With a collective following of well over 500 million users, social media Web sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter have become powerful marketing and networking tools for all types of consumer-driven businesses. Southwest Airlines, Sony, Aflac, Coca-Cola, Sears and Electronic Arts are among the major corporations that have turned to social media to help strengthen their brands, network with their core market demographic and market their products and services.
These companies are not alone. In fact, the social media adoption rate among the nation's largest private companies has surpassed the 90 percent plateau, according to a study of Inc. magazine's “Inc. 500” list by the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.
By contrast, the home-building community remains largely reluctant to adopt social media tools for their businesses, according to a March 2010 survey by Professional Builder . Just 59 percent of builders said they currently use social media Web sites for business purposes, and a paltry 26 percent said they visit these sites more than once a week.
When it comes to selling homes using social media, the sentiment among home builders is that these tools provide little or no value for their sales and marketing team. Just 24 percent of respondents agree that social media sites are critical tools for marketing and selling homes, and only 29 percent agree that these tools are important for building the company's brand.
As one respondent put it, “We feel that social media is important, but we're unsure of how much impact it actually has on our sales. Everyone talks about it, but Web site presence still seems to have more impact.”
“We recognize the benefits of branding, but social media takes too much time away from core business activities,” said another builder respondent. “It's an expense that is not needed to boost business.”
Other respondents said they simply don't see the value of social media tools in a business that is so referral-driven and face to face. “In the markets we serve, social media is not a big deal. I can get more accomplished on the golf course than on Facebook,” said one respondent. Another builder echoed this sentiment: “So far, I can't see the value. It's a lot of time spent online talking to and connecting with non-clients.”
Of course, social media does have its proponents among the home-building community. In particular, these builders are using social media sites as a tool to help boost a specific component of their business, such as customer service. One respondent stated: “Social media, especially Twitter, is a good channel for customer service issues. Our customers frequently ask questions and initiate conversations via Facebook and Twitter. These sites are actually driving about 8 percent of the traffic to my Web site. This is without a specific social media marketing plan.”
Other builders are having success using social media tools to help build and maintain relationships. “Social media is a great way for my company to keep in touch with our customers on a more personal level,” said a builder respondent. “This helps us develop stronger personal relationships. Relationships sell homes for me!”
Of the small number of builders who are blogging—just 17 percent of respondents said they or someone at their company currently blogs—some are seeing payoffs for their efforts. “Social media does several things for my design/build firm: it qualifies me as an expert through blogs; it keeps clients and potential customers engaged by being able to research ideas from our blogs; and it keeps existing clients engaged with their projects by using social media to bring critical project information to them via social media, in real time.”
Among the social media Web sites home builders are using for business, LinkedIn and Facebook are by far the most popular.Well more than half of respondents (58 percent) said they use LinkedIn, while 50 percent use Facebook, followed by YouTube (28 percent), Twitter and Contractor Talk (both 13 percent) and Plaxo (7 percent).
MySpace—the once-dominate social media networking site—is used by just 7 percent of respondents. This speaks to the challenges of keeping up with the ever-changing world of social media and finding time to maintain numerous accounts. Even builders that are big believers of social media admit they struggle to stay on top of the latest Web sites and tools. “As a small home builder it is tough to keep up with all the different social media sites,” said one builder. “The challenge is determining which sites to stay linked to.”
There's also the issue of control, or lack thereof, especially when it comes to maintaining a company's reputation online. “With social media, it's so easy for naysayers and competitors to put half-truths and out-and-out lies online, and many people believe them,” said one respondent. Another builder agreed: “I believe it is another source to use with caution, as it would not be too difficult to have your reputation ruined by one very disgruntled client.”