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Community Websites For Realtors by Barrett Powell

· Want To Own a Community? Try Sponsoring a Neighborhood Website
by Barrett Powell

Community websites were once the domain of the developer and the homeowner’s association. However, with the expanding presence of the web in real-estate,

community websites have taken on more of an “active referral” role for the savvy firm and agent. Using a community web can allow an agent and a firm to become part of the community by offering services and information the property owners see as useful. This type of website offers the most upside of any online strategy taken on by the agent and firm, especially if the agent and firm has already sold homes to clients in that neighborhood. The old saying “it cost a lot less to sell to an existing customer than it does to get a new one” still holds true today. The focus of an existing client after all is not just selling them another property or listing their home, it is getting them to tell others about you and recommend you to them. In other words, to become an “active referral” for you and your firm.

Community websites can be categorized as one of four basic types; Homeowner’s Association type sites, marketing sites, discussion boards, and the newest hybrid that includes aspects of each called “Community Web”. Each has characteristics that exist based on the specific job the site was designed to do. Let’s take a look at each.

Homeowner Sites

Homeowner Association sites such as those offered commercially by companies like AtHome.net and CAMS are directed at the property owners and are what we call serial in nature. These sites are Web 1.0 in terms of features and functionality and most go unused if used at all. These sites usually go up after a certain percentage of the development has been sold. This is more than enough time for another firm or agent to come in and establish themselves as the “resale” agent of choice. We have seen this time and time again once a new home development is sold out.

But these Homeowner Sites again are not meant to drive business to a firm or agent. They are there to perform a service of providing an online information brochure and offer access to community documents, and a rudimentary communications platform that relies mostly on e-mail blast as a method of communication. The content is static for the most part, and we find most of the time information is out of date or not posted at all. These sites are usually controlled by the association and the elected officials of that board and do not act as referral or business basis for an agent or firm. They were not created to benefit a firm or agent.

Marketing Sites

For the most part, marketing sites are online brochures. They are typically designed by a local web firm. The lifecycle of the traditional marketing site consist of a startup at the opening of the development and then remaining up and unchanged for the duration of the neighborhood’s new home sales. We are not going to spend time on this type of community site because I think everyone is already pretty familiar with

them and their purpose. Let me just say that there is an excellent opportunity to own the referral base of the development by simply transforming the marketing site over time.

In other words, by adding more of the features we will discuss in the next two community sites the marketing site can transform into the community web. And since time and effort have been used to brand the site and market it to begin with, it would be a natural progression for homeowners to begin to leverage the same site they used to purchase their home to securely find a babysitter in their new neighborhood.

Discussion Boards

A fairly new phenomenon is neighborhood discussion boards. These boards can range from open boards which resembles more of a wild west interaction to more helpful neighbor to neighbor type that are closely monitored and keep conversations positive. The key to these type of sites is that for the first time, members can participate in a more parallel format where they control when they communicate and are communicated with verses an e-mail blast. Information can be posted and read and responded to in a more natural language progression of back and forth. These sites create more of an actual sense of neighborhood, even on a small level for an individual development. The key is to restrict access to property owners only and to monitor the site for inappropriate content.

Blogs are in essence a form of a message board. The poster presents his or her information and solicits comments concerning its content. A blog can offer a

property owner an option to e-mail blast for information that may be long in content or that may need to be referred to multiple times. Utilizing a tool like Twitter to accomplish mini-blogging,

members may choose to “follow” content such as neighborhood updates or can simply go to the community web where the neighborhood Twits are posted in a community news and updates section. Either way, these create more of a dynamic Web 2.0 environment and much more likely to be visited, thus more likely to offer the sponsoring firm or agent better access and more “impressions” to be view.

The Hybrid or “Community Web” Site

Now let’s take the best of the all the other sites and add things like widgets from such sites as Trulia and Zillow real-estate. Property owners can get instant updates on home values and other property related information on their neighborhood and access to real-estate reports. Coupled with continued property listings from the

Marketing Site, the homeowners will feel more empowered concerning when and if they should sell and they will be more thankful to the agent or firm providing them with this key information.

You can also add RSS feeds from other complimentary sites such as county or town government. If you don’t have a feed available from your local government of local news site, create your own feed using sites like Feed43 (www.feed43.com). By creating a space where property owners can go to get information in one place they cannot get elsewhere about their particular neighborhood, you create more of a sense of community and a sense of loyalty, and thus the site becomes an “active referral site” for you and your firm.

