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Best of the Web
REALTOR® AE Magazine's 9th Annual Outstanding REALTOR Association Web Site Contest
by Carolyn Schwaar
Association size matters when it comes to a Web site’s focus. In our Web site competition this year, which was divided into five size categories, our judges discovered that the best small association Web sites were more narrowly focused, accomplishing a few key goals very well, such as keeping members informed about association activities and news, and helping the public to locate REALTORS® more easily. In general, larger associations reached more widely and focused not only on disseminating market information, but also on providing members with tools to grow their businesses, such as blogs, custom newsletters, and customer lead generation.
Of the winning sites, it’s worth noting that all but one were redesigned and relaunched within the past eight months. The redesign goals, associations told RAE, were 1) to deliver—and often automate—essential member services in a manner that is
both more convenient for members and cost-effective for the association, 2) to make the association more accessible to members and consumers, 3) to facilitate member interaction, 4) to remove unused features and pages of stale data, and 5) to eventually turn the Web sites into non-dues revenue generators with advertising.
Interestingly, association size mattered little when it came to Web site design and functionality. The best sites in every size category looked great and were easy to navigate. They also all had a sense of simplicity, leaving the useless technological bells
and whistles of yesteryear—flashing icons, rolling banner ads, and long navigation lists—by the wayside.
The strategy of these five sites is to focus on what resources they can deliver best, regardless of their staff size or budget—a winning formula, indeed.
**Outstanding site from an association with fewer than 300 members:
Portage County Association of REALTORS®, Ohio
Redesigned and relaunched just six months ago, Portage County’s site raises the bar for how small associations represent themselves online. The site is well-organized, streamlined, intuitive, and very attractive, judges said. The association gives ample recognition to members and their volunteer involvement by posting rotating photos of members at events, along with photos and contact information for each director of the board.
Typical of small association sites, this one focuses primarily on being a member resource, yet it does offer key articles for home buyers and home sellers, covering real estate terms, why you should work with a REALTOR®, and how to prepare for homeownership.
“This Web site was my favorite,” one judge said, “Everything was easy to navigate.”
The site’s blog-style redesign focused on a “one click away” philosophy, featuring the most sought-after news, event, and resource links on the front page, leading to a landing page without excessive drill-down.
“The membership roster is one of the cleanest I’ve ever seen and a nice display of members by brokerage,” notes one judge. “The events calendar is also very streamlined and members can subscribe to it.”
**Outstanding site from an association with 301–700 members:
Berkshire Association of REALTORS®, Mass.
Berkshire’s Web site shows what a smaller association can achieve when it invests in a feature-rich online content management system. Substantial back-end organization built around “page items” enables staff to post new articles that appear on all relevant pages (not just one) and expire when the content is no longer applicable. This system also features menus and submenus that update automatically as content is added, making the tedious process of posting, removing pages, and manually cross-linking obsolete.
“Clearly, at this site organization is paramount,” one judge said. “The Web site had good (and surprising) depth and was easy to navigate.”
This fastidious attention to organization extends beyond maintenance of information, into its dissemination as well. Similar to the national association’s REALTOR.com/REALTOR.org setup, Berkshire has a “.org” for members and a “.com” for consumers. The consumer site features open house and Find-a-REALTOR® tools. The separate sites allow the association to better focus on distinct audience needs.
From the judges: “Really loved the committee reports—excellent transparency—and the links at the bottom of each committee report where members could join the committee, make a suggestion to the chair, or get general information for the committee is outstanding!”
“Nice online forms for joining various committees, paying dues, making suggestions—this gives members instant gratification.”
**Outstanding site from an association with 701–2,000 members:
Dulles Area Association of REALTORS®, Va.
The Dulles Area Web site was redesigned and relaunched in September 2010 with a new community forum that expands opportunities for members to connect with one another online. One judge said: “Members’ area has awesome functionality and enables members to work as groups, connect with other members, and share resources. Great member features and easy to use!”
The new DAR Community feature is a member-focused tool to coordinate discussion groups, member interaction, education, and committee work through such elements as My Events, My Calendar, My Discussions, My Groups, etc. This feature “has some real potential to support the association ... if it takes off,” one judge noted conservatively, since the feature is still relatively new.
Another key focus of the site redesign is to better serve members (and to a lesser extent, consumers) looking for real estate information. Four daily real estate news feeds —Inman, REALTOR® Magazine, RIS Media, and VAREALTOR—are featured on the home page and members can select which feed to subscribe to. The CEO blog features explanations and updates on association issues and news.
“The home page provides great depth and breadth of information to members and consumers without overcrowding,” said one judge. “I really like the top stories feature and ability to click through for more info—great way to get members’ attention.”
The design gets high marks for ease of use and organization. However, some judges noted the text-heavy pages could use more photos and graphics.
