|This article was published on: 05/01/2006|
FEATURE: Blog World
BY CHRISTINA WOOD
The Web is increasingly being created by its users.
How is that changing the way you market?
In 2004 Dewita Soeharjono, a sales associate at Weichert, REALTORS®, in McLean, Va., got sucked into the world of Web logs, or blogs. But what started as an interest in an upcoming election turned into a smart business strategy. “Blogging was so effective for political discussions that I thought, why not try it in real estate?” That same year, she started a blog she now calls Urban Trekker. It’s an informative Web site (http://metrodcliving.com)about urban living and real estate trends in the Washington, D.C., area.
A blog is essentially an online journal consisting of dated entries. Unlike a diary, kept under lock and key, a blog is accessible to the Internet-surfing public.
Soeharjono’s blog receives about 1,000 hits a week. She soft pedals any efforts to sell real estate on it. Still, Urban Trekker is a major component of her marketing plan and accounts for 25 percent of her business. “I’m not chasing online leads,” she says. “They come to me.”
What Soeharjono recognized is this: In the newish world of Internet marketing, overt selling is a fatal error. “The No. 1 rule is that you never promote your business,” she says. “Blogging is about educating your audience.”
If it’s well done, of course, a blog leads to business, says Greg Sterling, an analyst with the Kelsey Group, based in Princeton, N.J. “You establish a name or reputation of authority in a neighborhood, or for certain kinds of transactions,” he says.
Soeharjono, for example, recently heard from a man relocating to Washington, D.C., from Virginia. “He found my blog through Google and had questions about neighborhoods,” she says. “I answered his questions, then asked if he was looking to rent or buy.” Bingo. Soeharjono fully expects to sell him a new home.
A democratic forum
Soeharjono’s experiences are indicative of the metamorphosis of the Internet. It’s turning into a forum where you don’t just find information, you create it. With such innovations as blogs, podcasts, wikis (user-edited encyclopedias), and social networking sites, the Web has begun to realize its promise as a vast store of current information and opinion, created by ordinary people and delivered directly into your home. From CEOs spinning a shareholder message to teenagers riffing on Beyoncé, everyone is finding a voice, and sometimes an audience, online. On today’s World Wide Web, everyman has something to say.
“This isn’t a fundamental change in the Internet,” says Jupiter Research media analyst Barry Parr. “This [democratic quality] is what the Internet has always been about. But until recently, it’s been hard [for average people to create content on the Web]. Blogging in particular has put templates around the process, given it a structure, and focused it on the way people actually write.”
As of January 2006, more than 75,000 blogs were being created daily, and a new Weblog is created about every second, according to Technorati Inc., a company that tracks blogs. The 500 most highly read of those blogs receive as many as 20,000 unique hits per day; the majority receive 30 hits or fewer. So blogging can be a marketing boon—or it can be the proverbial grain of sand on a beach. The key to standing out is to build strong connections, perhaps over shared passions, that lift you above the mounting Internet din.
Hanan Levin has done just that with his blog Grow a Brain (http://growabrain.typepad.com). What started as a real estate blog has expanded over three years to cover everything from art to the Internet to spirituality. Along the way Grow a Brain has acquired a devoted audience. “Yesterday I had more than 20,000 visitors to my site,” he recently noted. “I’ve become famous.”
Although fame was never Levin’s intent, visibility was, and he has achieved it through a relentless focus on writing and marketing. Levin posts new content every day, networks with other bloggers to ensure they link to his blog, and features links on his blog to interesting sites. Such actions not only give readers a reason to come back but also ensure that his blog comes up high in search engine results. Frequent posts, lots of links, and consistent use of keywords that you anticipate users will search by are essential to achieving a high search ranking, say search engine experts.
“My business has exploded,” Levin says. “I’ve had a dozen closings directly related to leads that came from the blog.” His business in general has grown four-fold in the last three years. “The blog is part of that.”
Unlike Levin, most real estate professionals are content to be heard in one small corner of the blogosphere—that is, among people who care about real estate in, say, Atlanta or Albuquerque—or even just one neighborhood. Fraser Beach writes http://toreal.blogs.com,a blog that covers real estate trends in the Toronto area. “If you search ‘Toronto real estate,’ I come up in the first three or four responses,” says Beach. “My blog gets in the neighborhood of 2,300 to 2,800 visits a day. At least 10 transactions each year come [thanks to introductions made] through the blog.” Like Soeharjono, he doesn’t overtly sell on his blog. He simply writes about issues.
“Real estate practitioners have a better opportunity than most people to take advantage of search engine favoritism for all things local,” says John Jantsch, author of the upcoming Duct Tape Marketing: The Only Small Business Marketing Tool You Need (Thomas Nelson, 2006) and a heavily trafficked blog at www.ducttapemarketing.com.“Practitioners are geographically bound in large part. They work in the communities. They have so much to write about in a blog, it isn’t funny: what’s going on in the community, in the schools, with local sports teams. All of that is search engine food for anyone doing a local search.”
A great example is the widely read www.brownstoner.com.The blog covers “historic Brooklyn brownstones and the neighborhoods they define.” Not only does it receive 150,000 visits per month but it brings together a passionate community of local people who own brownstones. Readers return often, post often, get into heated discussions, and even meet in person. At the site, owners can build a page dedicated to their own brownstone. The blog’s author, who prefers to remain anonymous to protect his day job, suggests that when prospective real estate bloggers show knowledge of the market, over time they’ll build respect among readers.
