Special Report: Is social media worth the time investment?

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  • Agents are, at times, damaging the reputation of the real estate industry with their haphazard and sometimes alienating social media activity.
  • More than 35 percent of brokerages are not supporting their agents with their social media strategy.
  • Agents are criticized for being boastful, too personal, too impersonal and for posting too many listings on social media.
  • Facebook is the most important social media platform for real estate professionals followed by YouTube, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Shelley Falk Rossi, vice president of communications at Windermere Real Estate, has a couple of social media rock stars working for her — Marguerite Giguere is all over Facebook and YouTube, while Anne Jones specializes in Instagram. So Rossi knows what she’s talking about when she says that brokerages who aren’t helping their agents understand the benefits (and consequences) to social media are hurting their brands.

“If you are not investing in social media resources for your agents and franchise owners, you are really missing an opportunity — you are behind. It’s the way of the world,” she said.

Real estate agents are all over social media, and they’re experiencing varying degrees of success. Some are killing it on Instagram while others struggle to make sense of Snapchat.

Inman surveyed readers to better understand how real estate agents and their brokerages are using social media, the pitfalls and the perks. Here’s what we found.

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What social media platforms are agents using?

The survey found that Facebook is considered the most important social media platform by a landslide (72.73 percent of respondents said Facebook was most important), followed by YouTube (9.09 percent), LinkedIn (6.20 percent) and Instagram (4.96 percent).

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At this point, 57.34 percent are not using Snapchat for work, and 38.81 percent are not using Pinterest for work.

Given Facebook’s dominance, it’s not surprising that agents are spending the most time on Facebook. Just over one-fifth of respondents — 21.49 percent — said they spend more than six hours a week on Facebook, and 20.66 percent said they spend less than one hour.

By contrast, 52.77 percent of respondents said they spend less than an hour a week on LinkedIn, and more than two-thirds of respondents (67.24 percent) who work in real estate either don’t have an Instagram account or spend less than an hour a week on the platform.

Almost three-quarters of respondents (72.46 percent) who work in real estate don’t have a Twitter account or spend less than an hour a week tweeting, and that number jumps to 73.31 percent for YouTube.

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Why Facebook rules

“Facebook allows me to interact with a strong local base and post hyperlocal content to promote engagement with my past clients and other followers,” said one agent.

One participant with more than 10 years in the business added: “Seventy two percent of my target market are on Facebook, plus it allows so many variables. Facebook is an incubator of business — it allows interaction that is non-threatening, which makes it easy for an agent to be ‘known’ by Facebook friends.”

One established broker likes the different groups they can use on Facebook. “You can drill down to exactly who you are trying to reach. Gone are the days of blindly throwing a dart and hoping it hits.”

New agents often have a Facebook community who they bring with them to their new business.

“I formed strong relationships and strengthened real-life relationships for 10 years on Facebook before I became a Realtor. It works,” said one survey participant.

One seasoned broker is sold. “It provides the best local opportunity for branding, but more importantly community promotion, which in turn generates an audience paying attention to our posts, thus increasing brand awareness.”

Some agents just don’t have the time or inclination to try out other social media platforms.

“Facebook is where I have the biggest reach, with both my current friends list and with targeted Facebook ads. I am starting Instagram but haven’t done Snapchat. Both seem daunting to try to build a following to make the platform valuable. With Facebook, I have a built-in audience,” said one agent.

Respondents agreed that Facebook is most relevant to their business; more than three-quarters rated Facebook an 8, 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 being “not relevant at all” and 10 being “very relevant” in 2016.

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What else is out there

Facebook is dominant in the real estate world, but the company would be wise to shun complacency. Respondents predicted it would be less relevant to their business in 2020, with 59.33 percent of respondents ranking it an 8, 9 or 10 on the scale of 1 to 10, and 51.73 percent of respondents felt the same way about YouTube.

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New agents are keen to try all the social media platforms and see what works for them.

Said one rookie: “Facebook has the greatest reach for lead generation and potential leads. I anticipate this changing greatly as I discover more social media options that assist agents, especially new agents.”

