Nearing the end of the first decade of the new millennium, social media sites play a defining role in the next generation of Web applications. Facebook.com has more than 120 million active users. The new kid on the block, Twitter, already boasts more than five million unique visitors each month, according to Internet researcher ComScore Inc. For live interactive video, Justin.tv reports more than one million users, many of them utilizing the site to broadcast events and their daily lives in real time. Clearly, the sales and marketing segment of the real estate industry needs to be capitalizing on these tools and others. In today’s depressed market, however, their greatest value may not be just their impact, but their cost, which is incredibly small or none at all. “Builders can do these things on their own, and that’s the great thing about the Internet and Web 2.0 — there are a number of tools that people already in the company can manage,” says Mike Lyon, a leading expert, consultant and blogger on integrating online marketing tools into a builder’s overall sales strategy. “With the focus on simply engaging customers through these avenues, there are many paths toward getting great results,” Lyon says. “It’s all about joining the conversation and builders taking advantage of the tools they need to succeed.” Venturing forth into the Internet to use social networking as a marketing tool can be a daunting prospect. As popular as these sites are, there’s a sense that their rules of conduct are still being written. Here are a few specific tips on navigating the brave new world of social media and engaging a new audience in a leading-edge space. Utilize strong, informative content The traditional model for online real estate marketing followed logically from the ways in which homes were advertised through old media that pushed information and selling points out to the audience and utilized incentives to encourage visits to the sales center. Even in the age of social media, this remains critical. “There is a process that is pretty much mandatory in order to even have a chance of being successful, and the whole process starts from having the content on the Web site that consumers want,” says Jim Adams, CEO of NewHomesDirectory.com, one of the first online sites to offer new home listings to potential buyers. His real estate PR site, NHDBuzz.com, enables builders to enhance their online presence and share the latest news by posting free press releases. “There’s also got to be an option for someone to contact the buyer via the Internet; some people don’t want a phone call, or don’t have time,” Adams says. “That has got to be followed up within 24 to 48 hours. If those things aren’t happening, I would say builders are definitely losing sales. If those things are in place, they’re giving themselves as good a chance as they can.” Emphasize the conversation At the same time, the interactive nature of social media requires builders to allow themselves to relax their high content standards enough to facilitate an effective interaction with consumers and Realtors alike. The traditional one-way push of information will eventually turn off readers if there is no attempt to engage an audience with questions and discussion topics. “If you take traditional or interruptive marketing and try to Twitter it or distribute it via Facebook, the audience will eventually turn it off or filter it out,” Lyon says. “You always have to look at the conversation and have interesting dialogue with people. Also, most consumers won’t want to interact with the builder, but the real estate community wants to know what’s going on. I recommend starting by engaging with the real estate community. Talk to customers willing to interact, but there’s a smaller percentage of those than there are Realtors who may want to talk about your product and your pricing. Ultimately, right now, that gets you more business. Don’t waste time trying to hit 1,000 potential customers; go and hit 2,000 Realtors who could net you 500 customers if you have good conversations with them.” Sites such as Active Rain or the New Homes Professional Network enable builders to join an active, dynamic conversation among industry professionals that can then easily spill over into consumer-aimed communications via Twitter or follow-up blog entries on the builder’s site. Keep things moving with video. Just as adopting a more conversational tone in online marketing can help engage readers, adopting a relaxed and informal tone for online video can help create a feeling of verisimilitude for the material being presented. More importantly, video created in a more “pro-am” environment can be produced more quickly and more cheaply than the traditional method of employing a high-paid video production company for a couple of weeks’ worth of filming, edits and revisions. “If builders try to control the message too much, they’re going to miss potential connections,” says Lyon. “Video is so cheap and easy to do that every sales executive can have their own YouTube account and a Flip HD camera in their pocket, and post item after item. You don’t have to worry it’s not shot in cinema quality; 95 percent of the videos on YouTube are amateur videos, and consumers like that. It may not be pretty, but it’s transparent and real. Consumers respond to material that doesn’t look corporate.” Jim Adams recently expanded his online real estate marketing offerings to include the newly-launched NewHomesDirectory.tv, a video hosting site for NewHomesDirectory.com customers to use in posting high-definition videos of projects — including musical soundtracks from leading artists such as Sheryl Crow, Coldplay and Weezer. “We’ve found that the most cost-effective and efficient way to produce high-definition quality video of a project is to utilize high-quality still photography,” says Adams. “Of course, we are happy to film on site and edit together a video piece, but using the stills allows us to leverage existing collateral material for our builder clients in producing new content that displays the homes in a dynamic and compelling way.” Whether attracted to social media by its marketing power, its ease of use or its cost-effectiveness, builders need to become fully aware of the marketing tools available through social media sites. They truly represent the communication forums and marketing avenues of tomorrow, and many years to come. Carol Ruiz is vice president of public relations for red rocket LA and is responsible for managing the company’s public relations team, client and media relations and new business development. Ruiz has nearly 20 years experience in real estate-related PR. On behalf of her clients, Ruiz has established relationships with editors nationwide and has garnered press in such publications as The New York Times, USA Today and The Los Angeles Times, as well as in the real estate industry publications critical to her clients’ businesses. The preceding information was reprinted with permission from the National Association of Home Builders, nahb.org/biztools.