Easy to use, not easy to do
Blogging sites (www.blogger.com,www.typepad.com,www.bloggingsystems.com,and www.wordpress.com)enable anyone to get started. And a plethora of tools have sprung up that help bloggers automate delivery, supply relevant news to their blog, and gather sites worth linking to. The most important of these tools is Really Simple Syndication. It’s a way you can make your blog posts available directly to readers through an RSS reader page, such as Bloglines.com; a personal Web page, such as My MSN, My Yahoo!, or their Google home page; or their e-mail inbox. Every time you post, a notification goes out reminding readers you exist.
Bloggers agree that putting an RSS feed on your blog is an essential part of marketing it. It’s easy to do; most blogging tools offer it. Other bloggers can also use RSS to feed your posts directly to their site. That’ll improve your search engine results. Search engines measure a site’s value, in part, by how many other sites link to it.
A 2005 Pew/Internet study measuring consumer knowledge of Internet-related terms finds that only 5 percent of Internet users say they use RSS aggregators. But many consumers likely subscribe to a feed without knowing what it’s called. They simply click on the “Add to Google” button or “+Yahoo” when they’re building a personal Web page at those sites and the content shows up.
Another tool bloggers use is tagging. Web sites such as del.icio.usand www.furl.netallow surfers to keep a list of their favorite sites stored on an Internet page instead of in their browser. Once you install the tool, tagging a site is a matter of clicking a button on your browser’s link bar as you surf. You can also install a button on your blog so that people can save your blog easily to their del.icio.uspage. And you can share your tagged picks with other Web surfers at del.icio.usor install a tool that automatically posts your tagged sites to your blog.
The technology makes it easy to build a dynamic-looking blog and get the word out—but that
doesn’t make blogging easy. For one thing, producing substantive content takes work. “I warn people not to get into blogging unless they’re willing to commit the time and energy it requires” to regularly write and post useful, relevant, informative, researched content, says Grow a Brain’s Levin.
Tagging other sites, too, requires care—particularly if you’re blogging to establish professional credibility. On the Internet, not everyone who posts content is telling the truth or checking the facts.
And even if you have the time to produce relevant content and identify other credible sites, you need to be prepared for the consequences of putting your opinions online. A blog can land you in heated arguments. “I definitely get into some flame wars,” says the Brownstoner. “I’m still trying to figure out the best way to manage them.” People who can’t make time to respond or take the heat tend to flame out. Only 50 percent of new bloggers are still posting three months later, according to Technorati.
One alternative to starting your own blog is to invest in a social networking product designed specifically for real estate. One such product, Connectingneighbors.com, provides its customers with a pre-built community site, complete with calendar, job postings, classified ads, a neighborhood newsletter, and a neighborhood-specific domain name. An RSS feed of local news is included, too. Practitioners take charge of the listings page, the newsletter, and getting word of the site out to the neighborhood.
Angie Sherman, a RE/MAX Professionals broker in Tacoma, Wash., saw her business boom as a result of her Connecting Neighbors site (www.dupontneighbors.com).“It sure has been good for business,” she says. But that’s not the only reason she maintains it. “I live in this neighborhood, and I’m passionate about the whole [community-building] project.” Her site has become an almost fundamental tool for the neighborhood, she says, allowing newcomers to quickly connect with services, join local clubs, and socialize. Sherman is even working with the city to promote its upcoming centennial through her site.
Then there’s Squidoo.com—something of a hybrid between a blog and a wiki. At the site, people create what Squidoo calls “lenses” that illuminate just about any topic you can think of—from customer service to Sudoku. There’s already a lens on first-time home buying
(squidoo.com/start_real_estate)and another on New York apartment hunting
(squidoo.com/lensmasters/theUn-Broker).Squidoo’s still in beta testing—currently, there’s no fee to create a lens—so its effectiveness as a marketing tool is yet to be determined.
Even joining a social networking site, such as www.myspace.com,www.friendster.com,or the www.tribe.comis a casual form of marketing. These cyber social outlets are increasingly becoming the online equivalent of a golf game; your reason for joining may have nothing to do with real estate, but membership can still lead to personal referrals. Michelle Turnbow is a Coldwell Banker residential broker in Dallas-Fort Worth with a passion for film. “You meet people [on MySpace who share an interest] and get to know them casually, and they might think of you when they have a real estate question.”
What’s next in the blogosphere?
For those who succeed, there’s the inevitable question of what’s next? “I recently started putting video on the site,” offers the Brownstoner. “I’ll be adding more of that over time.”
Video blogs (called vlogs) might be the tool that makes blogging truly worthwhile for real estate practitioners. One obvious application is creating video tours of listings. But in the world of social marketing, a more subtle approach might be appropriate. For instance, you might create video and voiceover about certain architectural features of current listings. Or “think of the possibilities for creating strategic partnerships using video on your blog,” offers Duct Tape Marketing’s Jantsch. “You interview—on camera—lenders, attorneys, and other ancillary professionals about the transaction process and post the interviews to your blog. As if by magic, those professionals are suddenly sending you referrals.”