Blogging and social networking may be all the rage, but don’t discount the value of old-fashioned lead generation, word-of-mouth referrals and even print advertising, Inman News readers say.

The latest wrinkles in online marketing are bearing fruit for many who adopt them, but it’s also important to maintain a personal touch in dealing with prospects and clients, a survey of more than 700 Inman News readers suggests.

Editor’s note: Inman News has conducted a future-focused real estate industry survey as a part of its Roadmap to Recovery editorial project that is exploring the future of the real estate industry. This article is part of a series analyzing the results of the Roadmap survey. Inman News has also conducted a separate survey on the Future of Real Estate Commissions. Click to read the first, second and third articles in the series.

Blogging and social networking may be all the rage, but don’t discount the value of old-fashioned lead generation, word-of-mouth referrals and even print advertising, Inman News readers say.

The latest wrinkles in online marketing are bearing fruit for many who adopt them, but it’s also important to maintain a personal touch in dealing with prospects and clients, a survey of more than 700 Inman News readers suggests.

Survey respondents emphasized the importance of training and demonstrating to consumers that they can offer expertise and insight on their markets during these tumultuous times.

"It is clear that the best-trained and best-educated agents are the most successful," said one typical response. "Offices that treat training as a part of culture and train every day, like a military organization, will be more successful than those who leave their agents’ training up to the market."

Another Inman News reader reportedly is offering potential clients more education, counseling and guidance, and blogging more — this reader has created a homebuyers club that offers long-term "road-mapping, continuity of guidance, e-zines geared towards financial recovery, and other benefits for those who will sit down and sign a two-year exclusive commitment with me."

One broker is using multimedia including video, photos, audio and texts to report on local real estate-related news, trends and happenings.

Asked to rank blogs, lead generation, pay-per-click, organic search-engine optimization and online banner or display ads as the best Web marketing tools of the future, a slight majority of those surveyed ranked lead generation as the best tool.

Lead generation edged out blogs as the topped-ranked tool, 26.5 percent vs. 26 percent, followed by organic SEO (19.7 percent), banner ads (11 percent) and pay-per-click (10.3 percent).

Which technology trends will change the industry in the future? More than 35 percent of Inman News readers ranked paperless transactions highest, followed by social media such as blogging, Twitter and video (25.1 percent), mobile applications (24.9 percent) and cloud-based computing (11.7 percent).

Some respondents said they were unfamiliar with several terms used in the survey, such as "organic SEO," "PPC," and "cloud-based computing."

Organic search-engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of tailoring Web site content so that the site shows up higher in "organic" or "natural" (unpaid) search-engine results.

PPC, or pay-per-click, refers to the process paying for online advertising based on how much traffic ads send to a Web site. Pay-per-click campaigns often involve the purchase of keywords that generate ads that appear next to organic search-engine results.

Cloud-based computing allows multiple users to access applications and data stored on a remote server over the Internet.

Some skeptical

While many survey respondents are actively embracing new tools as they become available, others remain skeptical about online marketing and the latest technological trends.

One critic of blogging and online lead generation said, "While it is true that 85 percent of all buyers start their search on the Internet, it is also true that most buyers get their Realtor from a personal one-on-one relationship."

Another critic claimed agents "don’t even bother with (lead-generation companies). They’re bottom feeders and most don’t deliver even one dollar."

A skeptic of cloud-based computing said that with major companies being sold or going out of business, agents should think twice about "placing their books of business and all the collateral they develop ‘in the cloud.’ " This reader saw "some advantages" to cloud-based computing, such as shared access, but believed benefits are outweighed by the need to keep "my content proprietary and secure."

Even boosters of technology said it’s important to strike a balance by adding "a personal touch with phone calls and face time."

No consensus on print ads

There were similar disagreements about whether the days of print advertising are coming to an end. While 41.3 percent of those surveyed said "yes," nearly as many (40.8 percent) said "no," and another 18.9 percent weren’t sure.

"Print advertising will be around for a while because some brokers use it to drive listings, knowing it is not a source of leads, but if you do it on a grand scale some sellers will be impressed enough to list," one respondent said.

