S.J. Collins Enterprises

Media Moguls: Commercial real estate's most dedicated social networkers

Nonetheless, the industry’s most active social networkers, many of whom have built big audiences by consistently churning out mostly business-related Twitter tweets and such like, insist that the benefits are anything but trivial. “For me, Twitter is not about what I had for breakfast, nor do I care what Kim Kardashian had for breakfast,” said Mark Toro, a managing partner who heads the Atlanta office of Cincinnati-based North American Properties. “It is about sharing experiences and key knowledge in my areas of interest.”

With something like 4,000 tweets to his credit and roughly 1,000 followers right about now, Toro says he sees plenty of upside to maintaining an active presence on Twitter. Perhaps most important, his Twitter profile (@MarkToro) is very personal — it uses his own photo and bio rather than an impersonal logo for North American Properties or Atlantic Station, the master-planned community in Atlanta where Toro and his team manage 1.3 million square feet of retail space. Nor does Toro, who rises early to scour the news and refresh his Twitter feed, put any third party on the job. “Early on, one blogger addressed me as ‘Mark Toro — or whatever intern is writing his entries,’ ” Toro recalled. “But it really is me.”

Indeed, a hands-on, personal approach is the key to unlocking the benefits of online networking with peers, say other industry pros besides Toro. Those benefits include fast access to peer-selected news items, research reports and similar data, as well as real-time commentary on the relevance of such information for retail real estate, they say. By creating personal profiles on the aforementioned sites plus LinkedIn and even ICSC.org, which launched its own social network last year, real estate professionals can forge online relationships with colleagues they might never meet otherwise. Sometimes these initial connections lead to face-to-face handshakes at deal-making and other events. Moreover, some say, mastering social media makes solid strategic sense over the long term, given the phenomenon’s massive popularity with young people.

“Managing your reputation and how you are perceived is part of this,” said Michael Legazo, who has managed major malls such as Forest City’s Victoria Gardens, in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and now oversees retail and other properties for San Diego–based Trigild. “Do you want to leave how you and your priorities are represented in the marketplace to your competition, critics or others who may not be aligned with your objectives, or would you rather actively manage that yourself?”

Using the Twitter handle @Michael_MBA, Legazo had at press time contributed nearly 80,000 tweets on such topics as the CMBS market, retail trends and shopping center management. Some 2,300 Twitter users followed his posts. Roughly 20 million Americans now have Twitter accounts, according to Forrester Research, so how has Legazo managed to attract attention amid such a sea of competing tweets? Technical understanding helps. Legazo makes frequent use of the # (or hash tag) symbol, for example, to mark keywords or topics in his tweets. As a result, peers who follow #retail, #CRE, #ICSC or #CMBS frequently see Legazo’s posts. But when it comes to building relationships online, Legazo also relies on basic principles familiar to any old-school veteran. “Just like in real-life networking, it is important to connect with people and to find some human element,” he said. “That could be as simple as asking how their kids are doing. Authenticity is valuable currency in social media.”

Whatever the social-media platform, in other words, nominally “personal” profiles will fall flat if they consist of little more than links to a company’s latest vacancy listings or press releases. “For a newcomer to Twitter who is considering a personal or company presence, I find that people prefer to engage with people rather than brands,” said Barbara L. Reuter, a principal and the COO of PICOR, a full-service real estate firm based in Tucson, Ariz. “Despite my [online] efforts to promote our company presence, which are still important, I get more replies and engagement when I tweet personally.”

With some 2,600 followers and nearly 12,000 tweets, Reuter’s Twitter feed (@BarbiReuter) is a mix of both personal and business content: Coffee-addiction jokes and jovial, back-and-forth exchanges with friends appear alongside her tweets about macroeconomics and real estate. In addition to maintaining an authentic and personal tone, another important thing is to avoid using social media as a soapbox, she says. “First and foremost, it is not a one-way conversation. It’s about relationship-building,” she said. “You cannot just vomit information out into the cyber sphere and expect that to be meaningful.”

But newcomers need not be intimidated about learning how to strike this balance, says Angela Sweeney, vice president of corporate marketing and communications at The Peterson Cos. “When I was first getting started, I was a little nervous about reaching out to some of the people I was following,” Sweeney said. “But it was interesting to see how warm and welcoming those early adopters were. They were willing to share their lessons learned and best practices. So for me it was: ‘Don’t be afraid to reach out and engage with somebody on Twitter.’ ”

Today Sweeney (@AngelaSweeney) has at least 1,790 tweets to her credit, and some 650 Twitter followers. The point of peer-focused social networking, however, is not to win a popularity contest, she says. “This is not about quantity, it is about quality,” she said. Though her Twitter feed has attracted hundreds of followers, she uses social-media tools primarily to network with true peers — people Sweeney might plausibly run into at an industry event. And in fact this has actually happened on several occasions. “It’s wonderful to be able to take an online relationship and create an in-person one out of it,” Sweeney said.

Could this lead to actual deals? The potential, at least, is there, says Jeff Vinzani, a Charleston, S.C.–based real estate attorney and avid social networker. In fact, Vinzani once landed a client for his firm, Nexsen Pruet, in part through some word of mouth from a Twitter connection. “He was just somebody I follow and that follows me,” he said. “We had just had a few conversations back and forth, but he remembered that I was in South Carolina and gave them my name.”

Vinzani is active on LinkedIn, where he founded its 17,000-member ICSC group in 2008, and on Twitter (@vinzani), where he has at least 3,000 tweets and nearly 2,900 followers. Though casual approaches to social networking can be rewarding, he says, those who are interested in taking full advantage of the phenomenon, and perhaps trumpeting their involvement in it as part of personal or company marketing strategies, will need to commit the necessary time and effort. “People often have a button in their e-mail that shows they’re on LinkedIn or Twitter, but when you click through it you see that they have not even filled out their profile,” he said. “If you’re going to be on there, you need to be on there and involved.”

Vinzani, who spends about 30 minutes a day on social networking, also cautions against putting assistants on the task. “I’ve posted something and literally had people call me about it 10 minutes later,” he said. “If you answer the phone and someone says, ‘I’m calling about your article on 1031 exchanges,’ and you say, ‘What are you talking about?’ it looks pretty bad.”

The best way to forge meaningful online connections with peers is to be consistently active, not necessarily to spend endless hours on the sites, Sweeney says. And for now at least, using online tools to build a stronger peer network and personal brand might not be as difficult as one might think. “A lot of people in the industry might have Twitter accounts, but they are not necessarily actively tweeting or engaging,” Sweeney said. “If you look at the total universe of real estate people who are out there, engaged and using social media as a networking tool, it is still relatively small.”

One of the strengths of social networking, however, is that its use is up to the individual; a marketing executive might rely on social media to connect with journalists, an architect to stay in touch with design trends. Even if becoming a Twitter personality with thousands of followers is not a particular priority, online networking with peers can be a good way to stay in touch with the pulse of the industry, experts say.

“What I click through and mine for is trend data,” said Jeff DeHart, an Atlanta-based partner at the S.J. Collins Enterprises development firm who has a growing following on Twitter (@RetailJeff). “I want to understand what’s going on with people in the industry psychologically. What is their mood? Do they think things are getting better or worse? If it is an economist saying, ‘Boy, take a look at what I think is happening with the CMBS maturities over the next three years,’ I will click through that tweet every time.”

by Joel Groover, from the February 2012 issue of Shopping Centers Today