The use of social media is skyrocketing, as we all know. And myth No. 1 is that it’s the young people who are signing up and twittering about what they ate for breakfast and who they’re sitting next to at the beach. Wrong! Facebook is being inundated by the boomers (known as "Silver Surfers"), and Twitter is literally everywhere. "Here comes everybody!" as media guru Clay Shirky proclaims.

The "everybody" is led by businesses. On the Internet, you’ll find countless articles on how to build sales, establish brands, write blogs, create contacts, and manage customer relations. In a recent Inman discussion on consumer-centric real estate brokerage, Cathy McDaniel said "relationships will build your business for a great future ahead."

Editor’s note: This month, Inman News is offering an essay competition focused on the use of social media in real estate marketing (click here for details). We want to hear how you’ve put social media to work and whether your strategy is paying off.

By JUDITH LINDENAU

The use of social media is skyrocketing, as we all know. And myth No. 1 is that it’s the young people who are signing up and twittering about what they ate for breakfast and who they’re sitting next to at the beach. Wrong! Facebook is being inundated by the boomers (known as "Silver Surfers"), and Twitter is literally everywhere. "Here comes everybody!" as media guru Clay Shirky proclaims.

The "everybody" is led by businesses. On the Internet, you’ll find countless articles on how to build sales, establish brands, write blogs, create contacts, and manage customer relations. In a recent Inman discussion on consumer-centric real estate brokerage, Cathy McDaniel said "relationships will build your business for a great future ahead."

Social media is, of course, all about those relationships: Realtors can reach out to their customer base through personal Web sites like Facebook, blogs, Tweets, YouTube videos and live broadcasts, to name a few possibilities. All of these marketing methods are free, and none requires a significant investment in equipment. So what’s to lose?

Well, not to cast too dark a cloud over the landscape, but one of the easiest things to lose is your company reputation among both your public and your real estate professional colleagues. Another thing you might lose is a significant amount of money as you defend yourself against a lawsuit.

Risk and reputation management are at issue when you have several independent contractors making spur-of-the-moment statements on your behalf without any guidance from you, the broker and/or company owner.

It is just good business, then, to think carefully about how your brokerage will address the issue of social media, and social media marketing, by your sales associates. At the very minimum, you might consider a two-pronged approach: address the company philosophy about social media in a policy; and circulate the policy among your employees and independent contractors and ensure that they are aware of the contents of your policy.

Your company policy should embrace social media. It’s here to stay. And aggressive salespeople will be likely to understand its benefits, adopt it, and use it regularly.

In drafting a policy, then, it will be important to be positive and supportive of social media as a business tool, one that enhances the ability of your associates to be successful in real estate: avoid the "thou shalt not" approach and, instead, model your policy on encouraging creative use of social media within the boundaries of legal and ethical restrictions, as well as common sense and good taste.

Here is a proposed social media policy (below), at least in the rough content outlines. I’ve drawn from a couple of sources — one is an ad agency (The Greteman Group) that uses independent contractors (see policy) and the other is IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines, which is a fine example of an inspirational and thoughtful use of social media by its employees.

Proposed Social Media Guidelines

Our company encourages the use of social media as an important sales tool. Please remember, however, that social media is never private, and anything you say or do using a social media tool is a reflection on you as a professional and, by association, on our company. Social media gives you the ability to publish things that will never go away, and which can be circulated endlessly. You can’t take your electronic words back, and they don’t die in time or distance. Be smart.

