Chicago Agent Magazine Repost – Smarter Agent’s Take on Mastering your Online Presence

By Christian J. Barron

What builds an effective online presence? When a potential client searches your name in their Google toolbar, what will they find? What will make your listings come up on the first page of a Google search for your name? What will get your blog, listing or website to come up on the first page with that same search term?

Personal Websites vs. Company Websites
Your website might be a personal website that you created and paid for yourself, or a company website set up by your firm. There are benefits to both, though much of this depends on what your company offers in terms of content and user-friendliness.

Colleen Basinski, team leader/broker of Keller Williams Preferred Realty, says that the choice between a personal website and a company website depends on whether or not the brokerage offers agents customization and personal branding abilities on their own site, as opposed to a simple profile page on the company site.

“Does your company allow you to add video or links to other web pages you manage?” she asks. “Does your company package include advertising on or other sites? How many characters does your company page allow you? This can range drastically between companies, with some allowing 400 characters of text, and others, 1,600. If you’re on the low-end of this, opting for a personal web page might be the better choice. Many company sites are low maintenance. You just put in your contact info and you’re ready to go.”

For many agents, however, using their company website is much more cost-effective – the company is a well-known brand already, and the agent’s listings come up higher in searches because of that – and the company pays to upkeep its own website.

“Some agents want to brand themselves personally,” says Menash Zadik, co-founder and managing broker of Rising Realty. “A company website is a way for consumers to get to know the agent.” A company may be lax about whether or not an agent has their own website, especially if the company offers minimal content on the agent’s profile page. For those agents, especially if they’re not planning on staying with the company for a long time, personal websites are vital. “They can’t just take the brand with them,” Zadik says.

When managing your own website, however, keep in mind that if prospective clients can’t easily search or find what they’re looking for, if they’re distracted by bright graphics and music or are distracted by links and pages upon pages of blog posts and other content that they don’t want to sift through, you will drive them away.

Instead of creating a functional website, often agents will opt to use their brokerage website to gain online visibility, because, as a household name, their brokerage website should, ideally, have an easy search function, a simple, non-distracting design and the information homebuyers are looking for – your listings and contact info. Brokerage websites provide leads through consumers searching through the company website, whereas personal websites provide leads through consumers searching through Google, Bing or other search engines.

Similarly, Smarter Agent is a company that builds search and discovery tools for website and mobile platforms specifically for the real estate industry. With Smarter Agent, Realtors can create their own personal apps for consumer download, including for Android, Blackberry and iPhone, which can also be integrated into websites. Smarter Agent is a company that allows agents to strategize in terms of their own apps; agents’ name, logo and icon can appear in app stores.

Philip Charles-Pierre, senior vice president of marketing and distribution of Smarter Agent, says that agents should leverage both a company and personal website. “Real estate is inherently a local business,” he says. “Many brokerages cover multiple areas, whereas an agent’s website is more local. It’s important to strategize the content between the two sites.”

“(Personal apps are) for anyone who wants to have a mobile presence available to consumers right at their fingertips,” he adds. “It becomes a digital business card. The Century 21 app we made is different than the Sotheby’s app; both are different from our own app. Each one we make is unique and focuses on the local markets they serve.”

Managing your Website
Building an online image that effectively markets yourself to consumers, reflects what you are an expert in and reflects your brand begins with adding and managing the content on your web page. If your brokerage has business all across Chicagoland but you focus on a specific area, such as the Gold Coast, then your web page should reflect that. “An agent’s website should be a destination, a place that people want to go to and spend time at,” says Joe Stacy, managing broker of Koenig & Strey in Schaumburg. “Have community links about schools, park districts, sports and recreation – things pertinent to the community. Become the source of information for that particular community; become a destination for people. That’s the key.”

You can create a personal website for free, through sites like WordPress and Blogspot. WordPress offers many upgradable features and design styles to suit the image you most want to convey to visitors, and is relatively easy to use for anybody new to web design. You might also consider hiring a professional company to build your website. However, depending on the scale of the project, this can put a pretty big dent in your wallet.

You don’t need to try to over-impress with blinking lights or loud music in the background – your website should be user-friendly, clean and current. Agents often overlook that last point especially, Stacy says, forgetting to update their sites so visitors don’t see expired links or outdated information.

Consumers should be able to go from your page to a listing in two or three mouse clicks, not seven; an easy search feature is key. Stacy recommends a realistic response time within 24 hours, but ideally, he says it should be within the same hour a visitor contacts you, just like quick responses to people who call to inquire about properties should, and usually, receive a quick call back. “You need to respond quickly or the visitors will go somewhere else,” he says. “If you’re spending the time and money to get these leads, you need to respond. Anything over 24 hours is just not acceptable.”

