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Bam! Kick It Up a Notch

Bam! Kick It Up a Notch
Looking for the next best thing in marketing or business? While the old standbys still work fine, it can’t hurt to take a look at these innovative tools.

Are you stuck in a marketing rut? Looking for that next generation of technology that will give you an edge? While the tried-and-true tools aren’t going anywhere, it never hurts to explore a new way of doing business.

And, although some of the tools we suggest aren’t exactly new, we know how easy it is to get stuck in a rut. This may just be the impetus you need to dig your way out.

So, if you’re still using a decade-old cell phone or an ancient laptop, break out of your mold and try something new. It may be time to buy that new piece of hardware, install that new piece of software or adopt that new business strategy.

Here are six ways to boost your business.

1. Instead of a Virtual Tour, Produce a Movie
Of course, the virtual tour isn’t going anywhere. It’s still touted as one of the most cost effective ways to showcase a home online. However, some sales associates are using movies that better highlight the features of a home, and in a way that really makes potential buyers want to watch them.
 
Produced by companies like Hometakes of North Palm Beach, the 2- to 4-minute (depending on the home’s size) movies cost about $600 to $1,200 to produce (depending on the features that are included). The shows also include a 30-second blurb on the listing real estate sales associate and his or her business.

Former real estate professional Colin Forte, Hometakes’ CEO, says he’s created a turnkey process for sales associates who order the movies online via a password-protected account. You can just choose among options like movie length and voiceovers, and then meet the company representative on site the day of the shoot, which takes place within 24 hours of the initial contact and incorporates the use of high-definition video cameras in wide-screen format.

So what makes these short films so great? According to Forte, the equipment alone makes a difference. Using camera stabilizers (which prevent any jarring of the camera) and jib arms (for high, “Extreme Makeover”–like shots), the videographer can create dynamic effects that can’t be duplicated using a digital camera on panoramic mode.

“We make it as close to what you see in the movies as possible,” says Forte. The shooting takes about 90 minutes. [Sales associates] receive a DVD of the film and an online link to the movie, which can be uploaded to the multiple listing service (MLS).

The company can also send the link to Realtor.com for publication. “A virtual tour is good for the Internet, and can’t be used anywhere else,” says Forte. “Movies can be put on DVD, handed out at showings and used to promote the home in a much more effective manner.”

For a list of video home tour companies, see “6 Video Tour Companies”.

2. Instead of a Laptop, Invest in a Tablet PC
Notebook computers have been all the rage for sales associates over the last few years. Mobile, light and fairly inexpensive, these tech tools help you run your business from the road, from your home and from your clients’ homes. But without a portable printer and fax machine, the notebook computer still doesn’t allow you to access, manipulate and sign forms and documents while on the road.

Enter the Tablet PC. A computer shaped like a notebook or a slate that allows you to write on it using a touch screen, this gadget has freed many mobile professionals from the constraints of having to run back to the office to print out forms, fax (or deliver) them to clients or customers and wait for them to come back.

With the Tablet PC, sales associates can use a stylus and operate the computer without the need for a keyboard or mouse, making this technology much more mobile and easier to use than the laptop.

With price tags that exceed the typical laptop by a few hundred dollars (most range from $1,500 to $2,500, depending on brand and capabilities), Tablet PCs are particularly attractive for sales associates who want more portability. “You can do everything that you can on a notebook, and then some,” says Allen F. Hainge, president of Allen F. Hainge CyberStars in Reston, Va. “Handwriting recognition, which allows you to fill out contracts and forms, is particularly useful for [sales associates].”

Using the handwriting recognition, you can fill out forms and e-mail them (using a wireless air card and Internet access) right from the Tablet PC, without having to open up a screen. You can also access the MLS and Web sites from remote locations via the Tablet PC. “It basically provides complete portability and connectivity wherever you go,” says Hainge.  For information on the different Tablet PCs on the market, see “4 Tablet PCs” on left.
 
3. Instead of a Cell Phone, Get Yourself a Smartphone
If you’re tired of using a cell phone to make calls, a laptop to send e-mail and a desktop to access the Internet, consider investing in a smartphone this year. Ranging in cost from $199 to $599 and up, these gadgets combine several functions in one unit, allowing you to throw out all the extra car chargers and syncing cords and instead use just one device to do it all.

Made by manufacturers like RIM (the Blackberry) and Palm (the Treo), these phones are sold through wireless phone providers like Cingular, T-Mobile and Verizon. They have numerous advantages over the traditional cell phone, says technology expert and author Rick Broida, who sees the phones’ ability to access e-mail and the Web as being particularly useful for sales associates.

“They can also run extra software, and often include touch screens for faster, easier operation,” says Broida, who advises sales associates to look for “ease of use” when selecting a smartphone. The Treo is especially popular, he says, because it relies on Palm operating software that is compatible with other third-party software.

“[Sales associates] seeking something slimmer can look to the Motorola Q,” says Broida. “Both models synchronize seamlessly with Microsoft Outlook, another intrinsic advantage to choosing a smartphone over a regular phone.”

A word of caution to those of you who haven’t used a smartphone: don’t expect lightning-fast speeds (particularly when searching the Web or downloading attachments), and brace yourself for a slight learning curve (for using the Treo’s touch screen and stylus, for example) as you acclimate yourself to the new gadget.

