I believe in zeitgeist. Things seem to happen in groups, where one conversation is followed by another on a similar vein.
Last night, I have a great conversation with Stacey Harmon about a presentation she’s giving to realtors on the value of social media for real estate. We explore the difference between branding and lead generation, based on this post of mine on branding and social media that Stacey found interesting.
The gist of David’s video — which, sadly has no transcript and no bite-sized snippets I can post — is as follows:
There’s actually a lot more so I urge you to watch the whole thing.
David is a smart guy and he knows the Internet and social media marketing, so when he declares blogs to be 2008, and the “statussphere” to be more important to online marketing and conversation, it’s something to take seriously. I happen to think he’s right in many respects, but due to a critical confusion, taking David’s advice at face value could be a bad thing. The key is to understand the difference between branding and lead generation in your marketing efforts.
The trouble begins because David lumps all of marketing into a single “thing” calling it online marketing efforts. Marketing itself doesn’t work that way. Within that single term “Marketing” lies a whole range of activities with rather different goals and methods. The “4 P’s” of marketing — Product, Price, Promotion, and Place — are separate concepts, and even after that you still have brand management, public relations & communications, event marketing, direct sales, and so on.
The key confusion in the case here is between branding and lead generation — two very important marketing activities, which are connected and yet separate, and somewhat in conflict. This was what Stacey Harmon and I were discussing last night on the phone.
At issue in Stacey and my discussion was whether social media really was the ideal vehicle for lead gen. She didn’t think it was, because of the nature of social media, and I tended to agree. Where we got to was that so-called “Web 1.0″ efforts — such as the traditional IDX-search enabled broker/agent websites and email marketing — were better for lead gen, while “Web 2.0″ or social media efforts worked better for branding. At direct issue is timing and where the customer’s mental state is at a given time.
Let’s say Stacey parks her car at the airport to go to a conference, and it gets hit by a freak meteor and is destroyed. She now needs to buy a car. She’s going to look at one of three brands: BMW, Mercedes Benz, and Lexus. She’ll get online, go to a site like Edmunds.com, and start researching various models of BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus. Narrowing her choices down by criteria like price, features, appearance, etc., she’ll locate a few dealers in her area, go in for a test drive, ultimately select a new vehicle, and drive away a happy customer.
Now, my point to Stacey was that she had been marketed to before she even conceived of the need for a new car. All those expensive TV commercials showing luxury automobiles cutting through the snow in Bavaria and so on, all those beautiful billboard ads adorning the streets of Newport Beach, all those expensive photo shoots of Mercedes cars in exotic locales, all of these things combined to put into Stacey’s mind that these three brands were desirable (for whatever personal motivation/appeal).
Once she had the need, and was in the market for a new car, then sites like Edmunds (a car-version of a real estate search site), direct mail pieces from the local dealership, and so on gave Stacey the information she needed to make the decision.
In other words, branding works before the consumer is in the market, whereas lead generation works once the consumer enters the market.
The key for Web 1.0 — the search websites, the “official” agent website, and the like — is to be present when the consumer is looking for real estate. The key for social media is to be present prior to when the consumer is looking for real estate.
A car company like BMW can, should, and must spend money on glitzy commercials, magazine ads, and the like. It is selling a product, after all. A service provider, however, is only selling his time and expertise. A gorgeous photo shoot of a realtor in a power suit doesn’t actually say very much about his knowledge, experience, capabilities, or level of service. The branding challenge is how to establish those intangibles. There are two ways, broadly speaking.
First, a service provider can brand himself by his clients. People assume that a Fortune 500 company isn’t going to hire any dumbass off the street, so a company like McKinsey that works for top corporations is assumed to have the best and brightest. This is similar to having a degree from a top college. People just assume that a Harvard grad isn’t a moron because of the admissions criteria, and Harvard’s own brand. (That this assumption is often wrong when it comes to Harvard is a different story, of course. )
Second, a service provider can brand himself by sharing his knowledge, expertise, and smarts. Even the McKinseys of the world do just this. McKinsey, in fact, has a publishing operation that rivals most university presses. Top law firms are constantly putting out articles, going to conferences, and working on cases that don’t pay, but establish the expertise of the lawyers.
So how can a real estate professional brand himself? The first path, of branding himself by clients, is often unavailable at least on the residential side. It isn’t clear that I should hire Agent Jones because Mr. Smith up the street is such a wise selector of realtors. Mr. Smith himself is only in the market once every seven years, like I am. Does Mr. Smith put every realtor through seven rounds of interviews and screening? Not likely.
