One of the common things real estate brokers and agents say to me is, "We’re so behind as an industry when it comes to using technology."

I always make it a point to clearly disagree with anyone who says that.

Last week, I was asked to present at the Global Strategic Management Institute’s Social Media Summit in Las Vegas. It’s an event that is attended by the digital social teams of Fortune 500 companies. Lot’s of non-real estate industries were represented there.

They were facing many of the exact same issues I hear about from real estate professionals at industry events like Inman Real Estate Connect or RETechSouth.

Teams were intensely curious about return on investment. They were overwhelmed with the ever-increasing tool set that is required to operate successfully in the digital environment.

Teams were trying to figure out what "engagement" means for their business. Many teams were seeking ways to work with other internal teams, like legal or management or information technology.

These other industries are no different in terms of how far ahead or behind they are in relation to real estate. In fact, at an individual practitioner level I’d say real estate has the edge.

Of course, my view of the digital capabilities of the real estate industry is a little skewed: If you don’t already know something about technology or analytics, you’re unlikely to talk to me at a conference, even if what you know about digital stuff is simply that you want to know more.

But even that aspirational contact with technology is ahead of many other industries where people outside of a specific silo — be it social media, IT, digital marketing or some other mix of these departments — have no interest or intention, much less aspiration, to learn more.

The real estate industry, by comparison, has many examples at all levels of organizations being directly and deeply involved in digital work. CEOs of franchises, heads of large brokerages and small brokerages, agent teams and solo agents are all well-represented among the digirati of real estate.

The only other industry I know of that has such a broad interest in digital technologies is the emergency management industry: 911 responders, including law enforcement, ambulances, etc.

They’ve taken to social technologies like wildfire in the past few years. But even there, they tend to view technology use from one perspective only, instead of as a transformative opportunity.

The real difference, digitally speaking

What sets the real estate industry apart from other industries, when it comes to digital stuff, is the structure of the industry itself.

Other industries tend to have silos of work that are much more structured and nonporous. As a result, policies and programs are much more centralized, and much more top-down.

The root of many struggles in implementing social and digital technologies comes from managing the constant change inherent in digital work with the organizational "need" for centralized command and control. This isn’t the case in real estate — at least not in most cases, and definitely not to the same degree.

Because of the nature of the broker/agent relationship, people in real estate are typically free to try out something new whenever they like. In fact, the loose loyalties between broker and agent encourage everyone to constantly try new things to increase the prominence of personal brands.

Sure, the result of everyone trying stuff out willy-nilly creates a bit of chaos. Sure, it’s definitely true that different levels of comprehension and talent with digital tools results in a mishmash of content, tools and platforms in the real estate industry.

But the benefit of all this chaotic activity is that new things are tried constantly. New tools, new approaches and new methods are always being pioneered by people who are unfettered by central planning departments.

The structure of the real estate industry allows for rapid adoption and adaptation of technology in a way that the digital teams of other industries can only dream about.

Lessons from other industries

That said, there are some great things that can be learned to the approach other industries take toward social and digital technologies. The chaotic thrum of activity in the real estate space has its drawbacks and could be refined a little bit.

  • Commitment: When a tool has promise, develop a plan to use it effectively for six months or more in order to really understand and get value from it.
  • Teamwork: Assemble a team of people — whether they are internal or a collection of vendors, contractors and/or consultants — to work on projects together. Sometimes having more than one set of eyes on a project is very helpful.
  • Purpose: Awareness of when an initiative is intended for branding vs. sales makes all the difference in execution.
  • Long-term investment: Having initiatives that are focused on increasing the long-term viability of the organization helps avoid living in a digital hand-to-mouth scenario.
  • The real estate industry I see is not behind other industries in terms of technology adoption. It just has a different structure. In many ways that structure is an advantage.
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