At the National Association of Realtors annual conference last month, there was a strong undercurrent of frustration among attendees. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the market, the foreclosure situation, appraisal rule changes, or the lack of credit that had the Realtors seething. Instead, it was the lack of an answer to a simple question.

Imagine that you’re sitting in a session at the NAR conference with five social media experts. An agent stands up and asks a simple question: "I have a Facebook account and I am on Twitter and LinkedIn. Can you tell me how I am supposed to get business from them?" The crowd applauds. Now imagine that every panel member answers by saying, "We don’t have an answer for that question."

It’s easy to understand why agents are frustrated. They know they should be involved in social media, but exactly what are they supposed to do?

At the National Association of Realtors annual conference last month, there was a strong undercurrent of frustration among attendees. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the market, the foreclosure situation, appraisal rule changes, or the lack of credit that had the Realtors seething. Instead, it was the lack of an answer to a simple question.

Imagine that you’re sitting in a session at the NAR conference with five social media experts. An agent stands up and asks a simple question: "I have a Facebook account and I am on Twitter and LinkedIn. Can you tell me how I am supposed to get business from them?" The crowd applauds. Now imagine that every panel member answers by saying, "We don’t have an answer for that question."

It’s easy to understand why agents are frustrated. They know they should be involved in social media, but exactly what are they supposed to do?

The answer is simple, but not necessarily easy to implement. The first step is to understand that social media are simply another way in which you can engage in a conversation with potential clients. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are tools that allow us to communicate with each other.

In fact, the best model for working with social media is the same skillset that you would use in a face-to-face situation. In other words, if you were introduced to a new neighbor or if you met someone who shares your passion for travel, how would you build a friendship with that person?

It certainly wouldn’t be by sending them e-mail after e-mail containing information about you, your listings and your business. Instead, relationships grow from similarities, shared experiences and trust.

To succeed using social media, you must approach the process the same way you would if you were building a friendship. Put simply: Make a friend now, do a deal later.

The reason the speakers and panelists at NAR could not provide a concise answer to the question, "What should I do?" is that no one can tell you what will be the best strategy for you to make friends offline. The same thing is true online. Social media are nothing more than tools. There are thousands of ways for them to work. The key is to discover what works for you.

While there is no single way to achieve social media success, here are four specific strategies that can put you on the road to generating and converting leads from these important tools.

1. People from your past are golden
Have you kept up with your old friends from school? How about the people you worked with before you began your real estate career? These past relationships provide a strong foundation for successful social networking. An easy way to find them is to use LinkedIn. Complete your profile, including when and where you worked as well as where you went to school. LinkedIn will search for people who were in the same places at the same time that you were. When LinkedIn finds an old friend or acquaintance, reconnect. …CONTINUED

In terms of staying in contact, dash off a quick note periodically just to stay in touch. See the person face to face when possible. It’s much easier to maintain an old friendship than it is to create a new one.

2. Write testimonials
One of the best ways to use LinkedIn is for testimonials. If someone in your sphere of influence has a business, write a testimonial for that person. In most cases, the person will reciprocate by writing a testimonial for you. This approach is sometimes called "give-to-get-marketing." Another term is "building social capital," or as Tara Hunt calls it, "whuffie." Regardless of the name, when you give to others they generally give back to you.

3. Social networking is the 21st century version of door-knocking
If you have ever cold-called or knocked on doors in an effort to find buyers and sellers, you know that it takes persistence, hard work and time to create results. Social media allow you to engage with like-minded people online.

In contrast to unwelcomed door-knocks or cold calls, your Facebook friends and Twitter followers are actually interested in what you have to say. Again, the face-to-face model is instructive. If you stand in the corner by yourself at a networking event, you aren’t going to meet anyone. If you engage with others and help them in some way, there’s a good chance they will be eager to help you with your business as well.

4. Make your social media time a priority
The old adage regarding prospecting used to be: "The only time you should cancel your prospecting time is if you would cancel a listing appointment under the same circumstances. If you don’t feed the prospecting pipeline, you won’t have any future business." Make a point of allocating a minimum of one hour a day to social media. Treat it as part of your regular prospecting time and schedule it.

5. Become engaged and be engaging
One of the best ways to use social media is to comment on what others are saying. In other words, become engaged. Be engaging by posting links to interesting online articles or to pictures you may have taken. Share fun resources.

When it comes to social media, the most important guideline is to be you. Social media demand authenticity. If you meet someone face to face and you are completely different from how you act online, the person will probably elect to not do business with you. On the other hand, when your online and offline personas are consistent, social media can be your ticket to referrals and plenty of future business.

Bernice Ross, CEO of RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, trainer and author of "Real Estate Dough: Your Recipe for Real Estate Success" and other books. You can reach her at Bernice@RealEstateCoach.com and find her on Twitter: @bross.

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