For residential real estate agents, making contacts is vital.
Those connections can lead to listings and deals. Social media are giving agents another way to bolster their network, along with the usual methods like advertising and word-of-mouth endorsements.
"It's a way to build business and meet the customers where they are," said Michelle Wardlaw, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Realtors.
The approaches vary. Some agents and firms use Facebook pages to simply post listings. Tom Roaldi, RealtyUSA's social media guru, suggests a more understated tack.
Rather than turning their Facebook pages into billboards of homes for sale, agents should use their pages to demonstrate their knowledge of the community, along with a personal touch, said Roaldi, the firm's director of corporate development.
"It's the difference between making a commitment to marketing yourself as a guy they want to do business with and just showing listings," he said.
Agents should demonstrate they are competent and informed about their work, without coming across as a braggart, boasting of their accomplishments, Roaldi said.
For instance, agents might use social media to post links to stories about real estate statistics or trends.
Decades ago, effective real estate agents were "very much out in the community," doing business with vendors and supporting restaurants, Roaldi said. That need for community connections continues, he said.
"Today that community is global and it's on Facebook," he said.
An example of the subtle approach Roaldi prefers: Agents who post links to property listings or to their LinkedIn biographies, rather than trumpeting everything on a Facebook page. A curious potential homebuyer can decide whether to click through to see more details.
"It has to be their choice," Roaldi said.
Some agents use Twitter to dispense messages about open houses. Others post short videos on YouTube of homes they are marketing, a progression from virtual tours consisting of still pictures displayed on a website -- technology that was considered a breakthrough just a few years ago.
Hunt Real Estate ERA has also made a strong commitment to using social media, with an unexpected result.
The firm aimed to use social media partly as a recruiting tool for sales agents to reach tech-savvy young people, said Peter Hunt, chief executive officer. That method has proved useful in recruiting not just sales agents, but for a variety of jobs at Hunt. For instance, the firm is asking people with financial services backgrounds who are job hunting if they have considered careers in real estate.
"We think it's got layer upon layer of application for us," he said.
Beyond recruiting, Hunt Real Estate has also embraced social media to bolster the identity of its agents, offices and business units, as well as the company as a whole, Hunt said.
The applications are still in their infancy. But Hunt said they help alter the image of agents from someone who just sells houses to a person who can help customers access a host of real estate services.
There is another side to the instant accessibility that comes with social media. Customers want to be able to reach an agent through a variety of methods -- e-mail, phone, Twitter, for instance -- but they expect prompt replies, Hunt said.
Wardlaw, the Realtors spokeswoman, said studies show 90 percent of homebuyers use the Internet in their search. And while social media helps agents make connections, she said, the technology does not replace personal contact between an agent and a customer.
Still, an electronic presence has become essential for agents, from setting up individual websites to posting listings online, she said.
"It's just a smart move to be there," Wardlaw said.