Basinski points out that providing a “call to action” is essential to the success of any website. “Your website should be designed in a way that leads visitors to take a certain action, such as filling out a registration form,” she says, or signing up for an e-newsletter.  Go beyond collecting contact information – collect lead information. “Your website should give serious visitors the ability to say when they’re looking to buy or sell – a month from now or six months from now,” she says. “Give your consumers a way to express their interest in actually buying or selling.”

Finding the right message for your site means identifying your target demographic and catering it to their needs. “Many agents have a hard time forming their target audience in their head,” Zadik says. “It’s tough to tailor a message if they don’t know who they’re going after.”  But you also need to provide a reason for consumers to visit your site, to increase the traffic coming in and out. “If you have a great website but no message or reason to increase traffic, it’s like having the best billboard in the world, but in the middle of the desert,” Basinski says.

SEO Keywords
You might have heard of search engine optimization, or SEO, which is a process of optimizing a website so its visibility improves by posting content containing keywords that, if someone searched those keywords, your site would come up. However, be careful with your use of keywords and meta-tags; target them in the area you’re working in. “Homes for sale in Chicago” will get you general results,  but specific keywords like “South Loop” or “one-bedroom condos” are more likely to get you the Internet-based leads you want.

Google AdWords is a great place to start to purchase keywords if you want to advertise online. The cost varies depending on a number of factors, including the competitiveness of the keyword or phrase you choose. For instance, the phrase “top real estate agents in Chicago” and “Chicago real estate agents” are competitive keyword phrases with higher ratios of local monthly searches to overall global monthly searches. These keywords would cost you more than, say, the phrase, “Realtors Chicago,” which AdWords lists as having a low competitive rate. However, the former of the options might be a better choice if you want your site tied to words like, “top agent.”

In addition, your web page should also contain links to any other websites or profiles you manage. “Tie your sites to one another; Facebook to Twitter, Twitter to YouTube, and all back to your personal or company web page. Create those organic connections,” Zadik says. “You’re not paying for that transaction – it takes work but it pays off for itself.”

By connecting your sites together, you increase each site’s SEO and the likelihood that consumers performing Internet-based search queries will find your name with the area and transaction type you specialize in.

Ultimately, what will turn a website visitor into a lead is the content on the site surrounding your listings. The agent’s or broker’s expertise and experience with the property, neighborhood and community are what will generate leads. This additional information might include video tours of the property, links to Google Maps that provide street views of the property and surrounding neighborhood or extended text descriptions. “You should become a true service for the neighborhood and for clients,” says Charles-Pierre.

Master Social Media – Master Your Domain
Apart from your personal web page, you should strive to build and maintain profiles on various social media sites. This could mean creating a Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest account; managing a YouTube channel or blog; or commenting on real estate-related websites and advertising on websites catered toward the community you serve.

Basinski takes this a step further and advises that you should be on social media sites that your target demographic or contact leads most use. When meeting a potential client, Basinski asks them, “Are you on Facebook or Twitter, and can I reach you there?” If she finds that the potential client is more active on one site than another, she’ll know which site is best to reach them at, and she commonly finds that clients often respond faster through social media sites than their email.

When using social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest, Zadik warns that agents need to be respectful of their audience. “Be mindful that people subscribe to your Twitter or other sites for real estate information. Agents shouldn’t be telling jokes or sharing political messages that can turn people off.”

There’s a balance between being professional and being personable that agents and brokers often overlook. You have to allow your clients the ability to get to know you and a sense of your personality, without crossing professional boundaries and without bombarding clients with real estate information. Basinski compares navigating her communication with clients and leads on social networking sites to an online cocktail party. “You wouldn’t want to talk to someone that came up to you and blurted out a bunch of real estate information.” Basinski uses a four-to-one ratio. “For every four things I say about myself, I say one thing real estate-related.”

Advertising Online
Advertising online, especially within unique websites focused on neighborhoods you work in, is an excellent way of increasing your SEO results, as well as showing that you are an expert on the community you work in.

When choosing where to purchase advertorial space online, the basic options are between larger national sites such as, Trulia and Zillow; or locale-specific websites such as community forums, schools or park district websites in the neighborhoods you primarily work in.

