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All over the country, as the selling season swings into high gear, green shoots are sprouting in terrain that’s been arid for a while. But like Dorothy, who sensed as she glanced around the Emerald City that “we’re not in Kansas anymore,” any Realtor® worth his or her salt can sense a seismic shift in consumer-land.

“We are definitely dealing with a different customer,” observes Scott MacDonald, broker/owner of RE/MAX Gateway in Chantilly, Va. “Until the recent downturn, many people were keeping up with the Joneses—trying to squeeze themselves into the biggest house they could with the lowest teaser rates they could find. Today, consumers are more conservative. The key word for many is caution. If they can afford to spend $2,500 a month, they are choosing to spend $2,250.”

Tightened credit standards and the uncertain employment outlook of the past few years, plus the expiration of a federal homebuyer tax credit program last year, have also changed buyer demographics. According to the National Association of Realtors® (NAR) 2011 Profile of Buyers and Sellers, first-time homebuyers in the preceding year dropped from half of all buyers to just over one third—and the buyer profile shifted from young singles, which had been a growing sector in the previous decade, to older and/or married buyers with higher incomes and deeper resources.

Their expectations are changing as well.

“Consumers today have access to an ever-widening pool of real estate information,” notes Dan Forsman, CEO, Prudential Georgia Real Estate. “They are no longer dependent on real estate agents for listings or basic data. Today they are looking primarily for relevant local information, a variety of personalized communication, and service way beyond the norm.”

At the same time, the world of communication has been turned on its collective ear.

A recent Neilsen survey found that more than 40 percent of mobile phone users own a smartphone—and a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project showed more than two-thirds of consumers worldwide are using social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to engage with friends and family.

“It’s a way of staying connected and deepening bonds with those who are important in their lives,” says Amy Chorew, vice president of Platform Development for Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate. “Many social networkers also view these interactive sites as a way of making new friends and connections.”

Chorew, one of four authors of the e-Pro® social media courses taught through NAR, realized early the potential of such networking tools for real estate professionals.

“REALTORS® are just naturally social beings,” she explains. “Many have been using technology every day for some time to perform a variety of tasks.”

Indeed, according to NAR’s 2011 Member Profile, 92 percent of REALTORS® use email, 72 percent use smartphones, and 62 percent have a personal website. Ten percent are blogging, and at least half of responding NAR members are tuned in to social or professional networking sites.

But it’s not all about real estate.

For agents and brokers who are tuned in, says Chorew, social media represents one more resource to help them engage with a wider circle of people. “The fact is that agents who have found the most business success through their use of social media are using it as just another way of networking.”

Like the general population, they are having fun with it; posting photos, exchanging recipes, and gabbing about local issues. They are sharing movie reviews with members of their book club, soliciting volunteers for Community Saturday, and sharing tips for developing a foolproof golf swing.

“The content of their posts and tweets is full of interest and variety,” says Chorew. “If it’s relevant, if it’s interesting, people will follow it—and, in turn, they will find you.”

And as Chorew points out, once they find you, it is a short click to your blog or your newsletter or your website.

Ben Calhoon of Prudential Calhoon Realtors® in Columbus, Ohio—who, at 34, is a 2011 Prudential President’s Club designee and a member of the Columbus Board of REALTORS®’ One and Five Million Dollar Clubs—has been using cellphone technology to increase his business connections since 2003. Like Chorew, he understands that real estate is a social business. So it should come as no surprise that he was an early devotee of social media—particularly Facebook.

“It’s a relaxed and casual way to stay in touch with people and increase your circle of friends and acquaintances,” says Calhoon. But he adheres strictly to a 90/10 rule; 90 percent of his social media communications are strictly social. Only 10 percent are business-related.

“Once in a while, I might send out a photo of a cool new listing,” Calhoon explains, “or a picture of myself in front of a Sold! sign on a great, high-end property; or a friend might send something that says, ‘Hey, look what Ben did!’ But, for the most part, people know who I am, so I keep it purely social—because if you overdo it, people pretty much just stop listening.”

RE/MAX’s MacDonald puts it succinctly. “If there is one thing about this business that has not changed, it is that long-term real estate success comes from relationship-building; from establishing the kind of rapport and interaction that ultimately results in trust, and using social media for fun and profit can help build relationships—and trust.”

So where do you stick your e-toe in, and how do you find the kind of content that will win friends and influence people?

“There are literally hundreds of social media sites out there and more popping up all the time,” Chorew says. “For beginners, it’s probably easiest to stick with the top three: Facebook, which is the equivalent of your little black book; Twitter, with its cocktail party-sized 140-word tweets, and LinkedIn, which is kind of like your online Rolodex. And stick with the venues that best seem to fit your own interests and personality.”

As for content?

“You curate it,” Chorew advises. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be created. You read articles from NAR and RISMedia, but also from Good Housekeeping and Golf Digest. You read stuff that interests you, you share cool stuff, you can even develop talking points—but most important, you try to figure out where the people you want to reach are hanging out—and be in the same places. Study the content of your competition. Talk to people. What blogs are they reading? What videos are they watching? What Twitter feeds are they following? What can you contribute that might draw them to your posts and ultimately increase your profile and your sphere of influence?”