A high-producing agent said: “I’m not sure if it is most important, but it’s what I go to the most out of habit. But it’s with very lackluster results.”

It’s not for everyone, said an agent of more than five years.

“I only recommend it to someone who is fully invested in making social media a true lead-gen tool. It takes a lot of adjustment to suit your social media marketing program to a particular niche. It is not a panacea.”

Marketing to a niche is a wise move, according to a number of respondents.

“If you spend where you have the most influence, it will beef up your audience,” said an experienced agent.

Another experienced agent said that social media marketing does not generate sufficient leads to justify investment unless an agent has:

  • A strong pool of listings to post as content
  • The marketing is specifically honed to go after a particular niche that actually has buying/selling power

YouTube

While Facebook is out in front, YouTube is benefiting from the growing power of video in the real estate industry.

YouTube is used most in showcasing listings, for marketing agents’ businesses and for building personal brands, according to the survey.

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One experienced broker said he used it for home tours, videos of tips for buyers and sellers and community overviews.

One established agent on a good team said, “I feel video is the future, and YouTube is Google, and the SEO implication along with great outlet for content makes this platform king in my book.”

An agent of four years found YouTube useful for staying in touch with clients. “This is where I find interesting things about my clients that give me the opportunity to reach out to them and keep me top of mind.”

Instagram is on the rise

Another platform growing in popularity in the real estate industry is Instagram. It is seen as particularly useful in building personal brand, showcasing listings and relationship building.

When asked which social platform was most important to their business, one new agent on a successful team said: “Instagram allows one to visually share content to followers which provides a bigger picture to a message. Real estate is mainly visual, so why not show it instead of telling others how it looks. Instagram has also been my most effective lead generation tool yet by creating value, lasting relationships, sales, awareness and success in the marketplace.”

While an experienced agent said they were on Facebook to “get in front of people,” because it “seems like the right thing to do,” Instagram was the platform where they were themselves.

“On Instagram I don’t have to spend money to get followers. It comes organically with the right use of #hashtags. I connect with people who share my interests, hobbies and those are who I genuinely interact with. We always support and comment on each other posts and pictures.”

One experienced agent added: “I seem to get a lot more attention and followers on a daily basis on Instagram. I hashtag specific city names, and areas plus a real estate #.”

The appeal of Instagram seems to be across all ages.

Said one associate broker of 10 years-plus: “Instagram’s easy to use; it’s pictures, not words. It gives a quick idea of what I am doing without overkill.”

One social media manager said, “Instagram has been my most effective lead generation tool yet by creating value, lasting relationships, sales, awareness and success in the marketplace.”

LinkedIn packs big punch

LinkedIn also received praise for helping agents market their business, building personal brands, demonstrating expertise, relationship-building and lead generation.

Said one LinkedIn advocate, a long-term agent with high sales: “I can connect with other professionals who understand the value of referrals.”

LinkedIn is good for “presenting a professional presence,” added another agent.

“Use LinkedIn as a tool for recommendations,” said Jordan Scheltgen, Cave Social managing partner, who advises brokerages on social media strategy.

If you have had a good experience with a buyer or seller, after the close, write a recommendation for the client; say they were great to work with, he suggested.

This will make them feel “warm and fuzzy,” he said.

“You are recommending them professionally — it helps the client with their business,” he said.

It’s a nice thing to do and makes them more likely to refer you to their friends, he said.

Another tool agents can use on LinkedIn to show that they are knowledgeable and in touch with the industry is to write on LinkedIn Pulse.

“Post about the community or the real estate market in general — don’t post about listings.

“People want to communicate with people, not product,” he added.

What mistakes are being made?

As they communicate with clients and friends on a number of platforms, real estate professionals are accused of making a number of mistakes that are not good their brands, for the real estate industry or their brokerages.

They are not entirely to blame — slightly over 35 percent said they were not receiving support from their brokerage on their social media strategy, and a further 9 percent were not sure if their company even offered help. More than half of respondents were, however, receiving guidance from their brokerages.

