When I’m out and meeting people in the real estate industry, one of the common questions I hear is, "Hey, what’s the best online tool that’s available for real estate?"

And when us geek consultant types get together we often share thoughts and ideas on cool tools and technology — or bemoan the lack of anything "game-changing" emerging at the moment.

From my perspective, focusing heavily on analytics/measurement/data-driven decision-making, there are really just two tools that are absolutely essential for success online.

One of them has been around since before there was an "online," and the other has been around since before "online" was mainstream. Which is to say, they aren’t new. One of them might not even really be a tool. But I’ll talk about it in this column anyway.

Most important tool for success online: your mind

There are a lot of people out there selling things to the real estate industry. Some of it is good. A lot of it is junk. And some of it is good for some people and junk for other people. Figuring out what is junk and what is not junk is enough to make you lose your mind.

Don’t lose your mind. It’s the most essential thing you need for online success. Here are some specific ways to use your mind as you approach the mess of software and vendors and consultants and platforms and so on:

1. Think about what you’re really doing online in the first place. What do you want other people to do online that helps your business?

2. Think about what other people are really doing online in the first place. What can your business do to help other people?

3. Map out the whole process, a sort of customer workflow, starting with a potential customer who has a problem and ending with you solving their problem. Bonus points if you use crayons to make your map.

4. Make a circle around the parts of this workflow that take place on platforms you don’t fully control (Facebook, Twitter, Google and so on).

5. Make a circle in a different color around all the parts of this workflow that occur on platforms that you fully control (your company website, your self-hosted blog on your own domain and so on).

If you use your mind this way — thinking about your customers, thinking about helping your customers, thinking about where and when you help your customers — then it’s going to be much, much easier for you to make sense of all the online tools and technologies out there.

Without using your mind, you’re more likely to fall victim to "shiny object syndrome" and vanity metrics. If you know about your customers, and you know about you, then you can evaluate and deploy technology.

Second most important tool for online success: the humble spreadsheet

Because I’m into Web analytics, measurement, testing and all that, you knew I’d bring this around to data-driven decision-making sooner or later. Well, here we are. The humble spreadsheet. The second most important tool for online success.

If you’re going to do things online, you’ll want to observe what people are doing online. Then make some improvements to what you’re doing online. Then repeat. Unless you’re perfect.

If you’re perfect, then everything always works out the way you think it should and you’re free to avoid doing anything different. I’m not perfect, though, so I like observing.

One of the hard parts of using observations to make decisions is that there are so many platforms and ways to make observations. By this, I mean there’s no one analytics package to rule them all. And even if there were, it probably wouldn’t have the metrics that matter most to your business.

The sad fact is, most analytics provided by the platforms you don’t own focus on the numbers that help the platform — not the numbers that help your business. This is why "followers" and "friends" are so prominent in social media metrics pages.

The raw number of followers or friends most easily equates to traditional media’s "impressions" numbers. Feel free to ask your friends at newspapers how that’s working for them these days.

If you want to get good at helping people online, you’re going to want to understand quality. Quality of interactions, quality of people (not their objective quality, but the qualities that you can help them with — some people you can’t help and it’s good to know this before celebrating the fact that they’re your Facebook friend).

If you’ve taken advantage of the first tool for online success — your mind — then you should be able to develop a handful of metrics that really matter for your business. This is easier to do in a room that has no computers or screens in it. It’s probably even easier to do in a location that isn’t your office.

Once you have that short list of metrics, then think about how you’re going to gather the data. Some of it might come from familiar tools like Google Analytics. Others might require you to investigate and learn some new tools or techniques. But the end result is that you’ll be gathering data that matters for your business.

Your own spreadsheet is where you store and analyze that data. Your own spreadsheet lets you focus on your business instead of Facebook’s business or Google’s business. And hopefully, your own spreadsheet will tell you how you’re doing in terms of helping customers.

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