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Photos: Istvan Banyai

A 30-something woman named Brigitte wanders through Trumark Homes’ models at its Wyeth Cove community in Upland, Calif. Moving from room to room, she offers humorous and occasionally snarky observations—“Oh, look, crown molding.”; “These hallway closets are huge!!”—that parody Realtors who gush rapturously over a model’s every feature. Brigitte pokes fun at the oversized lamps and incongruous “art” that adorn the family room. She’s impressed with the “awesome” driveway and “giant” front door. She expresses her love for the kitchen island while admitting she can’t cook. She even paces off the distance between the house and a nearby park to test Trumark’s claim that it’s within 178 feet.

Brigitte the potential home buyer is actually Brigitte Erickson, an actress who co-owns Tower 26, a film production company in Santa Monica, with her husband Daniel. The couple—apartment dwellers in real life—videotaped this model “tour” for Trumark Homes, which has been running the four-minute spot on YouTube for the past several months. As of mid-October, 559 viewers had seen it, and one of the goals of this video is to build a following not so much around Trumark but Brigitte herself, says Kelly Borgen, executive vice president for Roxburgh, the builder’s ad agency.

In fact, any resemblance between this video tour and a typical commercial is purely coincidental. For one thing, Trumark Homes’ name is barely noticeable. And, how many builders would subject their products and brand to unscripted, improvised commentary that, while never nasty or derogatory, is tinted with playful sarcasm? But maybe because it’s so seemingly offhanded and unvarnished, the video is effective in ways that conventional ads can’t be, and is just as likely—if not more so—to inspire empathetic viewers to visit the models themselves.

More and more, social media websites such as YouTube are emerging as important poles supporting builders’ marketing tents. That’s particularly true of the Irvine, Calif.–based Trumark, which as it expands has been rebranding communities for mostly younger buyers, and now includes in its arsenal to reach those customers a blog, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account.

Social media, as these and other digital communication tools are known generically, are “becoming part of the mainstream,” says Trumark’s principal Michael Maples. “People use Facebook to see if they like you or not. They want a company that has soul, and [social media] allows them to observe what your company is really about.”

Builders are slowly revising their perceptions about social media being time consuming to sustain and difficult to track. Builders that dip into these waters also realize that social media don’t sell houses, at least not in the traditional ways other advertising and marketing do. Social media’s power lies in its informality and frequency. They provide common ground for two-way sharing between a brand and a prospect, and the opportunity for a company to harness the enthusiasm of its customers as they use social media avenues to spread the word about the builder either directly (check out the latest news in my new-home neighborhood) or indirectly (look at this great decorating tip).

“The difference between a website and social media is the voice that’s saying it,” observes Rob Bowman, president of Charter Homes in Lancaster, Pa., one of the few builders managing their social media without outside help.

Unlike other forms of promotion, which can cost an arm and a leg, the expense of social media is minimal, which makes experimentation less risky. When Kathie McDaniel joined Lakeland, Fla.–based Highland Homes as vice president of sales and marketing three years ago, the builder’s monthly ad budget was $300,000. But since 2008—when Highland expanded to two counties 50 miles from its headquarters and used YouTube to showcase its models—social media’s share of the firm’s ad spending has risen to 40 percent, and total spending is down to $75,000 per month, “but with greater penetration and higher-quality traffic,” McDaniel says.

In the first week of September, Trumark’s website received 561 visits for its neighborhood in the Granada Hills district of Los Angeles, 190 of them emanating from Google (which the builder pays handsomely for search optimization), and 182 from Facebook, where Trumark posts for free. That same week, the builder’s Wyeth Cove enclave received 382 website visits, 124 from Google, and 158 from Facebook.

PulteGroup maintains a Facebook page for each of its brands—Pulte, Centex, and Del Webb—and all are “in listening mode,” says Deborah Wahl Meyer, the builder’s chief marketing officer. Pulte has used these pages to learn customers’ views on various topics, such as how they envision their retirement. Like other builders using this medium, Pulte encourages its Facebook followers to upload photos of their homes.

Earlier this year, Pulte hired the marketing analytics firm Organic to track consumer awareness of Pulte’s brands. “We’re looking at all consumer data points—news articles, Twitter posts, etc.—to determine what people are talking about,” says Jason Harper, Organic’s group director of marketing intelligence. The goal, says Harper, is to develop behavioral forecasts that Pulte can use to refine its media planning and budgeting.

CULTURAL SHIFT

Social media are changing the rules about how information gets exchanged, about presumptions of privacy, about what defines everything from news to narcissism. Two-fifths of Americans have personal profiles posted on at least one social media platform. As you read this, Twitter users worldwide will exceed 160 million. Facebook could hit 600 million some time next year, at which point it might have already launched what analysts expect will be among the most successful initial public offerings of stock in U.S. history.

Hard-to-keep-up-with advances in mobile technology and software are driving the social media phenomenon. But larger cultural changes are in play here, as more people depend less on once-dominant information sources, such as newspapers and advertising. Instead, they are turning to “authentic” sources such as relatives, neighbors, and people with common interests, with whom they exchange opinions, photos, news, and just about anything else within a virtual universe that’s accessible to all wherever and whenever they want it.

Builders are “managing their reputations” on social media, says Carol Flammer, managing partner of mRelevance, a Cartersville, Ga.–based consultant that’s helping builders develop and execute their programs. Several use social media for public relations (including responses to negative online comments). “You want to show how vibrant your communities are” at a time when new construction is slow, says Dina Gundersen, director of marketing for Atlanta-based Monte Hewett Homes. Jill Fornshell, marketing coordinator for Fischer Homes in Cincinnati, says social media allow her company to spread news about its products and three selling regions that the press might not pick up on. K. Hovnanian’s Landover Group, which oversees its activities in Mid-Atlantic states, is using social media to announce opening phases of communities and identify quick move-in homes, which are of particular interest to Realtors, says Dee Minich, the group’s senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Builders are also turning to social media to rebrand themselves. San Diego–based McMillin Communities recently changed its name from McMillin Cos., and has used Facebook to get the word out, says Web project manager Char-Lou Benedict. Virginia Homes in Powell, Ohio, now calls itself a women-centric builder, “and social media helped us share that with people who we otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach,” says Charles Ruma, Virginia Homes’ president.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.