Social media

C U Online

Social networking sites offer several ways to increase your contact base.

At the last two conferences I attended this year, I learned that the new buzzword for the industry is ‘social networking,’” says William Gladstone, CCIM, SIOR, sales agent with NAI Commercial-Industrial in Camp Hill, Pa. As the popularity of social networking increases, business professionals are exploring these Web sites to learn what features can increase their business-building opportunities. With sites such as Linked- In, ActiveRain, and Facebook, commercial real estate professionals can build their contact lists, promote company and personal visibility, and drum up new business.

Social Networking 101

Social networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace originally were designed to help people stay in touch with friends and relatives online. Participants register with the sites to create their own home pages where they can share information, pictures, and videos. Users can choose to make their home pages public — available to anyone — or they can protect them, granting access via personal requests. A second generation of social networks, such as LinkedIn, and ActiveRain, focuses on business connections and is redefining the way people in commercial real estate professions network and connect with clients and colleagues.

Most sites offer free memberships and include features such as interest groups, personal blogs, the ability to see other parties’ online network connections, and opportunities to participate in discussions and forums. While these sites are business- oriented and geared toward developing professional contacts and relationships, users should proceed with caution because none of the sites are monitored and not everyone with a profile may have the experience they claim to have.

Those who do take the plunge also must consider the cost-benefit analysis. Although most sites are free or have minimal charges, to reap the rewards of online networking, “you need to put in the effort,” says Cheri R. Thomas, CCIM, an investment sales broker with Newmark Knight Frank in Nashville, Tenn. “Otherwise, it’s a waste of time.” A member of LinkedIn for almost a year, Thomas has 60 industry-related contacts from all over the U.S. Along with her home page, Thomas participates in the site’s question-and-answer section. “Answering [industry-related] questions is not too time-consuming and helps build your prominence on the site,” she says. Overall, LinkedIn is a good tool because “there is value in connecting with people you don’t already know.”

At the other extreme, Gladstone believes the more contacts you have, the better, even if you already know them. After being a member of LinkedIn for two months, Gladstone already has connected with 400 people. Still experimenting with the site, he agrees that social networking requires some effort to be successful. “It takes a lot of time, but in a good way. Managing the site and finding new connections is something you have to work at,” he says. As part of his daily schedule, Gladstone checks the site for industry updates and new connections in the morning, once during the day, and in the evening.

Connect With New Clients

In Nashville, Thomas is in the exploratory phase of a project with a Massachusetts-based mixed-use developer and land banker. The developer initially contacted Thomas because he was looking to do business in Nashville, and based on her online profile, he felt she was on top of the game in the market. “Because of my status as an expert [on LinkedIn] I was able to gain a new client,” she says.

Her client is looking to purchase property where development is expected to boom in three to seven years, such as the Nashville riverfront. Currently, Thomas is educating her client about the market. “He has an idea about the kind of submarket he wants, so I am getting him acquainted with [Nashville] so he can understand which areas fit his criteria,” she says.

Local Networking

Social networking sites go above and beyond traditional networking strategies, offering an online way to connect easily with millions of people, locally and nationally. “I like the idea of connecting A to C or going straight through B to connect to C,” says David P. Wilson, CCIM, executive vice president of Lockard Development in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “Being able to connect the dots, so to speak, is a crucial piece of social networking.”

“In Facebook you can create and invite friends and colleagues to join groups,” says Robert Lee Barber, CCIM, a partner with Accelerated Real Estate Services in Pinellas Park, Fla. Barber started and manages Tampa Bay Commercial Real Estate, an online group created specifically to network with other commercial real estate professionals in the Tampa Bay area, he explains. The group has 122 members who are either located in Tampa or have clients interested in the market. Ten group members are fellow CCIMs. In fact, it is a smart strategy for CCIMs to include the designation after their names to get more visibility. In doing so, if someone searches for CCIM, all designees on the networking site will come up.

“The goal [of the group] is to increase our virtual networking ability, share information, and promote best practices,” Barber says. Most members are interested in using the group for business development. Barber encourages members to have discussions and share industry articles. A recent online discussion was based on Florida’s affordable-housing sector.    

Another way to network locally is to see who your contacts are connected to and determine if you have any colleagues in common or to see if any of their contacts hold business prospects. Herb Tousley, CCIM, senior vice president of acquisitions for Coldwell Banker Commercial Griffin Cos. in Minneapolis, recently was looking for a multifamily property in California. He searched LinkedIn to find a specific name and company associated with the property. “I found out I was ‘once removed’ from the person, so I called the guy in the middle,” he says. In other words, one of Tousley’s LinkedIn contacts was connected to a professional with the multifamily property, making a natural path for an introduction via the mutual contact.

To ensure that the professionals he connects with are legitimate, Tousley spends “a little time interviewing them about their background and their experience in their market,” he says. He believes that an extended conversation can help prove whether or not they are “for real.” Also, to make sure that he’s getting the real deal, Tousley talks to mutual contacts he has with the possible online clients to get feedback and recommendations.

Once credibility is proven, overall this is a great benefit that eliminates cold calls, Tousley says. Regarding the property in California, Tousley and his partners are gathering information and working on a pro forma to see if the site fits their investment needs. If it does, then they will most likely make an offer, he says.

The same LinkedIn feature also came to Wilson’s rescue when he was looking for sales numbers for an Office Depot that is leasing his property. When searching for a contact at the specific location, he saw that he was two contacts removed from someone working for that particular property. “I asked for an introduction and was immediately introduced to the individual,” he says. “Using LinkedIn allows you to have a warm introduction through a person who knows both sides. Your success rate ultimately will be higher because having people introduce you helps,” he says.

