SAN DIEGO — In the free-flowing and informal world of social media, Realtors may stir up more business by wishing a colleague happy birthday, or snapping a picture of an encounter with a snake, than by blatantly promoting listings on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

That’s been the experience, at least, of Mike Parker — a genial Realtor from Northern Kentucky who shared his social media expertise with colleagues at the National Association of Realtors’ annual convention in San Diego.

SAN DIEGO — In the free-flowing and informal world of social media, Realtors may stir up more business by wishing a colleague happy birthday, or snapping a picture of an encounter with a snake, than by blatantly promoting listings on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

That’s been the experience, at least, of Mike Parker — a genial Realtor from Northern Kentucky who shared his social media expertise with colleagues at the National Association of Realtors’ annual convention in San Diego.

Parker sees nothing wrong with posting listings to social media sites — his are displayed automatically on his Facebook page via a feed from Realtor.com.

But he advises real estate agents and brokers to concentrate on expanding their network of contacts ("friends") on social media sites, and building personal relationships with them.

The way to do that is not by bombarding them with marketing pitches, but rather engaging in conversations that may seem to have little to do with real estate.

That’s the kind of advice often dished out by social media "experts." But Parker and Mark Porter, a Texas-based Realtor who’s also making the most of social media — shared specific examples of techniques they and other real estate agents are employing in real life to grow their business.

Parker said he’s done 15 closings this year, with another four pending. He’s generated much of that business using some seemingly unorthodox techniques.

Visiting client’s property in a rural area recently, Parker spotted a black king snake. He snapped a picture of the nonvenomous — but shockingly long — snake slithering through the grass, and posted it to his Facebook page.

In his Facebook post, Parker kept the focus on the snake, but mentioned in passing that he’d stumbled upon it at a listing he represented: a horse farm in southern Boone County.

"I did not go out and say, ‘I just listed a horse farm, the price is $800,000,’ " Parker said. Instead, he said, he posted the picture with the expectation that he’d get many comments along the lines of, "Oh, I hate snakes."

Which he did. He also got two calls from potential clients, asking, "Where is that horse farm?"

That kind of indirect marketing is the key to being perceived as authentic on social networking sites, Parker said.

"We make social media too hard," he said. For the most part, social media boils down to "getting your friends talking to you."

Porter agreed. …CONTINUED

"People do not respect advertising, nor do they believe advertising," Porter said. "We (Realtors) get our clients through recommendations." On social networking sites, Porter advised, "Think about whether you are viewed as an advertiser, or are you viewed as a peer."

Starting conversations

One way to start conversations is to ask questions. Ask people what’s their favorite Thanksgiving dish, or their favorite Christmas gift, for example.

Holidays, birthdays and community events can provide many starting points for conversations. On Veterans Day, Parker posted a photo of a colleague’s son who is in the Marine Corps, receiving a commendation.

Facebook tracks and displays events occurring in the lives of "friends" in your network. If he knows them well enough, Parker will wish his Facebook friends a happy birthday when reminded by Facebook.

He always notes his location when sending a greeting — "Happy birthday from Northern Kentucky" — a subtle way to broadcast his availability in that market in what is ostensibly a personal message.

A recent birthday greeting to an agent in Atlanta netted Parker a call a few days later from one of the agent’s clients who was relocating to Kentucky and had seen the message.

Another technique is to share details about your personal life. When a recent trip to a hospital emergency room resulted in Parker being admitted for further tests — he thought he was having heart trouble, but doctors suspected a "mini stroke" — he blogged about it on Facebook from the hospital. The post generated 106 comments.

Although sharing personal thoughts and details can help you be seen as a "peer" rather than an "advertiser," religion and politics are generally off limits for Parker.

And to get the kind of response Parker’s hospital post generated, you must first build a large network of contacts on the social media sites you use, he said.

Building a following

If Parker’s first rule for social media is that "you’ve got to be true," the second is that you need a large network of friends and contacts.

"If you have 200 friends, it will be hard to make serious money off of social media," Parker said. He has about 3,600 Facebook friends, some of whom he’s drummed up by conducting keyword searches for users who attended his alma mater, Thomas More College, or who work at Procter & Gamble, a large local employer.

Parker looks for new social media contacts who are between 25-44 — the age range identified in NAR’s annual Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers as among the most active in the market. If he shares five or six mutual Facebook friends with people who come up in his searches, he attempts to "friend" them. …CONTINUED

If they ask how he knows them, Parker will mention the name of a Facebook friend they have in common. Eight or nine times out of 10, he said, they end up adding him to their list of friends.

The key to generating new business from social media sites is "not who you know, it’s who knows you," Parker said. For that reason, he opts to "hide" Facebook friends if he finds their posts uninformative, rather than "defriending" them. That way, he won’t see their posts but they will continue to see his.

One of the pitfalls of starting out on Facebook is trying to grow your network too fast, Parker said. He himself has been placed on "probation" for adding too many friends too quickly. Add more than 10 a day and you may find yourself in a similar situation, he warned.

"If you get a pop-up saying you are adding too many friends, you’ve got to stop for two or three days — trust me," he said.

Another way to generate a following is to create a group for a neighborhood you do business in, where people can talk about community events, garage sales, or other subjects of local interest. 

"Don’t say, ‘I’m a Realtor, I have these listings,’ " Parker advised. It’s OK, however, to provide a monthly market update detailing recent sales in the neighborhood or other items that might interest members of the group. 

It’s important to have a profile photo that "pops" when establishing a presence on social media sites, Parker said — something that’s visually appealing and memorable. Your profile photo will serve as a sort of miniature billboard that people will associate with you and your brand, he said.

