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For years we’ve been pointing out the failures of traditional methods used in the real estate industry. But what happens when the “new” approaches start to fail, too? Get ready for a real innovation challenge!

The running joke in real estate for two decades has been how agents know that certain marketing techniques are largely, if not completely useless, but they do them anyway. The rationalizations are legion – newspaper ads satisfy sellers, postcards give agents exposure, people actually collect refrigerator magnets. One wonders why Pfizer hasn’t developed a medication for the disorder by now. No matter: for a while it actually didn’t matter if marketing worked:

The housing boom made even the worst marketing practices appear successful.

Then came the housing recession, and budgets disappeared. Every marketing dollar had to be accounted for, had to count. Did we change? Some of us, like the companies that dropped full page ads to announce open houses to people who didn’t even buy newspapers. Yet, as we’ve tracked in this column, many did not. As recently as 2009, Baylor University studied 50,000 agents who plowing the majority of their marketing dollar into newspapers and direct mail, with nothing to show for it, while simultaneously reporting their best returns (referrals and repeat clients) occurred with few dollars spent.

Ah, insanity.

Meanwhile, some agents and companies started taking refuge in the idea that email would modernize their marketing efforts. They slowly transitioned postal mailings to e-mailings, printed newsletters to e-newsletters. Some started blogs, updating clients by email (call them subscribers). Eventually, they told themselves, they’ll give up entirely on the old things that don’t work, just as soon as they perfect their email databases.

Except that it’s already too late.

Into evidence, we submit a little piece of interesting from comScore Media Metrix:

use of email 2010 changes by age group

Apparently, the “new” replacement for “traditional” marketing is itself is on the decline. Why? Modern consumers increasingly don’t correspond with each other like Jefferson and Adams any more.

The penpal is dead.

Considering the data, the only increase in email usage last year came from Baby Boomers and Seniors. Perhaps they have finally accepted that the internet isn’t a fad? Yet amongst everybody else, especially those entering prime wealth earning years, email usage is down, down, down.

It seem that checking your Blackberry is so – well – old school.

Amongst very young people, email is downright classic, man! This is not news to any parent: young people have preferred text to voice calls and email for years. They don’t even Tweet, in case you were thinking you could substitute once again. No deal. And even if youngsters aren’t your target demographic today, there’s no doubt and are. And they won’t be checking their email to get your message either.

So, now what? Before you start scrambling for new “delivery” choices, stop and consider: The research isn’t telling us consumers simply prefer new delivery methods. It is telling us they prefer a new type of communications entirely. Rather than receiving marketing monologues, they now prefer social dialogues with trusted brands and preferred vendors. They want to be engaged by modern companies: That means not being Customer 1034 in a mass mailing database, but being Customer #1 on your social relationship calendar.

It’s not whether blogs or Twitter or Facebook will substitute for email marketing. It’s whether your approach will move to ways to engage consumers, rather than deluge them. Imagine a world where email templates disappear – Gen X hates being treated like a “form customer” anyway – and salespeople learn to send personalized short text messages or post status updates on their prospects’ Facebook page. Consider how important it will be to be in constant contact with Gen Y consumers to build trust, familiarity, a sense of safety, rather than try to woo them with slick slogans received in their (parents’) mailbox.

The moral of the story isn’t just that email usage is about to decline, challenging your mass-delivery marketing strategy; It’s that innovation requires more than just shifting from one technology to the next.

It’s not email that’s no longer working. It’s the modern consumer who simply doesn’t speak to each other that way any more. It’s not a technology tool, but a sales innovation, that you’ll need in the future. Once you shift to dialogue, you’ll find plenty of technology choices to make it work.