When it comes to generating leads and landing new clients, many brokers and agents have their doubts about whether a blog is the best use of their time.
Two prominent advocates of blogging as an effective tool for Realtors — Dustin Luther and Jay Thompson — say that if you’re not getting results, you might reconsider how you’re going about blogging rather than give up on it altogether.
Speaking at the Inman News Real Estate Connect conference in New York, Luther and Thompson offered advice on how to make sure that the time you spend blogging pays off in results results.
Their ideas ranged from simple, easy-to-execute suggestions — make sure your blog includes your contact information — to more sophisticated strategies for producing "backlinks" and fine-tuning your site by analyzing the traffic it generates.
The insight Luther and Thompson offered comes directly from experience, and much of it could be boiled down to this: Stop trying so hard to generate leads, and focus instead on engaging with readers.
When he started Rain City Guide, the world of online real estate technology was evolving so quickly. "It was a blast to follow what was going on," Luther said. His enthusiasm for the topic gained him a following and contact with knowledgeable readers who clued him in to the latest developments.
Luther said being an interesting person doesn’t guarantee that you will be an engaging writer — it’s the people who are genuinely interested in their community or the topics they write about who produce the most compelling blog posts.
Stellar blog posts that engage readers will earn backlinks from other bloggers. That not only brings traffic from those blogs, but from search engines that use algorithms that take into account links to a Web page when ranking results.
Don’t write for search engines
Thompson, a Phoenix-based broker-owner of Thompson’s Realty, is the author of PhoenixRealEstateGuy.com and is a frequent contributor or commenter on other sites. He offered some fascinating insight into his own traffic, including the keywords that bring many people to his blog via search engines.
While "Phoenix real estate" was the single search term that brought the most visitors to Thompson’s PhoenixRealEstateGuy.com, you won’t find Thompson trying to boost traffic to his site by including that term — or any other — in his posts.
That’s because even though the top-10 keyword search terms helped bring 12,429 visitors to his site in 2008, Thompson got another 194,000 visits from 100,000 other search terms — many of which had nothing to do with real estate. It’s a classic illustration of "the long tail" of search, and shows how casting a wider net can be more rewarding than trying to target a more narrowly defined group.
"Don’t just write for the search engines," Thompson urged. Bloggers who attempt to salt their posts with terms that are likely to be typed into search engines are "excruciating to read," he said.
If you write compellingly about topics you have a genuine interest in, your audience will find you, and other bloggers will link back to you, Thompson and Luther said.
Sharing more analytics data from his blog, Thompson pointed to peaks in traffic tied to posts he wrote about Fourth of July fireworks in Phoenix, Superbowl XLII, the summer Olympics, and local New Year’s Eve celebrations. Not all the people who found his site through those posts were buying or selling a home — many probably didn’t even live in the area.
"You don’t have to rank first for "Phoenix real estate," Thompson said. "There are tons and tons of other ways people can use to find your blog."
Another way to earn backlinks is by linking to other real estate blogs. That’s something many agents are reluctant to do, because they don’t want to send potential clients to a competitor. But that’s how you become known to other bloggers, Thompson said, and earn links back from them when you write something they find interesting.
Thompson warned against trading links through "linking circles," however, as well as other schemes geared solely at boosting search-engine ratings. They can backfire because search-engine algorithms are designed to detect them, and attempts to game the system punished.
A better way to generate links back to your site is by submitting articles to sites that syndicate content, Thompson said, with a link back to your site in the footer at the bottom.
Never stop experimenting with your blog to find what works and what doesn’t, Thompson and Luther said. Like a scientist testing a hypothesis, they said, bloggers would "observe, change and repeat."
Thompson, for example, spent considerable effort determining the best place to put the link for his home-search tool.
"Sometimes real minor changes, down to the color of buttons, can make a difference," Thompson said.
Thompson recommends using analytic tools like Crazyegg, which allows users to see where visitors are clicking on their site and where they are not, and clickdensity, which offers an A/B test suite for trying out and analyzing changes to a site to see if they are actually improvements.
The ‘call to action’
Once people have discovered your blog, it’s important that they can find your contact information, and that you have a "call to action" that spurs them to take the next step on the road to a transaction, Luther said.
