Tech Spec is going to take a bit of a left turn here, away from HVAC systems and insulation and CAD-CAM and, hopefully, not straight into a ditch.

What we're talking about this month is social media. There's been a whole lot of chatter on this topic in the home building industry of late, and since I spent 11 years as the chief editor of the leading magazine for professional media buyers and planners, I figured I'd see if I couldn't help clear up a bit of what seems unnecessary confusion.

A big problem with social media is that many people doing much of the talking about it are trying to sell something, trying to siphon business from elsewhere. Social media can be a useful selling tool. But it is not a suitable replacement for traditional media.

Social media includes any of a slew of Internet-based services that are user-programmed, such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, et al. A positive about these outlets is that people tend to become more engaged with them than with other forms of media. A negative is that many of these people consider advertising an intrusion into “their” space. The trick to using it for marketing purposes is getting invited.

Bowen Family Homes ( in Atlanta recently jumped into social media, bringing the marketing firm mRelevance in, setting up spaces on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and creating a company blog. It puts up videos of new homes for sale, updates on activities of local interest, contest promotions, and general product news.

The program, in only its fourth month, has attracted 200 fans on Facebook and 300 followers on Twitter (many of them Realtors), according to Kelly Kenton Fink, MIRM, regional marketing director for Bowen. “We can't yet say, ‘This person definitely bought a home because they saw us on Facebook,'” says Fink. “We are driving traffic to our company Web site.” And, she adds, “I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we can put out a press release on the person [home buyer] who found us on Facebook.” The social media program was hatched after the elimination of all other media plans save an occasional new-home guide. “We are keeping our budgets fairly low,” Fink explains, which is why the company stopped its TV branding campaign last summer and dropped out of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in September. She believes the traditional media plans will come back at some point, “depending on how our budgets go. I think there's a place for different types of media.”

From a brand-advertising standpoint, Bowen may have made a critical mistake. Granted, home building is not the same as consumer product marketing, but if the goal is to brand the product, then the traditional advertising, particularly TV, should have been maintained.

Here's why. “It takes an average of four times as long to come back when you start advertising again,” says Erwin Ephron, a leading authority on media buying and planning based in New York. That's a lot of spending to re-establish brand awareness that could have been kept up at a minimal level. Ephron has nothing against social media, but he says it is hard to manage and almost impossible to measure in terms of results because the research necessary to do so does not exist.

Here are some facts about social media:

  • It skews young and female, though the gap is narrowing. Good for entry-level, but this is not the way to reach upper-income, successful men—or women.
  • It is ephemeral. Remember My-Space? It just fired 30 percent of its staff. Today's social media is tomorrow's AOL.
  • Like most else on the Internet, you have no idea who you are reaching. A click is just a click; you know nothing about that person's desire or ability to buy a new home.
  • Still, here's perhaps the most important fact. It costs little to nothing, except, of course, for content production. See you on Twitter. Well, maybe not.