How Associations Use Facebook, Twitter

With 4,000 “likes” on their Facebook page and 1,450 followers on their Twitter feed, it’s no wonder social media features prominently in the Georgia Association of REALTORS®’ communication strategy.

“More people are on Facebook at any given time than any other Web site on the Internet,” says Brandie Miner, GAR’s communication director. “I know many people who either keep Facebook open all day or check it several times each day. So it’s great for fast dissemination of information, especially if we are looking for feedback.”

GAR isn’t alone. According to a recent study*, an estimated three-quarters of associations nationwide use social media communications, hundreds of REALTOR® associations among them. But what are the real benefits and limitations of social media communications with members?

Reaching more people every day

More than 83 percent of REALTORS® have Facebook pages, so it’s only natural that there has been a growing use of Facebook among associations.

“We need to be where our members are already,” explains Steve Reese, vice president of marketing at the Oklahoma Association of REALTORS®, who uses Facebook mainly as a vehicle to drive people back to his association’s Web site.

In addition to using social media to drive traffic to association sites, many are using their Facebook pages as another way to feed information to members, as a social space in which members can interact, and as a way to reach a demographic inaccessible via association e-mail.

“With e-mail we only reach about 20-25 percent of our members,” says Danielle Boutin, communication director of the REALTORS® -Association of the Palm Beaches, Fla. “We reach a different group of people than those who open our e-mail,” Boutin explains, noting that in addition to members, she also reaches a large group of nonmembers on the association’s Facebook page.

This larger audience enables her to attract new members and also generate nondues revenue from nonmembers who attend education sessions. Addressing the divide between traditional direct e-marketing and social networking, Boutin points out that posting news updates three times a day on a Facebook page is far less intrusive and annoying to members than sending the same information via e-mail three times a day.

At the Sarasota Association of REALTORS®, Fla., Communication Director Jesse Sunday says Facebook is the only venue in which the association can capture the attention of members who don’t read the association’s e-mails, magazine, or MLS message of the day. Sunday ranks the effectiveness of Facebook as a communications vehicle above regular e-mail to members. “We can send 3,000 e-mail invites and get only half the responses we’d get if we created an event on Facebook.”

Like Boutin, Amber Sundsted of the Billings Association of REALTORS®, Mont., recognized the power of Facebook to reach a wider audience. “Although it is another way to communicate with members, it’s also an important tool for communicating with consumers. I’m communicating with two very different audiences, so what I put on our Facebook page is 50 percent for the membership and 50 percent for the general public.”

It’s not all Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, though. Association Twitter feeds, too, have an active following of nonmembers. Associations often follow other associations on Twitter, and most have among their followers local government officials, the media, real estate influencers on the national level, community groups, and more. Steve Klaniecki at the Washington -REALTORS® Association says his association’s Twitter posts are very popular with local news reporters. “They actually want the feeds and use them if the message is nonpromotional.”

Costs and limitations

Of course, the fact that Facebook is free and relatively easy to use adds to its allure with members and associations. As Klaniecki points out, “If Facebook were $500 per month, we would drop it like a hot rock.”

There’s no standard formula for a strong social media initiative, but most associations say they post on Facebook and tweet one to three times per weekday. RAE’s recent social media survey** found REALTOR® associations tweet on average five times a week.

Perhaps that’s why, free or not, cost is cited as a reason many associations do not have a Facebook page or Twitter feed. Specifically, people are concerned about the cost of staff’s time to administer social media: setting objectives, putting procedures in place, allocating resources for an ongoing commitment to push information to members, and, in turn, being responsive to members’ replies.

According to the 2012 report “Social Media Use by U.S. Associations,” adoption rates of social media platforms increase with association annual budget levels, reflecting the capacity of larger -associations to invest in technology and marketing. The report also says “associations have indicated that they will increase investments in social media in 2012 and 2013.”

What to say?

Finding relevant and engaging -topics to post is always a challenge. The number-one -topic surveyed associations reported tweeting was association events and education announcements or reminders, with the second most common topic being government affairs news or calls for action.

