Social media’s new status

How social media has gone from bit player to central marketing component for NYC’s residential firms in the last few years

(For related story, see “The social media scorecard: A look at how the five biggest residential firms stack up“)

In July, Halstead Property broker Jill Sloane wrote a post on the brokerage’s popular Tumblr page titled “10 things you didn’t know about the Ansonia.” Sloane compiled a list of historical tidbits about the Upper West Side condominium, including its status as the first air-conditioned hotel in the city and its cameo in Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning film, “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

A prospective buyer came across the post and reached out to Sloane. The two are now working together to find a unit, according to Matthew Leone, director of web marketing and social media at Halstead parent Terra Holdings.

“Real estate companies should be like politicians and act as ambassadors of the community,” Leone said, pointing to social media — a blanket term for online community-focused tools such as Facebook and Twitter — as a powerful tool to achieve this goal.

In the last three years, social media has gone from being a bit player in New York real estate to a central component of a firm’s marketing and branding strategy. Most of the city’s top residential brokerages have made big bets on social platforms, hiring dedicated teams to run social media operations, brainstorming ways to stand out with their content and training their brokers in the art of engagement. And the ones who haven’t are catching up fast.

Commercial firms have been slower to the draw, but they too are now racking up followers across many social platforms.

Warburg Realty president Frederick Peters, who pens a weekly blog about his views on real estate, said the posts are a strong driver of business for his agents. “It provides the firm with a particular kind of credibility,” he said, noting that the four-year-old blog gets about 1 million page views per year.

Fredrik Eklund (Credit: @fredrikelundny via Instagram)

Fredrik Eklund (Credit: @fredrikelundny via Instagram)

Individual brokers who build a social media brand can also reap rewards. Douglas Elliman broker and “Million Dollar Listing” star Fredrik Eklund, who has about 200,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter and photo-sharing app Instagram, estimates that social media is responsible for almost a quarter of his business.

“There are actual transactions coming through,” he said. “People will comment on a post [showcasing a listing] saying, ‘This is perfect for us!’ and then they tag their husband or wife.”

Older and wiser

In their early experiments with social media, brokerages treated it as a one-way platform, simply pushing out their own content and listings. But they are now using social tools in a more participatory manner, engaging followers in debate, asking them to submit their own content, and giving them useful tips on everything from restaurants to weekend activities.

At Halstead, social media began as an extension of marketing efforts that may not have reached young and tech-savvy audiences, Leone said. But it has evolved, he said, “into a viable medium for spreading valuable information to the masses at all our target-age levels.”

Firms have also learned what kind of content works on each social media platform. “Facebook drives engagement and is a one-stop shop for focus grouping,” said Elizabeth Kosich, director of marketing and digital strategy at Core. “Twitter is really effective for sharing news and driving traffic, and Instagram is great for visual content,” such as listings.

(For related stories, see “Getting socially smart” and “Standout social media startups)

Measuring friendships

What makes social media a bit of a gamble, however, is that its results aren’t directly quantifiable. It’s tough, for example, to say what 1,000 Facebook “likes” means for a company’s bottom line. As a result, firms take a range of approaches to measuring the efficacy of their efforts. Corcoran, for example, conducts post-sales interviews with clients to see what sparked their interest.

Matthew Shadbolt, who led Corcoran's social strategy until January

Matthew Shadbolt, who led Corcoran’s social strategy until January

“However, that process is a little foggy,” said Corcoran’s former director of interactive marketing Matthew Shadbolt in a June “Inside Social Media” podcast, “because it’s like trying to remember the first time you had a Coke.” Shadbolt — who in January became the director of real estate product at the New York Times — stressed, however, that there is a direct connection between social media effectiveness and performance on search engines, both for agents and companies.

Warburg’s director of marketing, Lori Levin, said that although it’s difficult to gauge social media’s return on investment, “it’s a great place to initiate and cement relationships.”

Facebook, Twitter and online visual pinboard Pinterest all rank among the top 10 sources of Halstead’s web traffic, according to Leone. Social isn’t about direct lead generation, he said, but more of a brand-building tool that ensures that “when a Halstead business card gets handed” to a potential client, “they will know us.”

Halstead's Matthew Leone

Halstead’s Matthew Leone

The largest demographic for Halstead’s social media followers is women aged between 35 and 45, he added. Halstead tries to gear its content toward its followers’ interests, which include New York City, home décor, architecture and luxury, but Leone declined to specify how the firm does that.

Though it may be tough to draw a straight line from social media to sales, it is possible to assess how engaged followers are. The most popular tool to do this is Klout, which analyzes data from platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn and Instagram, evaluates metrics such as total follower count and unique mentions and assigns users a score ranging from 1 to 100. Klout also identifies a page’s most active followers.

Pay to play

Having a large social media following is now a big factor in winning business, several sources said. Because of this, some brokers and firms buy advertisements for their pages on social media platforms to gain more followers, rather than organically winning them, according to Elliman’s Eklund.

“Because we are using it in pitches, some of my competitors are buying followers,” he said. “You can see that they have 100,000 followers and 16 likes per post.”

Organically grown social media accounts tend to have more comments, likes, shares and retweets, while those built through advertising can boast big overall numbers, but don’t command the same kind of follower engagement.