Judges also liked the key information for consumers under a prominent “consumers” tab, a nice directory of affiliates listed by category, and the site-search function.
**Outstanding site from an association with 2,001–7,000 members:
REALTORS® Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh
Relaunched in January, this association site was rebuilt from scratch with a focus on inviting visitors to “engage, discover, and interact,” says Joi Rogers, e-PRO,
the association’s marketing director.
“The resources for members and consumers are vast, current, and organized,” one judge noted. Yet, perhaps representing a shift in REALTOR® associations’ strategy, nowhere on the site is there a link to find homes. Consumers can find REALTORS®, other transaction service providers, and market information, but this association has left the home search business to its numerous competitors.
“Our site is a communication and interactive tool between us and membership,” says Rogers. “We encourage consumers to ‘Find a REALTOR®’ for real estate data and listings.”
In promoting opportunities for members to learn and interact with each other, a live feed from the association’s Facebook page is featured prominently on the site’s home page.
Additionally, a video channel and video-log, as well as photos of all members in the member directory, are in the works to be rolled out in the coming months.
“We are updating content almost daily, and we revisit our static pages once monthly to ensure information is fresh and relevant,” says Rogers.
Member survey feedback of the redesigned beta site—a staff-driven effort with no committee involvement—was unanimously positive, says Rogers. Not surprising when you consider the redesign focused on solving issues members had with the previous site, namely event registration, site navigation, and searching for content.
Judges also liked the clear “resolve a complaint” section under the Consumer Tools tab.
**Outstanding site from an association with more than 7,000 members:
Houston Association of REALTORS®
For years, HAR.com has been the gold standard for REALTOR® association Web sites (winning this competition in 2008, 2007, 2006, 2004, and 2003). “It seems as though HAR consistently finds ways to bring the latest technology to its members, and HAR.com is a big part of that,” said one judge.
Yet, even the best strive for more, as Houston has done with its newly redesigned member section of HAR.com, launched in January. Likely the most feature-rich online offering for members, HAR’s member “dashboard” stretches the limits of online functionality.
Perhaps individual member-designed custom dashboards were the only way to organize the vast number of tools, data, and member services offered by HAR. Or, perhaps, it was the only way one Web site could be flexible enough to serve 21,000 members. In any case, the end result is a real estate command center that delivers personalized lead notifications, MLS notices (updated every 15 minutes), videos, and market updates, along with the new Listing Activity Report, which details listing traffic on a daily basis. From the dashboard, members can see how many times a consumer has bookmarked its listing, manage their HAR-built personal blog and social networking, among a variety
of other tasks.
Another feature is a tool that generates dynamic, colorful charts of listing and market activity that members can share with their sellers. “We are in the process of adding more tracking and reporting abilities for agents and brokers,” says HAR President and
CEO Bob Hale.
HAR.com received high marks from our judges overall, not just when it came to its redesigned member area. “Homeowners and those wishing to become owners also have access to a wealth of information,” noted one judge, “and as a result HAR members reap a wealth of leads as a benefit of their membership.”
HAR was among the pioneers that integrated social media into its site early, and it still does an exceptional job staying ahead of the curve. The international section has great resources for foreign buyers and investors. The site uses oversize buttons as navigational aids, which give the site a clean and well-organized feel.
HAR.com’s reviews were the most positive in this competition. One judge summed up the reviews this way: “What I didn’t like most about HAR.com—it’s not my site.”
The Best of the Web: Eighth Annual Outstanding Realtor® Association Web Site Contest
It’s no surprise that social networking is the latest trend in association Web sites. Not only are links to association Facebook pages and Twitter feeds prominently displayed, but some associations have incorporated members-only social networking into their sites.
The Virginia Association of REALTORS®, for example, relaunched its member site this year, incorporating a social networking program called MyVAR. “Think of it like a private Facebook just for Virginia REALTORS®,” explains Ben Martin, the association’s vice president for marketing and communications. The application has several advantages over a Facebook page, namely the ability to limit participation to just REALTORS®, sell advertising, and own the data members provide. An added -bonus is that there are no games or pitches from vendors. The site offers a new Match.com-like feature to spur networking. “The system asks four of five questions, then matches you with others with similar interest areas whom you may want to connect with,” says Martin.
Shifting communications trends and member feedback prompted the Austin Board of REALTORS® to introduce “Learning Communities” into its Web site last year. These member-only social networking areas enable members to engage in topical discussions, share resources, exchange tips and advice, and post links to relevant Web sites and articles. The current hottest topics at the Learning Communities, which offer a variety of groups focusing on specific aspects of the real estate industry, are the Realtors Property Resource™ and short sales. An average of 159 members each month have joined ABoR Learning Communities, since the start of 2010.
