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What do burritos, spas, REALTORS®, and 33 million consumers have in common?

Thursday, April 7, 2011  
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By Jeremy Conaway

For real estate brokers across the country one of the newest, and most difficult, concepts to live with is "C-level life.” This peaceful sounding phrase, recently coined by experts, has come to represent a whole new reality for businesspersons and entrepreneurs from virtually every industry in the American economy.

"C-level life” is a tag for "complete consumer control” and for the real estate industry, C-level life has arrived. Consumers now have unprecedented access to excess: entertainment, infotainment, utilitainment, and everything in between. It has put chief marketing officers, and their marketing minions, in the hot seat. It is creating a whole new challenge for brokers, a new opportunity for agents and a wake up call for the industry.

Consumers now take time to inform every interested ear about the options around town (and around the world): who serves the best burrito, which spa’s package is better than expected, and which REALTOR® actually did what they promised.

Whether C-level life is a road to opportunity or a path to destruction depends completely upon the perspective and response of individual brokers and agents. For the traditional practitioner who covets the memory of the 1985 business model, social media like Yelp.com will hold little potential.

However for the contemporary broker or agent who is willing to recognize that most of the benefits of the traditional model barely survived the last century, the new consumer-controlled experience represented by Yelp is filled with new and exciting potential and opportunities. For this group it is just a matter of getting started on a new path to success.

The first leg of this new course involves the firm institutionalizing of their understanding relative to who the consumers are, how they think, and what they want from their real estate experience. That cumbersome term "institutionalizing” emphasizes the fact that it is not enough to merely understand what today’s consumer is doing.

In order to be consumer centric a firm must incorporate appropriate service, communications, and relationship responses based on C-level life expectations. Joining and participating in the Yelp experience — as a consumer, community member, and service provider — is one such appropriate response.

Yelp.com is, in many ways, a miniature of the social media empowered world of today’s consumer. Understanding and, more importantly, appreciating its many characteristics, rather than judging and isolating them, will be key to understanding both the nature and the meaning of life for today’s consumer. The motivation behind this article is to assist the reader in gaining an appreciation of Yelp, and an understanding of the role that it is playing in the new marketplace.

Simply put, Yelp allows consumers to share the experiences they've had with local businesses, and lets business owners share information about their businesses with their customers. Yelp is a social media.

Yelp provides online local search capabilities for its visitors. A typical search includes what the user is seeking (e.g. a barber shop) and the location from which the search is to be performed, entered as a specific address, neighborhood, city/state combination, or zip code. Each business listing result contains a five-point rating, reviews from other site visitors, and details such as the business address, hours, accessibility, and parking. Site visitors can aid in keeping the business listings up to date, with moderator approval. Business owners can also update their own business' listing information. It is this two-way interaction that makes Yelp special.

In order to establish the relevance of these activities in the eyes of the real estate industry, readers should appreciate that real estate brokerages and agents are two of the fast-growing areas of interest on the Yelp site. In almost every market in the country, consumers are increasingly using Yelp to share information regarding their real estate service experiences. More specifically, over the past several months more than 33 million consumers have participated in the Yelp community.

Because review writing is an art form in the Yelp community, these reviews are both artful and informative. By the way, 85 percent of the reviews posted on Yelp are positive in nature, which throws a wrench in the cogs of the cyber-conspirator lobby.

Yelp listings and related content are organized by city and a multi-tier categorization system. Content and listings can also be discovered through categorized reviews via Yelp member profiles and their review lists. Maps, leveraging Google maps, show reviewed businesses to further aid in the search and discovery process.

Yelp has gone even further than other social media sites in its effort to create the perfect social media universe. Recognizing that today’s 18- to 48-year-old consumer wants to create, enjoy, and harvest relationships, the site combines local reviews and social networking functionality to create a highly effective and rewarding local online community.

Moreover by adding social web tools to user reviews the site has created an almost "real life” reputation system (another millennium generation expectation). Site visitors can see which contributing users (including real estate service providers) are the most popular, respected, and prolific, how long each has been a member, and which have personal interests similar to their own. Strong peer feedback tools, and the featured placement of popular reviews on the site and in local newsletters, help motivate contributors.

Yelp also applies a "First to Review" reward system to stimulate a competition among contributing members, further motivating the creation of reviews and adding to the site's business coverage. This feature should contribute greatly to the site’s growing real estate service review sector.

The company further encourages consumer participation and strengthens its online community through off-line events (read parties) at nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and cultural venues in various cities for its most active and sustained contributors, referred to as "Elite" members. In return, these members receive a special badge on their personalized page for every year they author a specific number of reviews or contribute to the improvement of the online community. The concept is meant to indicate that the user is a trusted author of business reviews. To gain Elite status, it is often helpful to be nominated by other Elite users, but recognition is bestowed when one writes useful, funny, or cool reviews so members can vote on those reviews. Again, it is articulation, not negativity, that designates a winner here.

Finally, the site has a forum for online socialization and discussion of local businesses and events. In short Yelp is a multifaceted media community.

So here is an opportunity for every brokerage and agent in the country to invest 30 minutes in a free opportunity to engage 33 million new consumers. By investing another 30 minutes each week, they can become a full and contributing member of the Yelp community and further their return on this investment.

Take a few moments and sign up right now. We can meet this challenge. Let’s get cracking.

Written by Jeremy Conaway, president of RECON Intellegence Services and frequent ORRA organizational consultant.


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