The only way, then, is to share knowledge, expertise, and smarts. And the only way to do this online is blogging.
Now, “blogging” doesn’t necessarily mean firing up your WordPress. Putting up a Note on Facebook is, frankly, a blog. Putting up a video of yourself is a blog. The narrow definition of “blog” — a “web log” with entries in reverse chronological order, etc. — is no longer truly operative. In my mind, a blog today really means substantial online content.
This “blogging” can be distinguished from the statussphere of Twitter, Facebook status updates, and the like. Courtney Cooper, in her response to David, quotes Brian Clark on Copyblogger: “But the story remains the same: people who mainly want to socialize, share links, and post pictures of their cat should be using social networks instead of blogging, and that’s exactly what’s happening.”
The statussphere is social networking. There is precious little actual content there. Any real content on the statussphere is a link back to a blog, or some other content of actual substance. Calling Twitter “microblogging” is nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that 140 characters is not enough to carry on a substantial display of knowledge or expertise.
As Courtney points out, one should use the social networks to promote and share one’s actual content. But don’t confuse social networking with content creation.
David’s mistake is understandable, when he says that since February the statussphere has been more important for conversations in his role as Zillow’s representative. What he’s forgetting is that behind his social network updates stands Zillow — one of the most important real estate websites in the world today. The amount of content being pushed out by Zillow — both the automated data and the blogposts put up by the faithful minions there — is staggering. David isn’t trying to brand himself or his company as an authority; he’s just trying to share and promote the existing authority that Zillow has established.
That’s a far cry from your average realtor who doesn’t have a world-class content-producing web operations behind her.
Let’s bring things full circle. Remember the branding vs. lead-generation differentiation above? Social networks can be used for some limited amount of lead gen work — especially if you, the realtor, are answering questions that customers put up on social networks.
But in order for such answers to have any authority, any weight, you have to have some sort of content to establish your brand as an expert. A bunch of Facebook status updates isn’t going to do it. Sorry.
Reason is that branding operates prior to entrance into the market. A social media strategy, executed well, should result in people who have no intention of buying or selling a house to know that you exist, that you are an expert in the area of real estate, and that should they ever need real estate services, your name/company/image/whatever should be one of the first to float into awareness. This simply cannot happen without some sort of content.
David’s “people with real estate problems to solve” are already in the market. Social media is now of limited utility in reaching them. Go with time-proven lead generation methods: a great search website, a solid email campaign, and even outbound telephone calls, local seminars, and the like.
Combining the two is truly powerful. A consumer is in the market, has never thought about real estate before, and goes on Twitter to ask something like, “So what’s the deal with this $8,000 tax credit?” Your answer can be, “Here’s a link to my blogpost about the $8,000 tax credit, what it means, and how you can compute its effects on the decision: www.XYZ.com.” Or a consumer is searching for listings in your area, and lands on your search website. You get them to register and sign up for listing updates through good UI and conversion practices. Well, don’t just send them listings — send them your weekly video blogpost about the state of the market. Email them your blogposts, if they’re worth a damn.
In all these efforts, the blog in whatever form is the base. Without it, online branding is impossible. And without brand, you are just one of an undifferentiated mass of realtors claiming this and that without any proof. Oh, you’ll still have a brand in your local market simply based on your performance as a realtor; your customers will know how good or bad you are, and tell other people. But that happens whether you have a website or not.
In closing, a few caveats and warnings and things you oughta know.
First, branding is a long-term marketing play. The Mercedes brand was not built overnight. You are unlikely to see an immediate jump in traffic, in business, or dollars because of all your blogging and social networking and the like. But over the long-haul, the differentiation you can establish with your knowledge and expertise is perhaps the single most valuable asset you can have.
Second, blog to your strengths, not to your weakness. If you’re a bad writer, please don’t write a blog. If you have a face for radio, don’t do a video blog. Use your strengths, not your weaknesses, when branding yourself — whether offline or online.
Third, understand that branding and lead generation are somewhat in conflict. Mercedes Benz does not send out mass mailings offering 25% off the new S-Class; it doesn’t need to. Whereas Bob’s Discount Furniture doesn’t particularly care what its “brand image” is — they just want to drive as many shoppers into their store as possible. Doing lead generation while being cognizant of your overall brand promise is one of the trickier things in marketing, so think and think again as you engage in it.
Blogging isn’t 2008; it isn’t dead. Twitter, Facebook, whatever comes next will not replace the need for content to showcase knowledge and expertise.
Blogging is forever.