog is intended as another line of communication to the company’s customers, Lo said. “It’s an informal voice to communicate to our customers with.” The Web site is useful, he said, to promote new site tools, and the blog has also been used to disseminate market statistics and industry news. One of the latest posts contains a list of property-specific consumer reviews that were rejected from inclusion on the company’s main Web site.
Lo said that most of the blog content is written by employees at the company’s headquarters.
Leslie Tyler, ZipRealty’s vice president of online marketing, said that the company blog represents an informal approach to meeting online consumers. “We’re always trying new ways to reach out to customers,” she said.
A company blog can predate the company itself. Joseph G. Ferrara and Rudolph D. Bachraty III of the Sellsius Real Estate Blog have established themselves and their brand in the real estate blogging community even before their planned property listings site has launched. The Sellsius site will reportedly be a property-search site with listings information supplied by a network of real estate agents, though the Web site is not yet live.
The blog, meanwhile, launched about a year ago. “Basically we just write about what we like and we’re really not afraid to write about anything,” said Bachraty. “As long as we can help them learn about this product, service or new person in the industry we don’t feel there is anything that we can’t write about.”
Ferrara added, “We really try to tie into real estate. We try to make it interesting. We try not to be predictable. A blog has to be more magnetic than sticky … something that keeps you coming back.”
All kinds of comments are welcome at the site, he added, and the site has even invited blog participants who have been shunned by other blog sites for bad behavior. “My response to people is, ‘Don’t try to shut them up. Make them speak. Challenge them,'” he said.
The backwards approach to launching a blog before the company turned out to be a good thing,” Ferrara said. “We got to meet a lot of people in the industry — we got to build a lot of relationships.” The Sellsius founders and several other industry bloggers say that relationships with others in the blogging community have been very valuable.
Blogging can definitely open doors that would be difficult to pry open in the real world, Ferrara added. “You don’t have to go to the receptionist. All the doors are open. It’s remarkable the access that you can get just by blogging.”
The Sellsius bloggers are good promoters — ads at the site offer a line of Sellsius fan gear, including hats and T-shirts. As with other real estate blogs, posts at the Sellsius blog can stray a bit from the real estate path: there are recent posts for a cat with painted hearts, a trend report for Trulia, a gift-wrapped house, and the launch of a real estate video magazine.
Real Estate Tomato Blog
Jim Cronin, a real estate consultant, said he launched his blog as a way to spill, sort and store his thoughts that he amassed from years of working with industry professionals. He had earlier worked at Z57, an Internet marketing company that he joined at an early stage in 2000.
What he didn’t realize at first is that people would actually be drawn to the site and he would be drawn into a larger community of real estate bloggers. Other bloggers began to reference his site, and he saw that blogging was emerging as a powerful force in the industry and his site’s audience grew as other bloggers referenced his blog content.
“All of the sudden people from across the country were realizing my voice had some strength with it,” he said. And it didn’t matter that he was wearing a backwards hat and rock-and-roll T-shirt and sweatpants while connecting with industry professionals online — it was the message that mattered, he said.
“I just found that the blog was the perfect vehicle at the right time to take advantage of,” Cronin said. His blog, “Real Estate Tomato,” is now helping to drive his consulting business, he said. The blog name, by the way, is a play on words for Sacramento, Calif. — sometimes jokingly referred to as “Sacra-tomato.”
The content at the blog has become more focused over time, Cronin said, and the site is heavily focused on Internet marketing tips.
“Blogging isn’t for everyone but your business needs a voice,” he said. “I think that voice needs to be out there. Today’s first-time home buyer is going to be expecting it.” Real estate companies should put all of their eggs in the blogging basket, he said, as the power of blogs in industry marketing efforts may decline over time. He said that video will replace blogging as the place to be in the real estate industry. “I see the convergence of entertainment, television and the computer all into one screen.”
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