It has been quite a week. The Inman News Real Estate Connect conference is one of the key events of the calendar, and this year was more special in at least one respect: It marked the one-year anniversary of the birth of the as we know it today at the very first RE BarCamp in San Francisco last year when Andy Kauffman, Todd Carpenter and Brad Coy organized an impromptu gathering of bloggers, Realtors, vendors and other similarly minded folks.

The venue of RE BarCamp SF this time around was in itself an indication of how far we have come in just a year: the spacious headquarters of Trulia instead of the cramped Elks Lodge facility. But more important was the difference in the greetings.

Last year, most of us were meeting each other face-to-face (aka "meatspace") for the first time. People whose blogs we had been reading, with whom we had been interacting over comments and e-mail, suddenly became flesh and blood and faces and smiles. It was like meeting old friends for the first time. This time around, after only a year, it was seeing old friends — whose habits and quirks were familiar — while making new friends.

But as the RE BarCamp SF gave way to Inman Connect, and all of the conversations that happened there, I can’t help but feel that we are living through the calm before the storm.

Waiting to exhale

Throughout the week, I couldn’t shake the feeling of waiting as if everyone gathered in San Francisco were subconsciously holding his breath. The industry has changed dramatically in only a year, but the change has only been partially due to technology.

A year ago, the zeitgeist was one of excitement, as if we all stood at the top of a mountain looking down at virgin snow. No one knew the route down but we all expected to have a great time finding it while picking up a few bumps and bruises along the way.

This year, it was as if we had gotten off the ski lift for the 11th time, seeing the familiar ruts and paths carved by skiers who had gone before — including our own tracks made the last few times down the mountain. It wasn’t boredom really, because social media, like skiing, is fun to do. Rather, I think it was a feeling that this was not the path to revolutionary change. So we are all holding our breath, waiting to exhale.

Over the past year, we have seen social media go from a weird little niche to a mainstream marketing practice in real estate. There is not a broker or an agent in the country who hasn’t at least thought about starting up some sort of a social media practice in real estate; even those "old-school" Realtors who aren’t tech-savvy and who don’t "get it" would really like to.

Perhaps not everyone understands what to do, how to do it, and why to do it, but they’re interested, they’re energized, and they’re getting involved. The very success of the RE BarCamp movement is a testament to the mainstreaming of social media in real estate.

At the same time, social media as practiced in the past year has not delivered the clearly visible results that would bring about fundamental change. We talk about transparency and engagement, but agents and brokers practicing transparency and engagement have not overtaken the Big Boys in market share or revenue or profitability. The No. 1 company in America still remains NRT, and chances are, the No. 1 Realtor in your market is the same No. 1 Realtor from a year ago. …CONTINUED

Too many people over the past year have tried social media the way they tried other marketing techniques, to discover that it is no silver bullet that will catapult their business to the next level.

The sentiment at this year’s RE BarCamp and Inman Connect seemed to me to be, "Yes, OK, social media is nice and it’s a good thing to do, but this isn’t the Big Thing we’ve been waiting for." And as the market turned worse throughout the past year, a lot of people discovered that blogging can’t fix broken business models and that Twitter doesn’t improve the balance sheet.

Nothing new on the horizon

At the same time, I didn’t hear a major announcement or buzz at Inman Connect this year. Last year, I remember walking around the conference and hearing everyone buzz about Walk Score and FrontDoor (HGTV’s online real estate portal) and the launch of Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate, the social-media-aware franchise from Realogy. This year … the only real buzz I heard about was around ListingPress — a WordPress listings plugin — and most of the scuttlebutt seemed to me to be about how ListingPress violates all sorts of IDX (Internet Data Exchange) rules. This is it?

Is 2009 the year of waiting, when we all wait for the innovations of the past to mature, grow and astonish us in the future? Expecting major changes every year is probably unhealthy, after all. Are we simply coping with the annus horribilis that was 2008 for real estate markets? Who knows?

And yet … the premonition

But if I sensed an absence of buzz, I felt that there was a near-palpable presence of major changes in the air — an unspoken premonition that the next year would bring seismic shifts in the structure of the industry itself. My debate with Kris Berg triggered a number of conversations as people stopped me in hallways to agree or disagree with my take on the future.

But that fact alone signals something interesting: People might disagree about the future, but they do agree on the present. The here-and-now of real estate is broken, unworkable and unsustainable. Brokers aren’t happy; they’re going bankrupt. Agents aren’t happy; they feel overworked, underpaid and unsupported. Consumers aren’t happy; public opinion survey after survey suggests that Realtors are among the least respected professions in America. Something has to give.

That was the feeling I got from this year’s Real Estate Connect and RE BarCamp SF conferences. Technology is central to the discussion, and social media an important part of the change, but neither of them are the change we’re all waiting to see happen. We watch, we talk, we share ideas, and we all wait with a faint sense of foreboding mixed with excitement. Something large and terrible and wonderful this way comes.

What a difference a year makes.

Robert Hahn is managing partner of 7DS Associates, a marketing, technology and strategy consultancy focusing on the real estate industry. He is also founder of The Notorious R.O.B. blog.


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