Parker uses a white hat or, alternately, a picture of his dog, Washington, as a way of establishing an instantly recognizable presence wherever he goes. (A Facebook post accompanied by a picture of Washington "will always bring me 25-30 comments," he says.)

Porter said to think twice when establishing your user name on a social media site, because once you build up a following, you will be stuck with whatever you chose when you were getting started.

On YouTube, Porter’s user name is MarkPorterCRS (he and Parker both hold the Certified Residential Specialist designation from the Council of Residential Specialists.)

"If I could go back in time, I would change that to first name, last name, Realtor," Porter said. Realtor is a term that’s understood by consumers and used as a keyword in searches.

Leverage your effort

To get the most of the time you spend social networking — Parker limits himself to an hour a day — it’s important to leverage the work you do on one site by making it accessible on other sites.

The ShareThis service lets users access all of their contacts and networks online, and share and track content through e-mail, instant messaging, and social networking sites including Facebook and Digg. The embeddable ShareThis button can help posts go viral, Parker said. …CONTINUED

Jott.com helps organize social networking contacts into groups with like interests. Some clients, for example, might be interested in attending open houses, while others want to be kept in the loop about price changes.

Blogs are a "listening post" that raise your visibility with search engines and help consumers find you.

"Don’t underestimate the power of blogs," Porter said. "You’re going to answer questions in your blog (generating content) that will bring Google and Yahoo to your Web site."

Sites that aggregate many real estate blogs, like Active Rain and RealTown, help provide "juice" in search-engine rankings, making your blog more visible to consumers, they said.

A blog has even more power to draw visitors to your main Web if the two sites are well integrated, providing links that take consumers from one to the other.

RealPro, a template-based Web site developer for real estate agents, offers "the best integration I’ve seen between blog and Web site," Porter said. "Google and Yahoo are loving it. It’s really juicing your Web site."

Blog posts can also serve as content on an agent’s social networking sites. Creating an auto feed on a Facebook business page (a page that, unlike a user’s personal page, is geared to marketing to a larger audience) is as simple as typing the URL into "Edit import settings" at the bottom of "Notes settings."

Parker and Porter also like AnnounceMyMove.com, a new tool that allows agents to create custom-based announcements for clients announcing their moves that includes the agent’s contact information. Clients can personalize the announcements and e-mail them to friends or post them to social networking sites like Facebook, generating referrals for agents.

"This is one of the best things to come along in social media in the last six to 12 months," Parker said, and Porter agreed that it’s worth checking out.

"The real power I see with AnnouncyMyMove.com is it’s not you, it’s your seller, reaching out" to their friends and social media contacts, Porter said.

Parker uses Realtor.com’s free SeeMyListings service to send his listings to Facebook, where they appear in a relatively unobtrusive box in the lower left-hand corner of his Facebook home page.

This month, Oodle launched a self-service platform for real estate agents that automatically uploads their for-sale listings, distributes them to more than 200 Web sites, and helps them generate viral exposure on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (see story).

Parker said when he stopped by Oodle’s booth in the San Diego Convention Center, he was impressed by the five-step guide the company has developed for real estate agents to take full advantage of social media. Oodle’s "Real Estate How-To Guide for Social Media" is also available online.

The two agreed that Mashable.com is a must for staying abreast of the latest developments and best practices for social media. HubSpot.com, MarketingProfs.com and GasPedal.com also have good advice on social media and "word of mouth" marketing, they said, although not all of it is free. …CONTINUED

(Parker and Porter have posted 59 pages of material they used to back up their presentation, which includes statistics on social network usage and links to sites and services they recommend.)

Incorporating video

When writing blog posts or posting to social media sites, it’s important to keep posts short and readable, and to break up longer posts with white space to avoid putting off readers with a big block of gray text. Video is also a great tool for adding visual appeal to posts and grabbing the readers interest, they said.

Parker and Porter cited James Nellis, a Realtor based in the metro Washington, D.C., area, as an example of how to get the most out of video.

Nellis, who happened to be in the audience, said there are two broad categories of video: professionally produced "branding videos," which help brokers and agents demonstrate their experience and knowledge before meeting with clients in person, and amateur "guerrilla videos," including consumer testimonials, which give agents added credibility.

"Remember how revolutionary e-mail was? Now it goes to the trash folder. People are still clicking on video," Nellis said.

Nellis recommended that agents ask consumers to do testimonials after every closing. It’s worth hiring a professional videographer to shoot branding videos, he said, but agents can shoot guerrilla video like testimonials themselves using an inexpensive camera.

"You don’t want it to look staged," because a slickly produced testimonial won’t be believable, Nellis said.

Parker recommended keeping videos to no longer than two to three minutes. To stay within those limits, a branding video built around an agent’s listing presentation might be broken up into a dozen separate videos.

Videos should be accompanied by detailed titles, descriptions, tags and categories to help text-based search engines find them. When using video on your blog or social networking sites, embed the code for a viewer — not the URL where the video is found on the hosting site. You want viewers to stay on your site, not be drawn over to a host site like YouTube where they may be exposed to videos produced by your competitors.

Don’t stop selling

While there are many tricks to using social media, it shouldn’t eat up all of your day.

Parker said he gets up between 4:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. every day, turns on the computer, and writes a post right away — often incorporating one of the inspirational saying he finds at sites like WisdomQuotes.com.

"If I’ve got a full day, where I have an out-of-town buyer coming in and I’m going to be showing houses and I’m not going to be back until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., I’ll talk about what I’m doing," he said.

"Consumers like positive people, they like proactive people — it looks like you’re doing business. I’ve had people tell me that again and again. I’m not saying how many houses I sold, but they say it looks like you are doing business," Parker added.

"If this stuff is overwhelming you," Porter said, "get back to selling houses."

***

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