In the chatter of online marketing tools — buy this, get that, need to have, gotta have — the purpose is often unclear. Sure, I suppose having all the newest tools might make you seem … newer? Cooler? More on top of trends? Who knows.

What matters is how you reach customers and homebuyers. Another thing that matters: how you communicate with those groups. This week’s column is about some old technology that easily gets forgotten in the hype and buzz: e-mail.

E-mail has been the workhouse of the Internet for ages. It predates the Web and chat rooms and bulletin board systems. It is, in technological terms, older than dirt. And it’s a fundamental part of so many of the hip new technologies.

Want a Facebook account? Your e-mail address is your login. Want a Twitter account? They want your e-mail address. Want all the Google goodies? They want your current e-mail address and then they want you to switch to one of their e-mail addresses.

E-mail in real estate

How do real estate professionals use e-mail? Certainly it’s important to open that very important communication channel with customers and use it effectively.

Some property search sites require visitors to register in order to see the search results. What happens with that e-mail address?

Some real estate blogs let you subscribe to the posts via e-mail. What happens with those e-mail addresses?

What about e-mail addresses you gather in the course of your real world networking or even your online networking? What happens to those addresses?

And the biggie: past customers. I bet most real estate professionals have the e-mail addresses of their past customers. What happens to those?

Making sense of online audiences

One of the common issues I see when I talk with real estate professionals is the tendency to group sets of e-mail addresses based on channel: "This is my list of people from my blog and this is my list of people from Facebook and this is my list of people from an open house I did last weekend."

This can lead to confusion for both the real estate professional ("What message should I be sending to this list?") and the customer ("Why am I getting this open house announcement for a house that’s 1,000 miles away?").

If you currently group your collection of e-mail addresses based on the channel or source where you gathered them, try this instead:

1. Make a group of e-mail addresses that contains just people who are interested in your geography, but not necessarily interested in real estate.

These people might be ready to buy a house, but probably not. Places where you got their e-mail address might be your community-news focused blog or a Facebook page that’s more about what happens in your town than about the real estate market.

This group might be composed of locals but it could just as easily contain people who are considering relocating to your area or people who vacation in your area.

This is your "general community" group. It’s a list to focus on sharing your community and brand-building activities.

2. Make another group of e-mail addresses that contains only people who have expressed interest in buying or selling property in your geography.

These people might have registered on your property search. Or maybe they’ve contacted you directly via your blog or other social media channels. Either way, the people on this list are all explicitly interested in real estate in a geography that you serve.

This group, again, could be composed of locals or people relocating or people who are interested in buying or selling vacation property.

This is your "real estate specific" group. It’s a list to focus on your service and results.

Consider how the people move from one list to the other

Your general community group will probably be bigger. There probably will be more people interested in your community in general than in buying real estate in your community.

You will send these people information about your town and likely make mention of the fact that you do real estate, and so on. If you hammer hard on real estate, people will leave this list.

If you include a simple method for them to get into a different list that focuses on real estate, then when they’re ready they will flow into your real estate-specific list.

Once someone moves into your real estate-specific list, hopefully you will work with them and help them buy or sell a house. Once that’s happened, the person really doesn’t need to be on the real estate-specific list. Provide an easy way for them to migrate back to the general community group.

If you focus on these two groups: people interested in your community and people interested in real estate in your community, then you can untangle the mess of communication. Remembering that someone may be a member of both at the same time and that people will naturally flow their attention from one group to the other is important.

Oh yeah, and stating the obvious: Don’t send e-mail to someone who didn’t specifically ask you to send them e-mail.

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