Last week I met with a group of real estate agents hungry for information on social media marketing. Besides just learning about it, they were curious to know “how much time is this going to take?” and “what return will I get on my investment?”

An effective social media program does require some time. It’s not a magic machine that you set up once and forget about. By definition, that form of media would not be very social or interactive, which are two of the things that make social media marketing such a potentially effective vehicle for connecting with other people.

The social media marketing tools I showed are free. That doesn’t mean that they come without “cost” as time is obviously worth something. What other marketing channels are open to Realtors (or other business people) that don’t cost time and/or money? Realtors spend time putting together print ads that run in home magazines; they pay a lot of money to run the ads and they spend time putting the ads together. The ads don’t magically design themselves, after all. I asked what return they were getting on these print ads and all but one or two had no answer. For some reason, social media seems to be held to a different standard and I’m not sure why, but I think because it is largely because it is unknown and seems unmanageable without a roadmap.

I heard an analogy at a seminar by Mediasauce recently that compared social media to receiving a “free” St. Bernard puppy. The lifetime cost of the puppy can exceed $15,000 by the speaker’s estimates. I own a dog and I don’t take pet ownership lightly. Neither would I advise a business person to enter into a social media program without first getting some information on what will be required.

When I was just out of college, I thought about getting a puppy. I liked puppies. I always had a dog growing up, but my career direction was unclear, my income was meager and besides, my landlord didn’t allow dogs. You know what? I settled for a houseplant–nothing too fancy or finicky, just something green that I could “practice” caring for. I figured if I could do that successfully, I would graduate to fish and if that went well, I would become a dog owner eventually.

My point? Don’t start out with the social media equivalent of a St. Bernard puppy! Start with a houseplant, or at least its social media equivalent…

There are a lot of myths surrounding social media. Two of them? #1 It’s hard. #2 It’s easy.

The truth? Both. You can start out with a few “seeds” (to continue my analogy), nurture them a little bit and see what they do for you. The seeds I’m giving you aren’t ultra high maintenance. If you sow seeds in dozens of gardens and forget where you planted them, that’s not going to work very well… I have tried to offer some ideas that will help you streamline your plan and allow you to do what you do best–sell real estate if you’re a Realtor.

Here’s a fairly simple plan for getting started that helps leverage your efforts so time can be spent more effectively. I’m aware that there is no cookie-cutter solution that fits everyone. I offer a model–a starting point. If you want to use it and it helps you, great–use it. If not, take from it what helps and get rid of the rest.

Step 1:
Think. Think about who you want to attract to yourself by using social media. What do they want to know about? Do you have a niche? What is your “brand”? (By the way, this thought exercise shouldn’t be unique to your social media marketing–if you’re not already thinking this way for the rest of your marketing efforts, you’re not maximizing effectiveness.) Are you willing to invest some time to get systems in place that can help you reach new prospects, build a referral network, create space for past clients to recommend you, differentiate you from your competition and build your web site traffic? The minimum required time investment (after you get your accounts set up) is 1-2 hours per month. If not, don’t bother with the rest of the steps–revisit this article once you’ve figured out your brand and can commit to 1-2 hours of monthly effort. Maybe it will make sense for you down the road. For those of you ready to venture forth, here’s the rest:

Step 2:
Create a Twitter profile. Your profile should reflect your brand (see Step 1.) Each component of your social media strategy should have a similar look and feel (use the same profile photo, same color scheme where possible) to subtly let people know that you are you as they encounter your profiles on various pages.  Free help is available. If you are short on time, I will help you create a custom layout, help write your profile copy, upload your photo, advise you on branding strategy and all of the rest of the steps outlined here–I won’t respond to individual inquiries via email or blog comments on how to “fill-in-the-blank” though unless it is a clarification of something I’ve already shared here.) My advice? Try the free route first unless you are committed or have more money than time. Upload a decent photo yourself. Use a cropped close-up of your face–many of the sites display a small photo of you–avoid being a “pin-head.” Take the time to at least change the background and color scheme so you don’t look like everyone else out there. Link to your web site. (If you don’t have a web site, link to your blog or to your LinkedIn account.)

Step 3a & 3b:
Create an account on (or another URL shortener site of your choosing.) Why? This will allow you to include URLs in the tweets you will compose using Tweetlater without sacfrificing too many of the 140 characters allotted. Links created in have the added advantage of being trackable–if you want, you can check to see the statistics on the traffic generated from a shortened URL you create here.

Create a Tweetlater account. This is one of many, many third party applications available to interface with Twitter and make your life easier. (There are new applications being developed all the time–this is not the only one that fulfills this need, but I’m trying to keep it simple and streamlined.) Among the things you can do with Tweetlater? Schedule tweets, set up and track key words used on Twitter, mute annoying followers and much more. There is a free version and an upgraded version available for a monthly fee. My advice? Try the free version first and see how it goes. Again, think small, green houseplant vs. St. Bernard, at least for starters…

Sample tweets for Realtors:

Hosting a 1st time buyers seminar on Thursday, April 23rd. (Include a shortened URL here that links to more information, that you have posted on your blog for instance) #nwindiana

The market seems to be heating up–xx sales in Valparaiso over the past month, a xx% increase over last month.

Closed on my listing at 123 Main St. this afternoon. Sold in 39 days to a cash buyer!

