When Tweets aren’t sweet

<i>Social marketing can sell homes -- or damage a broker's brand</i>

Sotheby’s International Realty broker Bill Williams started blogging about his new exclusive — a house at 55 Dune Road in Bridgehampton listed for $14.95 million — weeks before it went on the market.

The posts paid off: By the time the four-bedroom house hit the block in the middle of last month, some 22 agents had contacted him with requests to show it.

“I’m going to do this [from now on] for all my special listings,” Williams told The Real Deal. “[It] really helped with getting the word out there.”

While social media tools have been popular with the general public for some time now, they’ve exploded in popularity in the real estate industry in the last year.

But the same qualities that make blogs, Twitter and Facebook helpful also make them uniquely perilous for brokers. A hasty Tweet or thoughtless blog post can cause irreparable harm, damaging the company’s brand or even breaking the law.

“It’s a PR or marketing person’s absolute nightmare,” said Douglas Heddings, a blogger and agent at Charles Rutenberg Realty.

As real estate firms grow increasingly aware of the benefits and drawbacks of social media, they’re taking steps to control how agents present themselves on the web. Often, that means offering training on Twitter and Facebook to head off future problems. Meanwhile, individual agents are hiring ghostwriters or coaches to help them perfect their web presence.

“Real estate agents, out of all businesses, have the hardest job in terms of maintaining their social media appropriately, because the brand is so close to who they are personally,” said Burke Smith, a real estate broker and founder of YourNetCoach, a company that specializes in creating web strategies for real estate firms and agents. “The content is so instant and real-time that if you’re not keeping track of it, you’re better off not doing it.”

Blogging, Tweeting and updating Facebook are becoming increasingly popular for real estate agents. For example, at least 100 Halstead Property agents now have Twitter accounts, and at least 350 are on Facebook, according to Matthew Leone, the marketing manager for Terra Holdings, who orchestrates Halstead’s Tweets and updates to its Facebook page.

While the Internet helps brokers build relationships with potential clients, blogs and social networking sites carry risks. Because brokers’ livelihoods depend on referrals and reputation, they have to be especially careful about how they appear online.

“You as an agent are no longer just a person,” Smith said. “You’re a brand. Almost anything associated with you personally is going to be associated with your brand.”

Many agents don’t seem to realize that, he said, noting that one agent he worked with was tagged in a Facebook photo “drunk and passed out in a lawn chair.” Another client posted X-rays from his colonoscopy on his Facebook page.

Even behavior that seems innocuous can irk potential clients.

For example, when clients see a broker playing Facebook games, like Mafia Wars or FarmVille, “they don’t take you seriously,” Smith said.

When it comes to blogs, agents can lose buyers’ trust by appearing too self-serving, said UrbanDigs founder Noah Rosenblatt.

“Don’t try to trick the consumer with salesy broker babble,” Rosenblatt said. “They’re going to see right through it, and it’s going to make you look worse.”

And having a blog that isn’t updated regularly can be worse than not having one at all. If consumers see outdated information, they’re likely to think the broker is out of touch.

Smith said many agents’ blogs made references to the April 30 expiration of the federal homebuyer tax credit for weeks after the deadline.

“Consumers want you, the local expert, to disseminate all this information for them. If you yourself are not updated, how are you going to update them?” he said.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

Agents who don’t have the time to update blogs regularly should stick to regular websites or to social media like Twitter, which are less time-consuming, Smith said.

Brokers’ online personas also impact their firms.

For example, Heddings said his popular blog, True Gotham, often points out incidents of unethical behavior among agents in order to “make those in the industry accountable to the consumer.”

While these posts are popular with clients, they sometimes rattled his bosses at Elliman, where he worked until last June. For example, the company grew concerned when Heddings blogged about a conversation he overheard in the elevator, in which an agent bragged about winning an exclusive listing by promising the owner an outrageously high price. The agent had no intention of selling the listing, but simply wanted to gain high-net-worth buyers as clients.

Though Heddings never named names, he said he understands why the company’s top brass was concerned. “It doesn’t always shed a positive light on the Elliman brand,” he said.

Heddings said the firm expressed concerns about several of his posts and once forced him to take one down. He said that was one reason he decided to leave the company. On the day he left, he republished the post. Elliman did not respond to requests for comment.

Social media can also create legal problems for firms. Agents are bound by strict confidentiality requirements, which they sometimes unintentionally break by divulging too much information about a client or transaction. They must also avoid anything that could be construed as discriminatory or misleading.

“It is not the inappropriate photos or the crude joke that [firms] really have to worry about,” Smith said. “Much more important, they are monitoring agent pages for legal and compliance issues.”

As a result of the possible pitfalls, many companies have instituted policies surrounding the use of social media.

Leone said Halstead keeps track of what agents are talking about on social media. “If we see something that’s inappropriate, we’ll reach out to that agent and have a discussion with them,” he said.

Some companies, like Halstead, are showing agents what acceptable posts look like. The company has its own Twitter and Facebook pages and sends out several Tweets and posts a day.

Another increasingly popular option is for agents to hire ghostwriters. Williams writes his own posts now, but when he first started blogging six months ago, he hired a professional writer to post Hamptons-related content.

“I was nervous about what to say,” he said. “I watched what she wrote and how she wrote it.”

Smith said ghostwriters are a good idea for some agents, noting that his firm sometimes provides that service. But even if someone else is writing, it’s important for the ideas to come from the agent.

“It’s important for the [broker’s] personality to come through,” he said.

Rules for Tweeting and blogging

1. Don’t bother having a blog if you’re not going to update it multiple times a day.

2. Do delete references to expired deadlines (e.g., homebuyer tax credit).

3. Do cap the number of Tweets you send out. You don’t want to flood clients’ in-boxes.

4. Don’t play Internet games like Mafia Wars or post compromising personal photos of yourself on