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Close your eyes.

Imagine you are no longer in the real estate business.

You are 31 years old. You’ve been in the workforce for ten years and are, at last, prepared to buy a home.

You’ve starting to poke around online. You’ve downloaded a few real estate apps. You lie in bed at midnight after watching Breaking Bad and check out school ratings.

You are being your savvy Gen-Y self.

Now, while you’re still this stranger, answer these questions:

Would you “Like” a real estate company on Facebook?

Would you follow a real estate company on Twitter?

If you did Like or Follow a real estate company, what would you expect to happen as a result of that action?

Hold your horses

We’ve worked with hundreds of real estate companies. Most want to know “what to do about social”.

In most cases our answer is nothing, for now.

In the emergency room triage that is most brokers’ digital reality, social is the kid with a fever. It’s important to get to him, but he’s gonna wait while the serious cases get handled.

Yes, of course there are exceptions to this rule. And I don’t intend to diminish the undeniable power of Facebook, Twitter, Google + and other social channels. In fact, the 1000WATT brand was built in these places. I get it.

What I am saying is that unless you know exactly what you want to do, who you want to do it with, and why you want to do it at all, you might want to hold your horses.

Many brokerages jump on social platforms because they offer the digital path of least resistance. Improving a website often leads down the road to vendor hell. Developing a mobile website or apps involves time, budget and people that don’t exist.

“Social” on the other hand, well…let’s just get rolling!

But please: don’t roll until you are ready to rock. There are real consequences.

The dumbing of your brand

You probably see this stuff in your newsfeed all the time:

Like this if you hate disease, poverty and murder.

PB&J or grilled cheese?

Do you ever do spring cleaning in the fall?

This is state-of-the-art social marketing in real estate these days – a sort of infantilized back and forth between brands and people.

A digital pat-a-cake.

But hey, this stuff works, right?

Sure it does. Like Taco Bell “works” as dinner.

If you were selling the attention of consumers who may or may not be in the market for a home to advertisers, like Zillow or Trulia, this sort of thing might make sense. I didn’t wake up this morning wanting to know what Jon Bon Jovi was doing with his condo, but, hey, I’ll click on that and won’t think any less of Zillow for having done so.

But a real estate brokerage, which helps Realtors help people buy and sell homes, is about more than attention. It’s about transactions and trust.

A higher degree of care is therefore required. The content – the words, pictures, videos and data – that you push through social channels must be something more than frivolous ephemera aimed at building follower or Like counts for the sake of… what, exactly?

Mixed messages

Ask any broker who their customer is and they’ll say “my agents”.

Yet, most of what brokerage companies do with social is aimed at consumers like the 31 year-old you became 5 minutes ago. The one for whom the notion of Liking or following a real estate company feels unnatural.

What usually ensues, then, is an awkward dance of consumer-focused content being interacted with by a company’s own agents. When this happens, the company starts posting photos of the office picnic, or caravan reminders. At this point the few consumers who do come upon this stuff amid the pretty kitchen pictures and quick polls have even less reason to engage than they already did.

This is another reason why “doing something about social” without a strategy is dicey.

But thinking about this does bring to mind a couple of strategies a brokerage might, upon careful consideration, pursue.

First, a strategy of helping agents engage consumers might be more sensible than a confused brokerage-to-consumer-but-really-to-agents mess. Brands have always been second to people in real estate, so why not help your people make more connections?

Second, a pure broker-to-agent play makes sense. If a broker’s Likes and follows are mostly their own agents anyway, why not get serious about this? A properly moderated company Facebook group can be very effective. Same with a Twitter account aimed specifically at agents. Think about a stream of in-house or pocket listings, or daily mortgage rate movements.

Know your customer, know your audience.

Doing it smart

All of my concerns and caveats notwithstanding, there are a small number of brokerages that have managed to create and execute on effective social strategies at a company or brand level.

There are also many brokerages that have elected not to carpet bomb Pinterest, and are doing just fine.

Over the course of the next few months I am going to highlight them here, teasing out their thought process, what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they measure success.

Stay tuned.