Blogging

Personal Web sites and blogs are personal sales tools. Keep in mind that your readers may view you as a representative of our company, even on your personal blog site. As an affiliate of our company, please observe the following blogging guidelines:

Speak in the first person. Use your own voice; bring your own personality to the forefront; say what is on your mind. But please make it clear to your readers that the views you express are yours alone and that they do not necessarily reflect our brokerage views. To help reduce the potential for confusion, we would appreciate it if you put the following notice — or something similar — in a reasonably prominent place on your site:

  • The views expressed on this Web site/blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the company.
  • Avoid use of the company’s confidentiality and proprietary information, and that of your client or customer.
  • Be respectful to the company, clients and competitors. Avoid disparaging remarks.
  • Understand and comply when the company asks that topics not be discussed for confidentiality or legal reasons.
  • Respect copyright and fair use laws. For our brokerage’s protection and well as your own, it is critical that you show proper respect for the laws governing copyright and fair use of copyrighted material owned by others or by the MLS. Find out who else is blogging or publishing on the topic, and cite them in your publication. Never quote more than short excerpts of someone else’s work. Observe the good general blogging practice of linking to others’ work.
  • Respect your audience, your co-workers and the Realtor Code of Ethics. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, but do so respectfully. This includes not only the obvious (no ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity, or comments on the performance or business practices of other Realtors.) but also proper consideration of privacy and of topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory. …CONTINUED

Online social networking

Online social networks include sites like Facebook, MySpace, You Tube and Twitter (and many, many more).

  • Facebook/MySpace: These are online social networking sites where members can create videos, update their status, create photo albums, post videos, instant message with other members, and send internal e-mail to other members. Asset: Facebook is a captive audience with targeted demographics and advertising opportunities.
  • YouTube: YouTube is an online social networking site where members can post videos, comment on videos, provide video responses, mark videos as favorites and subscribe to video channels. Asset: It has the advantage of attracting a target market for advertising, and can be easily linked to your site, blog or e-mailed to specific individuals.
  • Twitter: Twitter is an online social networking site where members can post short updates and keep up with other members through online profiles or cell phone text messages. Asset: Advantages include cell phone accessibility, and easily links to photos or other sites with more complete information.

Of course there are many more venues for social networking, and there are new additions every week. In general, however, our company concerns remain the same: Be aware of your association with our brokerage in any online social networks. If you identify yourself as a member of our company, ensure your profile and related content is consistent with how you wish to present yourself professionally with colleagues and clients.

Liability issues

As well as assets, there are many liability issues with any social networking program or site. As a real estate brokerage, we are concerned with those explained below, and we ask that in your networking activities you are alert to them and respect our company concerns:

  • Copyrights: Just because you found it on the Internet doesn’t mean you can use it. Materials such as printed information, photographs and videos are often copyrighted and may not be used without permission. Always check with the MLS about any concerns with re-using information from the service.
  • Privacy Rights: Of particular concern are the privacy rights of property owners. Always double-check to make sure you have the authority to publish information regarding listings and contact information, interior photographs and other similar information.
  • Brand Management: Know our company’s brand, and respect our logos and trademarks, as well as those of the Realtor organization or any other groups that you may be representing by your affiliation with them.

E-mail forwards

Jokes, urban legends and get-rich e-mail forwards are the oldest form of Internet-based social media. When it comes to company e-mail, we ask that you observe internal communications privacy and think twice before hitting the "send" order. And as far as jokes or possible scams, please uses good taste and verify any rumors that Microsoft will pay you for forwarding information by using www.snopes.com.

If you have any questions about these guidelines or any matter related to your site or your social networking activities that these guidelines do not address, please contact _________________.

I’m not an attorney, and I won’t represent this prototype as anything but a starting point for your own adaptation of a policy that is appropriate for use with real estate independent contractors. It’s clear, however, that brokerages do need to encourage the positive use of social networking practices, and do so in a way that assists sales associates in using — not fearing to use — these valuable tools. Of course, you should have any policy reviewed by your legal counsel.

Finally, once a policy is in place (and even if you don’t have any policy), it’s incumbent on the brokerage to monitor the use of social networking by its associates. Brokers will want to set in place a system to monitor associates’ social networking sites, blogs and tweets, and have a crisis plan in place should some associate’s social networking misstep become viral and you find your company’s reputation spinning out of control.

But that’s a discussion for another time. One of the first steps the brokerage can take is to write a policy, and inform and educate associates and employees about your company expectations in social networking.

Judith Lindenau is a consultant and coach who owns JWL Realtor Association Management Consulting.

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