Recently I was registering for RE Bar Camp in San Francisco, which will precede the Inman Real Estate Connect San Francisco conference in August, when I once again was overcome with whimsy and cleverness.

After dutifully filling in the little boxes with my credentials — name, e-mail, Twitter account, and shoe size — I was prompted to "say something cool." So, I typed: "something cool."

Recently I was registering for RE Bar Camp in San Francisco, which will precede the Inman Real Estate Connect San Francisco conference in August, when I once again was overcome with whimsy and cleverness.

After dutifully filling in the little boxes with my credentials — name, e-mail, Twitter account, and shoe size — I was prompted to "say something cool." So, I typed: "something cool."

Ha, ha, ha. Let the hilarity ensue. I am SOOO funny! And then as I was taking a quick peek at the other registered attendees, I noticed that about 97 of them had also said "something cool." This isn’t to say that I am not a 24-hour laugh riot (ask my husband), but it was a reminder that originality is a tough nut to crack. It’s all been said before; it’s all been done before.

If you are a real estate agent, or any professional in a field where getting the business is highly competitive, you already know this. Every day, the bar is raised. You see a great Web site, and I set about making mine greater yet. I post 20 professional photos of my listing online, and you post 24 of yours. You tweet, I blog, you blog faster and do it with video, and if my brochures get any glossier they are going to blind oncoming traffic.

When I first started my local blog over three years ago — three years being only slightly longer than the life expectancy of the average real estate agent — it was original. I wasn’t the first by a long shot, but the whole nutty concept was in its relative infancy, as was this whole online transparency revolution. Now, something unique, "something cool," is a little harder to come by.

Rob Hahn recently wrote, "BMW and Mercedes Benz do not brand themselves on ‘Our cars have engines!’ Pick something above and beyond the baseline as the brand differentiator." I have been struggling with this of late.

Most agents in my market, I suspect, have been struggling with this on some level as well. That is because the cupboards are bare in my market. Too many hungry agents compete for too few crumbs, and you would think that with all the choices at the customer’s disposal only the best would be invited to the table. Alas, this is so often not the case.

It makes me crazy on a regular basis each time I see a yard sign sponsored by an agent who doesn’t even know how to find the "baseline" much less see beyond it. Shouldn’t that agent’s client know better? Did the client know but not care? Do I promote better, harder and faster to force-feed them my definition of value? Or in real estate is the largest component of value in the customer’s eyes still the relationship?

I would like to think it is my admirable business discipline, although it could just be the lazy days of summer, but each year about this time I take a moment to head into the locker room and consider the first half. It doesn’t matter how well we played. What I tend to focus on is the missed tackles, the blocked passes — the failed opportunities.

This year, I was surprised by the stats. Long a cynic of social media as the best thing since the take-out menu, I am forced to consider that there just might be something to all of the hoopla. Moreover, I just might not suck at it.

I tend to think of our business as falling into two categories. Clients are a lot like voters: They are either declared or they are undecided. The declared voters are your sphere of influence, your past clients, and the client referrals. They are committed, and unless we screwed up on our last outing, your declared voters are unavailable to me and mine to you.

Then, there are the undecided folks. You will win their hearts deliberately or purely by accident. Marketing is deliberate. Getting lucky at an open house or responding to a sign call is mostly accidental; sure you had to be there, but you happened to be at the right place at the right time. …CONTINUED

So we are left with the business generated by marketing. Unless you have a couple of decades under your belt, you are not going to dazzle the Internal Revenue Service with your bottom line by relying on your friends and loyal followers alone.

The new customer component is essential to your business growth. If you are a newer agent this is in fact all you have.

Since we are all about transparency these days, here is what our own first-half conversion record looked like (caution: Boring numbers ahead): A whopping 32 percent of our transactions came courtesy of our sphere, our past clients and our past client referrals — our committed voters. About 18 percent of the time, we got lucky with open houses or sign calls. That’s half. Move along, there is nothing to see here.

What was enlightening, however, was the return on investment of our marketing dollar. We spent approximately 80 percent of our marketing investment on print advertising, which comprised only 14 percent of our business. Our 20 percent investment in Internet-related advertising accounted for the biggest component of our production — 36 percent of our business came from social media-related activities including our blog, our Web site, Internet advertising and agent referrals.

What does all of this mean? Well, there is the obvious "print marketing is dying" argument. But, I believe it is much more than that. It is not that print is less effective, which we know it is. It is the "why" that is most curious. Every single opportunity we derived from print marketing was a competitive opportunity. We had to perform tricks and compete for the listing. We were untested and unfamiliar save our branded image; we all had engines, and we all had to try to communicate a difference.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the opportunities generated from our online presence really fell into the coveted category of the declared voter. With these people, we had already had "conversations." We were not some mystery agents with only a familiar mug shot, but familiar agents who had already given our presentation and demonstrated our values and our value.

In short, social media allowed us to expand our sphere of influence.

I was reading a post by Joseph Ferrara this week in which he quoted Warren Buffett: "Price is what you pay — value is what you get." The problem with competing as an unknown is that the potential client can’t know what they get until they get it. This is the component of our business that is most elusive, and it will make us crazy if we let it.

Competing for the undeclared voter is a needle-in-a-haystack undertaking. It is costly, it can be brain damage, and of course we will continue to do it because we know we deserve the client’s business and their trust, and we know that new business is part of a well-balanced diet.

But, we also know we won’t always get a seat at this table. So we need to dine out more often and invest more of our time, money and energies in building and nurturing the relationships with our new and expanding online sphere of influence. After all, value in real estate has always been about relationships, and I suspect it will always be so.

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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