For tips on different ways to use your handheld, see Florida Realtor®’s March issue, “10 Handy Handheld Hints” on page 38. For information on the different handhelds on the market, see the box, “Smartphones and PDAs” on page 48.

4. Instead of Flying by the Seat of Your Pants, Develop a Business Plan
If the last few years have found you doing all the business that you can handle without taking the time to create a plan of action, then 2007 is the year to take a step back and reconsider your business strategies. With a slower market descending over the state, you probably have a little extra time—and impetus—to get this done now, rather than later.

And while the words business plan may sound daunting to many of you, the planning process itself is both simple and beneficial. For starters, consider these four important elements: 

  1. A description of your business and business activities: What you do and for whom, any business niches or specialty areas that you plan to take advantage of, etc.
  2. A brief outline of your marketing plan: How you plan to market yourself and your listings in the coming year.
  3. The financing details: How you’ll finance your business over the next year and what that investment will cover. Include any new technology investments that you’d like to make.
  4. The management aspect: How you’ll manage your business over the next year, including information about assistants and other professionals to whom you will outsource work.

Once you’ve thought about these different business aspects, jot down some thoughts, and formulate a plan for the next year (and beyond). The good news is that you don’t have to share it with anyone, but you do have to refer to it regularly to make sure you’re on track.

Tweak it when necessary, and remember to come up with business goals that are attainable and realistic. Make them too far-fetched, and that plan may just end up crumpled in the back of your filing cabinet.

5. Instead of Targeting International Buyers, Look in Your Own Back Yard
No longer a homogenous society, much of the United States is now a multicultural melting pot of diverse races, ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs. More than 35.3 million Hispanics live in our country today, up 57.9 percent since 1990, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The population gain has led to a rise in Hispanic homeownership rates, from 42 percent in 1990 to 46 percent in 2000.

And while the Census takes place only once every 10 years, the assumption is that over the last seven years the multicultural population and homeownership rates have risen even higher. By 2010, three out of every five first-time homebuyers are expected to be minorities.

“There are a lot of untapped pockets of the population out there,” says National Association of Realtors® (NAR) Business Specialties Senior Vice President Janet Branton, who sees too many sales associates looking overseas for buyers when they could be reaching out to those who are right in their own back yards. After all, these local relationships will build a network of referrals—particularly friends and families coming from another country to the United States.

But reaching them takes more than just a postcard campaign, according to Branton, who advises sales associates to get out into the community to find the niche markets where potential first-time homebuyers could benefit from the knowledge and expertise of a real estate professional. Getting your name out there could mean going to cultural meetings, checking out clubs (like the Italian-American club) and attending social events that focus on specific ethnicities.

“If you know that there’s a specific cultural population in your community, look at its calendar of social events,” says Branton, who advises brokers to recruit members of such communities onto their teams as yet another way to attract potential clients and customers from the group. “Hiring someone can give you instant entry into the community, and help overcome any language barriers that might exist.”

But, if you do want to break into the international market, check out the article “Deciphering Culture Codes.”
 
6. Instead of Hiring a Full-Time Assistant, Use a Virtual Assistant
When the time comes to hire help, many sales associates instinctively begin looking for a part-time or full-time assistant to help with the growing workflow. To them, Michael Russer says, “Stop, take a step back and think about what you’re doing.”

Consider that you’ll be going from solo practitioner to manager, for one, and also that you’ll have to pay this person on a regular basis, regardless of whether or not there’s work for him or her to do.

Russer, CEO of REVA Teams, a Pleasanton, Calif.–based virtual assistant (VA) organization for the real estate industry, and president of Russer Communications in Santa Barbara, Calif., has a solution. Instead of becoming a manager overnight, tap the services of one of the many VAs who specialize in the real estate industry. For about $25 to $50 an hour, or $250 to $350 per transaction, these entrepreneurs serve as a good middle ground between working solo and hiring full-time assistants who need desks, benefits, steady paychecks and sick days.

Working virtually with the assistance of technology, these independent contractors handle myriad tasks for busy professionals, including CMA development, virtual tour assembly and posting, drip e-mail campaign creation, e-mail inquiry filtering and Web site maintenance. “Literally anything can be done from a distance,” says Russer. 

Because most documents can be faxed or e-mailed, handling transaction management from afar is fairly seamless, and can be orchestrated by a VA who is well versed in the basics of transaction management. Along with transaction management, many VAs offer basic support services (phone answering, e-mail monitoring, etc.) and marketing coordination (preparation of fliers and postcards, creation and e-mailing of online newsletters, etc.)

Find a VA by asking colleagues who they’re using and who they would recommend, or by accessing the REVA Network (www.revanetwork.com) online membership listing. Ask prospects how much they charge, how they prefer to work, whether they specialize in real estate (and to what extent), how long it takes them to complete specific projects, when they’re available to work and for what other sales associates they work. Be sure to call those sales associates for feedback before hiring a VA, and then give your new assistant one or more small projects to tackle first, before sending over that critical transaction management project.

While the old standbys or ways of doing business are still viable and able to lead to a more organized you, consider these marketing and business tools to maintain your edge.

Bridget McCrea is a Clearwater-based freelance writer.