Rules. We have buckets of rules for our social behavior, and the rules can be confusing. Many of these rules we learn over time. We know that a graduation announcement is not really an invitation to the event, but just an invitation to send money.
Others are simply intuitive. As a mother, I know that while I may be "fly" or "chill" or even "down" with something, I am never to acknowledge as much to my daughter’s teenage friends. Knowing the words to her music is cool, singing the words in public is not. Wearing her clothes in a place where her friends might be present, even when her clothes are really my clothes commandeered from my closet when I wasn’t looking, is strictly forbidden.
Today I learned a new rule.
A few weeks ago I made a public appeal for Facebook friends. Now I find that I am a "creeper." If you are a 15-year-old girl, you know that "creeper" is a noun, a variation of "creep," as in: "He is such a creeper." My daughter opted for the verb form when she said, "Stop creepering my Facebook."
OK, fine. I am a creeper, one who is apparently guilty of "creepering." I get it. But I don’t really get it at all. When my daughter invited me to be her friend and I humbly accepted, I thought my new status came with all of the rights and privileges. Yet, when I subsequently alluded in conversation to something I had read on her page, I learned otherwise. This friendship, it seems, has rules, and just because I have been included doesn’t mean I have really been invited in. It’s kind of like that graduation announcement.
Permission-based relationships are a funny thing, especially when the permission is conditional or lacking in reciprocity. In the case of our Facebook relationship, she has commented on my photos, written on my "wall," and even given me a "poke." What family fun we were having, until I came to learn that I am not allowed to comment or poke back. This is kind of the way our Web-based marketing has been feeling lately.
Seth Godin coined the term and defines permission marketing as "the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them." It’s a fabulous concept, but I am starting to think it is one better suited to me if I am Wal-Mart than it is to me as a real estate agent. This is because Wal-Mart is asking permission to promote its products, and I am asking permission to promote my services — in actuality, the services of an entire industry. And when Wal-Mart provides information about its products, it isn’t giving them away.
My business life is chock-full of permission-based tactics. From my Web site to my blog, and even to my yard signs and open houses, the consumer is given the choice to engage or not, and the consumer holds all of the cards. I give them information — lots of it — and if I am successful I am given permission to give them more of my intellectual property yet. But this relationship is often fairly one-sided. When I answer a request for information, I am a friend. The minute I ask permission to participate in the relationship, I am one misstep away from being a creeper.
This week, one of our buyer’s agents unknowingly moved into creeper territory. A home buyer wanted information on neighborhood comparable sales and rental rates. No, she didn’t have an agent. Three days and many hours of research later — and only once she had received the information she was looking for — she said that she would talk it over with her agent. "Thanks for everything. Now go away."
You can blame it on an absence of voracity in this case, but the new rules for promoting ourselves and our businesses tend to encourage this type of exchange. Instant chats where the visitor is not required to give a name, MLS searches with no strings attached, pages and pages of neighborhood information and statistics published on our Web sites, blogs about every detail of what we do and how we do it — these are the things we offer in the name of becoming a friend. We do it because we know this is what the consumer wants; they want open-source transparency from us and the cloak of anonymity for themselves. They want freedom of information as long as it flows from one direction only. We do it because if we don’t, there are a thousand Trulia voices who will.
Other service professionals provide consultations, but I can pretty much guarantee that my accountant is not going to do my taxes for free. And the professional photographer we use is not going to let me borrow his tripod so I can do it myself. That would just be silly. Agents do it every day.
Much is written about the online conversation, but it is a conversation between and among the consumers, and while we are present, we are not really invited. It’s cool that I know the words to their songs, but it is so uncool when I sing along.
Husband Steve spent two hours on the phone with a would-be buyer this week who said he had not decided on an agent. In those two hours, he told him everything he wanted to know about neighborhoods, builders, comparable sales, market trends and transactional procedures. He will never hear from him again. We have also enjoyed several "friendships" this year involving tours of dozens upon dozens of homes, and e-mail exchanges of pages upon pages of price analyses. Each friendship lasted many months before we ultimately reached creeper status. In the end, our friends took our intellectual property to the highest bidder. And before you can say buyer-broker agreement, let me remind you that this is becoming the quintessential creeper move in our market. The new rules dictate that permission be extended in one direction only. The customers have a mouse, and they aren’t afraid to use it.
I regularly have people telling me how much they love our Web site, and these are generally the people at an open house or walk-through or inspection with their own agent in tow. At these moments, I start to feel a little like the cheap date. I know I am mostly being used, but playing hard to get is out of the question now. The horse is out of the barn. We are on a roll, and our footrace to disseminate the most information in the most places on the off-chance that someone will befriend us will continue. The new rules tell us that we can no longer attempt to control the conversation, but I sometimes ask myself where we draw the line. My generation still tends to play by the old rules of social and business engagement, but my daughter’s generation and even the more technically inclined folks of mine see things differently now. As we continue on this path, giving freely of ourselves, of our time and of our knowledge, I have to wonder how we are to expect to be respected and valued? Are we not in fact giving permission for the customers to regard us as creepers and disintermediating ourselves in the process?
Kris Berg is a real estate broker associate for Prudential California Realty in San Diego. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.
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