To promote a free concert at one of its models, Betenbough Homes used an inexpensive Facebook ad, through which it earned 150 new followers.
Photos: Courtesy Betenbough Homes To promote a free concert at one of its models, Betenbough Homes used an inexpensive Facebook ad, through which it earned 150 new followers.

Late last year, Jeri Tew-Toolan, president at Tew Construction in Crestview, Fla., was having a friendly disagreement with her Realtor. "I prefer electric fireplaces. My Realtor prefers gas. I figure, we live in Florida. You can run an electric unit and have the ambiance, but a gas one can send you running from the room." At the time, she was working on Tew’s entry for her area’s annual Parade of Homes, so she decided to pose the question to her Facebook page followers in a poll. "They overwhelmingly chose gas," she recalled. "It was a good thing I asked."

The experience gave her an idea—one that parade-goers can tour this week at the Okaloosa and Walton counties Parade of Homes. Tew’s submission is titled "The House that Facebook Built," for which many of the design elements—including roof color, window color, granite choice, cabinetry, paint, front and interior doors, living room ceiling treatment, and mantelpiece—were chosen by Facebook users. For each survey, Tew-Toolan would direct voters to a Facebook photo album with pictures of each option, and then garner responses through Facebook’s polling tool. In the process, Tew’s Facebook followers grew from about 200 to more than 800.

With more than 750 million users, Facebook has gotten far too big for businesses to ignore. The tricky part is it’s an advertising platform that doesn’t want to be one. "It’s almost imperative that we don’t focus on sales and instead just keep people engaged," says Joe Clark, Internet community manager at M/I Homes’ Charlotte division. "If all you post is plans and homes you’re trying to sell, it’s really boring and people don’t want to engage." Instead, Clark focuses on giveaways, photos, and the occasional virtual tour.

Steve Whaley, corporate marketing manager at Crestview Hills, Ky.–based Fisher Homes—which has garnered a staggering 4,970 Facebook followers—agrees. "We’ve shifted to engaging with fans and putting up engaging content. We provide a variety of content, because we don’t want to be constantly pushing product." Whaley’s posts range from ticket giveaways to household tips, such as the best way to clean windows. "You want things that will reengage followers with the brand so that your brand is always top of mind."

"People love photos of remodels, when they’re able to see the before and after," says Tew-Toolan, who adds that she also got a great response for posting that it was National Hug Your Cat Day. "People loved it! You never know what people will respond to."

Like Tew-Toolan, Kendall Wheeler, digital marketing coordinator at Lubbock, Texas–based Betenbough Homes, has gotten great response from posting photos and asking for followers’ opinions. "People really want to be asked what they think. I posted a question about tubs, asking if people would prefer to have storage around their tub or a unit with jets. We got about 25 responses. The most interaction I get is when I ask people what they like and what they want to see in homes."

Betenbough has also had success gathering "likes" through Facebook advertisements for events, such as a concert held at one of its model homes last summer. "We used the musician’s photo and name in the ads and pushed people to like our page for more details," Wheeler says. Facebook allows users to bid on what they want to pay for each click their ad receives; Betenbough paid 72 cents per click, and over the 17 day campaign generated 150 new page likes for a total cost of $100. "Facebook also has great segmenting tools," she says. "You can focus on gender, age, whether someone just got married, so we can really choose who we want to be putting our ads in front of."

In addition to promoting its own events, Frisco, Texas–based Darling Homes has gained followers by promoting the developers it is partnering with and even local bloggers, says Michael Holmberg, Darling’s e-commerce sales manager. "We simply say, ‘Hey, check out this blogger. She’s really great about real estate news in the Houston market,’ and even though we don’t ask for it, they will often intuitively then promote you."

All the builders interviewed agreed that Facebook likes often don’t translate directly into sales overnight, but that the effort of creating an online community boosted brand awareness and image and engaged both previous buyers and potential customers. "It helps us build the community without using a hammer," Clark says, adding that many of M/I’s previous buyers continue to be very active on its Facebook page, which has helped facilitate community involvement. "Now, when you go into their community, the salespeople can have prospects meet the neighbors and they’ll give the prospect rave reviews."

Going forward, Tew-Toolan says she plans to pump more effort into Facebook than the company’s website. "It seems like people pay more attention to Facebook than to your website," she says. "They’re on it anyway. You never know when people are going to get the bug. And when they do, you want to be in their space."

Claire Easley is senior editor–online at Builder.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Greenville, SC.