Talk to builders and others about why they joined Twitter, an emerging social media site, and two themes quickly emerge: the developing power of online connections with customers and the appeal of saving money on marketing efforts. Twitter, like counterparts Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and others, offers both those advantages through a simple yet addictive approach. Users simply answer the question “what are you doing?” in 140 characters or less, posting updates throughout the day. Users choose whom they want to “follow” through a customized and constantly updated news feed of updates from those Twitterers. Joining is free, which these days appeals to everyone from capital-starved builders to cash-strapped consumers.

Depending on the user, those updates, known as “tweets,” can be mundane (“drinking coffee”), promotional (“come see our great deals on new homes”) or informational (“construction industry braces for contraction” with a link to the story), or a combination of all three. Regardless of the specifics, though, Twitter provides an easy, quick, and low-cost way to deliver both broad and narrow messages to customers, builders say.

That’s the allure of Twitter to Pulte, which is experimenting with the approach with its Chicago Del Webb and Pulte brand offerings. “How else can you speak to so many people for so few dollars?” asks Chris Naatz, vice president of sales and marketing for Pulte Homes in Illinois, who is working with the DC Interactive Group in Elgin, Ill., on Twitter and other social media outreach such as Facebook, blogs, and more. “It allows us to do targeted messages to buyers who like bike paths or want a playground in their community—narrow niches that we would otherwise miss” with traditional media because running an ad aimed at small numbers of people would not be cost-effective.

It also helps builders educate their buyers about the housing market in general and their product offerings in particular. Pulte, for example, recently posted tweets about the economy (“The Fed cut a key short-term interest rate by a half percentage point today. Find out what it means for you.”) as well as Pulte-specific information (“Take a look at this newly constructed, 1,981 sq. ft., 3-bedroom, end-unit townhome in North Chicagoland”). Meritage Homes and Lennar often post updates about sales specials or promotions happening in various markets.

But Twitter offers builders more than a platform for brief announcements. Users say the site enables companies to create deeper relationships with their customers by responding publicly or privately to “tweets.”  Just listen to Eric Brown, owner of Urbane Apartments in Troy, Mich. “I believe the way people are purchasing things is changing, and not very many people are paying attention to that,” says Brown, who dropped all traditional advertising several years ago in favor of social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Flickr (a free photo-sharing site), Twitter, and others that allow users to connect online with friends and acquaintances.

He believes making social media successful for business purposes, though, does require a different attitude than many companies have had in regard to marketing or customer service in the past. “The more transparent you are [in terms of providing information to customers], the faster you can build your community,” Urbane’s Brown says. “But corporate executives are not very attuned to being open and transparent with customers.”

Those that are can reap tremendous benefits. Urbane, for example, has saved significant amounts of money in recent years by opting out of print advertising and using social media instead. “Most larger operators’ marketing budgets are eaten up by print ads and rental apartment catalogs,” Brown says. “Those are very, very expensive whether or not anyone reads them.”

Urbane has also used social media to create a vibrant sense of community at its properties, where Twitter-using residents can get the latest on neighborhood happenings and other events by following the company’s Twitter feed. Can users post negative things about their apartment or the property? Sure, but Brown says that risk is worth taking. “Our most interesting consumer evangelists seem to come from situations where we have dropped the ball,” he says. By being on Twitter, Facebook, and other sites, Urbane knows when a customer or prospect is unhappy and has the chance to respond privately and publicly and, ideally, resolve the problem. “It gives you a chance to participate in the conversation and start creating community,” Brown says.

Twitter can also drive users to a builder’s Web site, which can be a critical sales advantage. “Eighty-five percent of all new-home buyers start their search on the Internet,” Pulte’s Naatz says. “How can we be in front of people who aren’t necessarily in the market for a new home right now, but for whom [buying a new home] is in the realm of thinking?”