It’s surprising how often bloggers make it hard for readers to contact them by burying their e-mail or phone number in an out-of-the-way place or not providing it at all.
Luther said an "about me" page is a handy place to provide such info on a blog, and that it’s also important to provide consumers with the tools for tracking you down when you comment on other sites.
Not only do you want to make it easy for clients to contact you, but you don’t want to miss out on calls from mainstream media organizations that mine blogs for stories. Thompson said news producers at Phoenix television news stations have called on him for his insight, and he’s also been quoted in the Arizona Republic, Business Week and the Wall Street Journal.
"I get phone calls (from the media) that always start out, ‘I just read your story on a blog,’ " Thompson said.
A business-related blog should also have a clear "call to action" — typically a property-search tool or a link to the agent’s property-search site. A single, prominent link to a property-search page — the way Thompson does it on PhoenixRealEstateGuy.com — is better than including a link in each post, Luther said.
"You can overkill your calls to action where they are no longer effective anymore," Luther warned. "But definitely have them — that’s where you will make your money at the end of the day when you’re blogging."
Thompson said nearly 30 percent of the 378,777 visits to his blog in 2008 made the jump to his IDX property-search page.
Engaging with local communities — on and offline — and commenting on other sites are other ways to grow the sphere of influence a blog can create. Don’t limit yourself to real estate groups, Luther and Thompson said — you might be surprised how much business can come from seemingly unrelated endeavors.
Social networking sites are one example. When Luther created a Facebook page for real estate professionals, for example, it generated a slot of initial buzz — including a mention in the New York Times — and quickly grew to hundreds of members. But Luther said a Facebook group he created for parents at his daughter’s elementary school — a private group with just 13 members — is now generating far more business for him.
E-mail blasts to the group of real estate professionals Luther created on Facebook "almost come off as spamming" because of their impersonal nature and generated little response, he said.
But on the more intimately sized private Facebook group for elementary school parents, "They view me as the Internet guru," Luther said. "I get way more business" that he hasn’t solicited from the smaller group, Luther said.
The key to using social networking effectively is finding a topic you’re genuinely interested in — real estate or otherwise. There are already groups for just about every interest. On the photo-sharing site flickr alone, Luther said, there are 30 groups on typography.
"If you have a passion for that, it can generate not only inbound links, but business," Luther said.
Thompson said groups that facilitate online meetings like Meetup.com and Upcoming.Yahoo.com are also great ways to meet potential clients. Thompson belongs to a club for Denver Broncos fans in the Phoenix area, and also uses a Web group to arrange chess matches at a local coffee shop.
"We don’t talk about real estate, but people ask what you do for a living," which can lead to business, he said. "Real estate is still a face-to-face, belly-to-belly, handshake business."
Social networking and other Web 2.0 tools were the subject of their own session at Wednesday’s Bloggers Connect Workshop.
Like blogging, Web 2.0 "has nothing to do with technical competence, but how the tools get used," said Jeff Turner, president of Real Estate Shows. "They are paperweights if not placed in the hands of craftsmen."
Turner said "a whole bunch of people think they are using Twitter (effectively) and they are not," because they are simply sending out "27 posts in a row … saying ‘I just published (a new blog post) on Active Rain’ "
Such impersonal posts make no attempt at interaction, and those generating them "are still back at that first stage of the Internet — they are broadcasting" information in one direction, rather than engaging in a dialogue with other users.
Social networks like Facebook, flickr and Twitter allow Realtors to expand their sphere of influence, by "exposing the social graph" and permitting users to see who the people they know are in turn connected with — something a casual face-to-face meeting on the street doesn’t permit.
The key to getting the most out of social networks is not just "to have your profile out there," but to engage with other users on multiple networks. The connections made through social networks are even more valuable when you have ties to the same person in more than one network, Turner said, and individuals are able to influence each other.
It’s important to identify influential people on social networks, and connect with them in many places. Turner recommended identifying people who communicate with a diverse audience in multiple languages, platforms and networks, have the freedom (or "autonomy") to speak their mind, and who will also listen to your point of view.
"You must consciously say, ‘This is someone who can be a powerful influencer,’ " and connect with them in many places, Turner said.
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