Heather Elias, NAR's director of social business practice
The NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® recently welcomed two new communicators into the fold. Heather Elias and Nobu Hata are familiar faces in the RE.net, the informal network of industry professionals who pioneered the use of social media in real estate. Until recently, both were active real estate practitioners, Nobu in Minneapolis and Heather in Loudoun County, Va. On top of their real estate business, the two frequently crisscrossed the country to teach colleagues about how to use social media effectively. Now, they’ve brought their communications expertise “inside” to help NAR grow its social media competency.
Nobu joins the staff as director of digital engagement, working in the Chicago office. Heather joins as director of social business practice, working in the Washington, D.C., office. Together, they’ll expand on the work started by NAR’s first social media director, Todd Carpenter, who left NAR in April for a position with Trulia. I asked Heather and Nobu to tell us about their real estate careers and about their roles at NAR.
How many years did you work in real estate, and what was your best year?
Nobu Hata, NAR's director of digital engagement
Heather: I worked in the business eight years. After the first year, it was evident that we were beginning a market shift. My business was built during the roughest period of decline in the northern Virginia market. My best year in the business was actually this year, which made it a tough decision to transition to this position. So why’d I do it? It’s no secret that I’m passionate about helping REALTORS® become more effective in their businesses, as well as about improving the way that consumers view the real estate industry. My new role gives me a unique opportunity to work toward both.
Nobu: I started in the summer of 1993. Success in the sales end of this industry came easy—I learned from the best! My best year was 2011, and social media was a huge part it.
Looking at your real estate career, what was the hardest part of the job?
Heather: The hardest part of the job for me was the work-life balance. While I was successful in setting boundaries with my clients, I had a difficult time ‘turning it off’ and relaxing at home when I wasn’t supposed to be working.
Nobu: Well, my biggest failure came when I forgot the real-world aspect of this business and failed to attend a closing with a client, a first-time buyer. Literally years of rapport built online disappeared in one horrifying hour for my client. The moment it became real with my client, I wasn’t there, and I regret it. I suppose the hardest part of the job today is that we’re no longer just competing with another agent or brokerage, we’re also competing with information that our customers found at a Web site or on an app—and we have to prove that we add value to all that information they’ve already found.
Do you recall how you got started in social media? Tell me about it.
Nobu: MySpace. Honestly. I wanted to keep track of the bands I love, and MySpace was the best way to do it. The best thing about it was that I could absorb content—a band’s new track—as soon as it was recorded. The real-time aspect of social media was something I knew would change real estate. I just didn’t know how yet. It took me a while to see the “point” to social media in business. I’m a wait-and-see kind of guy, so I watched how my friends and clients were using this stuff before I spent much time in it. When I joined Facebook, my business started to evolve socially. It went from shoot-the-breeze BS to engagement with content to really shutting up and listening to what others had to say. Social media became a huge part of my marketing outreach plan.
Heather: There was an article in REALTOR® Magazine years ago—I think back in 2006—that talked about the Active Rain blogging platform. Being a writer, I jumped in and started bouncing ideas around with other REALTORS® and smart thinkers in the industry. Those interactions led me to Twitter and to establish LoCoMusings [her popular Loudoun County blog, which she says she’ll continue to check in on from time to time]. Everything else grew from there.
What impact did social networking have on your sales?
Nobu: For me, social media had an immediate impact on the referral end of things. Facebook is great for that, especially on the rapport-building part of the relationship. I started a “Good Question!” blog that I used to inform folks. I used Twitter for conversations. Social media became a mechanism for folks to reach out to me conveniently with channels they wanted to use to reach out to me. Shutting up and listening is a huge part of my approach. My business ticked up consistently by 25–30 percent every year until I started this job. Without a doubt, organizing your stream on Facebook, Twitter, or otherwise, is a must. And my “Group A” peeps—consistent referral producers for me—were a huge factor.
Heather: My immediate goals with social media centered around networking with other agents who were blogging. I wanted to glean ideas, see what was working for others, and refine my Web site and blog goals. My use of tools like Twitter and Facebook grew as my consumers’ use of them evolved. Eventually, I was interacting with consumers and local business owners more than other agents, though I have maintained many of those early friendships.
Can you give an example of a relationship (either with a colleague or a client) that started via a social network and resulted in business for you?
Nobu: On Facebook, a friend of mine was having a convo with another friend who was moving from Chicago to Green Bay, Wis. I reached out to my friend, he introduced me, and I made a referral. Never met the guy nor the agent, but I became trusted and earned a referral. I got referrals consistently from Twitter, from the thought leaders in my market. It’s less that I proclaim myself to be a real estate expert; it’s that my peeps online do it for me. Social advocacy was huge for my business.