While many associations are incorporating social networking, the 700-member Cherokee Association of REALTORS® in Georgia took it a step further and converted its entire site to a social networking platform. Using the online service Ning.com, the association used templates to build a site centered on member-to-member and member-to-staff interaction. Along with a photo and video gallery, online discussion groups, and a customizable MyPage for each member, the site displays posts from staff and members on events, hot topics, and trends. More than a third of the association’s membership are registered users of the site.
Like many associations, the Illinois Association of REALTORS® uses social networking to both distribute information and draw members back to its main Web site for more information. IAR has its own blog—IARbuzz—and actively uses its Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles to send updates with links back to IAR.com.
The Houston Association of REALTORS® not only hosts several blogs and offers members the ability to build and host their own blogs on HAR.com, it also recently launched a service that will update members’ social networking sites with one click. Anytime members add new listings, make a price reduction, have an open house, or sell a listing in the MLS, HAR will update their social networking sites automatically. Currently the service is only offered for Twitter, but other networks (Facebook,
LinkedIn, etc.) are expected to be added later.
Winners: Best of the Web
REALTOR® AE magazine’s judging panel (RAE’s editorial board and staff) reviewed and rated nearly 50 entries into the 2010 Outstanding REALTOR® Association Web Site Contest. The following three associations stood out for their focus on delivering outstanding member services online. These sites represent the innovation, commitment, and excellence all associations strive for.
Chicago Association of REALTORS® (http://www.ChicagoRealtor.com)
“Fresh and relevant” is one way to describe the winning qualities of the Chicago Association of -REALTORS®’ Web site (http://www.ChicagoRealtor.com). “Few sites seem to carry these qualities throughout the site as well as this one does, and that result is nothing less than innovative,” said one judge. A full-time staffer ensures that content is culled daily from every association department and delivered online. With the exception of a sparsely -updated blog, page after page contains up-to-date -information on news, programs, and services.
“Comfortable” is another adjective judges used to describe the site, whose design is clean and intuitive. “An immediate glance tells me this is a site I can comfortably find my way around,” said another judge. “It entices me to explore beyond my immediate needs.” This site also received high marks for its myriad feedback options, its clear focus on serving members (as opposed to consumers, too), and its efficient search feature. “We strive to constantly test our site and ask members to help us review various sections,” says Barbara Matthopoulos, CAR’s senior director of communications and media relations. “Visitors are also randomly and informally surveyed on their experience, and asked to give us feedback to help us improve our service and tools.”
CAR is developing a mobile application to enable members to access association information, executable forms, as well as monthly stats and talking points on the city’s 77 communities.
“Members should brag about their association’s site to other REALTORS®,” one judge enthused. “I would expect them to come back often, due to the quick and easy experience on this site.”
Greater Rochester Association of REALTORS®, N.Y. (http://www.grar.org)
When the Rochester association set out to completely rebuild its online presence in 2009, the -focus was to deliver what members wanted. “Information provided on the site is only presented when it’s relevant, accurate, and requested by our membership,” says association CEO Ryan Tucholski.
From the easy member log-in and search to the appealing graphics and color-coded navigation, this inviting site is clear and easy to use, judges said.
Among the judges’ highly rated features are the prominent Google search, the updated news section, and the depth of information in the members-only section. After logging in, members use the site as a portal to their dashboard on the public-facing MLS Web site, where they can track their listing -performance.
Like all Web sites, grar.com is a work in progress, explains Tucholski. “We believe the site must be a living and growing object that can flex and move for the benefit of the membership.” Soon, the association plans to add more interactive items, such as a weekly video feed of news.
“Very nice overall,” one judge commented. “If I were a member, I’d save it as a favorite and come back often.”
Florida Association of REALTORS® (http://www.FloridaRealtors.org)
“This site seems to have a personality,” one judge remarked, referring to the conversational tone of its content. Indeed, with its -people photos throughout and numerous options for -member-to-member and member-to-staff interaction (such as the discussion forum groups), the site is an inviting place to visit.
Another welcoming aspect is the site’s multi-media. The home page slide show functions as an additional source of navigation linking to content within the site. The two-minute video and audio tutorials featuring association staff explain what members can expect from association services, such as the technology and legal hotlines. There’s even a video featuring local legislators explaining the important role REALTORS® play in the political process.
“This site has numerous advantages for its members,” one judge said. “They can set up their own ‘My Favorites’ page and customize the site to their needs. There’s lots of information on building their business and being informed about what’s happening.”
Through FloridaRealtors.org, the state association reinforces its branded mission to provide “the tools you need, and the advice you count on,” says Peggy Musial, managing editor of online content. From the latest news and education offerings, to valuable research and current housing stats, our judges found nothing lacking.
Even though the site consistently ranks as one of the top member benefits in Florida REALTOR® surveys, a redesign is in the works, says Musial. “Rather than continue to promote our feature content on the site, members looking for technology and marketing strategies will be directed to our Florida REALTOR® magazine flipbook. The main site can then focus on tools and products REALTORS® need daily.”
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