A Strong Marketing Tool

While building a strong online contact base may be the top priority for some commercial real estate professionals, others also use social networking as a marketing tool. This can be beneficial “as long as you make it known you are on a particular [social networking] site,” says Catherine Brown, director of enterprise social networking at Dotster in Vancouver, Wash. Most sites offer opportunities to set up blogs and share industry knowledge with fellow members.

Blogging Benefits. John L. Hummer, CCIM, considers his monthly blog on ActiveRain to be a client services tool, which includes visits from readers such as commercial clients, residential developers, and potential recruits for his company, he says. Not afraid to share the blogosphere with his colleagues, Hummer, owner/broker of Steinborn TCN Commercial Real Estate in Las Cruces, N.M., finds that “[the blog] is a great tool to communicate and inspire my company’s brokers to develop and promote their own blogs as well.” Having more blogs ultimately will help promote the company, he reasons.

Hummer posts current local market fundamentals and information on industrial, retail, medical, and office properties. He also posts his company’s monthly newsletter to provide readers with data and information on company culture, he says. “The newsletter provides customer testimonials, featured brokers, deals, listings, and hyperlinks to commercial sites and various commercial real estate magazines.”

Hummer’s blog is highlighted on his company’s Web site, under the “About Us” section, he explains. Posting the link on the main Web site is a smart way to gain new readers: Steinborn’s Web site has received more than 400,000 unique visitors so far this year, earning it the No. 1 position among other real estate sites in the Las Cruces market, according to Alexa.com, an independent Web site ranking service.

Building a Reputation. “You want to be an expert, the known person through social networking,” Gladstone says. Since he doesn’t have a Web site, “Using LinkedIn is a way to promote the [Bill Gladstone] group,” he explains. All seven members of the group have LinkedIn profiles. “My company has included social networking in its business model because it is a valuable resource that will help expand our knowledge base and professional contacts. We work each day to build a considerably larger network around the globe.”

In Nashville, Thomas also is working on becoming known in the social networking world. An avid participant in LinkedIn’s question-and-answer arena, Thomas has given enough answers to be ranked as an expert. She considers it a marketing tool because her name is very visible at the top of the list. “Now some people just go straight to me when they have a question,” she says. Mainly answering questions relating to the state and impact of the market and real estate investments, Thomas finds value for herself because it “gets you thinking about specific issues when you answer the questions.”

Gathering Information

Aside from networking and marketing, some sites offer commercial real estate professionals a wealth of industry knowledge. Through easy research, they can find information on local and national markets.

“I mainly use [LinkedIn] as an information source,” Tousley says. He finds that his contacts are very useful in “helping identify and make connections with potential financing and equity sources I have used or will use for my company’s acquisitions network,” he says. Tousley also takes advantage of the site’s user groups, which are online forums for professionals with similar needs or interests.

Currently he is a member of nine LinkedIn groups including the apartment professionals network, multifamily insiders, and the private equity investors group. “They have been helpful because I can pose questions to the whole group and get a number of replies, some of which have been very helpful,” he says.

Primarily networking outside of his community, Hummer also likes that on LinkedIn and ActiveRain “you can shoot a question out to a group and you will get a positive response rate from members throughout the country,” he says. Because of this, Hummer has sent out several questions about markets of interest. He seeks anecdotal information on market activity because it is a way to “get a pulse from people on the ground versus the media. It’s amazing how quickly you get feedback.”

While she may be an expert on LinkedIn, Thomas isn’t opposed to actively seeking information for her own needs. Noticing a professional that specializes in General Services Administration properties in the Nashville market among her LinkedIn network, Thomas connected with the professional to ask him several questions. “I asked him how green issues would affect leases in the area as well as how the leases will work in the context of that,” she says.

While social networking sites originally were geared toward teenagers and young adults, they have evolved into online tools that some commercial real estate professionals find beneficial to their businesses. “I feel that there will come a time when [social networking sites] mature into more “business-related networks,” Hummer says. “I [want to] make sure that my company has a presence.”

Sampling of Social Sites

LinkedIn - More than 25 million professionals worldwide representing 150 industries

  • Find potential clients, service providers, subject experts, and partners
  • Join specialized user groups
  • Search for jobs
  • Make yourself available for business opportunities
  • Get introduced to other professionals through contacts

Cost: Personal - free; Business - $19.95/month or $199.50/year; Business Plus - $50/month or $500/year

ActiveRain - Designed for real estate professionals to network and discuss industry topics

  • Discuss industry topics in the public forum
  • Set up and customize personal blogs
  • Use the referral exchange to find a match for your clients’ needs
  • Create and join groups based on background and interests
  • Share images, links, and videos

Cost: free

UPworld - Online platform for real estate and building professionals to meet each other and make business connections

  • Connect with professionals in real estate, planning, finance, development, design, construction, and other related industries
  • Invite members to join your professional network and directly share contact information
  • Create an online portfolio to showcase and publicize built projects and project team members
  • Post job and development opportunities, requests for proposals, and requests for professional services

Cost: free

Facebook - Geared toward social connections more than business networking

  • Join or manage online interest groups
  • Join networks that reflect real-life communities
  • Share images, links, and videos

Cost: free

Stephanie Bell

“I went through the [recession in the] 1980s and purposely set out a market plan that would not have the boom-and-bust [nature] that comes with real estate cycles.” — Joe W. Milkes, CCIM, Milkes Realty Valuation, Dallas“We were anticipating a slowdown in the market and wanted to develop an avenue of business that would create a steady stream of income.” — Yvonne Jones, CCIM, CPM, Zifkin Realty Management LLC, Chicago“I help struggling companies rethink their business models, which includes determining the most profitable use of their real estate.” — Audie Cashion, CCIM, Alpha World Properties LLC, High Point, N.C.Stephanie Bell is associate editor of Commercial Investment Real Estate.

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