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Commercial developers generate interest by chatting with prospects

Admiring that historic architecture or new building? Now you can become a fan on Facebook.

That's what 500 people have done for Uniland Development Co.'s Avant Building and Howard Zemsky's Larkin District.

The firms use Facebook pages dedicated to Avant and Larkin to highlight developments, tout accomplishments, promote attractions and draw visitors.

"We use that to communicate with 'friends' about on-going events, celebrations and promotions," said Donna L. Kostrzewski, vice president of Zemsky's Larkin Development Group. "Our biggest challenge is to think of something to say that doesn't seem boring or self-indulgent."

While 500 followers may not seem like much, the two commercial real estate developers are in the forefront locally in their industry in using social media to advance their projects and firms.

"It's a fairly new adventure for us, and now we have the ability to be proactive and put news out there before people have a chance to ask about it," said Therese Hickok, spokeswoman for Uniland. "We're putting things out there and responding to people's posts."

Local real estate developers and commercial brokers are dipping their toes in the waters of social media, trying to determine if and how they can use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other such sites to their advantage.

That's a challenge in a business where deals are still largely negotiated and sealed in person. Indeed, many developers and brokers say social media doesn't lend itself well to their needs.

"If we had to rely on Facebook or we felt that by doing it on Facebook, we're ahead of the game, we're kidding ourselves," said Greg Oehler, chief operating officer for Hunt Commercial Real Estate.

"This is still a pretty basic business. It's face-time with your clients, it's cold-calling, it's the one-on-one relationships."

As a result, many developers are not active on any of the sites as a business, although individual executives or employees may have personal pages on them.

"I try to maintain a high level of professionalism, and right now, Facebook, Twitter, isn't it," Oehler said. "It's hard to tweet. You're limited to how many characters you can put in. You can't really do an effective job."

Uniland and Larkin are the notable exceptions, but they're making it work by focusing on segments of their business that appeal to a more retail or consumer audience, as opposed to buyers of commercial property.

"The Internet is critical to our business," Hickok said. "We realize there's an opportunity to further develop our corporate website and integrate social media into the site."

Uniland's Facebook pages are geared around its hospitality and residential business, specifically its effort to position the stylish Avant Building as a destination and a lifestyle, particularly for its residents.

Created just a few months ago, the pages highlight the niceties of the building, and especially its high-end condos, several of which are still available for purchase. Its postings also tout the Embassy Suites hotel that it operates in the building, seeking to drive overnight, restaurant or meeting business to it.

"We're doing this very slowly, getting comfortable with it, looking at opportunities," said Anastasia Malagisi, Uniland's marketing manager, who is responsible for updating the Facebook pages. "What I post is very relevant to the building or the restaurant. It's really to create awareness and show people what opportunities there are in downtown Buffalo for them."

Besides the basic information and "wall" tabs, the Avant page also has photo albums of the building, the condos and their amenities, and the commercial space that is still available. And it has separate tabs that promote the condos and the Della Terra restaurant in the Embassy Suites, and link to their respective separate websites.

"We really have found a lot of success using Facebook to promote those properties and things going on at those properties," Hickok said. "Social interaction is the basis for all business. Relationships drive business. And so for us, social marketing and social media is social interaction."

Uniland also benefits from partnering with other organizations, particularly Buffalo Niagara Enterprise. BNE, which markets the region to site selectors and corporate executives, has "an enormous following on Facebook" and also uses Twitter, so when Uniland posts on Facebook, BNE picks it up on its own page and tweets about it.

"That is so viral," Hickok said. "You're helping each other by being proactive and putting information out there about the community as a whole."

It's working, too. Hickok said the Web is Uniland's No. 2 source for leads, after "word-of-mouth," and officials have received interest in condos through the Facebook page.

She said the site had 119 monthly active users as of mid-December, and had 478 "post views" on an article about the expansion of the Embassy Suites. As of early January, it had 145 fans.

The Larkin page, because it targets an entire neighborhood, is broader in scope. Postings highlight news throughout the district, touting not only the Larkin at Exchange building but new parking, food options, parties and amenities that appeal to residents and businesses.

The page also has a separate "welcome" tab that not only invites visitors to stop by the area, but also encourages its fans to tell others about the Facebook site. And it has about 150 photos and three videos.

In all, the Larkin page has 395 fans. "We find the comments we receive back from our friends interesting," said Kostrzewski. "Once we started updating the page no less then every couple days, our friends grew rapidly."

Besides the Facebook page and its regular website, Larkin also has "just shy of 100 followers" on Twitter but only updates it every few weeks, she said.

"We certainly are not on the cutting edge of social media but trying to remain current and relevant," Kostrzewski said. "It's very important to keep up."

In Niagara County, Calamar Development of North Tonawanda has been on Facebook and Twitter for about 18 months, with information about the company and links to its website.

It has 187 Facebook "friends" and 110 followers on Twitter, and uses the sites to highlight commercial space that is available for rent. Officials also use it to provide updates on the company's assets and events, as well as other news about Calamar.

"We view it as a porthole to our customers, so it's very important to our business efforts and we'll continue to develop that technology," said CEO Kenneth Franasiak. "It's enhancing the ability of the consumer and our clients to interact with us and for us to interact with them."

More than 10 percent of the company's leasing sales are generated from the Web, including social media and the company's website, and some of that is business the company "might not have been able to get otherwise," Franasiak said.

"It's providing the consumer with the ability to access organizations like ours more readily," Franasiak said.

Other developers have been much slower to pursue social media, but acknowledge a need to do so. "We are in the early stages of incorporating that into our overall strategy," said Dave Merrell, chief operating officer for North Forest Office Space. "We have a presence on Facebook and LinkedIn, but we need to determine their best application for supporting and growing our business."

Still other developers have eschewed social media for now, preferring to stick to their websites. Those sites offer information about the companies and their projects, and often include property search functions, space calculators, photos and other real estate tools.

"The website is the most economical way to provide information on our company," said Samuel J. Savarino, CEO of Savarino Cos. "We find that most folks gather information on us there first anyhow."

And they actively use e-mail to market their properties and projects, and to generate leads. McGuire Development Co. sends out e-mails to its past and present clients, as well as professional contacts, to highlight its projects, said Stephanie T. Roggow, senior marketing manager. McGuire "relies heavily on our website and e-mail marketing to promote our business," she said.

That's also a money-saver. "I haven't had to spend a penny on advertising in eight years, and I'm 100 percent full," said Rocco Termini, president of Signature Development Buffalo. "Everything comes off the Internet."

Still, he acknowledges that he will have to take the leap. "I think we'll probably expand our reach and go on Twitter and Facebook," he said. "You have to keep up with the times. That's where people are looking now."