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Respondents did not hold back about the biggest mistakes they felt were being made in social media from agents. They were not posting regularly enough (52.89 percent) — but then, in some cases, posting too often, (30.99 percent). Boasting, (40.08 percent) was seen as a common problem, and posting too many listings was another criticism.

People can’t seem to win. On one hand, agents are criticized for sharing too much personal content (35.12 percent), then criticized again for being too impersonal (33.88 percent).

Oversharing (28.10 percent) was also a concern.

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The single biggest mistake, meanwhile, was not posting regularly, followed by posting too many listings and boasting.

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Post regularly or not at all

Writing regularly is something agents struggle with as life gets busy, but agents have to be disciplined about their social media marketing if they are serious about succeeding in this new field.

“A tool like social media is only effective if you are using it consistently since there is so much new content being posted every hour by the people and businesses you are following,” said one respondent.

A new agent explained why irregular posting was a problem.

“It’s the same reason why people don’t read yesterday’s paper. Posting regularly is about engaging people by keeping them informed on current and relevant subject matter to peak their interests.”

“If you post regularly with meaningful content, people will look forward to your post,” advised one successful agent. “Many agents do it too infrequently or only post listings or sold updates, which doesn’t have any effect on their target audience.”

Promoting or boasting is a turn-off to millennials

Seeing agent boasting about their business, meanwhile, does have an effect on their audience — especially if they are younger buyers — warned one broker.

“People are turned off by ego, especially millennials.”

Added another broker, “No other profession boasts the way we do. It gets under my skin and makes us look like asses.”

“I am not sure what is worse, too much posting or not enough posting or probably the worst strategy, a running commentary about accomplishments,” said one experienced agent with frustration.

Other no-no’s mentioned by survey participants were agents posting without identifying themselves as a real estate professional, posting religious or political comments, behaving unprofessionally and using their personal Facebook page for listings.

Mixed messages and disorganized strategy spoils the effect of social media

The messages out there on agents’ chosen social media platforms can be confused and disjointed, and this can be off-putting to those new at the game.

One agent observed: “I do not see many agents really getting a good balance between their business, causes and personal life. Much of what I see almost feels cookie cutter.

“I do not see many people, myself included, with a real strategy on how they post or have consistency in posting. I have always believed in the power of the internet and social media as a transformative tool, especially in how we do business. I feel sometimes as an older/single demographic, much of what I see posted, the blend is random, and stops me from putting myself out there as an agent with my own style and focus.”

The message to post listings sparingly, meanwhile, came across loud and clear.

“If an agent posts nothing but stats or real estate listings, that page becomes nothing but a generic ad, but if you post stats, listings and a mixture of personal content, and relevant information, then users will start to connect with you and get to know you,” said one agent with three years in the industry.

Impersonal content such as: “come to my open house” is not what people will like and share, added a managing broker.

“Having personal content that connects to emotions is a great way to get people to engage. A listing post here and there isn’t bad, but when you do it, make it personal,” she added.

Some remain unconvinced

With plenty of examples available agents handling social media badly, it is not surprising that there are some who refuse to engage.

There remain people in the industry who are say they are doing fine without social media or are waiting to see it really make a difference. Around 4.55 percent of those surveyed said they didn’t use it.

And then there are those using it but not enjoying it.

“Agents today think they can sit around and keep looking at their computer, entering this silliness on these sites, and the leads and money will just roll in. It doesn’t work that way. If you use this media, it should complement your business plan, not be the business plan,” said one respondent.

One broker who uses Facebook said: “I’ve found being part of community groups and cultivating relationships has led to way more clients than placing blind ads, even with targeting.”

Warming to this theme, another experienced agent laid out the argument for doing business the traditional way.

“I’ve run a referral-based business for over 30 years and my costs are 10 percent of my gross, which is way less than everyone using all these things to attract strangers,” he said. He cites industry statistics that say 75 percent of sellers find their agent through referrals or past experience.

“That leaves 25 percent to work with strangers. What do you think is better?”

He recently moved to Florida from New York and started up again with the same good results.

