More real estate agents turning to social media

As a blogger, Michael Gardner relies on a familiar celeb-tracker formula, lacing beauty shots with exclamation-pointed prose about the "super sexy" and "crazy famous."

But Gardner's drool-worthy subjects aren't people — they're properties. Gardner writes the Malibu Real Estate Blog, which helps him sell houses in beachside neighborhoods where some of the world's wealthiest individuals own second homes the size of palaces.

Gardner, with Prudential Malibu Realty, is among the growing legion of real estate agents who have begun making broader use of the Web. More than half of the National Assn. of Realtors' member agents reported using social networking sites last year, compared with a little more than a third in 2009. Nearly two-thirds have a website and 1 in 10 has a blog.

For-sale listings began migrating to the Web years ago, but many old-line real estate agents resisted the lure of online, preferring the in-person approach.

For the record: A previous subheadline on this article incorrectly referred to a Balboa Island blog. Gardner does not focus on Balboa Island real estate.

"Traditionally this business had been done people to people, by agent-to-agent referrals," said Ben Kinney, author of the e-book "Soci@l" and owner of Keller Williams brokerages in Washington. "In this market, where people are in distress, they may be more likely selecting an agent online."

And with the ill wind of the housing downturn at their backs, agents are trying to go where their clients already are. Last year, 89% of buyers surfed the Web to find a house, while only 45% attended open houses and 36% looked at print ads, according to the National Assn. of Realtors' Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers.

Hoping to elevate their profile online, Dave Girling and his father, Bing, a 25-year residential real estate veteran, developed a quarterly sales price tracking feature called the Balboa Island Price Index for their real estate blog at The content has built a following, increasing page views three- or four-fold when the index posts, he said.

The BIPI, pronounced bippy, has even been used in court to argue the value of a property in the wealthy enclave. Dave Girling plans to expand the index to 15 neighborhoods in a Newport Beach Price Index.

The original version has become part of how they are known, Girling said.

"When I'm out with my dad it's not unusual for someone to say, 'Bing, Dave, what's the BIPI doing?'"

Gardner has figured out how to make his online efforts pay off, closing multimillion-dollar deals and landing luxury listings of up to $14 million. His approach is simple: Write about things that draw readers — $2-million mobile homes, $20-million price reductions — and bet that some readers will become buyers.

A landscape designer before he turned to real estate sales seven years ago, Gardner started out like many agents — sitting at open houses a couple of Sundays a month and spending his marketing dollars promoting himself in Homes & Land Magazine, a color glossy of homes for sale.

"One of my biggest goals was to just get an email address and have my computer online at the open house," he said. While other agents were collecting emails on sign-in sheets, he was emailing prospective buyers information on listings that matched their criteria.

"That was probably my first experience of how technology can be used to connect with a buyer right away," Gardner said.

The approach landed him a few clients and small transactions. More important, though, he started thinking about how to best use the emerging tools that were available through the Internet.

Around the same time, companies that set up websites for real estate agents were touting their services. "They would charge $2,000 to $4,000 for a good-looking website," he said. "A lot of us tried it."

Gardner, however, wasn't impressed with the results. His site didn't make the first page on keyword searches, had little traffic and yielded no phone calls.

In late 2007, blogs "started hitting my radar," he said. Gardner spent hours every day reading about how to blog and craft articles so that they would gain notice from search engines. He ditched his personal website, watched tutorial videos on YouTube on how to host a free WordPress blog and registered a domain name.

"The blog would strictly focus on the town I lived in and sold in," Gardner said.

With the learning curve behind him, the hard work of writing began.

"I basically fear having to produce a bunch of great paragraphs," he said. "You have to start thinking like a reporter, find an angle and something interesting that people will talk about."

Within three months, his blog made it to the first page of Google when the phrase "Malibu real estate" was searched. Daily page views started to rise until he was averaging 300 a day. On days when a news aggregator picked up one of his posts, page views soared to as many as 8,000.

But clicks aren't commission checks. The first phone call from someone reading the blog arrived within a year, and business soon followed. His most expensive listing or sale came last year from a Malibu resident.

"She enjoyed reading my blog and wanted me to list her house at $14 million," Gardner said. The 14,000-square-foot Italian villa sits on 20 ocean-view acres.

A Seattle-based blog reader recently gave Gardner the listing on her $8.5-million Broad Beach house.

Another, Mark DiPaola, found an ocean-view home site in Malibu last year through Gardner.

"When I started looking for an agent I went to Google and typed in 'Malibu Realtor,'" said DiPaola, the chief executive of CheckPoints, a mobile app that rewards shoppers. "The first or second time I saw the blog it was clear he knew the market."

It was the content, not self-promotional hype, that attracted DiPaola. "He had a blog with the inside scoop on Malibu. Not just the [Multiple Listing Service] regurgitated, but his take — information on pocket listings, price reductions. So I emailed him and set up our first meeting."

The two hit it off and often communicated via text messages and email. DiPaola even signed his contract sitting at the beach using a mobile application Gardner had sent him.

In the face of rapid technological change, Gardner would have been left behind had he just stuck to blogging. He is also on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Craigslist and European Internet sites. These days his marketing dollars go toward Google AdWords campaigns targeting buyers in the area. His listings post on the Multiple Listing Service and major real estate portals such as, Trulia, Zillow and Redfin. Often he'll pay for better placement. All of his listings have websites with professional photography.

Through Google Analytics, he sends home sellers weekly reports so they can see how many viewers their property websites are getting.

He recently started using quick-response codes on for-sale signs so people can pull up to a house, aim a smartphone at the sign and download details right away.

"I want to use every avenue available to show the world I have this listing," said Gardner, who has even tried the Dubai Craigslist. "The goal is to cast as large a net as possible."

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