Authors note: I started this article as a way to encourage the brokers and agents in our company to attend Inman Connect in San Francisco. It quickly became a story about how, after attend 4 Connect Conferences, my partners always come home with insights and information that radically impact our business. The result has been more market share, happier agents, and better customer service. So, if it sounds like a plug for Inman Connect, be warned: it absolutely is.
I didn’t know very much about Inman News when we started Hawaii Life in 2008. I knew that Joel Burslem had named hawaiilife.com as one of the Top 10 Kickass real estate websites and I started to follow some of Inman’s content online. I knew even less about Inman Connect.
I’m a cynic. When a news publication features me on a list, my first thought is that they just want to sell me subscription. So, when Inman Connect invited my partner, Justin Britt, to speak in San Francisco, I assumed it was just another self-congratulatory real estate conference.
Connect asked Justin to present for Hawaii Life in a session called “Search Engine Dominance and Great Design: How Two Brokers Did Both”. Great title. The other presenter was Garron Selliken from M Realty in Portland, a very cool guy who is building a very cool company.
The presentation was great, even though Justin alienated a few vendors by telling a room of 200 people that a lot of website templates are “all just crap”. His point was that real estate brokers should try to add technology and design services in-house, a formula that Hawaii Life and M Realty both benefit from.
Meeting Garron Selliken provided a lot for us. Here was a guy that was figuring it out on his own, and who was willing to share the results of his own trial and error. We talked about fielding online leads. At the time, similar to today, Hawaii Life had more leads than we knew what to do with, but we weren’t converting them very well. I remember we were coaching our salespeople to use this canned response that was recommended by CRS. It was something like,
“Hi, my name is Matt, I’ve been in real estate sales for 10+ years, I really know the neighborhood. I know you may not be willing to ‘open up’ about your personal details and may want to remain anonymous. Please know that I’m available to answer your real estate questions… blah, blah, blah.”
In hindsight, we now know much it sucked. We didn’t know it then. We were basically writing novels, all about us and why we’re great. Garron shared how his wife, Alicia, an agent with M Realty, always seemed to quickly weave in something personal when she was replying to online inquiries. Her response always included a question or a call to action, and it was usually pretty brief.
We were starting to get on to something.
Later on in the conference we met Jonathan Washburn and Ben Kinney during one of the networking sessions. (I had no idea who I was talking to, but) I quickly realized that this conversation was going to change my business forever.
Over a couple of fine micro-brewed ales, we talked about a lot of the content that year at Connect: the MIT study on lead response time; the power of real estate teams; reverse-engineering content based on inquiries to target more leads; how to hire right; and how to not to sell out. That conversation with Ben and Jon alone was worth the flight from Hawaii.
When we got home, we immediately instituted a new lead management program. We created a chat room where salespeople had to commit to being online and available before receiving a lead. We cut our response time WAY down. And we stopped writing novels. Our conversion went way up. Sales from our website went from $11m in 2009 to over $50m in 2010.
In 2010 Inman nominated Justin for their Real Estate’s 100 Most Influential Leaders List. I still had a little cynicism, but by then, we were already hooked. We were going to Connect, with or without a nomination, and with or without being invited to speak.
2010 was a wild year for us already, and we knew Connect was going to be another springboard. That year was all about content. We were delivering a pretty incredible search product, but Connect was a buzz about specific, local content, and we were soaking it up.
That year, we showed up to Connect with a strategy, too. (I strongly recommend it.) We split up, intentionally. We picked our sessions in advance, and we all made notes and posted photos using Backpack (from 37 signals). We learned about WordPress plugins, content strategies, HTML 5, and more.
We also brought our Broker-In-Charge from the Big Island of Hawaii, Katie Minkus, with us. If Hawaii Life had a Chief Evangelist, a la Chris Smith, it’s Katie Minkus. For her to hear the power of content and to bring it home to our crew was a massive bonus for us. We redesigned our blog, and began training brokers and salespeople to write.
Katie’s default answer to agents’ questions about how to grow their business became “Blog, blog, blog”.
Today, Hawaii Life’s blog features almost 3,000 articles and gets a ton of traffic. And, even better, customers who inquire from one of our blog posts already feel like they have rapport with us, probably because they came in on a very specific long-tail search and found exactly what they were looking for.
That year, I was invited to be on a panel called “Rethinking the Brokerage: New Models and Opportunities” with Glenn Sanford of EXP Realty and John Skrabec of Live Urban Real Estate.
I’m a chronic procrastinator. It actually never occurred to me to look and see where this panel was being held, so when I found out it was on the main stage, I was a little surprised. I don’t get stage fright, but this particular spotlight did give me a few butterflies.
The best part about that opportunity was the green room. It was like a who’s who of the national real estate speaking tour. Kristina Wise gave a talk about Customer Service before our panel, so I met her for the first time there. Matthew Shadbolt had been on stage earlier, so he was there. It’s also where I first met Sherry Chris. The ambition and enthusiasm in the green room was palpable. It was a scene.
The panel wasn’t particularly remarkable (I’m a harsh critic), but one of the interesting things about participating in any capacity at Inman Connect is that it’s an instant icebreaker for anyone else at the conference to introduce themselves and start sharing with you throughout the rest of the event (a fact that Chris Smith was quick to remind me of in the green room). I’ve made some lasting and profitable connections at ICSF over the years.
(Totally unrelated to me speaking on the panel,) ICSF in 2011 probably had the most profound impact on Hawaii Life than any event in our history. The reason is that, after years of exhaustive vetting, we finally found a CRM that could handle the challenges we have (and a bunch that we didn’t know we had): PropertyBase. (Plug intended.) Granted, we had a bit of a head start. By 2011, our brokers and agents were very well accustomed to working from the same database, but we were still subject to such a wide variety of mediocre, off-the-shelf software for lead management, transaction files, and reporting. Thanks to Vendor Alley at Connect, we’re as sophisticated behind-the-scenes, with PropertyBase, as we are on www.hawaiilife.com.
You know you’re drinking the Connect Kool-Aid when you’re willing to fly from Hawaii to New York, in January, for a real estate conference. Being included on the Top 100 Most Influential Leaders in Real Estate list was enough to kill my cynicism for good. It’s a huge honor. There are some serious names on that list.
New York was great. A lot of the conversation was about the new Cottage Industry and peer-to-peer transactions. Chris Smith gave a great talk about what top-producing agents value and why they leave one brokerage for another. It shifted our focus to relating (more) to the agents in our firm as partners, and wanting to develop tools and provide value for them.
I gave a small talk about integrating social media into real estate search with a Facebook plugin, and we continued to soak up the scene. We had a box of fresh orchid leis sent out to share with the Connect crew, which made their way to the Top 100 cocktail party on Times Square.
New York was a blast. We had just come off a record year of sales ($344m) and also found out that we’ll be shooting a 13-episode documentary about our company for HGTV. Exciting Stuff.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that the content at Inman Connect is invaluable. It actually occurs to us as though we can’t afford not to go. I’m sure other brokers and agents have learned totally different things from Connect, since there’s so much information available. For Hawaii Life, though, the list of takeaways is almost innumerable.
P.S. For more info about Real Estate Connect SF in August, or to register, click here