Last week I had the opportunity to hear Adrian Ho of the Minneapolis firm Zeus Jones speak at the Burlington Social Media Breakfast. Ho talked about a lot of interesting aspects of social media and how his firm has made use of it.

I’ll do my best to sum up some of his presentation points and tie them into the real estate industry. Some of Ho’s ideas might be exactly the opposite of what you’re hearing and reading elsewhere under the heading of "best practices."

Transparency and two-way conversation are not required for social media success

A lot of advice about social media marketing involves talking about engagement, being authentic and being responsive. The general thought tends to focus on helping customers build a relationship with your company or brand. But most people don’t want to build a relationship with a company. And those who do, according to Ho, are "kind of creepy."

As an example of a company that does just fine in social media but is decidedly not transparent, with "two-way" communications more often initiated by its legal department: Apple Inc. That company typically never admits to the existence of a product until it’s formally announced, and there’s no Apple Blog or Apple Twitter account or Apple Facebook Fan Page (at least run by the company itself). It’s pretty much nonexistent in the usual places you might look for social media activity.

But according to the Vitrue Top Social Brands of 2009 report, Apple or its products occupy three of the top 10 spots. Vitrue ranks brands based on a variety of factors but is focused primarily on buzz and conversation. So Apple is pretty much not involved in social media. In many cases, Apple is actively squelching social media conversations — as when its legal department sends cease-and-desist letters to bloggers.

So how is Apple achieving such great success in social media when it isn’t even "engaged"?

Make something of value and you will be more "social"

Apple makes products that people love. Even when they don’t work right, people love them. They really do an excellent job at handling user interfaces, both in the digital realm and in the touchable/haptic realm. As a result, people talk about its stuff. When Apple makes something, the company tries to make it "insanely great" and more often than not it succeeds.

But one example probably isn’t enough. Let’s look at a couple more that Adrian Ho mentioned. Intuit has a wiki for tax professionals called TaxAlmanac. On the surface it seems Intuit made this service for its competitors, but really Intuit is being kept apprised of all the changes in local tax codes, which helps Intuit make a better product. Another example mentioned was Home Depot putting do-it-yourself instructional videos on YouTube so customers and potential customers would know how to make use of the things Home Depot sells. …CONTINUED

Another example was TJ Maxx using Twitter to mention specific designer shipments that it might not otherwise be able to mention — getting designer-focused shoppers into the store when the things they want are in stock.

All of these simple projects in social media have a few things in common:

  • They are a valuable service for someone.
  • They provide a real benefit to the company commissioning the project.
  • The company is not the focus of attention; the company isn’t in a conversation.

Another thing that’s interesting about these examples is that most of them start with human behavior that’s already happening: people looking for do-it-yourself instructions; tax professionals talking about tax code changes; designer-focused shoppers looking for a deal. Then, the company is simply making something that puts those existing behaviors into software code — a wiki, a Twitter-notification service, a YouTube channel. And finally, the company more or less gets out of the way. The service is built for the customers, not as a perpetual broadcast machine for the company.

Bringing it to real estate

So how might some of this translate into real estate social media initiatives? There’s probably more meat here for the broker and corporate levels than for the agents. Agents, after all, are actual people who clients can build relationships with. For agents, it’s perhaps a reminder to focus on what the customer needs more than broadcasting the agent’s own needs.

But at the broker and corporate levels there are a few takeaways:

  • Focus on real business objectives: Unless your goal really is to "build buzz," and I’d be wary of that as a goal, focus on increasing actual business metrics — more listings, more sales, better agents or human resources, etc. All of the examples I saw in the presentation were focused on achieving actual business goals.
  • Identify what people are already doing: People are already out in the world looking for real estate to buy or sell and having conversations about it. Learn how and where those conversations are and what could make them better, faster and easier.
  • Make something people like: If you provide something that people will actually need and want to use then they will use it and tell their friends about it. What you make is going to depend on what your business objectives are and how those objectives intersect with existing human behavior. Focus on making something valuable, not a new broadcast platform.

I’ve been told that the presentation from the event will eventually be published online — I’ll leave a comment here if I find out about it.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt. He’s a frequent speaker on applying analytics and data to creative marketing endeavors.


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