Making Connections: Associations explore the frontier of social media
by Carolyn Schwaar
If terms like Facebook, MySpace, or ActiveRain aren’t buzzwords in your office yet, here’s the scoop.
In recent years, Realtors® have joined these networking Web sites in droves to market themselves, connect with potential customers and fellow Realtors®, and obtain leads, mainly by driving traffic to their own sites. These networking sites have been called a back channel, where members communicate with others on a more causal basis for peer-to-peer learning and sharing.
So why would associations join?
“Your association is becoming more irrelevant by the moment if it isn’t participating in the conversation made possible by social media,” says Ben Martin on his blog for association executives. Martin, who is also the director of communications and new media at the Virginia Association of Realtors® (VAR), is an avid supporter of social networking for associations and believes a social networking strategy is a natural fit for associations that are essentially off line social networks.
But for most associations, social networking is uncharted territory, just like Web sites were 10 years ago. With the new technology involved in social networking, the uncertain benefits, and unknown risks, many associations regard them with a degree of fear and hesitation.
Yet, social media carries no more risk than e-mail, says Martin. Potential liabilities and negative comments can be mitigated with good policies, procedures, and education, he notes.
The motivation behind most associations’ entry into social networking sites is twofold: to engage more fully with members and become a part—if not a leader—of the conversation, and to educate members on the medium’s potential as a business-building tool.
Since 2004, Facebook.com has grown to include about 67 million active users who create personal profile pages that often contain photos and lists of personal interests. Facebook is the fifth-most-trafficked Web site in the world, according to comScore. Users can exchange private or public messages and join discussion groups formed around any geographic area and a virtually endless list of interest topics.
The Virginia association made the proactive choice to get out in front of the movement and “stake our claim” to social networking, says Martin, by launching a Facebook group. “In our mind [Facebook] is a gathering place. It’s a place where Realtors® are gathering, and anywhere our members are gathering is where we want to be.”
The VAR Facebook group (www.varealtor.com/facebook) has been up and running for six months. Martin says typical postings are from members whose clients are looking to buy in a particular area or from members who are looking for answers to specific questions.
Following the lead of its tech-savvy members, the Michigan Association of Realtors® created a MARGroup on Facebook earlier this year. “We launched the Facebook group because we knew social networking on sites like Facebook were popular with our members.At the same time we were trying to appeal to a younger generation of members,” says the association’s communications director, Corie Costello.
Open to members only, the MARGroup on Facebook is designed to help the association share information with its members and to help its members network and share information with one another. “Each 2008 association officer also has a Facebook page to allow members to not only learn more about them but interact with them as well,” says Costello.
MySpace, similar to Facebook, is one of the fastest growing Web sites of all time with an average of 300,000 new people signing up every day, according to comScore.
Heather Hartley, communications director at the Lexington-Bluegrass Association of Realtors® (LBAR), decided to create a profile for her association on MySpace (www.myspace.com/lexingtonbluegrassaor) because of the vast number of potential homebuyers frequenting the site, she says. “Primarily we want to use MySpace to draw visitors to our Web site and all it has to offer. The blog and video features of MySpace can serve as another repository of LBAR press releases and commercials.
“We have also started a ‘channel’ on YouTube [an online site for posting personal profiles and mainly videos] and have embedded videos from YouTube into our MySpace page,” Hartley adds.
Although many associations are following their members to social networking, others are leading them. Hartley, for example, has plans to actively promote her MySpace page to members as a way to highlight the power of online social networking as a lead generator and a way to build community within the association.
ActiveRain is a free community blogging platform that boasts nearly 10,000 real estate-professional members. Unlike Facebook and MySpace, ActiveRain enables members to host their own real estate-specific blog, then links the blogs into a network. ActiveRain has plans to launch a consumer-branded sister site to grow its network and better connect real estate professionals with consumers.
Brandie Miner, director of communications and marketing for the Georgia Association of Realtors® , launched an ActiveRain group (http://activerain.com/groups/GAR) late last year to test out the site as a way to facilitate members’ exchange of ideas and information about the local real estate market and the profession in general. “Initially we had good participation from members, but now I am the only one posting,” she says, “and it seems that interest has dropped a bit.” Members often used the space to post their listings and “that is not why I founded the group,” says Miner, who’s wondering how to create rules for posting to the group. “I guess that’s the way it is with new media—you make up the rules as you go.”
Second Life, akin to a video game, enables its users to interact with one another in a 3-D virtual world created entirely by other users. Members, called residents, are assigned an animated character identity to assume in the space and can explore, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade items (virtual property) and services with one another. The California Association of Realtors® (CAR) cut the virtual ribbon on its new Second Life headquarters building late last year. CAR’s virtual building features several interactive and informational items, including the top five reasons to use a Realtor®, information about the association’s trade show, and take-away note cards for visitors.
“We feel it’s important to participate in some of the new communication venues that exist today, particularly with respect to social networking,” says CAR’s director of communications, Anne Framrose. “Not only do they afford us new avenues to engage our members and even consumers, but they also allow us to facilitate ongoing dialogue on issues of interest to our members.”
Like many associations, CAR has several entries into the social networking scene and is currently evaluating each one for its effectiveness as well as its appropriateness.
“Our members and their customers increasingly are using social networking sites to connect with each other,” says Framrose, “so it is going to become more necessary to understand how to participate effectively in these new forms of media.”
Like Web sites, instant messages, and streaming video, social networking Web sites are a technology that is here to stay, with tremendous potential to build business and community. Associations, are, for the most part, following their members to these exciting new spaces but with some trepidation.
“The fear of missing the opportunity to create new value and deeper connections with your members should be far more compelling than the fear of the unknown,” says Martin. n
Up and running in 30 seconds
Unlike building a Web site, setting up a group on Facebook is free, quick, and, for the moderately tech-savvy, easy. “There’s a standard template and not much you can customize,” says Ben Martin, director of communications and new media at the Virginia Association of Realtors®. “There are just four or five screens to go through and in about 30 seconds you can be up and running.” You can choose the option to be a public group, approve members of your group, or allow access to your group by invitation only.