October, 2011
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

What is Social Media?


The generally-accepted definition of social media is "a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content."

Prior to the advent of Web 2.0, Web content was normally static and one-way: an uploaded Web page could only be modified by the administrator of that page. Reader interaction was limited to sending an email or, if the site owner installed it, entering a comment in a "guest book."

Since the early 2000s, the growth of social media sites has been exponential. From the early days of MySpace (started in 2006) to now, just five years later, the uses (and misuses) of social networking have shaped how the world interacts and has even played a role in world history. In February 2011, the revolution in Egypt was organized and managed largely through social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, which allowed rapid communication and sharing of information between groups. The advent of smart phones has meant that social media is quite literally at anyone's fingertips.

The counterpart to social media is called "Industrial Media." It is comprised of traditional news and information sources: newspapers, television, corporate websites. Content on most of these traditional platforms tends not to be updated as quickly as social media; often by the time a story appears in the newspaper it has been widely disseminated via Twitter and broadcast on radio and television.

There are two ways information on the Internet is shared: Pull and push. In the early days of the Web, the only method was pull: you had to actively visit a website to read the information, and had to choose which pages to view. In other words, you had to pull the information out of the Internet — which also meant you had to know where to look for it. This would never work for social media: it would be like constantly having to call your best friend to ask what he or she was up to. Instead, social media relies mostly on the push model: Based on your preferences, information is immediately "pushed out" to you, for you to read and process at your convenience. Examples of push technology include email, instant messaging, news alerts and blog feeds.

Why should this matter to home inspectors?

There is an old saying that a customer who is happy with a product or service will tell a few of his or her friends. A customer who is unhappy will tell everyone. Social media has given unhappy customers a convenient place to complain about things they don't like, very quickly. It's often difficult to tell who is complaining with the hope of getting some free stuff from a company, who is genuinely displeased, or even who is just joking. The written word removes the social cues of facial expression and tone of voice.

If your company name appears in a social media outlet, you'd better be aware of it. You can do this by setting up a "Google Alert" (google.com/alerts). Once you're signed up, you'll get an email when your search term appears on a page that Google is indexing that day. However, this won't reveal if your company name comes up on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter; you need to monitor those frequently, especially Twitter as it can take mere minutes for messages to spread like wildfire (called "going viral"). In today's fast-paced world, people are expecting feedback from companies faster than ever. You should strive to prioritize and post responses to any tweet mentioning your company as soon as possible. This can be aided by having an application on your smart phone that sends you a message whenever your company name comes up (another example of push technology).

Using social media for marketing

People like to buy things, but they don't like being sold. The end purpose of marketing via social networking is to establish yourself as a "trusted source of information," rather than someone who is trying to sell a product or service. It takes time and effort to establish such a level of authority on any topic, but the benefits of making the effort can be enormous.

The perils and pitfalls can also be equally spectacular. Careers have been ruined on the basis of a single post on Twitter. The comedian Gilbert Gottfried was severely criticized for posting a joke after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and was fired from his job with AFLAC (which does 75 percent of its business in Japan). Rep. Anthony Wiener (D-NY) was forced to resign after he accidently sent a message over Twitter that he had intended to be a private (or Direct) message, a mistake that exposed a pattern of sending lewd messages to young women.

Invite interaction with your clients. Even if you've only got a handful of followers, write quality content. Also, it's important to tailor the content to the platform. For Twitter, keep it brief because you only have 140 characters. For Facebook, you have more flexibility, but try to limit your posts to three sentences. While it's tempting to craft one message and post it to multiple sites, that's not the best way to use the platforms.

The whole point of social media is that it is social. You are trying to interact with your audience, rather than simply address them. Use the sites to ask questions of your followers, and try to engage them in a conversation. There are programs and websites that will allow you to write a week's worth of messages and schedule them to go out at precise dates and times… but you run the risk of being disconnected from your own message. You might get a response to your message saying, "Great, tell me more!" and have no idea what to say because you don't remember what you had scheduled to post.

Who is your audience?

Your messages need to be crafted to address your target audience. For most home inspectors, this means consumers and real estate professionals. What do they want to know?
For consumers, they might appreciate information about home safety. So, follow the news about product recalls and send out a message to your followers if one turns up. Be sure to include a link so they can find out more.

For real estate practitioners, you might talk about interesting staging techniques you've seen during your inspections. Or, because both professions involve a lot of travel, write about an interesting restaurant you've found for quick lunches.

About posting links: Don't only link to your own website. Sure, you're trying to drive traffic to your website, but remember that the goal of social media is to be genuine and to be perceived as an authority and a trusted adviser.

Next month: How to get started and a comparison of media.