Insight from Blogworld & New Media Expo: Real Estate Blog as Communications Channel

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I attended the 2008 BlogWorld & New Media Expo over the past weekend -- which was a twofer deal with RE BlogWorld, organized by the incredible team of Todd Carpenter and Jason Berman. It turned out to be an excellent adventure in many ways, including the educational.

I wanted to share a couple of insights that I picked up from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Business Blogs panel, which featured people heading up the blogging and social media efforts of companies such as Yahoo, Kodak, Facebook, and Dell. It was an interesting look into the tech-heavy companies and how they think and work, which is somewhat (well, hugely) different from how real estate companies think and work.

I believe our clients would benefit from thinking about some of these issues.

Communication, Not Marketing

I noticed that all of the panelists were talking about how they use the blog to communicate to their customers, and how it's a major part of (or has nearly replaced) their traditional PR and communication strategies. But it was curious that none of the panelists talked at all about how these companies use their corporate blogs to do any marketing.

In fact, Tom Hoehn, the Director, Brand Communications and Convergence Media for Kodak, mentioned a couple of times that he had to take down posts that were comparing Kodak products to competitive products by name, because Kodak's Legal department had issues with such 'advertising' on the blog.

So... I asked them all a question during the Q&A thinking not only of Onboard Informatics, but also of many of our clients who are smaller companies who use their blog for marketing. It's the current rage in real estate:

Smaller companies often look to the blog as a way of marketing themselves and their products or services. Do you have any sort of a relationship with your marketing department? Do they view your blogs as a channel to get the message out about the brand or about your products and services?

The answer, with near-unanimity among the panelists, was a resounding No. In fact, Nicki Dugan, senior director of corporate communications at Yahoo!, said that she felt marketing was really more of a one-way communication from the brand/company to the consumer, while the blog/social media was a two-way conversation between the company and its customers.

I thought that was a particularly interesting insight. I'm not sure whether I actually agree with Nicki on this or not just yet, seeing as how I believe in marketing as conversations, but it's an interesting perspective: Marketing is one-way; communication is two-way.

That perspective does, however, raise a very good point relevant to real estate.

The Trouble with Real Estate Blogs

Blogging is one of the buzzwords or buzz-concepts sweeping all of the real estate industry. Even the big guys are getting into the act. Agent blogs have been all the rage, as experts tell realtors that they need to blog or get left behind as the consumer sweeps onto the information superhighway.

Thing is, most real estate blogs are very clearly marketing blogs. Go do any random search for "real estate blog YOUR LOCATION". I did one for New Jersey, and came up with this site. Now, as realtor blogs go, it's pretty good. It has market information, a listing, real estate news... pretty much what you'd want to find on a realtor blog. It has the content that experts have been telling realtors to put on their blog.

One might even say it's a very effective marketing blog.

It would, however, be a 'bad blog' under the Nicki Dugan analysis of blogs as a two-way communication vehicle. Most of the posts have zero comments, and there is little evidence that the realtor in charge of the blog uses it as a two-way communication with her existing clients.

And yet, to recommend real estate agents or companies to use their blogs as a client communication medium seems... suboptimal given that unlike a Kodak or Yahoo, the typical "customer" of a real estate company only does a transaction once every seven years. And almost never with the same agent or broker. What would be the point of such 'customer communication'?

Breaking the Impasse

While I am not 100% certain how a real estate blog should best be run, it seems to me that there is a way to mix both -- a necessity given the particular vagaries of our industry.

A real estate blog should be a "pre-customer communication" vehicle.

It makes little sense for a blog to be aimed only at existing customers, or past clients, unless you have the systems and the discipline to conduct CRM over a seven year period. At the same time, a strictly marketing-focused, marketing-oriented blog reads and sounds just like what it is: a giant online ad. Unless an ad is extremely funny or extremely interesting, very very few people like to read or look at one.

One possible solution then is to write the blog as if it were to your existing clients, but to treat every visitor as a "pre-customer". Perhaps few of those "pre-customers" will become an actual customer; perhaps not. But it seems instinctively right to use a blog as a communication vehicle, no matter the audience.

The difference will come in content emphasis and voice. Every human uses a different voice when communicating and pitching. Everyone wants to be communicated to, but very few want to be pitched to.

Thought of this way, random house listings do not strike me as "conversation" or "communication". If you were actually writing for a client who is working with you, why would you bother telling them about a new listing on the market? Unless you can surround the listing with some reason why that person should want to read about some fabulous new 3BR/2BA on the market... don't post it.

Whenever you are sitting down to write a post, ask "Would my clients want to read this?" That question alone would eliminate a bunch of self-serving advertisements masquerading as content.

(All of this, incidentally, is excellent advice for us at OnBlog to follow as well... and we will.)

Conclusion

Blogging is a powerful tool for real estate. It's the hottest thing right now. But many real estate blogs are done wrong, as marketing vehicles. Instead, they should be written as "client communication channels" where you happen to allow pre-clients to come in and have a conversation with you.

-rsh