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Most real estate companies mistakenly think they are competing against other real estate companies. In fact, other brokers are the least of their worries. These days, you have to compete with Charlie Sheen.

Most business isn’t lost to competitors. Real estate, for example, is a referral industry, not an advertising one. Few consumers see an ad, then pick up the phone to hire a REALTOR. Research consistently indicates that 60% of sellers interview only one agent, usually someone referred to them by family or a friend. And 65% of buyers work with the first agent who gets back to them. They rarely compare multiple agents and then select one.

From a dispassionate distance, most REALTORS lose business to themselves. They don’t follow up, follow through, or keep in contact over the years. Stamina has been the classic challenge. Not competition stealing customers.

Today that is changing. New online marketplaces centered around social media are bringing outside competitors into the industry. No, it’s not a new real estate scheme that presents a challenge to REALTORS these days. It’s merely everyone else customers meet online. And I mean everyone.

Oh, that’s all.

To be more specific, in the social media marketplace, the new competitor becomes everyone and anyone who competes with you for your customer’s attention.

That’ includes some very capable competitors from outside the industry. Some aren’t even selling houses, or anything. Some days, it’s a Japanese cat on YouTube who captures 3 minutes of your consumer’s attention. The next day, it’s Starbucks, whose 19 million Facebook fans see something interesting on their wall. It’s Apple, then Virgin Atlantic, followed by the Mandarin Oriental. Even the Bieber.

Anyone who can attract your consumer’s attention quickly, fiercely, consistently better becomes your competitor. Even though they have nothing to do with the housing industry.

Almost, it’s unfair: Virtually anything they can talk about is more interesting than this week’s open house schedule. It’s going to take more than PRICE REDUCED in all caps to draw attention. It’s impossible to see how a new overpriced listing could out-trend the latest Sheen-anigans on Twitter.

There was a time when access to people’s attention was limited, expensive and time consuming. Today anyone can grab for it. Tweets are virtually costless.  When the capital cost to participate hits zero and access becomes instant, the competitive landscape for every consumer expands exponentially.

Marketing spaces become crowded, boisterous, mosh-pits of attention seekers.

Sure, the little-guy gains a access to a broader audience, but the big guys are far better prepared. Their marketing departments have billion dollar budgets. And staff. Nobody in real estate – not even the Voice of Real Estate itself – comes close. Their latest idea for capturing consumers’ attention is a bus tour on the importance of home ownership. Not exactly Facebook news.

The new marketing frontier is inside people’s heads. There are many pathways in, but the noise is deafening. Our classic competitors are no big deal in this landscape. Not compared to the consumer-attention-grabbing power of someone who doesn’t even sell houses.

Cancel your old marketing strategy, the one based upon monologues about yourself, your awards, your inventory. Unless you’re Charlie Sheen, nobody cares about your inner voice. To earn a moment of their attention, your external voice must be relevant, compelling, smart content. Think engagement, not advertising. Create action. Not just information.

Mostly, realize you’re competing against the latest, the funniest, most interesting and outrageous attention-grabbing content every day. Competing with the agents down the street is no longer – it it ever was – the challenge. Today you must learn to compete with Lady Gaga to succeed online.

Otherwise, you’re better off cold calling from the Do Not Call List.