The quality of online leads, meanwhile, remains under suspicion by naysayers.

“Social media produces impulse clicks from invalid potential buyers that are not in fact financially ready to buy. Dreamers for the most part, and if they are qualified, they are not loyal to one agent. They usually click away on a whim,” said one respondent.

“I don’t use social media. I want quality clients and operate off referrals. Internet leads seldom are good leads,” added a broker.

It is not worth it, according to one new agent who is spending his money elsewhere.

“I spend actual dollars on Zillow and getting my name out there by getting my personal app and linking it to my website. Social is a money bleeder.”

Where are the deals?

Concrete examples of how much business agents are getting from their social media activities are still scarce.

One broker of more than five years said he had proof: “My name is getting out there and I have closed three deals last year because of it.”

A successful, veteran agent added: “Connecting with former clients has been easy through Facebook. I listed a house for $900,000, thanks to my Facebook connection.”

A broker of five years or more said: “I have a large sphere of influence, and about one third of my business originates from Facebook.”

The jury is still out with one active agent who felt he was unable to find real evidence at this point: “I’m still torn on this. My ads build awareness of my brand and keep me top of mind, but I’m not sure of the payoff. Many people say they see my ads, but I don’t know that I’ve gotten a specific lead from a Facebook or Instagram ad.”

One group operations manager is not seeing the results he would like. “It seems the return on investment is not much. We have boosted and posted and placed ads, so far not one lead from it.”

Scheltgen warned against looking for direct outcomes immediately.

“It is hard to say: ‘I spent $200 and X amount of time and got X amount of leads.’ That’s the wrong way to view it,” he said.

“With social media, it comes down to building a community and engaging that community and that community will foster leads. It’s hard to quantify how many leads you are getting.”

One moderately experienced agent saw his online social activity as the beginning of the conversation: “I consider social media as a platform for an agent to introduce themselves and their business. Somewhat like an online visual resume or audition.”

How much money are agents spending on social media?

According to the research, agents are generally not spending big on social media in comparison to what used to be spent on print advertising.

On Facebook, 41.42 percent of respondents spent under $100 per month while 80 percent of LinkedIn users don’t spend money on the platform, 70.24 percent don’t spend money on Twitter and 65.84 percent don’t spend money on Instagram.

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Of their digital marketing budgets, respondents who use Facebook, 32 percent use up to 20 percent of their digital marketing budget on Facebook, a further 10.37 percent use up to 40 percent of their budget on Facebook. A slim 11.62 percent of people using Facebook spend 80 percent to 100 percent of their budget on the platform.

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Meanwhile, over half — 55.79 percent — of respondents recommend spending money on social media, while 11.98 percent said not to despite having paid for it in the past.

Those disinclined to pay for ad spend on social media platforms have not necessarily found that ad spend results in leads.

One agent of two years advises against it. “I’ve tried and it’s not worth it. Creating interesting content that gets likes and shares gets you a much better response than paying for ads.”

A high producing agent of more than ten years added: “I’m not yet convinced of its usefulness. It just seems a lot of distracting work for low or no return. I do embed a couple of YouTube videos on my website and may soon be adding property videos and maybe other videos, too. I am also exploring Pinterest.”

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A bigger question: Should you pay?

Whether it is better to pay someone else to do your social media and stay focused on being a real estate agent or manage it yourself is something agents still struggle with.

In the survey, 55.79 percent advised doing it yourself while 22.73 percent leaned toward outsourcing.

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No way

Argued one agent of two years: “My social media is ME. I can’t pay someone else to be me.”

“I am putting myself and my personality out there for people to see and watch. I want my posts to be interesting. I want my viewers to see that I am a real person, working hard, having fun and I can be trusted,” added a new agent.

The head of communications at a large real estate firm also saw the value in running social media internally.

“When you hire a third party to manage it for you, I think it will come across to consumers as disingenuous. I think they can tell the difference. It’s not as personal or authentic.”

An experienced agent, who likes Facebook and Google Plus, spelled it out: “It is called ‘social’ media. Paying someone to handle your social media would be like paying someone to attend networking meetings for you.”