RISMedia, publisher of Real Estate magazine and provider of information systems to brokers and agents, recently added an important spoke to its content-solutions wheel: Pop-a-Note (see page 70 for details). While real estate professionals have long turned to RISMedia for credible, relevant real estate information, Pop-a-Note satisfies the need to engage consumers with fun and intriguing, non-real estate-related information, distributed through a simple, automated email campaign.

“Consumers don’t want to be sold—they want to connect with you on a social basis initially,” says RISMedia President & CEO John Featherston. “A program like Pop-a-Note is designed to engage the consumer with brief, interesting tidbits of information. They’ll come to welcome these emails and eventually, when they or someone they know has a real estate need, they will logically turn to the agent who has already made a connection and built trust in a non-sales-oriented way.”

There is another, perhaps as vital a reason to be part of the electronic community—a “dirty little secret” your friendly ad agency may not want you to realize. People can do a lot of searching around on their own, but when it comes to making buying decisions—read that, choosing the product, company or agent to work with—nearly half of consumers use a combination of search engines and social media to fuel their ultimate choice.

In fact, a 2011 joint survey by comScore, a good source of digital analytics, and marketing specialist GroupM Search, found that of the consumers who went to search engines first, 40 percent then turned to their social media peers before making that final decision.

“That’s why it is so essential not just to know what social networkers are talking about,” says Chorew, “but what they are saying to each other.”

Of equal interest is American Express’s third annual Global Customer Service Barometer, completed earlier this year, which determined that “an engaged and vocal” 17 percent of consumers had used social media in the past year with regard to reporting or resolving a customer service issue.

The survey found that those who did so afterward tell an average of 42 people about a positive experience—and an average of 53 people about a bad experience. Statistics like these suggest a clear mandate for providing the kind of customer service that keeps all consumers—and especially social media-savvy consumers—happy.

For Forsman, who early recognized the bridge between the relationship natures of both real estate and social media, the strategy was to leverage the best of both by offering his agents a learning experience through RISMedia’s Social Media Marketing seminar, conducted in April by real estate veteran Gee Dunsten, a senior instructor with the Council of Residential Specialists.

“It was terrific,” Forsman reports. “There is a lot of noise out there about harnessing the power of social media, but not much practical information agents can assimilate and put to use right away. Hosting this class was a good start, a great introduction for agents who were new to social media and deepening their understanding of how best to use it for those who had already begun.”

The feedback from attendees, who numbered about one-third of Prudential Georgia’s 1,000 agents, was entirely positive, he says—so much so that the company plans to repeat it—and Forsman now has local support in place to help agents with social media specifics, such as creating a Facebook page, curating content, even building a video channel.

“There are many ways to tell interesting stories,” Forsman says. “Stories that engage people, that build relationships, inspire trust, and may eventually result in a call to action.”

But finding your place in the e-world, and populating it with content that is fun and effective, can no doubt be time-consuming.

“It isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel,” says Brian Wildermuth, vice president of Strategic Accounts for SharperAgent by Market Leader, which provides agents and brokerages with an integrated platform of lead generation systems and online and offline marketing solutions. “We can monitor how and where consumers are going and offer lead generation services along with content that resonates to help agents engage with the consumers they wish to reach.”

With a host of customized services designed to build personal branding, manage email campaigns, and otherwise drive consumers to their websites, Wildermuth maintains that agents can merely click on what they need and look smart—almost as though they have a whole ad agency behind them.

“With more than 4,000 templates to choose from, you can shoot out weekly emails, direct consumers to provocative white papers, or otherwise direct their attention to pertinent material on your website,” he explains.

There is a caveat, Wildermuth warns. Whether you are chatting on Facebook and seeking a Twitter following on your own, or utilizing the services of an outside agency, you need to have a strategy in place—a business plan that makes social media an integral part of your overall strategy.

Like Chorew, he warns that the average consumer, even the most devoted social networker, has multiple distractions all day long. “You need to generate a plan and follow it, and draw the line at getting too much information in anyone’s face,” he says.

“As with everything in life,” says Forsman, “balance is incredibly important. Interestingly enough, consumers who are overwhelmed with electronic messaging may now be more open to direct mail and other more traditional prospecting tools. Even knocking on doors or hanging packets on neighborhood doorknobs has a place in today’s market.”

MacDonald agrees. “I tell my agents to pick up the phone, because nothing will replace phone conversations, open houses or face-to-face meetings with customers,” he says, “and a certain amount of hand-holding during the mortgage approval process will never go out of style.”

In other words, the smart agent will become adept at morphing a social media relationship into a real world, face-to-face encounter.

“Send your prospective clients a three-minute video of homes in the neighborhood they want to know more about—or a 45-second video of a new listing with a message suggesting a meeting on Thursday,” MacDonald says. “Once they are serious about buying or selling real estate, even the most hard-core digital natives will be ready to heed your call to action.”

In some ways, he points out, everything old is new again.

“In today’s competitive real estate market, with more options available than ever before to practitioners as well as consumers, you have to prioritize your time and practice the basics even as you learn to broaden your horizons through the world of social media,” MacDonald explains. “To really engage with today’s consumer, you have to use all the spokes in the wheel.”