In columns over the last two weeks I covered ideas around how real estate consumers use search to find out about neighborhoods and how they can use locative media to learn more about what’s in those neighborhoods. This week, let’s look at social media and social networking.

Usually everyone glosses over the difference between social media and social networking. Some of this is because the websites where these things exist overlap a bit. But for understanding what’s happening in the online world it’s very important to note the difference.

Social media is a product. It’s bits of content that end up in your face because of someone you know or because of some stated preference or because of some social behavior of yours — in relation to other people — that got tracked somewhere.

Social media becomes available to you either because the delivery site knows something about you or because it is learning about you based on your social activity.

There are many websites that facilitate these chunks of content showing up in front of you. Think of it like getting the Wall Street Journal delivered to your front door because your friend likes the Wall Street Journal.

Social networking is an activity. It’s something you do. You talk or chat or write back and forth with someone who you probably already know. Some of that talking and chatting and writing back and forth involves being a conduit for some social media — sharing that list of funny jokes or a blog post you like, for example.

But the networking isn’t so much about sharing that stuff — it’s about interacting with people you know through technology.

For consumers using social tools to learn more about a neighborhood, social activity is a natural fit. If they know someone who might know something about the neighborhood, they’re going to ask.

My friends who practice real estate would, of course, love to be that someone. But that happens only when a period of developing trust prior to a real estate purchasing decision exists.

This is why the distinction between social media and social networking is important: Product is never going to be as good at developing trust as activity is. No amount of great blog posts and articles and market reports is going to compare with the activity of being genuinely helpful.

The challenge is that opportunities to be genuinely helpful aren’t very predictable. You have to be alert, listening and ready to act — usually in a very short time frame.

It’s much, much easier to just make a lot of product and shove it into social channels — you have more control over that sort of process. You make the content, then you shovel it out there. It will create some opportunities, but it isn’t going to generate the same level of trust as being helpful.

Both of these things — social product and social activity — have their uses when applied strategically.

Let’s take the example of people looking for a house and using social media to help in that task. What sort of things can they do?

Social networking

They can ask their friends. If you aren’t already one of their friends, then you aren’t one of the people they’re asking.

I mean an actual friend here, not a Facebook friend or an acquaintance. If there is someone they already know and trust who may know something about the neighborhood, etc., that is the person they’ll ask first.

Chances are good this won’t even occur online. They’ll ask in person. Or on the phone. It’s easier for those asking, and it’s way easier for the people responding.

This is social networking without the technology interference.

Digital social networking

Once the direct and live human contacts run out, consumers can then start looking through the more casual stuff on sites like Facebook.

They’ll start with an activity here as well: asking their contacts if they know anything about a neighborhood or location. This might start a conversation to help a consumer learn what’s good or not so good about an area.

Again, a real estate professional who is not already a part of the consumer’s network isn’t even necessarily aware this is happening.

Even if the real estate professional is a part of this consumer’s network, the real estate pro has to be alert, listening and able to respond in a helpful way to make this work. The real estate pro has to be able to perform some activity — not just shovel product.

Social media

Once all of the social networking options have run out, then there’s room for the product. Should someone discover that Facebook has a search bar, for example, and type in the name of a neighborhood or town, then a list of pages that are heavily influenced by a social layer will show up.

Those pages are social media, a product created and managed by someone. And then on those pages people are probably engaging in networking activity.

This is where heads can get a little bit melted. The Facebook page itself is a social product that facilitates social activity.

If the person who wants to know more about a neighborhood shows up on a Facebook page and that page doesn’t immediately have the mix of social product and social activity they want, they’re off to the next page. Or maybe they ask a question or leave a comment.

Either the social product (links to articles) works passively or the social activity works well: actively.

Specialized social media

There are sites and tools out there that are more directly focused on location: the online places where people talk about their physical places. Some of these are simply Facebook pages. But some are more specialized.

My favorite example is always Burlington, Vt.’s Front Porch Forum, an old-school email list that is broken down by neighborhood. The only people talking on the list are actual neighbors. It’s super useful, but not very common.

Owning a similar social media site like this would be a strategic advantage in towns where it doesn’t already exist. It would be like a newsletter, but instead of being a social product it would be a social activity.

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