You don’t need to spend a bundle to start your own community web. There are two ways to do this for little or no money. One is to host a site that you build using all these free tools. The other is to leverage free sites that are “ad” funded. Let’s look at both of these options.

Hosting Your Own Site

If you’re savvy enough to have your own web server, or if your firm has its own or a hosted web server you are able to use, you can create your own community website

by using tools available to you at no cost.

The first thing to do is go out and shoot some photos of your community. There may be “canned” photos available and as long as you have permission to use them that is fine. You want to gather as much information about your community to add to your main page so that visitors can read a little about the community or development. Leave space to add news feeds, widgets, or other items that might make the main page more interesting.

You want to use have a secure discussion board for your site so property owners can ask questions and provide answers in a neighbor to neighbor sort of environment. You don’t have to make this secure if you don’t want. You can open the discussion board up to the public as well. Just make sure you use the administrative feature of your board to approve any postings before they are posted. Either way, you want to make sure improper content doesn’t end up on your site and that neighbors feel comfortable posting for things like babysitters or someone to do yard work.

With regard to discussion boards, there are a number of options here. Most of your hosting companies offer some type of message board feature for free with your hosting contract. For instance, the hosting company Hostway offers free InterActives Forums with every hosting account. This gives you much more flexibility and provides for a no additional cost “ad free” BBS.

Another option is what are called “ad supported” message boards. An example of one of these is ProBoards (www.proboards.com). You can setup as many message boards as you want, and the advertising is actually very unobtrusive. Most of the time you don’t even notice the ads and what ads you do see are many times applicable to message board visitors. Each one of these boards does have a “for fee” version that removes any ads, and the cost is very small.

If you have your own web server or you have a hosted account that for some reason does not include a message board feature, you can also use public domain message board code that is free and readily available for download from sites like Sourceforge. Examples of these are PHPBB which is one of the most popular to Mombaboard which works in conjunction with Momba, another public domain web site application. There are literally hundreds of such applications that are literally drop in your website or hosting site and begin administering the board.

Regardless of which ever message board tool or technology you choose, they are each designed to be easily inserted or embedded into your community web site in a seamless way.

Adding blogging and mini-blogging to your community site is just as easy. Again, most hosting companies offer blogging as a free or low cost add-on to your account. If they don’t, there are many options here as well.

Two of the most popular free blog sites are Blogger and WordPress. Both offer free sign up and design and you can start your own custom blog in just a matter of minutes. The result will be your own web URL for your own web blog site. You can now insert or embed either of these via your URL into your community web site. While it is not required, by registering your own blog domain name, you can use a custom url, such as ChathamDownsBlogByBarrett.com to navigate to your blog page separately. Your blog is a great way to announce events or news updates for your community. You can even provide community leaders, such as the president of the HOA with their own user login to allow them to post to the blog as well. And the results get posted to your blog site and to the embedded spot on the community web site.

If you have little tidbits of information that need to be shared with the community why not think about setting up a community Twitter account. You can post up to 240 characters of information in little info bites that can be posted quickly and read quickly. You can even post and read Twits on a mobile phone. Homeowners can “follow” the post via e-mail or on Twitter. Twitter also provides code that allows you to insert or embed the Twits, Twitter post, into the community website. These could be inserted on the main page as a Community News section. Links can even be included in the Twits so visitors can click on the link in the Twit and be taken to the linked page to read more information. One example I use is to post short little bits about local government events or news and then include the link to the full article on the town or county website.

Building this type of “hybrid” community web portal is more difficult to do than just paying for a commercial HOA website. But it gives you much more flexibility with regard to branding and content and includes the social networking aspects not available in the commercial sites. If you have the ability, or can find a tech type or web development company to help you put together this type of community web portal the payoff will come in the form of more listings and sales as you become the “embedded” realtor of the community.

Finally, if you just don’t have the ability or time to do any of the above, there is one more option. Sites like Ning have just come out that allow you to sign up for free and create your own social networking community site. The sites don’t do everything, but hey, it’s free and its quick, what do you expect. That said, the sites that can be created are still very interesting and done right and kept up to date can still become an “active referral” site for the agent and firm.

Now get out and start building your own community!

Barrett Powell

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