I now subscribe to Rolling Stone magazine. I know this because Robert Downey Jr.’s face is staring at me from the breakfast bar this morning, right above the mailing label with my name on it.

The curious thing is that I am pretty sure I didn’t sign up for this.

I now subscribe to Rolling Stone magazine. I know this because Robert Downey Jr.’s face is staring at me from the breakfast bar this morning, right above the mailing label with my name on it.

The curious thing is that I am pretty sure I didn’t sign up for this. Maybe I forgot to uncheck the box when I ordered that latest property domain name, the box that read, "Yes! Please include a subscription to a random print periodical related to the music industry, or perhaps Robert Downey Jr., with my order!" Maybe it was a present and, with International Day for the Elderly fast approaching (Oct. 1 — mark your calendars), someone wanted to surprise me. Or, maybe some teenager with access to my credit card thought Rolling Stone might represent her last untapped conduit to breaking Jonas Brothers news.

In any event, Rolling Stone will presumably be gracing my mailbox for the next year, as will the unavoidable reams of follow-up correspondence. I know from experience that by Tuesday I will be receiving reminders that my subscription will be running out "soon," and as a valued customer, my name is now appearing on a valued customer mailing list, one which has been sold to every publisher west of Detroit. "If you enjoyed that, you might enjoy this!"

I may never know how Mr. Downey Jr. found his way to my mailbox. In fact, I really wouldn’t have even thought much about it at all if husband Steve hadn’t given me the you’ve-been-spending-money-again evil eye, much like I rarely stop to consider how my e-mail inbox has become an unstoppable, spontaneously procreating repository for tens of thousands of offers to take my money and secure my business.

I didn’t subscribe to those either, but I get it. It must work. Somebody, somewhere, at some point had to give their bank routing number to The Honorable Mubutu Abacha (who, you may have heard, is sadly exiled, terminally ill and holding a large amount of cash), and I must assume that agents every day are buying the new course or book or books on tape from the magnanimous experts who could be making their own millions selling real estate but have instead chosen to make millions helping others unlock the mysteries. Why else would they continue to mercilessly spam me into the fetal position?

The reality is that as an agent, I am on the mother of all mailing lists.

It is target marketing, and I am the target. It started innocently enough. I got my real estate license. Then, call me crazy, I thought it might be helpful to have access to the MLS, so I joined my board. Just like that, I was a marked woman, a woman on the list. I’m not entirely sure whether these lists are sold or given away, but I do know that my information is being passed out as freely as parenting advice at a baby shower. And, just because I get it doesn’t mean I subscribe.

For the record, agents are often the worst offenders. The vast majority of my junk messages involve property promotions delivered by fellow agents. "Drip marketing" they call it, but it feels more like water torture at this point. If as a San Diego agent I have a client who is interested in a second home on Lake Erie or even a modest three-bedroom across town, I guarantee I will not be conducting my searches in my inbox. I consider these e-mails an intrusion, and I can’t hit the "unsubscribe" button fast enough, so I can’t fathom how the average consumer could be expected to respond positively to these same unsolicited communications.

Ten years ago, drip e-mail was all the rage. It’s free, it’s easy, and it speaks to people where they live — online! Haven’t we moved beyond that? Drip e-mail is today’s version of yesterday’s cold calling. We talk about the changing consumer culture, the movement toward permission marketing, yet we still tend to browbeat our customers at every opportunity with our junk-mail campaigns. Our actions don’t match our rhetoric. Sure, if I live around the corner from your latest listing, it is a logical leap to assume that I have some curiosity. Your direct-mail postcard might have some relevance, and there is a "do not mail" procedure if this isn’t the case. If, on the other hand, I happened to search for homes on your Web site six months ago and now I get daily updates on properties plus periodic bonus tips on winterizing my Southern California home, allow me to introduce you to my spam folder.

Agents are to buyers and sellers as trainers and technology solution providers and printing companies and all of the other industry-related folks are to agents. Everybody is doing it. But I do not shop for or select my service providers from my inbox. Like my own clients, I read about these things online, I hear testimonials from people I trust, and I seek solutions when I have an unmet need. My physical mailbox is fair game — my e-mail and voice-mail boxes are not. They are not fair game, that is, unless you already know me.

To know what will work with our target customers, we should be thinking in terms of what works when we are the target customer. Along those lines, I saw a glowing example this week of how to solicit business without giving the appearance of solicitation. I received an e-mail from someone at a company I do business with. The e-mail did not push me, but rather it pulled. I wasn’t given information I didn’t ask for, but instead something was asked of me.

"I have read that you are a fan of our product," I was told. "Would you have time to chat briefly about both what you like and what we could be doing differently or better to help your business?" As a consumer, I am immediately thinking, "How cool is that?" As a customer, I feel good when someone listens to my needs and appreciates my opinion. One phone call later, my service provider was several testimonials and one product-upgrade richer.

So, as an agent, I am thinking that there is something in this approach that we should be applying to our business. Instead of pushing our message and essentially begging for business, maybe we should be asking how we can improve our message and our business to better meet the needs of our customers. Maybe, if we spend more time listening and less time talking, the business will follow. Maybe if we start to get it, more people will subscribe.

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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