Leveraging Online Reviews to Your Advantage

by Bridget McCrea | Dec 31, 2014
How to take an effective and proactive approach to the stuff that your customers are saying about you on web-based review and rating sites.
For the most part, REALTORS® have historically been known as a homogenous group of professionals. Sure there are those milliondollar producers that tend to stand out from the pack – and those who have high profile personal brands – but by and large the field is comprised of hard-working individuals who set their sites on selling a specific number of properties annually and then work to achieve that goal.

But the real estate field’s homogenous nature has begun to shift, thanks in part to the very public online review and rating sites that consumers have started using to effectively “rank” their REALTORS®. And while positive reviews are certainly always welcome, what happens when a consumer is less-than-satisfied with the results of his or her transaction? Prompted to use the Internet as a sounding board, consumers are using sites like Trulia, Zillow, and Yelp to voice their opinions of the real estate professionals that they’ve worked with.

The National Association of REALTORS® threw its hat into the ring in November when it announced that – as part of its new Code of Excellence program – it would implement a REALTOR® ratings initiative. The organization was light on program details at its annual conference, but the overall assumption is that NAR expects to create an industry standard for models to allow consumers to fairly and more accurately evaluate REALTORS®.

Nobu Hata, NAR’s director of digital engagement, says agents that aren’t already taking a proactive approach to online reviews should start now. “Simply put: the age of real estate self-proclaimed ‘I am awesome!’ marketing is over,” Hata explains. “The savvy real estate consumer is powerful and has implemented new verbs into their everyday lives - Google-ing this and Yelping that - so it makes sense for real estate professionals to start using these sites in their business.”

Grabbing the Opportunity

The fact that more than 95 percent of homebuyers arehitting the Internet first when searching for properties is a double-edged sword for most brokers and agents. On one hand, it levels the playing field in an industry where relationships and “who you know” have been key success drivers. On the other hand, it opens the door to confusion and frustration over exactly how to position yourself in a world where consumers literally see everything online – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

At the end of the day, says Hata, a happy client’s proclamation of their agent’s “awesomeness” is more important in this new age of consumer empowerment. And while this may present challenges for the typical agent, Hata sees the potential to turn online consumer feedback into a powerful business tool.

“By and large, review/recommendation/rating sites have incredible organic search juice for one’s personal brand, so using these sites to strategically deploy a positive reputation around the web is the greatest opportunity to differentiate from one’s competitor in any given market,” Hata notes. “There are tons of real estate professionals in every market, so how does one differentiate from another? Through their raving fans, that’s how.”

It’s important to note that there are rules around how agents approach the online review process. For example, Hata says pointing customers to specific review sites is a no-no. “Making anyone jump through your marketing hoops is very 2005,” he says. “Instead, go where they are.” Most times, finding those clients is as easy as studying their online research and buying habits. For example, knowing where clients go to do real estate searches, download apps, and read review sites can provide powerful insights for after-the-sale touch points, says Hata, which is basically what review/rating sites are.

“Chart where they go, find trends, start accounts, and leverage where clients go. Make it easy for them to review/recommend/rate you,” says Hata, who advises agents to stay ahead of the curve by using sites like moz.com – plus local search sites – to find up-and-coming personal brand sites. “Be proactive about it, rather than waiting around for a negative or unsatisfactory review to just ‘pop’ up.”

Losing Control, But Gaining Leverage

Brian Boero, a partner with design firm 1000 Wattin Portland, Ore., works often with agents who want to hone their online approaches and do a better job of leveraging online review and rating sites. As part of that process, Boero encourages agents to take a proactive approach – all the while acknowledging that the review sites exist with or without their approval. “The days when information in this industry (i.e., listing data) was tightly controlled by the agent are long gone,” Boero points out. “The review phenomenon is similar – it’s here to stay and not going away anytime soon.”

Once they acknowledge that fact, Boero says agents should get actively engaged in the process and not ignore it with hopes that it will go away. “Be aware of what’s going on, get actively engaged with the people who are reviewing you, and actually get out there and encourage people to do reviews on your services,” says Boero, who sees online reviews as the next iteration of “customer testimonials,” only without as much input on the agent’s side. “Testimonials can be controlled; reviews and ratings can’t.”

The good news, says Boero, is that real estate is still a very personalized, relationship-based experience. Thanks to the human factor, the odds that consumers will lash out in anger online are still fairly low. He points to the fact that roughly 98 percent of Zillow reviews are positive (with four out of five stars, on average) as proof of this point. “Someone may use Yelp to write a nasty restaurant review,” says Boero, “but people are generally disinclined to openly attack and/or criticize another individual.”

Boero says the sheer volume of online reviews posted on sites like Zillow and Trulia actually plays into the agent’s favor. That’s because the more reviews and ratings someone reads about you, the better the overall feeling someone will get about your services and performance. Plus, the high volume shows that you’re a serious agent who closes a healthy number of transactions annually. “When the agent who has 50 reviews goes up against the one who has just a handful of them,” says Boero, “the one with the most reviews will likely get the business.”

That’s because consumers don’t select business providers in a vacuum anymore. Instead, they talk to friends and family, engage with others on social media platforms, and read online reviews before making decisions. “When you can leverage what others are saying about you, you’ll have a bigger impact with today’s consumer,” says Boero, “who no longer responds to unsupported claims and traditional marketing tactics.”

The Perils of Ignoring Reviews

Phil Kells, co-founder of online evaluation site RealSatisfied, says effectively managing online reviews is part-proactive and part-reactive. On one side, you have to figure out where your customers are going online and what kind of feedback and input they are publishing. On the other hand, you have to be prepared to address any negative comments before they undermine your business.

“The value of getting out in front of this and becoming a proactive participant in the process can only be a positive thing for a REALTOR®,” says Kells, who reminds agents that according to NAR’s annual member report, referrals and recommendations are an agent’s primary source of business. “By understanding what service you provide – and whether you’re consistent in doing this – is surely an important part of being able to continue building that new flow of customers.”

To get the ball rolling, Hata suggests starting with a business-oriented site like LinkedIn. “That’s usually a great place to go to talk about yourself in a safe environment that’s populated by professional peers and potential clientele,” he says. For those agents looking to do a little more in this area, Yelp has become a great spot to go to and share reviews (for the good and the bad of it).

“Basically, the idea is to pick a platform and then get out there and share aspects of yourself and your business, and allow your former clients to share their views,” says Hata. “Embracing review websites like Google, Yelp, and LinkedIn are all effective platforms for improving your reputation by letting your happy clients share success stories.”

To agents that are fearful about what may happen if consumers start “talking about them” online, Hata says now is the time to get over that fear. Review and rating sites aren’t going away and, in fact, could soon have an even bigger share of the spotlight thanks to NAR’s new ratings standards.

“Use client web-destinations as touch points,” says Hata. “Turn positive sentiment into business and pivot negative sentiment into learning and teaching moments. A
REALTOR's® reputation is one of the last battlegrounds left in real estate where it hasn’t been commoditized and sold - not yet, anyway. Figure out which channel (ratings v. review v. recommendations) fits best in your business and get in front of the review/recommendations/ratings trend on your terms, now.”