If you think builders aren’t using social media, you might want to reconsider. According to separate recent online seminars by Internet marketing experts Mollie Elkman of Group Two Advertising in Philadelphia and Brad Bombardiere of Reality Concepts in Colorado, anywhere from 59% to 70% of home builders are using social media.

But using online marketing strategies such as social networking sites and service doesn’t necessarily mean builders and their firms feel confident about their efforts and comfortable with their results. Social media may be free, but many question the return on investment for a Facebook page. They wonder whether it’s really worth the time involved to tweet on Twitter. They shy away from blogging.

Such unease is understandable, especially after such a difficult downturn. But builders who want to thrive in the recovery need to know these new tools. “Social media is a shift in how people discover, read, and share news, information, and content,” said Elkman, whose Modern Marketing blog discusses this new world on Builder Online.

The good news for builders is that as social media and online marketing matures, it becomes much easier to chart, execute, and evaluate an online marketing strategy that works for your home building company. Here’s what to do.

1. Make your website the best it can be. Your website is the foundation of your online marketing efforts, so your content needs to connect with buyers and inspire them to action, according to Bombardiere and Elkman. He said to forget “Contact Us”—have a “Buy Now!” information tab instead. Promote various homes that are available or “coming soon.” Post photos and descriptions of your homes. Publish a blog that covers your homes, your communities, and other news and information that might be interesting or relevant to past customers or potential buyers.

2. Get to know Google. Google has become the dominant online search engine, which means your website needs to be optimized for Google to get the traffic you want from computer users simply going online to search for new homes in your markets, Bombardiere said. This is called “natural search,” and it’s among the least expensive ways to get traffic online. Your website administrator or marketing firm specializing in search engine optimization (SEO) should be able to help you with this. What else boosts a site’s elusive but all-important Google rankings? Relevancy and update frequency, which can both be improved through social media tools and blog posts.

3. Be smart about pay-per-click. Paid search, where your company’s name and URL, appears at the top or right side of search results for specific keywords (“new homes Chicagoland”) can help you build your online traffic and therefore your sales. But such campaigns can also be costly and ineffective when excessively general keywords (“new homes”) are chosen, said Elkman. “Look at the list of words again,” she said, and consider including school district names, neighborhoods, or counties where your new homes are located.  Bombardiere also recommends including “negative keywords” that help your paid search ad show up only for the most appropriate users. For example, if you want to connect with luxury home buyers, you may want to exclude “first-time buyers” in your paid search selections. If your ideal pay-per-click keywords are prohibitively expensive, Bombardiere advises establishing a “stealth site” with a URL using those words instead, such as www.luxurynewhomesEvanston.com, for the affluent Chicago suburb. You’ll get the traffic from anyone who searches on those keywords, and you can create a small specialty site on that URL that connects back to your main website.

4. Discover where you belong. “You want to find a community on the Web you can connect with, that you can build relationships with,” said Elkman. For builders, that means current, past, and future customers and business partners, such as real estate agents, contractors, or suppliers.

5. Actively promote your social media efforts. Colorful icons for the big three (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) let online visitors know where they can find you and your content. Various widgets will also let you incorporate these tools into your website, so that your Twitter updates publish automatically on your site, not just on Twitter. Integrating these various channels helps you create buzz, driving traffic to your website and “also drive up the importance of your website on the Internet,” Bombardiere said. (See “Get to know Google,” above.)

6. Match your message to the audience. As you venture into social media and online marketing, you may find that you connect with different segments of your customer base, depending on the technology in question (Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, etc.). Overall, Elkman said that Facebook tends to be the most successful social media tool for builders, who can post new-home photos and videos for would-be buyers as well as connect personally with customers. She also noted that builders with a strong real estate agent base often find Twitter especially effective and that active-adult buyers seem to respond well to builder-produced YouTube videos that provide online tours of a home or model. Reach out to your audience across these different channels to find out what type of information they want from you.

7. Use social media to drive traffic to your website. Facebook may change its rules and Twitter may one day cease to exist, so you need to have a permanent base: your website, which remains under your control.  “You have to get the traffic to your website, which you then convert into sales,” said Elkman.

8. Engage your fans and followers. If a customer has decided to follow, “friend,” or “fan” your firm, they are interested in learning more about your company and the homes you build. To establish a stronger connection, start a conversation with them. Post photos of two kitchens and ask which people prefer, Elkman suggested. Inquire which of two options they like best.  Ask them to pick their favorite feature in their new home.

9. Be relevant. Social media “isn’t just about selling your product; it’s about being relevant,” Elkman said. What does that mean?  First, don’t spam your fans and followers with constant promotions and self-congratulatory announcements. Instead, share information, ideas, and resources that may be useful to those audiences. Tell them about upcoming events—even if they’re not sponsored by your firm. Pass along local news about their neighborhood. Share insider tips on great places to eat, visit, shop, and explore in their new community. Offer helpful advice on seasonal maintenance or enhancements at their home.

10. Don’t forget about mobile users. Do you know what your company’s website looks like on an iPhone? A Blackberry? An Android? If you don’t, you should—and soon. While smart phones currently represent only a small portion of the cell phone market (10%, according to Bombardiere), the number of such devices and consumers’ comfort with them is increasing rapidly. Just consider these stats: 100 million of Facebook’s 400 million users access the social network on a mobile device, according to Elkman. Google has begun tracking iPhone traffic on websites, Bombardiere said. And six out of every 10 books sold on Amazon today is a Kindle e-book, Elkman said. “For consumers today, it’s all about convenience,” she said. “You need to go where they are.” That means creating a simpler, multimedia-free version of your website that works with smart phones, automatically switching to the mobile version when it’s accessed by an iPhone or similar gadget.  “We will need to adapt for that market, and if we don’t do it now, we will be behind the curve,” Bombardiere warned.

Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine.

Resources
Click here to register for Mollie Elkman’s presentation from the Presidential Online Seminar.

Click here for more information on registering for Brad Bombardiere’s “Internet Marketing That Works” Webinar from Shinn Consulting’s Home Builder University.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Denver, CO, Philadelphia, PA, Chicago, IL.