How High Tech Are You?

by Chicago Agent

Blogging, PDAs, Bluetooth, Smart Phone; you know the buzzwords, but are you taking advantage of the technology to increase your sales and networking opportunities? If not, you may be losing out to those in the industry who embrace the efficiency of new technology, especially when it simplifies day-to-day tasks.

By K.K. Snyder
Though the realty industry has been a little slower to join the blogging craze, it’s at full tilt today, with individual agents blogging on their own sites, as members of group real estate-related blogs or even on their company-supported blog sites. So what’s the story here?

“Blogging has revolutionized the online environment because it is so simple to use,” says recognized blogging expert Richard Nacht, owner of Blogging Systems Group, a company that creates blogging platforms.

Nacht explains that blog sites, which began gaining popularity in 2005, are different from standard Web sites that typically contain static information with rarely changing content.

“If it did change, it required someone with coding or programming knowledge,” says Nacht, who spent 25 years in the real estate finance industry. “With blog sites, anybody that can create an email or word document can create and post content to the site.”

Since the real estate industry got on board with blogging during 2006, the results have been significant. “The impact on the industry has been enormous,” says Nacht. “Now there are CEOs of large national chains that blog and several tens of thousands — there’s no way to track it — of single agents and offices who are blogging, as well as a national chain that has opened blogging up to all of its agents to have their own individual blogs.

“The real estate media has picked up on it, and the overall impact has been an expansion of marketing tools for individuals,” he says, noting that agents use the sites to communicate with peers as well as with potential clients in a no-pressure, no-sales-pitch atmosphere with unobtrusive branding. “Blogging offers different options for marketing and a new way for agents, offices, companies and brands to communicate with their target audience. Clearly, the major benefit is to communicate with the consumers in your local market or particular niche, such as luxury home sales or investment property.”

For those interested in blogging, Nacht suggests reading his book, “Realty Blogging,” the first book to focus on blogging and the real estate industry. Then, read some real estate blogs for a couple of weeks to see how they’re being used and what particular approach is of the most interest. If you decide you’re ready to be a part of the blogging world, establishing a site is fairly simple and cost efficient.

You can find sites that offer free or inexpensive Web sites or blogs, but you get what you pay for, says Nacht. Those sites will offer little capacity for branding, are limited in design and are unlikely to offer any real estate-related tools. You could also go to a company that specializes in creating blogging sites.

“The creation of the content for a blog is remarkably simple the way the software works,” he says. “That’s one of its main advantages. And you can create from your blog lots of links to other sites, including your own Web site. Your blog site can be designed to match the look and feel of your existing Web site.”

Costs for starting a blogging platform range from $100 to $700, says Nacht, depending on the kind of blog being created. In addition, most blogging software companies require a monthly maintenance fee, which can be as low as $14 a month or high as $200 a month or more, depending on what level of support you require.

Kevin Thornton, president of Thornton Properties, recognizes the importance of having at least a basic understanding of computer technology, but says he hasn’t seen the impact of blogging in his market.

“It’s just not that popular up here yet,” he says, noting that he did an informal survey on blog usage among his peers in Chicagoland. “I don’t know any agents doing it.”

Thornton relies heavily, however, on other technology, including cell phones, the Internet, PDAs, Outlook and, of course, MLS. In addition, his company has Birdview software attached to the backside of its Web site, which allows consumers to search MLS and has a lead shooter that gathers contact information for sales agents to follow up.

“PDAs are a must have,” he says. “For my agents to get leads from our Web site, they have to have a Smart Phone; otherwise they’re not on the rotation,” he says with regard to the 17 agents he employs.

Thornton admits the speed with which new technology hits the market can be overwhelming, but appreciates that it’s getting more user friendly. “It’s tricky to keep up. If you don’t have the basics, it’s going to be a very tough game. If you don’t figure it out, you’re going to be a dinosaur. With the increased competition, it’s definitely something you have to embrace.”

Allison Hoffman has opened her arms wide to embrace technology. A RE/MAX North broker associate with 23 years of experience in the business, Hoffman has a couple of blogs that she contributes to on a regular basis.

“The challenge is having the commitment to continue posting,” she says. “Some people actually have people post for them.”

Another challenge is finding timely and interesting information that she can post on a daily basis. To do that, she doesn’t limit her blogging topics, but rather includes any topics related to real estate, such as tax reassessment and appraisals, weather and other general information.

A blog site on which Hoffman blogs regularly is the “by invitation only” Allen Hainge’s Cyberstars Blog (cyberstarsblog.blogspot.com). She’s joined there by about 200 agents from around the country as well as some from Canada, Australia and the Bahamas.

