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A month ago, I received the strangest email ever: An agent in LinkedIn blasted an email to her connections announcing her next open house. Sadly, it was little more than a cut-and-paste of the abbreviation-dumb newspaper ad she probably also ran. No photos, nor punctuation. Not even a hyperlink. More recently, a steady-stream of Facebook invitations have been arriving,  with impersonal introductions like, “If you know someone who needs a REALTOR in AnyTown, USA, send me your referrals!” Oh, sorry; I thought you wanted to be my friend. But the abuse reached a tipping point yesterday: It seems some virtual tour vendor has made it “quick and easy” to mass-post your tours across multiple networks at once. Oh, goody: REALTORS are about to have no more friends.

It was enough to make me scream, No, No, NO!

If this is how REALTORS plan to use social networking, then disconnect me now. I don’t need to connect with more people fishing for referrals. Or posting their listings on my wall. I’m not even in the market for a home. And if I were, I’d know how to find listings on my own. In the meantime, get me out of your stream of drivel. Stop dripping your listings, open houses and self-aggrandizement to me.

I don’t really care.

Nothing will more quickly prove agents don’t get social networking than polluting their networks with mass-blast advertising. It’s been tried before. It’s called SPAM. Just because it’s on a social network, and not in your email, doesn’t make it any more desirable.

Contrary to popular belief, social networking is not an advertising forum. It is not a Web 2.0 replacement for postcards, listing sheets or newspaper ads. I’d even argue it’s not even a marketing channel, at least, not in the traditional sense of posting pictures of bedrooms and toilets. But don’t be confused! Social networking is about . Especially the kind that are based upon relationships and trust.

But social networking won’t create sales built on campaigns of one-click spam advertising.

If you sell widgets, like books, tickets or seats, then your sales strategy is built around advertising to anyone who can click-and-fulfill such needs online. Real estate, however, isn’t sold the same way as hotel rooms or computers online. Blasting out listings is barely one step away from miracle-medicine spam.

When you sell a complex service that mixes high finance and high emotions, blast advertising doesn’t work. The research is clear: Whether it’s a postcard or an e-blast, advertising doesn’t trigger buyers to buy homes, or sellers to select a broker. Real estate isn’t a click-and-fulfill sales transaction. Complex sales require significant customer relationships, not shopping carts and credit cards.

So why are so many REALTORS hell-bent on smothering social networking in a deluge of e-crap? It’s already getting messy. The only good news is that consumers can de-friend such spammers with one quick click.

News flash: Consumers do not need your help finding listings. They can search your site, aggregator sites and the other places REALTORS ignore, like for-sale-by-owner sites, to find all the homes they want. They can find them faster than the floor-duty agent can log into MLS. They can sign up for their own email alerts – if and when they want them. There is absolutely no reason to think the modern and buyers need agents to “make them aware” of listings, price reductions or sales. And more importantly, modern consumers don’t want this stuff plastered all over their MySpace or Facebook walls.

Stop treating consumers like drips. Start treating them like customers.

Don’t take my word for it. Look at the research. Your handy copy of the NAR Annual Survey of Home Buyers and Sellers describes why people bought homes last year. (For the million-or-so REALTORS who don’t even know this study exists, here’s what it says.) The research says people bought homes because of life-changes, not ads that popped in front of their face. Consumers found the homes they bought primarily on their own. By searching for them online. Not from an ad – in the newspaper or online.

On the seller-side, consumers listed their homes with agents they already knew one-third of the time; and with agents referred to them by friends the next third of the time. They even “secret shopped” agents at open houses, then selected them to list their own home, another fifteen percent of the time. They hardly listed their homes with the agent who sent them their mug-shot on a postcard or in an e-newsletter.

None of this is to say advertising isn’t important. There are things to advertise – to make people aware of your company, your services, the marketplace. But there are channels for that – like your website or search engine advertising. Such advertising is already well accepted by consumers. They accept those ads in return for a desired service, like using a search engine.

They do not, however, accept your advertising plastered all over their private social wall.

Consider this: There’s a reason why Facebook and LinkedIn actually aren’t making money from their systems. Most normal people would leave – and almost certainly wouldn’t join – networks that were nothing more than pages and pages of ads. It has been tried before. Remember NetZero and Juno? Consumers ultimately opted to pay for internet service. Remember pop-up ads? They are gone today, too. The real estate industry should be careful not to lose their own customers these ways, by inundating their social networks with open house announcements, property flyers, virtual tours and air-brushed agent photos.

Left unchecked, it could be the fastest sob story on the web: How real estate gained and lost a lot of friends online, in record time.

It doesn’t mean you can’t generate business on social networks. There are plenty of social networking success stories. None, however, have to do with anyone who looked up an old friend and demanded, “Connect with me and buy my listings!” Who does that in real life, when they meet an old friend or catch up with a relative? Is the first thing you say at a party, “Do you need an agent?” Is every holiday card accompanied by a “Send me your referrals!” post-script?

It’s time for the real estate industry to focus on customer relationship management. Social networking offers the best opportunity to build and maintain these relationships. We can put the high-touch back into the high-tech and move away from processing people into databases and marking them for death-by-deluge with advertising. Just treating people as people, not prospects, would change everything. That’s what most social networking already is. A backyard barbecue with friends, not an endless loop of late-night infomercials. People talking to each other, about normal things, maintaining relationships. They know what each other does for a living: one friend is a plumber; another a computer technician; one is a REALTOR. When they need any or all, they simply click to find them or ask friends to recommend one.

It happens already in offline life; it can happen online, just as easily.

But you can’t manage your customer relationships if you don’t have any friends left. That’s exactly what’s going to happen if every status update or recommended link or posted photo is yet-another of your ads. People just won’t stand for it; they don’t have to. They will disconnect from the real estate industry and never look back. They might even become fans of a Facebook page called “Why REALTORS don’t get it.” Goodness knows they could post a good many listing photos to make such a case.

The opportunity for sales through social networking is tremendous. It’s already happening – as simply as a “glad to catch up” becomes a “by the way, we’re thinking of moving.” Unlike our credibility on real estate websites, polluted with bad data, poor photos and fish-eye virtual tours, maybe for once let’s not ruin a good thing, by killing our social networking credibility with one-click blast advertising.

– M