The real estate industry has a bad rap in the upper levels of search marketing. We deplore the SEM agencies that sell ineffective and/or shady tactics to the real estate industry. We criticize the agents and brokers who are victimized by their own ignorance or indifference. I’ve called real estate SEO a “joke,” and it’s hard to argue the point when you see real estate professionals paying good money for bad SEO.
But it’s a mistake to paint all real estate professionals with such broad strokes. There’s a new wave of real estate agents and agencies that are adopting the latest online (and offline) marketing techniques to sell themselves to local home buyers and sellers. Blogging and social media marketing are the new tools of the trade for creative real estate agents. This month’s small business marketing success story is one of those agents.
Meet Teresa Boardman, a real estate agent and broker in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her success at using the Internet to build her business has led to write-ups in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, and several real estate publications. She’s won numerous industry awards for her St. Paul Real Estate Blog, which gets between 3,000 and 5,000 visits per week. She also speaks at real estate marketing conferences and writes for other real estate sites beyond her own blog.
“Most of my business, about 80%, comes from the Internet,” Teresa says. In addition to blogging, Teresa is on Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, and other social media sites. Oh, and she also launched a local wiki (but admits she doesn’t have enough time for it). This is not your typical real estate agent. Best of all, her story has lessons for any small business service provider — real estate or otherwise.
As with the previous small business success stories I’ve featured, I have no business relationship with Teresa, and have never met her. Here’s our interview.
Matt McGee: How important is Internet marketing to you now, compared to maybe a few years ago?
Teresa Boardman: Internet marketing is essential to my business now, and has been for at least five years. As a greater percentage of buyers start doing research on the Internet I need to be where I can be found. Sellers now look on the Internet to see who comes up first in Google for local real estate and they check listings to see how they are being marketed.
Is there a difference in the quality of online vs. offline leads?
I don’t think I have any offline leads. I get some referrals, but the rest is from my online activities. I am pretty strategic and keep my marketing efforts focused. I have to say that the leads are very high quality, with an occasional crackpot or weirdo.
You’ve been blogging since November, 2005. Why did you start?
It was an experiment. I didn’t like any of the agent Web sites, they all look the same and in most cases not very appealing. I wanted my very own Web presence independent of my broker. My Web presence is just as important as any other marketing piece and I have to own it. I can go anywhere I want to, or out on my own and take it all with me.
Let’s talk about blog content for a second. What’s your strategy there, especially in terms of writing serious, informational posts versus light-hearted, personal stuff?
I don’t believe in writing personal stuff on a business blog. I would never post about an illness, what I had for lunch, or a birthday or anything that personal. My business and my blog are not about me, they are about real estate and about St. Paul. I do have a kind of system: Fridays are for fun, Saturdays are for architecture of places around town, Sunday is local events or places and is written by a neighbor. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are for the harder news stories and for Thursday I either do more news or photos. I use humor on serious posts and most anywhere as I see fit.
You don’t write personal content, but I’d say you do let your personality shine through on your blog. I’d guess that not only helps attract clients, but it also helps attract the right kind of client.
Yes, my blog does attract the right kind of clients. They seem to know me when we meet. They instantly trust me and some call or write and ask me to be their agent without ever meeting me in person. In fact, I have two clients right now — both sellers that I will never meet in person. They found me through my blog and hired me to sell their lofts. They both live out of state.
What are people looking for when choosing an agent, and how does your blog help them find that?
I believe people look for several things in an agent but one of the most important is someone they trust. They also look for knowledge of the market area and the homes in it. My blog show cases my knowledge of both.
For a lot of small business owners, finding time to blog can be difficult. But I love something you recently wrote: “I don’t have time for open houses and they don’t give me near the ROI as writing blog posts does.” Two questions about that: How much of your client base and transactions come from blogging? And do you force yourself to save time every day to write?
The blog is my business, no question, that is where all of my new clients come from, the people that I have not met and who are not referrals.
I try to write an hour a day. I often spend Sunday afternoons writing. I also jot notes and ideas as I go, so I have what I call “blog food.” It is part of my job and part of my schedule and yes, I won’t go out and play until I have written something. If I travel or go on vacation I can write while I am away; I can even do mobile posts, but usually I write it all ahead of time and schedule it to post every day.
