I’ve been struggling with a couple of things this week. In all fairness, I’ve been struggling with more than a couple of things, not the least of which is a full dance card of escrow quick steps. But it is two seemingly unrelated things — one a concept and the other an event — which have been doing a steady tap dance on my one remaining brain cell. It turns out, they were related.

First, it was the conversation started by Notorious R.O.B. about measuring the return on investment (ROI) from social media that got me revisiting that particular Rubik’s Cube. Big companies such as Dell, it seems, have been making millions of dollars on Twitter.

I’ve been struggling with a couple of things this week. In all fairness, I’ve been struggling with more than a couple of things, not the least of which is a full dance card of escrow quick steps. But it is two seemingly unrelated things — one a concept and the other an event — which have been doing a steady tap dance on my one remaining brain cell. It turns out, they were related.

First, it was the conversation started by Notorious R.O.B. about measuring the return on investment (ROI) from social media that got me revisiting that particular Rubik’s Cube. Big companies such as Dell, it seems, have been making millions of dollars on Twitter.

This rings true to those of us who heard Gary Vaynerchuk’s keynote speech at Inman’s Real Estate Connect conference in New York, in which he shared how social media marketing has been exponentially more successful in moving his product (wine) than any of the more traditional channels. Inspirational stuff this is, but what does it mean to the real estate agent? Does it translate?

No sooner had I relegated this little mind-bender to my to-do list than I had one of those IRL (in real life) experiences. A past client called me to list his home. It would be a short sale and, unfortunately, it was tenant-occupied, so we would have to do things a little differently.

There would be no staging or professional photos, and the show instructions would necessarily involve some strings (call listing agent for an appointment to show, rub your belly while patting your head, say "Pretty please," name all sitting Supreme Court justices in alphabetical order, and so on).

To make matters worse, the tenants — while cooperative and utterly delightful — weren’t enrolled in the process quite enough to do some minimal tidying up, rendering even my mid-priced point-and-shoot camera ineffective.

I’ll start with the short sale. The field conditions under which I have had to operate on this listing have been haunting me. In one fell swoop, I became everything I detested incarnate. I was the agent with no photos (except for some "stock" photos), no brochures, and a double-dare-you approach to offering access. Then it hit me. What has really been troubling me is that this particular undertaking is stomping my brand.

Marketing vs. branding: that is the issue. On the one hand, our goal is to make a living, so this should have been a victory. Yet, I felt defeated. That is because my particular brand has been built about excellence — excellence in promotion and positioning of our listings. Of course, our brand is equally about exceptional service to our clients, so when called to duty, I can’t decline the invitation because it doesn’t exactly fit my intended forward-facing identity. Or can I?

We seem to use the words "marketing" and "branding" interchangeably, but the two are very different concepts. Doing one while ignoring, or failing to deliver on, the other will derail any plans you might have for long-term solvency. Now, granted, in my college classes on open channel hydraulics, I received little instruction on high-level business philosophy, but I have a mouse and I’m not afraid to use it. And here is what I have gleaned from my homeschooling.

Marketing is about telling people stuff, branding is a combination of words and action. Marketing is extroverted while branding is introverted. Marketing is communicating your message quickly and matter-of-factly, in sound bites, while branding is a slow, methodical approach to establishing market perceptions.

The agent who was holding the open house in my neighborhood this weekend would have been simply marketing her services had she placed the requisite 27 company directional signs at the corner. When she elected to place duct tape across the company logo on each, apparently having changed brokerages somewhere along the way, she was building a brand.

I don’t care how pretty her brochures were (and they were). The duct tape told a story, and the perception I was left with was something about quality, or lack thereof.

Even though we tend to think of our logos as branding, they are not when taken independently. My old, standard-issue yard signs with name, phone number, and, yes, the distinguishing grinning likeness and spiffy logo, were a form of marketing. The custom signs I use now with photos of the home and descriptive text are branding — they represent both words and action, and they communicate my promise to the customer.

Marty Neumeier, the author of "ZAG," used the dating pickup line to illustrate the difference between marketing and branding. If I say, "I’m a great lover" ("I am the most remarkable, top-producing agent this town has ever seen"), I am marketing. When I repeat it three times (when I beat you over the head with my awards and testimonials), it is advertising. When someone tells their friend about my awe-inspiring lovemaking (or real estate) skills, it is a public relations campaign. And when someone tells me that they want to date me (hire me) because they have heard I am simply the best, it is evidence of branding. Marketing is an event, while branding is a process.

Social media, anyone?

Several years ago, my husband wrote on our blog about the proliferation of agent advertising at our local supermarket.

"A disturbing trend has reached my local grocery store. I’m there the other day doing a bit of shopping, and I looked at the cart. I noticed an agent had purchased the right to have an advertising placard on the inside of the baby seat. Another agent had purchased the rights to a placard on the inside of the rear of the cart. So I’m stuck having to look at these competitors while I try to find fresh fruit. Next, I see that the outside of the rear of the cart has a third agent placard. GEEZ! It’s like NASCAR. Maybe I should pop for the two remaining sides or sponsor the wheels. I’ll bet Vons will only let me buy one wheel or side. I wonder how much it would cost to own the entire cart?"

That’s when one commenter brought it all home: "Today everyone is gray and unless you ‘hijack’ a certain channel, no one will notice you."

Or put another way, owning one wheel is marketing, while owning the cart is advertising. Owning the cart for a very long time is the beginning of a brand, but only if you can deliver on the promise.

So, as far as the ROI from social media goes, I am sticking to my guns. You simply can’t measure the ROI from blogging or tweeting (Twitter posts) or any of the other online social activities, because it is impossible to measure the ROI from branding. Branding is a big, multifaceted package that you deliver to your audience. None of your business comes directly from these channels, yet all of it does.

Tweeting once about a new listing is marketing, posting incessantly about how busy you are is advertising, but when people start talking about you, your PR machine is kicking in. What you are really doing through participation in social media is building a brand, and it is a slow, progressive journey.

"But I had a buyer call me because he read my blog!" you say. Yes, and thanks to Twitter, Dell sold millions of dollars’ worth of computers while Gary sold a whole bunch of wine. But, it was their success in branding, and yours, which delivered the customer — not an isolated marketing event. And once you have engaged that customer, your "product" has to display the same characteristics as your image, because through your branding your client has certain expectations.

You are striving to be something other than gray. You can tweet your fingers bloody, but if you then proceed to deliver a computer that won’t boot or a bottle of bubbly that tastes like mouthwash, you will not enjoy long-term success. Decorating your open house signs with duct tape or even sending a listing to market with no staging or photos is filching on the deal you had with the customer.

Your brokerage’s position as the nationally recognized leader in delivering superior representation and expertise will last about as long as will the career of your most incompetent agent. The covenant that took you years to establish can unravel in an instant. That return, I’m afraid, is quite measureable.

Kris Berg is broker-owner of San Diego Castles Realty. She also writes a consumer-focused real estate blog, The San Diego Home Blog.

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