Open house Sunday–beautiful brick ranch on a lake in Valparaiso.

Step 4:
Think, again… What did your results from Step 1 tell you? Who are you “speaking” to with your social media efforts? Picture that person (or people, plural–hopefully!) and write down some things you think they want to hear from you in the style you think they want to hear it. For Realtors, what about local market statistics, promoting your listings, announcing open houses or first time homebuyer seminars, to name a few? While it’s true that yes, people do use Twitter to talk about what they ate for breakfast this morning, you’re not going to be talking about the merits of bran vs. cornflakes if you’re a Realtor trying to establish yourself as a professional. Or maybe you will…you need to be you–just make your style and content a conscious choice rather than not thinking about it and just writing about the first thing that comes to mind.

Step 5:
Schedule at least 6-10 messages “tweets” using Tweetlater over the next 2 weeks. Space them out to hit 3-5/week, logically placing them where they make the most sense, i.e. talk about your open house or seminar a day or two prior to the event. Each tweet is a maximum of 140 characters. Even if your typing skills are sub-par, this should take a long time to actually schedule–the thinking is the hardest part. Once you figure out a strategy and a schedule, this too will get easier. Do just two week’s worth now, set a reminder for yourself to revisit your Tweetlater account in 10-14 days and set up the next two week’s worth. If you want to do a whole month’s worth at once, go ahead–whatever works for you. Note: you will be supplementing these messages with information as you have something newsworthy and timely to share–this isn’t “it”, but putting down some bones, especially for information that is not time-critical, can really help you manage your efforts. Read about one example of how a local coffee shop used Tweetlater to work for them.

Step 6:
I highly encourage you to set up and maintain a blog. It’s a great way to boost search engine optimization, answer (and ask) questions, build credibility by showcasing your knowledge and allow people to get to know you over time. If you are creating new content, this step can be somewhat time intensive; however, I recommend reusing and recycling written content you create in other places for this purpose as another way to economize on time. For instance, if you already do an e-newsletter to a list of clients and prospects, cut and paste those stories (one per blog post) to share your message with new prospective readers. If you have answered a question for a client via email and the subject matter has wider ranging interest, copy and paste the email deleting any client-specific references. (If you are not already creating content and/or are not much of a writer, you may want to omit this step for now.) Blog posts can be short–just a paragraph or two can be enough as long as it’s interesting and newsworthy. Aim for an average of one blog post per week, more is obviously fine too–if you can manage it and have excess relevant content to share. Activerain is a real estate specific blog site–good for building a referral network, helping your SEO and for ongoing learning, but not necessarily for reaching the general public. now offers free blogs for Realtors. WordPress (the site where this blog is hosted), Blogger and Typepad are other popular blogging sites. You can have more than one blog, but again, start slowly. Register your blog with Technorati to make it easier for search engines to find. For some help, here’s a site I found for help on corporate blogging–key takeaway: focus on solutions and stories. (Note: I am realizing that this post is going to be incredibly long and can’t capture all relevant information here in order to get this posted in a timely fashion. I may come back and add to this step later, but meanwhile–please look into creating “tags”, RSS and establishing links within your blog.)

Step 7:
You already created a LinkedIn account, right? If not, take the time to set one up–it’s a highly professional way to represent yourself online. If you do nothing else at all, please do this. The point of LinkedIn is to link with people in your sphere of influence who you want to interact with professionally and who also may buy from you, refer you to others and/or who will provide a testimonial (recommendation) for you. Here’s an earlier post I wrote about 5 tips for better networking with LinkedIn. There is a book available that will take you through the ins and outs of LinkedIn step by step in more detail than I can possibly provide here. Some recent updates (since Fall 2008) allow you to use applications within LinkedIn; one of them allows you to link your WordPress blog with your LinkedIn account, for instance.

Facebook is the last piece of the plan I want to talk about. It’s fun, but it can really suck you in… It’s hard to focus only on prospects when your college roommate from 20 years ago pops up and wants to reconnect. There are ways to try to separate the personal from the professional here though–one way is to create a “Fan” page for your business and keep the personal profile limited to close friends and family. At the time of this writing, there is no way to create a fan page without first having a personal profile–so this one is a tough call. If you are going to cut anything from this plan, this is the one I would let go first; however there are also more people here than any other social media site–could 79 million U.S. users be wrong? (Check for demographic data on Facebook and other sites to assist you with your decision on participation.) What’s the opportunity cost of not engaging in “free” social media? I thought this Newsweek article about real estate and Facebook was interesting. A recent Active Rain blog post from another blogger addresses this topic beautifully–here’s a link.

Step 8:
Fertilize your social media “garden” with frequest tweets and/or blog posts. Look for opportunities to engage readers–listen and respond to comments and questions asked. Ask questions yourself. Make sure you are putting some “social” in your social lmedia program–the tools I show you are meant to help use your time more efficiently, not to avoid “real” online (and offline) conversations with people! Learn. Keep learning. Don’t keep your efforts a secret. Use your email signature, widgets and other devices to cross promote your online involvement in social media.

Step 9:
Evaluate  your program. Prune areas that are not working for you and pay more attention to pieces that are helping you find new clients and reconnect with past ones. Give it a little time! Most gardeners understand that flowers don’t bloom the day after seeds are planted… Steady, consistent effort is needed.

Good luck! It is a challenging market right now. May your garden grow!