Jeff Auchter has spent the better part of the past 25 years relying on conventional marketing and advertising to help sell new homes and communities. But Auchter, who's now vice president of marketing for Centerline Homes in Florida, says his company has been steadily shifting its focus toward social media and has attracted its share of consumers' interest: Centerline has 102,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 1,100 “friends” on Facebook.

“It’s an exciting new frontier,” said Auchter, who participated on a panel about social media at the International Builders' Show in Orlando on January 14. There, he compared social media to entitling a piece of land. “You might not get an immediate payback, but you’re laying the groundwork for the future.”

More builders are trying to figure out how social media can connect them to customers. And the seminar touched on a number of issues that have perplexed builders investigating these media: How much does it cost? How time consuming is it to produce and manage? Does it actually sell homes?

Those builders whose companies have made social media work, says Kelly Bosetti, president of CEO Marketing Group, who moderated the panel discussion, have a defined strategy to create and tie in social media to other marketing, and to engage their customers and trade partners. Successful builders also track the effectiveness of social media consistently and rigorously.

“If you’re not measuring this, you’re wasting your time,” said Jim Deitch, COO of Southern Crafted Homes, which serves the Tampa, Fla., market. Deitch manages his company’s social media efforts himself (he spends 15 minutes four times a day on this), and said social media currently drive 25% of Southern Crafted’s website traffic. His company has 10,000 followers on two Facebook pages.

The panelists agreed that one of the keys to any social media campaign is creating content that will get people excited and willing to exchange information about their homes and communities with their friends. “The message has to have value for people looking at it,” said Auchter. Southern Crafted gets about 16% of its sales from military personnel, “and we try to engage that audience based on their interests,” said Deitch, who noted as well that it’s common for these customers to share information about his company with their friends via Facebook.

“Contests are my favorite,” said Kathie McDaniel, vice president of sales and marketing for Highland Homes in Lakeland, Fla. Her company does a contest a month on Facebook, which have included asking owners to post pictures of their kitchens or yards and then asking followers to vote on which is best; or offering a cruise to followers who provide Highland with the most referrals. Highland’s latest contest encourages salespeople to attract new Facebook followers for the company.

All of the panelists agreed that social media are valuable tools for attracting Realtor interest in their products and communities. Eleven hundred of Deitch’s 5,000 “friends” on his personal Facebook page are Realtors, he said. And Highland offers Realtors a 1% commission bonus if they register via one of the builder’s blogs.

McDaniel said her company is spending about $5,000 per month on marketing, almost all of it on social media. And something must be working because 22% of this builder’s current contracts came in from social media directly to its model center. Deitch said his expenses are limited to the $750 per month he pays CEA Marketing to help create, manage, and monitor his social media content.

“You can do what you need for very little money,” added Auchter, who joked that he had “no staff and no money” for social media. In the first week of January, Centerline did a basic social media campaign for one of its communities. It spent $210, which produced 289 hits “and got 10 to 12 extra registrations on our website,” he said.

He noted as well that his company’s CEO, Craig Perry, recently did a video interview with one of Centerline’s preferred lenders about how consumers can get a mortgage. That interview got posted on YouTube.

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.