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Eddie Shapiro

Eddie Shapiro

The social media strategy for Eddie Shapiro’s Nest Seekers International, for example, appears to be largely advertising-driven. Its Facebook page has over 275,000 page likes, far and away the most of any of the New York–based firms, and it also leads the pack with over 54,000 Twitter followers and more than 40,000 Instagram followers. But rarely do the posts on its Facebook page garner more than a handful of likes. In contrast, Corcoran’s Facebook page, which has just over 113,000 page likes, can rack up hundreds of likes per post.

“Social media engagement seems to me a very moody exercise,” said Shapiro, who acknowledged that the firm has tried various strategies to boost its audience, including advertising.

“We posted about everything real estate under the sun and have had at times 300 likes per share and at times none,” he said. “It’s very unpredictable and very inconsistent.”

Shapiro said that Nest Seekers is shifting from building a following to increasing engagement. “We are currently developing interactive campaigns and producing original content that will be released on social media to further engage our following,” he said.

It’s likely that most of the major firms supplement their organic growth with advertising, but have higher levels of engagement than Nest Seekers.

Law and order

Core's Elizabeth Kosich

Core’s Elizabeth Kosich

The state Department of State’s new guidelines for advertising, which kicked in at the start of this year, make it trickier for firms and brokers to engage in social media. Each advertisement — Facebook and Twitter posts fall under the DOS’s definition of advertising — now requires a lot of legal disclosure. But the limited space afforded by social media channels, like the 140 characters per tweet allowed on Twitter, makes it difficult. “It’s really kind of been a head-scratcher for firms to figure it out,” Core’s Kosich said. Core has come up with an interesting solution: a link with all the required disclosure information that’s attached to every tweet.

Kosich said the link complies with the new regulations, while still staying faithful to the spontaneous and snappy nature of social media.

Other firms, such as City Connections Realty, are doing “spot checks” of agents’ Twitter and Facebook accounts, City’s CEO David Schlamm told TRD in June. And Rutenberg Realty has hired employees to check every social media page associated with the firm, according to co-founder Kathy Braddock.

Search over social?

Franklin Place and 56 Leonard Street

Franklin Place and 56 Leonard Street

Though several residential brokerage sources ranked social media among their top marketing priorities for 2014, Jared Seeger, founder of real estate marketing firm Knightsbridge Park, said that for new luxury development projects, returns on social media simply don’t justify the investments.

Seeger’s clientele, which includes top-drawer developments such as Tribeca’s 56 Leonard, 345 Meatpacking, 432 Park Avenue and the West Village’s Printing House, often “make a concerted effort to not do something with social,” he said.

“They’re just not convinced from a branding perspective that it’s a good way to go,” Seeger said. He added that “search marketing,” or ensuring that projects hit the top of searches on search engines like Google, offers a better financial return.

Data from Knightsbridge Park provided to TRD on 20 of its clients’ high-end projects shows that Internet searches accounted for over 47 percent of web traffic, compared with only 0.83 percent from social media.

In addition, searches accounted to 53 percent of “conversions” — defined as a user requesting further information about a project — while social media only accounted for 3.7 percent. At Printing House, search marketing generates about 75 percent of total website visits, while social media marketing brings in about 0.2 percent.

“Liking Hermès or Louis Vuitton on Facebook is a tenuous link to being in the market for a multimillion-dollar condo,” Seeger said. “Search is about making yourself as visible as possible, so it’s much less obtrusive. There’s more trust in people being able to find you, versus delivering a pitch.”

But Nicole Oge, a senior vice-president of marketing at Town Residential, said regardless of whether people are currently able to afford to buy a luxury home, it is worth engaging them because they may become a buyer in the future.

“Exclusivity should not be synonymous with luxury,” she added.

Commercial firms get social
LinkedIn is platform of choice for top commercial shops

Commercial firms are embracing social media at a slower pace than their residential counterparts, and tend to focus their efforts on different platforms when they do log in.

CBRE Group, Jones Lang LaSalle, Cushman & Wakefield and Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, the four biggest commercial leasing brokerages in New York City, all maintain a presence on Facebook and Twitter, but LinkedIn is the platform of choice for the firms, reflecting its more professional focus.

CBRE, for example, has over 133,000 followers on LinkedIn, compared with about 10,000 likes on its Facebook page. Jones Lang LaSalle has more than 137,500 LinkedIn followers, but just a little over 3,200 on Facebook.

Cushman has upwards of 75,500 followers on LinkedIn but under 2,900 on Facebook. Newmark has just under 7,000 followers on LinkedIn and about 1,100 on Facebook.

Cushman started its social media efforts in 2009 with a single Twitter account, and now has more than 60 Twitter accounts for its offices around the globe, multiple Facebook pages, and a YouTube channel, along with its LinkedIn page. All of its social media accounts are managed by its global marketing team, said Cushman spokesperson Cara Chodash.

CBRE shares mostly industry news and its own research and analysis.

Jones Lang LaSalle likewise posts market trends and industry news, but also shares more general content. Before the Super Bowl, for example, Jones Lang LaSalle executive chairman and former NFL player Roger Staubach posted a video on Facebook with his predictions for the game.