Many repost news from other sources, with an eye toward localizing it. Most associations say they use applications, such as Hootsuite, to automatically repost feeds from their Web site or blog to their other social media vehicles. What about responses to their posts or individual postings to their wall? The standard tends to be to let members post and comment on their Facebook pages. When it comes to negative posts, typically associations let them stand as long as they are constructive. In the event of a personal attack, staff responds.

A one-way conversation?

REALTOR® associations agree Facebook and Twitter are great for getting the message out, but these platforms still underperform when it comes to getting messages in.

In RAE’s survey, nearly 80 percent of associations say member participation on their Facebook pages is either very low or occasional. It’s worth noting that the main reason 100 percent of respondents gave for having a Facebook page is that “it gives us another channel to communicate with members.” Not a single respondent chose the reason “it gives us a way to hear from members.”

Dawn Crawford, communications director of the West Maricopa Association of REALTORS®, Ariz., launched her association’s Facebook page with the goal of hearing back from members, but admits that it has not proven to be as effective as she had hoped. “We currently don’t have much feedback from our members; however, we are looking at ways to gain responses from them.”

Successful engagement strategies often include posting pictures from events and encouraging -members to tag friends and share photos, or asking members to post appropriate photos. Some even use members as facilitators or content creators. This helps keep posts interactive and up-to-date, crafting messages that members will relate to and that encourage a -response.

On Twitter, 75 percent of associations say they aren’t following their members’ tweets to gain insight into their concerns and opinions, but rather so that the members will follow them in return. “I don’t make a practice of following members on Twitter,” says Oklahoma’s Steve Reese. “It’d be a monumental task to keep up with all their tweets just to extract useful opinions and concerns.”

There are some associations, however, that view members’ tweets as a treasure trove of useful information regarding concerns and mood, as well as local news, events, and real estate-related resources.

Anne Framroze, vice president, marketing and communications at the California Association of REALTORS®, says she uses Twitter to gauge member sentiment—positive and negative—and track trends.

The Arizona Association of REALTORS® uses Twitter often as a survey tool when the desired audience is the most tech-savvy members. Recently, Arizona tweeted to members that it was evaluating new MLS vendors and invited feedback.

Social media’s next player

After Facebook and Twitter, associations are eyeing LinkedIn as the next effective social media tool in their communications arsenal. Participation in this platform is growing in part because associations can automatically feed their Facebook and Twitter posts to LinkedIn. In fact, Marque Bressler at the Columbus Board of REALTORS®, Ohio, says LinkedIn requests have “skyrocketed” in 2012.

Mike Valerino, RCE, marketing director at the Cleveland Area Board of REALTORS® says he has more members on LinkedIn than Facebook and Twitter combined: “We have a thriving LinkedIn group with over a third of our members.” Brandie Miner says her LinkedIn activity took a while to catch on, “but now people are really starting to post discussions and comment on information more.”

The “Social Media Use by U.S. Associations” study found LinkedIn usage is particularly strong in associations within specific industry groups, such as Telecom/E-Data, Real Estate, and Finance.

Associations say they also use, or have tried, Foursquare, Pinterest, YouTube, ActiveRain, Yelp, and their own blogs to communicate with members, but Facebook and Twitter have become the most useful.

As REALTOR® associations take a more focused and mature approach to social media communications—using tools to automate posts, offering members their choice of communication options, and engaging members on timely topics—they expect to increase not only communication effectiveness, but also their associations’ value to members.

REALTOR AE, Spring 2012

* “Social Media Use by U.S. Associations,” Benchmarks and Practices, 2012, One Orange Feather Inc.

** REALTOR® AE magazine surveyed REALTOR® association communication directors in March 2012. The online survey garnered 35 responses.

AEs Speak Out

Q. In general, how would you characterize your association Facebook presence?

76% An effective communication channel that complements our overall communications strategy.

11% An essential component of our communications strategy.

11% A communication vehicle that we use to reach a particular demographic.

3% A communication vehicle that hasn’t proven to be as effective as we hoped.

Source: 2012 REALTOR® AE magazine survey

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