There are varying opinions about which of the three websites delivers the best lead results. Charles-Pierre says that all three sites drive a tremendous amount of traffic to Smarter Agents’ clients’ websites. Both Stacy and Basinski say that of the three, is the best place to invest marketing dollars, because not only is it the most used site on the Internet by homebuyers, it also has “great features” included in its various advertising programs, and it is good for building credibility in the marketplace. The best way to determine which website is best is to simply try out a program on one, two or all three sites, depending on your marketing budget, and measure the results after six months.

Other sites to advertise on depend on your niche as an agent. Charles-Pierre says that online advertising is like advertising in a newspaper, only you take it to the web. “Any hyper-local websites or national websites with fantastic local coverage with targeted information” are great places to advertise. Stacy says that “if you’re focused in Glen Ellyn, for example, and there’s a community site that most Glen Ellyn residents go to, it makes sense to put money towards building a presence for yourself there.” Basinski adds that if you have any unique interests – say, for example, you are involved with a community service organization – you would do well to advertise on those sites. “Advertise on your interests and you’ll find people that want to do business with you,” Basinski says.

For example, a great site to advertise on is; writing about happenings and news in a specific site on Patch, such as Northbrook or Oak Park, makes you look like an expert and interests local, prospective clients.

Stacy, Basinski, Charles-Pierre and Zadik all agreed on the ability of blogs to boost your status as an expert in your field and community, as well as to increase your name recognition. Guest blogging on sites such as Active Rain, Crain’s, ChicagoNow (a Tribune/RedEye online publication) and Chicago Agent can do a great number of things to aid your business.

“Blogging builds name recognition,” Zadik says. “Through blogs, articles, interviews and comments, your name becomes synonymous with knowledge and experience. Even subconsciously, you’re creating a following based on what you have to say. If you’re also advertising, you are more likely to get attention because people remember you posting here or there.”

Charles-Pierre adds that blogging on other sites creates links that you can link back to your website, post on Facebook, tweet and share across a variety of social networking sites, helping with SEO.

Stacy is somewhat of an expert in the blogging arena, having incorporated a blog into his business for several years now. His blog has the appearance of a website and is professionally maintained by the blog host, Kinetic Knowledge. “When consumers search for listings in my area,” Stacy says, “the results bring up a number of my blogs and listings [and blogs about listings]. Clients are like, ‘Wow, this guy’s an expert in this area, we want to work with him.’”

Blogging, however, can take up much of an agent’s or broker’s time – time that they may not have to spare. Basinski reminds us not to get sucked into social media more than your focus on business. “It has to be a healthy balance,” she says. “Our jobs are to be agents. We have to go out and meet people; that’s our job. Give yourself a certain portion of time a day to spend on social media.”

Outsourcing blogging and social media duties to a ghostblogger or virtual assistant is a good solution, however. Time constraints led Stacy to hire a blog writer from Kinetic Knowledge to handle his blogs so that he would have more time to focus on his work. “The decision to hire a blog writer came from constantly trying to improve what I do,” Stacy says. “When I first started, I did all the blog writing myself, but that was very time consuming. Over time, I wasn’t able to consistently write the blogs, and if you’re not consistent, you’re not going to get the success you want.”

Stacy hired a blogger who could match his site’s personality and write blog content in that style. He provides clear information and directs the writer on the listing and community information to be incorporated into the blog, and the blog writer integrates keywords, links and backlinks to increase Stacy’s SEO.

Kinetic Knowledge’s services, which include domain hosting and storage, tech support and advertising and marketing instruction, are available for a $59 monthly fee. If you’re interested in utilizing all that Kintetic has to offer, Stacy says that a blog writer might cost you $20 – $60 per blog, and can vary based on how often and how much you have them write for you. You can also check Craigslist for virtual assistants for hire, who may have different rates.

Video is another component of social media that has tremendous potential for payoff. Stacy incorporated a YouTube channel into his business that provides virtual tours of listings. In fact, providing virtual tours of listings has become standard practice at Koenig & Strey Schaumburg. Videos, like the aforementioned forms of social media, “increase your SEO and relevance in the Internet world,” Stacy says.

Basinski says that “video is now the big thing,” and that, “it’s no coincidence that Google now owns YouTube.” Basinski recommends using video to establish yourself as an expert by talking about real estate-related topics. This gives consumers the chance to get to know you, and also increases your name recognition and credibility in the field. Basinksi also utilizes Animoto, a video slideshow maker.

Another great use of video, as Zadik has found, is to provide video testimonials on your web page. “Many companies provide testimonials in a paragraph or so of text. We’ve found that videos of customers explaining positive testimonials has been a very successful strategy in getting the best reaction possible from consumers.” C.A.