NEW YORK — Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can help real estate brokerages build their brands, but companies should have usage policies in place and monitor agents to make sure they aren’t doing more harm than good.

That piece of advice was a common thread running through several panel discussions during the Broker Summit workshop at Real Estate Connect New York City.

Having a social media strategy ensures that agents aren’t wasting their own time, doing harm to their company’s brand, or creating potential lawsuits as they use Web 2.0 techniques to build their business, panelists said.

NEW YORK — Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can help real estate brokerages build their brands, but companies should have usage policies in place and monitor agents to make sure they aren’t doing more harm than good.

That piece of advice was a common thread running through several panel discussions during the Broker Summit workshop at Real Estate Connect New York City.

Having a social media strategy ensures that agents aren’t wasting their own time, doing harm to their company’s brand, or creating potential lawsuits as they use Web 2.0 techniques to build their business, panelists said.

If a brokerage doesn’t know enough about social media strategy to explain the company’s strategy to its agents and help them turn their efforts into leads and sales, "My message to (those) brokers would be to tell your agents to stop ‘doing’ Twitter and Facebook," said Jim Marks, founder and president of the consulting firm Virtual Results.

A haphazard approach to social media "will take you away from calling expireds and doing things that actually make you money," Marks said.

Social media sites are like "the Wild West," and brokers shouldn’t let agents define their brands there, said Eric Bryn, the vice president of strategic development for the Leading Real Estate Companies of the World.

To ensure that agents are "expanding your brand, under your control," Bryn recommended that brokerages issue guidelines and policies for social media. The National Association of Realtors’ model Internet policy is a good starting point for creating a policy, which can also incorporate aspects of NAR’s "Code of Ethics," and other documents that address "offline" issues, he said.

Most brokerages probably have employee handbooks and policies that can they can also draw on, said attorney Jennifer Baumann of the Chicago-based law firm DLA Piper.

Defamation is perhaps the biggest issue facing brokerages that don’t adopt such policies, Baumann said.

"Where statements (in the past) were made at the water cooler, now (social media users) are standing with a megaphone shouting to 4,000 or 10,000 friends," Baumann said. It can get emotional when agents snub each other online, and sometimes the situations that arise can be resolved only in court.

Having social media guidelines and policies in place won’t necessarily help a brokerage defend itself in court, but it may keep it from ending up there in the first place, Baumann said.

"Hire a lawyer, and get an insurance policy," advised Joseph Ferrara, a New York attorney who is also an Inman News technology columnist and publisher of the Sellsius blog.

"I would not be involved in social media unless you have an attorney," Ferrara said. "You need proper instructions to pass onto your agents." …CONTINUED

Ferrara cited the example of a Florida brokerage that was hit with a $25 million defamation lawsuit over an agent’s blog post. The lawsuit was later settled on confidential terms (see story). 

Panelists warned against going too far in restricting their agents’ use of social media, however.

"To tell an employee they can’t say anything in any context is overreaching," Baumann warned.

Not only do free speech issues come into play, but brokerages with overly restrictive social media policies could alienate the 20-something and 30-something agents they’d like to recruit, she said.

Setting parameters on social media and monitoring agents’ use of the medium is a useful technique for gauging their adoption of a brokerage’s "brand promise," Marks said.

"If you’ve been trying for the last 10 years to get agents to adopt that brand promise … you can watch them now, and determine which agents believe in the brand promise you’ve instilled in them," Marks said.

In another panel discussion aimed at brokers, marketing executives at two big franchises shared their views on building brand.

A brand name, logo, color schemes and slogan are merely "the tip of the iceberg" of a "holistic brand," said Camilla Sullivan, senior vice president of marketing for Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate LLC. The holistic brand is the promise that a company stands for, Sullivan said.

While traditional brands talks about functional benefits and often compete on price, "lifestyle brands" like Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate are about personal values and aspirations, and are often vehicles for self-expression.

"Think about brand before you even get near advertising," Sullivan advised.

Christina Lowris-Panos, executive vice president of advertising and marketing for The Corcoran Group, said when she first got into the real estate business five years ago, she "couldn’t find firms that had established true brands."

Coming from a previous position at MasterCard, which used its ongoing "priceless" ad campaign to turn the brand into "a trademark with a soul," Lowris-Panos said she now understands "consumers don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it." …CONTINUED

In that vein, a real estate brokerage can’t expect to build a brand by emphasizing its service area, price, experience and reach, she said.

Instead, I say, "We help people live who they are," Lowris-Panos said. "We don’t ignore stats and sales, but it’s not where we start."

Joseph Rand, managing partner of Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate Rand Realty, warned brokers and their agents to "stop annoying people" with irrelevant social media messages.

Traditional mail, telephone calls, even knocking on doors — all are techniques that Realtors and other salespeople have "soiled" through overuse, he said. Rand fears social media is headed down the same road.

"Facebook has already lost its sheen, and Twitter is on its way" to becoming ineffective, as users using filters to screen out those they suspect will send unsolicited sales pitches.

New Facebook tools allow users to create groups of friends, so only feeds from those friends are visible.

"Do you think any real estate agents make those groups? No," Rand said. "You know because you filter your e-mails. We have destroyed every means of communication that existed between Realtor and client."

Used the wrong way, social media gives agents the false sense that they are being productive, when they may in fact be wasting their time, Rand said.

"Agents love Web 2.0 because it keeps them from having to pick up the phone and call someone, doing something they don’t want to do," he said. Rand is particularly puzzled by agents who blog with other Realtors in mind. "It’s no more productive than sitting around the coffee station at the office — it’s the same routine."

While some agents say blogging for other agents helps generate referrals, Rand thinks they are deluding themselves unless they are in a market with lots of in migration, like Florida or Arizona.

Stop embracing new technologies if they don’t help you do something you are already doing better, cheaper or more efficiently, Rand warned.

"Ask yourself if before the Internet, did you put out a newsletter telling other agents how you run your business?" he said. 

***

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