Should You Be Techworking?

Web developers and marketing firms are building networks for real estate professionals. But are these efforts more than a sales pitch?

In a profession that can require both stretches of solitude and a wide sphere of influence, networking is a lifeline for many real estate professionals. But does it matter where you do it?

From LinkedIn groups and franchise retreats to REALTOR® association events, there’s no lack of networking options for real estate pros. But what if your CRM provider or website architect offered a gathering place exclusively for you and other product users? Their goal could be to sell you more services, but you also might find business benefits that you may otherwise have missed.

Author and networking expert Judy Robinett says tech companies have been offering free webinars and other ways to engage customers for years. But she notes that the relationship can be more of a dynamic exchange. “It’s valuable for all parties,” she says. “[Companies] want to make sure they have the best functionality. Sometimes startups have these brilliant ideas that don’t work when they sit down with the customer, somebody who’s actually in the industry.”

Two companies working to provide networking and learning tools specifically for the real estate industry are Denver-based Booj, a web design and development firm, and BoomTown, an online marketing firm based in Charleston, S.C. Both companies, each about 10 years old, offer client-exclusive, in-person conferences; private online groups; and other resources developed by and for their peers. Individual agents don’t directly sign on with these companies; rather, they use the services that their company pays for, and may pay fees to their team or brokerage for these tools.

Kristen Fergason, BoomTown’s vice president of marketing, says the company’s offerings reflect a strong commitment to service and dismisses skeptics who perceive their primary goal as accumulating groups of beta testers. “There are people who might look at it as a sales opportunity, because it serves us and it serves them,” she says. “But there’s a very particular culture to this. It’s hard to fake, and I think that’s part of why we’re successful with it.”

Mary Maloney, founder and owner of Hometown Realty in San Marcos, Calif., says that though the brokerage has been a BoomTown client only since September 2014, it helped boost their 2015 transaction volume by about 70 percent over the prior year. “The staff as well as the leaders at BoomTown are incredibly open to hearing, listening, investigating, and implementing suggestions from users,” she says. “It’s very refreshing to see a vendor create a culture like this where the users are willing to share.”

Ido Zucker, cofounder and managing partner of Booj, says networking was part of the concept before his company launched. When his business partner convinced him to move from England to Denver with an opportunity to start a company selling websites to real estate brokers and agents, Zucker tried to figure out how they could stand out in a crowded field. “I asked myself, ‘How are we going to be able to make a difference in the real estate space?’ ” Zucker remembers. “Franchises dominate the majority of the space because they have the power of a network. So we started by creating a network.”

Booj has made a big difference in Jamie Slough’s first year in real estate. The former marketing director for Kentwood Real Estate in Denver moved over to become a salesperson with the same brokerage—which has been working with Booj for the better part of a decade—in 2015. “I’ve sold more in six months than a lot of people do in their first year, and I attribute that to the technology and network I have with Booj,” she says.

The issue of exclusivity is something of a flashpoint in the networking arena. Booj now has 34 independent brokerages, representing more than 15,000 agents, in its network, and each has its own exclusive geographic area. Zucker says without it, real estate pros would be reluctant to share what’s working for them out of fear of losing business to local competition who might be listening in. “They will not be willing to talk openly about their strategies,” he says. “Your product is a place, and you tend to stay in the same place.”

Slough says she appreciates Booj’s exclusivity, though she’s still inclined to be open about what works for her. “When you’re doing something well, I don’t feel like it’s a secret. There’s enough business out there for good real estate agents.”

Zucker says Booj’s efforts to honor local territory allows a sort of think tank of independent real estate businesses to form across the country, potentially positioning the industry to better respond to rapid technological change. Local competition “makes it so much more difficult to collaborate, because everyone thinks everyone else is trying to steal their business,” he notes. “But you have threats nationwide, which is why it makes sense to have these networks.”

Maloney says BoomTown allows her brokerage to stand out against online competitors by helping them choose and track the performance of their ad spending on Google Keywords and by making it easier to hold agents accountable for lead follow-up. Her brokerage introduced a new, stricter lead generation structure for sales associates, based on what another member of the BoomTown network shared at a conference she attended. “We were handing the leads out like candy,” she remembers, noting that they’ve since worked to respond to the online customer experience in a more targeted manner. “Our industry has had to really work to learn the behavior of the online buyer and what their nurture sequence looks like.”

BoomTown initially offered geographic exclusivity, but about two-and-a-half years ago it opened up its network of several thousand teams and brokerages and found members were still willing to share openly. “In real estate there are incredibly successful people and their success is always unique to them. We have no end of hand-raising from people who want to share their success stories,” Fergason says. She adds that because BoomTown offers brand-positioning “tools, rather than individual leads,” the competition for customers doesn’t affect their clients as directly as it might with other companies that offer CRM services. “Lead generation is the gas; we are the car. I’m happy to let anyone else fight over the lead generation thing.”

Multiple Spheres

But real estate isn’t just competitive for agents and brokers. The industry already has franchises, associations, professional groups, coaching organizations, and social media fighting to be the go-to source of networking opportunities. Can they all coexist? Robinett says there’s plenty of room for multiple networking spheres. “I see them as additive,” she says. “I don’t think you ever want to put all your eggs in one basket. Each is another touch point.”

Fergason says franchises and other professional groups tend to deal with the more pragmatic business operation needs faced by brokerages and teams, which is why she doesn’t see BoomTown as a direct competitor with such groups. “Obviously there’s a lot of stuff that people are wanting to get out of their franchise,” she says. “We’re more closely linked to that coaching feeling.”

Maloney instituted a coaching program from Tom Ferry around the same time that she started using BoomTown, and she feels the two reinforce each other, as well as the basic tenets of filling the sales pipeline that she tries to instill in her agents. “They’re getting to hear that from a third party, not just my partner and me.”

But Zucker says other companies looking to capture the attention of Booj clients may have a tough time. “You’re always competing for people’s attention,” he says. “There’s only a certain amount of time executives can spend on a network.”

Robinett cautions real estate pros not to rely too much on any outside networks. “Many people are not using the networks they already have in their personal circles,” she says, recommending low-tech solutions such as striking up conversations with strangers as the kind of networking money can’t buy. “Tools are very helpful, but you have to stay open to synchronicity.”

Going forward, these companies view tech-savvy, engaged real estate professionals as critical to their business success. In order to grow at a reasonable pace, Booj brings on only one new client each quarter, though Zucker says this could increase to six a year if they can scale up quickly enough.

“We didn’t want to be like the banks, who are more concerned with adding new customers than they are with taking care of the ones who helped them get to where they are,” Zucker says. “To us, it’s more important to keep the integrity of the network.”

Fergason says BoomTown’s clients are part of the next wave of real estate innovators and recognizes that capturing an audience of “risk takers” helps cement the company’s place in the industry. “We have the early adopters,” she says. “These are guys and gals who are pushing the envelope in real estate. They’re going to take over the reins someday, and we’ve got them with us.”