Facebook: Marketing friend or foe?

by Nichole Odijk DeMario

No matter what social platform comes along, Facebook is still a leader in the space. As such, real estate agents and consumers alike flock to the site for a variety of reasons. In fact, according to 2019 figures from the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of Americans use the site regularly, and of those, 74 percent use it daily.

But Facebook’s staggering usage statistics aren’t why the company is making headlines these days. Its dominance comes with heightened scrutiny and privacy concerns, as has been seen by multiple trips made by Facebook executives to testify on Capitol Hill over the past year or so.

Most recently this March, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development charged Facebook with violating the Fair Housing Act by restricting who can view housing-related ads on the platform. The act prohibits discrimination in housing and housing-related services — including online advertisements — based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and familial status.

“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a release accompanying the charges. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.” Facebook hasn’t responded to the charge and it has yet to be heard in court, but this is certainly an important case for agents and brokers to watch.

Starting the conversation

In the meantime, what is a real estate practitioner who utilizes paid Facebook advertising to do? Kyle Morrison — a social media strategist with Thrive, a digital marketing agency headquartered in Arlington, Texas — said that agents who only worry about the difficulties this heightened scrutiny brings to their advertising strategies are missing the point. “There are a ton of ad restrictions now related to fair housing but focusing on how those make an agent’s job harder on Facebook is narrow-sighted and selfish,” he said. “The purpose of social media isn’t just to sell, but to foster a community.”

On the listing side, this may also be a teaching moment for sellers and others you interact with in your marketing duties. “If you have a client asking you to ‘think outside the box’ to market a home, being an advocate for their wants and needs stops when it infringes on fair housing protections,” said National Association of Realtors Director of Industry Outreach Nobu Hata. “Educate them that marketing a home the wrong way has ramifications on them, since they can get hit with fair housing violations, too. Realtors have a higher calling and a Code of Ethics to not only themselves, but to the clients they serve.”

Hata further noted that ignorance isn’t an excuse when using third-party vendors such as Facebook and other social platforms. He routinely advises agents to confirm that their vendors are aware of the Fair Housing Law and that they are keeping up with any changes in its application.

Ready for the fallout

What will happen with the HUD lawsuit remains to be seen. In some ways, the damage has already been done; negative press about Facebook as a company, combined with a barrage of advertisements, has caused some consumers to losing confidence in the social platform. But this moment may prove to be the perfect chance for those who are trying to cut through the Facebook noise.

“There’s a huge opportunity for local or regional brands to gain trust by leaning on their values, being responsive or welcoming to users on their pages. The key is to be genuine,” Morrison said. “Far too many businesses are active on social media just for the sake of being active on social media. For industries like real estate, thoughtful content and quality visuals go a long way.”

The personal touch

Helen Nguyen, agent with Point Honors & Associates, Realtors, and president of the Atlanta Chapter of the Asian Real Estate Association of America, utilizes both a personal and professional profile on Facebook and is just beginning to explore paid advertising on the site.

For her, authenticity is the goal. “My content isn’t just real estate 24/7. I personalize it and make it less robotic. My followers see what I do for a living, but also see how I am as a person,” she said. “It keeps me connected with my clients and potential clients. I love it because it’s free. I use social media on a daily basis anyway, why not make it work for my business?”

Miami agent Evelyn Alfaro of The Levy Group at EWM Realty International said she and her team take a similar approach. She said they see this type of advertising as the way of the future and focus on fostering two-way interactions on Facebook. “It’s not just about posting. We also dedicate time to write back to people who comment on our posts and also take the time to like and comment on their content as well,” Alfaro said. “The most important thing is to stay engaged with followers.”

Tying social efforts to business goals

For Amber Kuhl, managing director of The Collection Real Estate by JLA Realty in Houston, a mix of both paid and unpaid advertising has worked well for her thus far. “My sphere is incredible about sharing and interacting with my posts, which is extremely helpful,” Kuhl said. “I also like to use targeted ads, with specific goals in mind, depending on exactly what my needs are for my business at the time.”

She said it’s important for agents to have a diverse marketing plan that they commit to over an extended period. “Real estate isn’t a quick business to gain success in. It requires lots of training, learning and investment — both time and financial. For me, things like ads are one of the spokes in the wheel to add to my advertising portfolio,” Kuhl said.

For Youseline St. Fleur of William Raveis Real Estate based in Eastern Massachusetts, boosted posts on Facebook have been worth every penny, and a big improvement over traditional online prospecting. “When I first started in real estate, I invested significantly on an external website lead generation platform, which turned out very disappointing results. Marketing via social media has proven to be much more successful and helped me in quickly building a solid base of potential sellers to market to,” she said. “It’s a very cost-effective way to gain exposure, grow my database and gain new customers.”

St. Fleur only excludes real estate agents and brokers when paying for targeted ads. She tries to case a wide net and focus on being informative.

A trusted advisor in a problematic environment

Information delivery is also a must-do for Nancy Cirje, managing broker and owner of Royal Start Realty Group in Chicago. She focuses on content development as a means of building trust and helping counter some of the misleading information consumers have access to by being a reliable source. She currently pays for ads highlighting her company’s recent sales.

“Share what you know, your experiences (good and bad) and be relatable. It’s not all million-dollar listings and pretty pictures. It’s a very, very difficult job where you have to wear many hats and the struggle is real,” said Cirje. “Share and be a helping hand to those in need with good advice.”

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