Social Media: Business Value or Wasted Resources?

Social media in the commercial real estate industry continues to be a hotly debated topic. Attitudes and policies among different companies are wide ranging and varied. There are clearly sectors where social media strategies are standard procedure, such as shopping centers and malls that have business-to-consumer (B2C) Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and blogs. The brokerage community has also found some traction with broker-to-broker and broker-to-client prospecting. Apart from those specific channels, it appears that the rest of the industry is still struggling to figure out the business value.

From conversations we’ve had with CIOs in the commercial real estate industry over the last few months, we found that sentiments about the value of social media in the commercial real estate business run the gamut from a Draconian ‘we have no strategy and enforce 100% internal content filtering’ to ‘we’re completely open, no filtering and you can do whatever you want’ on the most liberal side.

In a recent interview, a CIO of a major REIT told us that their IT department tracked network utilization stats on social media sites for their 600+ employees. They found that on a rolling 30-day average over five million hits were registered just on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. The aggregated bandwidth used for just these sites was over 100GB. Discovering this kind of resource usage raises some immediate questions: “Are our employees chatting with their friends on Facebook or watching funniest dog videos on YouTube when they’re supposed to be working?” or, “Are they sharing sensitive company information?” or, “Is any of that chatter a potential liability to us or our shareholders?” This is a natural reaction, but one that can be addressed through a comprehensive set of corporate social media policies and procedures (see below). But dealing with those issues first in the context of a social media policy is putting the cart before the horse. The real question to be asked is, “How can a social media policy help our organization meet its strategic business objectives?” and that’s the question that I’d like to explore here.

When we started looking at business applications for social media several years ago, there were a few major contenders: Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, IM platforms, a number of blogs, wikis, specialty collaboration platforms, and a number of sites dedicated to the commercial real estate industry such as CREOpoint, most notably. Now there are literally thousands of active social media websites. That universe includes 13 virtual communities with over 100 million members each. Of those, Facebook and Tencent QQ, the largest, have recently reached over 600 million members each ... twice the entire population of the United States.

Further, consider that the 600 million Gen-Ys and -Zs using Facebook today are going to be your employees and customers in the next decade.  Their socialization and communication styles are very different than previous generations and it would be foolish to ignore that fact. Imagine how pervasive social media is going to be in 2020--perhaps three billion users? We need to learn to identify and create procedures and policies that help us harness and manage the power of this new media.

It’s important to understand that there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to approach social media. The wrong way is the simplistic “We need to apply social media, let’s create a Facebook page and put up a blog.” It requires more thought than that to integrate, although you can easily pinpoint certain steps: (1) Define how you would like social media to support your strategic business objectives; (2) determine how ‘open’ your organization is willing to be in order to reach those goals; (3) Put in the proper structure and controls; and (4) Use the proper listening tools and analytics to figure out where you are and to adjust course if necessary.

First, it’s important to integrate any kind of social media strategy with your strategic business objectives. Whether your objective is to promote thought leadership or research, enhance customer service, attract more revenue, achieve greater awareness of who’s buying in the sales process, generate leads from new sources, or to better find and retain talent, your social media strategy must have complete organizational alignment and that means confirmation and support from the C-suite.

Incidentally it’s a big mistake for companies to think they can use social media as a sales channel to promote their properties, products or services.

Second, get used to the notion that you may need a more ‘open’ policy and that means putting a high degree of trust in your employees. Being open means encouraging employees to have frank, truthful conversations. By proactively using social media as a sentiment indicator, you can start to identify and address issues. It requires a higher form of organizational transparency though.

Third, you have to define a program with clear objectives, rules, policies, procedures and governance to avoid chaos. Legal boilerplate can cover many aspects of that.

Finally, you’ll need the tools to properly listen to what’s being said in the cloud. There are a number of tools available now that can help you cut through the chatter in the millions of possible social media sites worldwide and pick up tidbits of value.

There’s a whole new area of social analytics being developed that goes way beyond just SEO or counting hits to web pages. Measuring factors such as awareness, attention and reach give us the comprehensive information we need. Number of conversations, share of conversations, and strength of referrals are some of the newer metrics. If the goal is to raise the bar on customer service and satisfaction, you’ll want to know if those conversations are taking place. Also, if a particular campaign is providing referrals, you’ll want to be able to measure the conversion rate of those referrals in order to measure the effectiveness of the campaign.
Although we may still be a little ahead of the curve, I think it’s important that commercial real estate companies start the process of thinking about and discussing their social media strategy.

This post originally written by Howard Berger of Realcomm.  Check out pages 21 - 23 of Realcomm EDGE for the full article.