At Monte Hewett Homes, social media appears to be the answer. According to Dina Gundersen, director of marketing, the builder maintains a Twitter account, a Facebook “fan” page, and an active blog that drives significant traffic to the builder’s Web site. Monte Hewett Homes also distributes an electronic newsletter with home maintenance reminders and other relevant information that has grown to nearly 5,000 subscribers—quite a feat for a builder that does 180 homes a year.

As entertaining and unexpectedly helpful as Twitter can be, though, it is not perfect. “You can spend a lot of unproductive time on there,” Brown admits. The search engine for finding other Twitter users is awkward and imprecise. (See below for a list of housing-related Twitterers for an easier way to get started on Twitter.) And even Twitter true believers admit they are still learning how to get the most from the service in terms of marketing and customer service.

But perhaps just the basics will prove to be the most persuasive to would-be home buying Twitterati. “We can mention a new restaurant or advances in the city,” says Jim Tome, interactive director at DC Interactive Group in Elgin, Ill., who sees Twitter as a means for builders to create a sense of place and a feeling of community long before buyers move into their new neighborhoods. “[We want buyers to think], ‘I’m reading another reason why I want to move there.’”

Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine and tweets as @freshbrewedit.

Twitterers to Watch  (updated 12/5/08)
The "@" symbol designates a Twitter user name and can be used to post public messages via Twitter to that particular user.

Selected Builders Using Twitter
Casas Del Oso Luxury Homes: @casasdeloso
Centex: @Centex, @CentexIR
Del Webb: @DelWebb, @DelWebbChicago
D.R. Horton: @drhortontampa
Ferris Homes: @FerrisHomes
Fred Williams Homebuilder: @fwhomebuilder 
Lennar: @Lennar, @Lennar_CHS_MBH, @Lennar_Sac, @Lennar_Virginia
M.D. Custom Homes:  @MdCustomHomes
Meritage Homes: @meritagehomes, @legacyhomes, @montereyhomes
Monte Hewett Homes: @montehewett
Pulte: @PulteHomes, @PulteChicago
Schulyer Builders: @schuylerbuilder
SmartHomes: @smarthomes
Wilshire Homes: @homehelper
Windsong Properties: @windsonglife

Other Housing-Related Twitter Users
@AptMarketing: advertising network for apartments
@AtlantaPR: PR firm with builder and developer clients
@austintowers:  covers downtown Austin, Texas, real estate
@builderonline: BUILDER magazine, via Twitter
@chicago_homes: Chicago Tribune real estate news
@chrischeatham: green building lawyer and blogger
@Custom_Arch_LLC: custom solid wood framing arches
@dennisoneil: Internet marketing firm serving home builders
@ebuild: Hanley Wood's source for building products information
@ecohomemagazine: sister publication to BUILDER
@enduraproducts door manufacturer 
@elaineishere: green building expert
@Eric_Urbane: exec at Urbane Apartments, Mich.
@greendecoder: Tennessee-based green building expert
@greenwombat: Fortune magazine writer on sustainability
@identityPR: marketing firm serving home builders and developers
@jaysonmanship: specialist in new home referrals and marketing
@JELDWEN: window and door manufacturer
@johnherbert: green building specialist
@Ladin_Ventures: commercial real estate firm in Minneapolis
@LaurelZ: specializes in apartment marketing
@ltrosien: multifamily consultant and educator
@mdu1109: specializes in multifamily and student housing
@mdutech: multifamily technoloogy experts
@mfguide: multifamily expert
@mynewplace: marketing platform for apartments
@NewWestRealty: real estate firm in Chicago 
@NikkiH: handles PR for Rheem
@noradepalma: Building products PR and social media
@sharishapiro: green building lawyer and blogger
@strongwallgroup: green development firm
@TheHomeDepot: giant home improvement retailer 
@tkotula: promotions and PR director for
@UrbaneApts: Michigan apartment firm
@UrbaneHotList: recently rented units from Urbane Apartments
@30lines: social media resource started by multifamily real estate experts

Is your housing company on Twitter? Email Alison Rice to add your firm to this list. Please include your Twitter "@" name.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Chicago, IL, Atlanta, GA.