A new agent made the point: “This business is about personification. Standing out from the rest of the pack. If someone else is scripting your words, then how will anyone be able to distinguish you from the rest of the pack?”

Social media requires a consistent “voice” to become a trusted source. It needs to be authentic. You lose that by outsourcing, added an experienced agent on a team.

A seasoned broker owner continued the argument: “Sure, you can hire a company, but then these companies market to every agent. Then you have four, eight, 12 agents in the same market area using the same company, and you look unprofessional.”

Outsourcing does not help agents to be hyper-local, argued one veteran broker.

“A lot of outsourced companies provide totally irrelevant content for many unique markets. There is no ‘one size fits all’ content for any market.”

Yes, pay

Some agents think that eventually, they won’t have time to run their social media and they will have to outsource at least some of it.

If this happens, one respondent gave a good piece of advice.

“Do it yourself first and then outsource if you need to. There are so many companies out there that will take advantage if you don’t keep tabs. We once used a company to obtain more Instagram followers and ended up following hundreds of spam profiles.”

You can’t cover all the bases all of the time, so outsourcing is a necessity, argued one experienced broker.

“There are so many different social media platforms, and news content moves so quickly you need someone who is always monitoring each platform. Hire a professional so they will help you look and sound professional on social media,” he said.

For those who just are not comfortable with social media, they should be allowed a little help, added a group operations manager.

“If it doesn’t come naturally, outsource. It is very difficult to learn the ins and outs of Facebook in particular, and there is no customer support. Younger people probably can jump right in, the rest of us, hmm, takes a bit longer!”

A compromise could be the way to go, suggest a manager/broker.

“It’s really half and half. I think in the venues where your voice and personality is important, you should do it yourself. If you are creating advertisements, though, your time could be better spent on the phone or face-to-face with clients.”

It’s okay to say social media has gotten too complicated to fly solo, said a seasoned team leader.

“I tried to do it myself and I still do some, but now social media marketing and SEO are so intertwined, you need an expert to guide you.”

What are brokerages doing?

Many brokerages are feeling their way, too. Like their agents, most are active on Facebook (86.78) percent, while 46.69 percent are on YouTube, 45.04 percent are on LinkedIn, 44.21 percent use Twitter and 34.95 percent are adept with Instagram. Almost 12 percent of brokerages were not on any of the platforms.

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They like Facebook best for marketing listings, marketing the brokerage, lead generation, relationship building and group coordination. Their second favorite platform is YouTube. LinkedIn is seen as good for relationship-building.

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Said the communications director of a large real estate firm: “Social media gives you a direct touch point to consumers. We treat it in a similar way to PR. It helps you build your brand while demonstrating your expertise and positioning your brand and its spokespeople as a thought leader.”

Windermere, a large franchise company in the western U.S. with 7,000 agents and 300 offices, has built a social media team that is an integrated part of its marketing team. One of the areas agents need help in is in finding content for their posts, and Rossi said

Windermere helps agents with this.

“We post articles on the company website that our agents can see and might find useful as content,” she explained.

“Content takes a lot of time, and agents are busy people. They should not have to be spending hours every day going and finding content.”

Windermere also has a list of don’t-dos in their social media classes they run for agents.

“Posting listings, as far as I’m concerned — that’s the number one thing not to do. You will lose followers who will see you as promoting yourself. For agents who want to keep their friends and not alienate people, using Facebook for listings is counter-productive.”

Windermere agents are also discouraged from discussing politics, religion and any topic that might be polarizing, said Rossi.

As agents struggle to include the right balance of personal and professional on their platforms, Rossi said: “There needs to be a balance. The agents who we see being the most successful do it in a way that you don’t know they are marketing themselves because there is a balance of personal and professional.”

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Inman conducted the survey between May 11 and 18, 2016. It received 242 completed responses, 156 from agents, 55 from brokers and 31 from respondents who identified themselves as “other.” Of the respondents, 13.64 have worked in real estate for less than 1 year, and 44.21 percent have worked in real estate for more than 10 years.


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