Heather: Social networking was just one piece of the puzzle for my online marketing strategy. Tools like Facebook and Twitter have helped lead readers to my blog, which led them to reach out to me when they were ready to participate in a real estate transaction. Social networks have also strengthened referrals from clients and friends. In one example, a buyer was given my name by past clients of mine, who made the introduction via Facebook. It was easy for the buyer to validate who I was and get a feel for me as both a businesswoman and a human before we ever met in person.
What do you see other real estate practitioners doing well in the social realm? What are some ways in which you see them tripping up?
Heather: It seems like more agents understand now that they can use social media to help showcase their market expertise and allow their personality to shine through. The ones that don’t get it are still using it like a bullhorn rather than an opportunity for conversation. The first thought needs to be how the consumer is going to receive whatever message you are trying to send.
Nobu: Those who are sharing relevant content with their friends and family and clients are all experiencing success there. Too many listen to what a guru has to say, not what their friends, family and clients have to say. We customize so much in our lives now, and that experience—at least the perception of that experience—needs to translate into the social media relationship. Share your brain. Fill the Google void. There’s never been a better and easier time to do this than now.
The sale of real estate has continued to work in pretty much the same way, despite many attempts in the past couple of decades to introduce disruptive business models. Do you see any big changes coming?
Nobu: Any sales agent who has ever shown properties knows that the human element will never be removed from this business. Any preconceived notions clients have are shattered the moment you point out something and they say, “I didn’t think of that” or you take them to a house and they say, “Wait, this doesn’t look like it did online.” Our expertise and experiences—and our being there—is something no online platform outside of an agent’s control can convey, and it’s our biggest advantage. The first person—or thing, I guess—that captures that human element will truly disrupt our industry.
Heather: Changes in the way our industry operates will be dictated by consumer behavior: What do consumers want and need from you in the transaction, and how can you provide that to them? The answer to that question is a little different for each agent and each market area.
Turning to the association, what’s the most important thing NAR did for you as an agent? What could the association do better?
Heather: I truly appreciated the conferences. I’ve attended the Midyear meetings for the last five years, and it was a great learning and networking opportunity. I’m very much looking forward to Annual in Orlando this year.
Nobu: NAR gave me an awareness of the big picture of our industry but not until I got involved. We’ve been talking ”experiences” in this interview. That awareness experience needs to be shot top to bottom through local influencers—the local association, the broker, and the agent. We need to reach them with an authentic voice that resonates with them. We need a free-flowing communications stream. And that’s what we’ll do with our social business plan.
How would you rate NAR’s efforts in the social networking realm up to this point? What has it done well? What could the organization do better?
Nobu: NAR’s efforts have been great! You’ve got to understand that when my predecessor was hired, this was all pretty new. Getting content out to associations, brokers, and agents is something NAR has done well. The trick now is coordinating our messaging via social and other vehicles in a way, again, that resonates with the members. It’s OK if that communication comes from a local association with a better understanding of the issue locally rather than from NAR. Making two productive former agents—Heather and me—part of the process is a huge step forward. And letting NAR’s social media efforts evolve as the association, broker, and agent evolve will be critical going forward.
Heather: NAR has come a long way in establishing social media channels of communication with members. My goal is to make more of our knowledgeable staffers available to members through these channels.
There’s a segment of members with a sense of hostility toward NAR and another probably larger segment with little awareness of NAR. In what way will you try to engage those segments (if at all)? And what was your view of NAR when you were a practicing real estate agent?
Heather: Honestly, my first job will be to listen. There are always reasons for hostility or for non-awareness, and I’m sure NAR could learn from the opinions and experiences of both of those groups.
Nobu: My NAR point of view wasn’t a good one, initially. I was that guy throwing stones. My local association saw a skillset in me that was missing and asked me to get involved—and my view changed. In the end, a fundamental lack of awareness is what both segments you mentioned have in common, and I will share my stories with them. I was just like them, after all.
Why does an organization the size of NAR need two people whose primary focus is social media? What are your key goals? Since you’re treading new ground in a sense, how will you know whether you’ve been a success?
Heather: While Nobu’s focus will be more external, mine is definitely more internal. Part of my responsibility will include helping staff use social media for engagement with membership. Another will be working to include the social component in our overall communications strategy, rather than having social media as a separate unit. We’ll enable sharing of information across departments using social, so that those messages will reach members more easily.
Nobu: As a member, I assumed NAR was a much larger organization.Heather and I will be two of only 330 staffers, 330 people for nearly 1 million members. We’ll work together—Heather from a content-curation perspective and me from a broker- and agent-directed perspective—to facilitate a free-flowing stream of communications. Successes would include increased member advocacy, greater ”shares” and “likes” of content, and more member engagement at the local, state, and national levels. We also want to facilitate analytics data sharing throughout the organization. Overall, our goal is to get the expertise and content of all 330 NAR staff to the asssociations, the brokerages, and the members and then to mobilize those audiences and get the association, brokerage, and member insights back up the chain.
Stacey is vice president of business-to-business communications for the National Association of REALTORS®, overseeing the association's key communications with NAR members and REALTOR® association executives.