While another reader responded, "It will take several years yet to train the sellers … that buyers don’t look (at print advertising) anymore."

Another reader who reportedly has shifted most marketing online offered that print ads may be a good choice "under the right circumstances" as there are fewer agents using them.

Others have given up on print advertising altogether.

While some respondents said they were skeptical of Web marketing and technology, the survey also revealed that others who have embraced new tools are getting results.

"I have invested heavily on Internet lead-generation and PPC," said one such respondent. "I have a database of buyers which is 2,000 strong. I have sold 20 homes in Southern California this year (my best year ever)."

Another reader stated, "We are blogging a lot more, promoting our blog, and advertising on social networks," said another Inman News reader.

Once clients are aboard, it’s important to demonstrate the value that agents and brokers can add to the process through their expertise with technology and local markets, several respondents said.

"We are … working to promote our expertise and level of service — why we are a trusted brand in real estate," according to one reader, who also reported gains in market share as a result of a beefed up ad campaign.

Technology, respondents said, is a means to build revenue through lead generation and can also aid in cost-cutting and recruiting.

"We are all paperless," reported a broker who is also offering a bonus in commission schedules for better-educated agents. "(We) have had all the agents from two offices that were shutting down join us this month because of what we have to offer in future technology and goals."

Another broker said the company moved to a fee-for-service model and is giving buyers cash back for participating in the property-search process.

So how are Inman News readers staying on top of technological change? The Internet itself seems to be one of the best tools.

One respondent relies on "constant scanning of blogs, Twitter, and the Internet for information about what is new" and to "get a feel for the pulse of the industry."

The reader stated, "(I am) not looking for big revolutionary leaps to doing things new ways," but "for ways to ease into a new way of doing things and working with clients."

Preparing for the future

Asked what the industry itself needs to do to prepare for the future, many readers mentioned multiple listings services (MLSs) as an area in need of attention. One reader advocated consolidating MLSs to serve larger regions.

"Many MLSs, NAR and state and local associations are too political and self-serving," this reader complained. "Some of them get in the broker’s way vs. helping members."

"Open up MLS info for all to see," another reader urged. "Make the story of each property and the whole process completely transparent."

Another said that without better standardization of MLS data, other improvements are largely moot.

"Get the bugs out of the MLS systems," this reader urged. "Movement towards CARETS and national MLS systems is positive, but snags in the data coming from the MLS systems can bring all of the little technology treats to their knees. We need MLS STABILITY."

The reader added, "Do people truly do searches based on homes with only ‘raised foundations with fieldstone fascia and colonial or French country styling?’ No — they search for ‘2,100-plus-square-foot, one-story, no older than 10 years, three-car garage.’ Simplify the MLS. We don’t need a million fields. Less is more."

Better training for Realtors was another common theme.

"Too many Realtors are tech-challenged!" complained one reader, suggesting that the industry provide more basic, intermediate and advanced technology courses.

Another reader said that while the real estate industry "is actually quite good at identifying new tools and offering knowledge, training and advice on how to leverage those tools," many brokers haven’t grasped that "agents are not just feet on the street or butts in chairs."

These brokers must provide a "competitive tool set and a competitive compensation structure, and then it is up to the agents to be serious about the business or find something else to do," the reader said. "With business low, and the number of Realtors … declining, now is the best time to invest in new tools, new methods and training in order to be poised to capitalize on the recovery."

Some respondents said they worry that generic industry campaigns geared at getting buyers off the fence are counterproductive.

One reader urged NAR to "stop publishing their idiotic cheerleading articles about ‘now is the time to buy and sell’ and gain credibility with the public by providing educational information regarding ethics and intelligent business practices."

"NAR needs to wake up to providing an honest assessment of the current market and markets going forward," said another reader. "The ‘cheerleader’ approach doesn’t float with agents, the media, or the public."

To better meet the needs of its members, NAR could cut education costs and not impose yearly dues on designations once Realtors have earned them, another reader said. Another reader asked that NAR spearhead an effort to come up with uniform, blanket regulations that could replace the patchwork of rules now in place at the state level.

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