Category Archives: The Wired Economy

As Realtors, we see it happening every day… business is changing.

Social media: Aren’t weak ties a wonderful thing?

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in the New Yorker, titled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” is worth reading. It’s a thought-provoking analysis of what social media can and cannot do, or at least do well. At a time when many of us are absorbed in trying to stay abreast of the latest tech-savvy trends in business and culture, it’s a good idea to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the assorted social tools we now use.

Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell describes the kind of social activism that led the Civil Rights movement to success in the 1960s. He contrasts the intense commitment and precise organization of a handful of activists who pioneered lunch counter sit-ins, with the soft activism of Facebook, where, he notes, “the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece.” He questions the influence of Twitter during the 2008 Iran election, quoting Golnaz Esfandiari  in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. … Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

The key concept, according to Gladwell, is to recognize that social media have specific strengths:

The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world.

Gladwell takes issue with claims made by New York University lecturer Clay Shirky, a prominent commentator on the social impact of new social media. Shirky is convinced that we are witnessing an epochal change akin to the original industrial revolution. In his blog, Shirky writes:

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.

In response, Gladwell writes, “The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. …  If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.”

Canadian internet expert Michael Geist followed up on Gladwell’s article with his own comments in the Toronto Star. He argued that there are appropriate roles for the “weak tie” activism of social media, and pointed to the recent success of individuals and NGOs around the world in affecting the final outcome of the recently finalized anti-counterfeiting trade agreement:

While digital advocacy alone was not responsible for these efforts, it played a crucial role, providing instant dissemination of leaked documents and expert analysis. The battle over ACTA may not be the equivalent of the fight for civil rights in the 1960’s, but the relative success in changing the terms of the agreement that was a top U.S. priority demonstrates the power of digital advocacy and the potential for weak ties and loosely organized groups to come together to influence global policy.

As commentators continue to parse the implications of new media, the rest of us will be on our toes, trying to keep, if not exactly abreast, at least in hailing distance of the cutting edge. Just as I’ve started to put up individual web sites for my listings (with a sticker on the lawn sign that says the equivalent of “123yourstreet.com”), I’ve learned that I’m still behind the curve… The latest thing is to put a bar code on your sign, that can be scanned by buyers on their iPhones, giving them an instant link to my web site. Once we’ve climbed onto this merry go round, there’s evidently no getting off.

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9 Free Real Estate Services

Looking at those stories about zero-price marketing (see The Power of “Free”) got us to thinking about our own work as real estate agents. It turns out almost everything we do for our clients is, in fact, free. The one big exception, of course, is listing a property… when it sells or leases, we receive a commission. But here’s a list of things we regularly do for free:

  1. Keeping clients informed about the market.
  2. Providing information on the value of their property.
  3. Helping people adjust to their new city (or neighbourhood).
  4. Helping parents choose schools.
  5. Looking after clients’ homes when they’re away.
  6. Providing recommendations for qualified tradespeople.
  7. Linking clients with mortgage brokers and lawyers.
  8. Helping diagnose the problem with the furnace (wiring, plumbing, roof, etc.)
  9. (And here’s the big one…) Organizing clients’ search for a new home, and negotiating the eventual purchase.

From an economic point of view one can argue that the last one isn’t really free, since we typically get a share of the commission that’s paid by the seller. But that’s exactly the point about “free” services or products. You set a price at zero in the expectation that you will attract business. The consumer’s question is whether the free service provides value. In real estate, the buyer’s choice is either to get independent advice, or to forego that advice and hope to negotiate directly. And frankly, we know from experience that the value added by our buyer services exceeds the cash value of the fees, regardless of who’s paying them.

The larger point here is that in our industry there’s a lot of free service being provided. And I’m sure that similar relationship efforts are typical in other service fields. Jeff Jarvis, author of WWGD (What Would Google Do?), makes the point that businesses across the entire spectrum need to reconsider their models of pricing and delivery in light of the Internet. He writes that what “we’re living through is … a great restructuring of the economy and society, starting with a fundamental change in our relationships – how we are linked and intertwined and how we act, nothing less than that.”

The Power of “Free”

There’s an old joke about a businessman who gives away his products. A customer asks: “How do you make money doing that?” He answers: “I make it up on volume.”

How about Free? is an interesting article published in the Wharton School’s online business journal. The article starts with Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, one of the really great books on the effect of the Internet. The long tail represents the breadth of inventory that is being made available through Internet marketing, as opposed to the “head,” which is the much more limited rage of best-selling inventory that can be sold in bricks-and-mortar outlets. Anderson’s follow-up book, Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price, will be published in July.

Anderson has also published an article in Wired, Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business . In it, Anderson provides a history of King Gillette, the man whose inspiration was to give away razors so that people would buy the blades. Substitute cell phone plans, Nintendo games, or pre-measured coffee pouches, and you’ve got entire industries based on Gillette’s invention. In the last year or two, there’s been a growing discussion about “freeconomics,” the study of how to do business in a world increasingly accustomed to free services via the internet. Newspapers and recorded music are the prime examples of industries challenged by the “culture of free.”

What Would Google Do?

Jeff Jarvis’s new book, What Would Google Do?, gets people to think about new ways to allocate price. Once you see a product as part of an ongoing service, new possibilities emerge. “There’s no fundamental reason why gasoline couldn’t be free and you would pay an annual fee for usage of your car,” says Kevin Werbach, Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics. “Similarly, there’s no reason that cars couldn’t be free and you would pay a service fee for gas. Neither of those models makes much sense in the market place today, but why not?”

Rabbit ears vs. “The Pipe”

Just as the concept of “free” has been around since the dawn of marketing, so has the evolving tension between technologies that alter how services are delivered and how they are used. The age of television, now gradually ending like the ages of ocean liners, steam locomotives and typewriters all did, began as an open broadcast medium. Anyone could put up an antenna and pull it out of the air. It wasn’t long before we saw CATV services, or “community antenna,” emerge, eventually morphing into today’s “cable.” Today we’ve become much more selective about our “streaming media” and how we choose to receive it. A viewer might watch The Wire on an iPod while simultaneously Twittering with far-flung friends.