“It’s a group of Realtors who have been given the opportunity to join this group and share the best of their collective ideas,” says Hoffman. “There aren’t multiple members from one area, so you’re not giving your secrets to your neighbor, who is a competitor. For me, it’s been a great source of ideas.”

Blogging generates new networking channels for people and is an information dissemination tool, says Hoffman. But in addition to blogging, you have to have your own Web site to be in business, “or, you won’t be [in business] within a short time. Companies who limit their agents to one page on the company site are hurting their business and their agents’ [business].”

Hoffman teaches Jump Start classes to incoming agents several times a year for the Northshore Barrington Board of Realtors and recognizes the advantage the younger agents have with regard to technology.

“The challenge isn’t really for the young agents coming in; they’re not afraid,” says Hoffman. “They’re out there with email, texting, MySpace pages, etc. It’s just part of their daily life. But the older sect that have been in the business for a long time still want to pick up a phone, while the younger ones want email or send text messages.”

And, the younger the buyers gets, the more pronounced that divide is going to be, adds Hoffman. “I see that as being a real scary thing for the industry,” she says.

Much of the technology Hoffman uses in her daily work is helping her reach a goal of a paperless office. Her favorite tool toward that goal is a desktop scanner, specifically, the Fujitsu Scan Snap. Other tools she favors include computer programs such as Microsoft Office, Word, Power Point and Photoshop.

“People are so visual, and marketing your listings on the Internet is so competitive, that those skilled with taking and processing good pictures of their listings versus the agent who can’t get their flash to work are at a definite advantage,” she says.

When Paul Stepanovich, a RE/MAX Market broker, found himself with a short-circuiting Palm Pilot that kept resetting itself and deleting all of his contact information, he thought he’d died and gone to cyber hell. So, he broke down and bought a new PDA and, now, routinely backs up his information on his computer.

The key to Stepanovich’s technology choices is ease of use. “If a 3-year-old can’t use it, I don’t like it,” he admits, remembering how the difficulties of the Top Producer software outweighed the benefits (he jumped ship on that one). “It was just so difficult, and there was so much you have to learn about it.”

Today he relies on ACT!, a data management system similar to Top Producer, without the headaches. The program sends updates and notifications, builds time lines, and allows him to generate newsletters, flyers and messages of congratulations on home purchases for his clients.

“It’s like having an office assistant,” says Stepanovich. “But, technology is a double-edged sword. It’s made everything easier, but also made everything instantaneous. Where we used to have a couple days to get back to a client, they now expect you to contact them immediately. I’m the guy who loves and hates technology.”

He’s also utilized KISS (Keep It Simple Software), which schedules and notifies agents of showings of their listings. Fusion is a program that not many in the industry were using, which gave Stepanovich an advantage. The program made a prospecting search for buyers by searching MLS for matches of what the client was looking for and emailing those matches directly to the client once a day.

“Everything I had access to (the client) had access to,” he recalls. “It saved so much time by not spending 25 or 30 minutes inputting information about what the client was looking for.”

Stepanovich is also a fan of virtual tours. “When people look at properties for sale — say, 10 properties — and six don’t have photos, three have just one photo, and one has six photos and a virtual tour, which one do you think they’re going to look at?” he asks.

Rusty Lindquist, VP of a la mode, a real estate technology company, sympathizes with today’s Realtors. “I think agents today are being hit with two things at once,” he says. “On the one hand, many agents are dealing with a cooling market. And, on the other hand, they’re being expected to deal with the rapid emergence of technology innovation in the industry, and are being required to compete with agents that use these new technologies to differentiate themselves.

“Especially in a time when homeowners are becoming increasingly technologically savvy, the more agents and brokers are able to demonstrate their own technological prowess, the better they’ll be able to compete and evolve,” he says.

Lindquist adds that the result of the Internet hitting the real estate industry, as with other industries it has affected and changed in the past, is that it shifts information into the hands of consumers.

“There is so much information out there with MLS exposure through [Web sites] that any technology that helps the agent become the source of that information is crucial,” says Lindquist, citing IDX, which, when plugged into a Web site, allows public access to all MLS listings. “Someone shopping online wants to see the listings and get information. If they can go to an agent’s site and access the MLS, that agent becomes the source, rather than the old-school thinking of keeping the MLS information from buyers.”

While the amount of technology on the market may make choosing the right tools overwhelming, Lindquist encourages agents and brokers to seek out the added value that a particular technology can bring to their business.

“You just have to find the one or two that fit well with your business model, and use them really well as a strategic differentiator.” C.A.

Allyson Hoffman
Broker Associate
RE/MAX North
[email protected]

Rusty Lindquist
Vice President
a la mode
[email protected]

Richard Nacht
Blogging Systems
[email protected]

Paul Stepanovich
RE/MAX Market
[email protected]

Kevin Thornton
Thornton Properties
[email protected]

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