As a local search marketing guy, I really love the fact that you don’t just write about real estate — you write about St. Paul, about local businesses, about local events, and so forth. I have to believe that has helped you capture long tail search traffic, and more importantly, helped grow your base of local readers.
I do have a base of local readers. Locals find my blog and they do read it. I get comments sometimes at the grocery store and at local businesses. I have also gotten clients referred by local business owners. My blog establishes me as a kind of go to person for local real estate.
Blog visits go up and down. When there are a lot of people searching for real estate or for realtors I get more traffic. The volume goes down during the slower times. I can almost predict the market through blog traffic. When traffic goes up, business is good about three weeks later; when it goes down, business slows about two weeks later. Much of my traffic comes through the major search engines.
Photography is obviously important to you. You have several photo albums on your real estate blog. You have a St. Paul Undressed photo blog. And you use Flickr. How do these things help grow your business?
The photos help more than anything else. The first thing people say to me about the blog is that they love the photos. People who are interested in St. Paul or in real estate want to see it, not just read about it. I love being able to show it. Photos are almost magical for reaching people. They have been a very important communication tool for me in both my business and in my personal life. The photos on Flickr have helped market my blog and my listings and I have met many wonderful people and gotten some other business opportunities because of them. I am blown away by the way people respond to my photos.
You also have a Wiki site, St. Paul Neighborhoods. Why did you start that?
I wish I knew why I started the wiki, I don’t have time for it. People do use it and it gets traffic. The point of a wiki is collaboration. I don’t have time to get people involved. I could maybe handle it if the wiki covered a smaller area.
Have you seen any marketing benefits from it yet?
The wiki does draw people to my blog so, yes, there is a benefit.
Let me ask about other social media tools, and you tell me if you’ve seen any marketing benefits from using them:
I love Twitter. About 40 of my 450 to 500 followers are local. I use it to stay connected with the real estate community and to keep up on technology. I have met many people because of it. It’s hard to say where it will lead.
I don’t upload too many videos, but I do use it. I spend more time watching videos than making them and have found value in it for my training classes and presentation.
My fun wall isn’t fun anymore. I like Facebook and will continue to use it but at this point I have too many friends. I am also connected to some people in my community and I keep finding more.
In my industry, real estate doesn’t have a good reputation. So many real estate sites are keyword-stuffed spamfests. I’ve called real estate SEO a “joke.” But we’re outsiders. What’s your take on it as an agent?
I think you nailed it. They are spamfests and an SEO joke. In general, they don’t get the idea that people go on the Internet to learn about real estate, not to read ads or see agent faces. I have found that the best way to market myself and my listings is to focus on the consumers instead of on me or on my company. Instead of having my face all over my blog for branding, I brand it as St. Paul real estate and have photos of real estate.
It’s great for me, the way other agents handle their online presence — it helps me distinguish myself in an overcrowded market place. There are a lot of vendors out there selling to agents who know little about the Internet. These same vendors also sell to real estate company managers who are even more clueless than the agents. They have kept the myths alive that result in company Web sites that look like obituary pages and agents who think they need a big company behind them to establish a Web presence.
How much attention do you pay to SEO and search marketing?
My blog is optimized, but I pay no attention to it in my posts. I put tags and keywords in, but I don’t keep using “St. Paul” and “Real Estate” in my headlines or go out of my way to place keywords in my post. I do pay attention to what people click on, read, and comment on and how they find me. I learn from my readers and I give them more.
Last question: If a small business owner — maybe another agent, maybe someone in a totally different industry — asked you for blogging advice, what would you say?
I do give people advice, but I always tell them that I can only give advice if they ask a specific question. I get emails and even phone calls from people asking me the same question that you just asked. It’s too broad of a question to answer. The only general advice I can think of is write every day and take pictures, too.
Thank you, Teresa. Best wishes in all you do.
Real estate agents like Teresa are helping change the image many of us have when we hear about real estate marketing on the Web. But much more importantly than that, she’s proving that small business owners can use a locally-focused blog, mixed in with a bit of social media, to find clients and grow a successful business. Teresa’s emphasis on great local content and serving her blog readers is a great example for any small business, real estate or otherwise.
If you are (or know of) a small business owner with a great story to tell about how you’re using the Internet to grow your business, please contact me at Small Business SEM.
Matt McGee is a veteran search marketing consultant who blogs at Small Business SEM. The Small Is Beautiful column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land. The Small Is Beautiful column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land.