Social Media Abhors A Vacuum

IStock_000011506497XSmall(2)One of the issues that large brands must worry about — especially franchise brands — is IF and HOW local affiliates and employees decide to participate online.

For example, take a look at a well-known brand like real estate giant Century 21.

In addition to the official @C21realestate handle managed by Corp Comms in Parsippany, there are over 350 Century21 employees and/or franchisees on Twitter.

Their Twitter handles range from @C21_SUNBELT to @Cntury21, from @Century21Seller to @RealtorToCall (and any number of @firstnamelastname combinations, i.e., no C21 affiliation).

Some of these real estate twitterati have embraced the medium — and in fact, many of the realtors have 100–400 followers! — yet, most of the agents and franchisees clearly abandoned Twitter after a handful of tweets, or post only very sporadically.

In other words, there is no rhyme or reason, no overarching strategy, no way to consolidate nor highlight the company’s massive scale in order to present a compelling and unified presence on one of the world’s top social networks.

Let’s look at Facebook.

The official Century 21 Real Estate LLC fan page on Facebook is pretty well done, in terms of the depth of content and volume of posts.  The page boasts over 5,000 fans.

But then again, there is no explicit suggestion that this actually is the OFFICIAL fan page.  In fact, there is another fan page titled, more simply, “Century 21” — with over 1,300 fans.  So maybe that is the official fan page??

I am presuming that “Century 21 Real Estate LLC” is the official page because of the ### of fans and the amount of content, and, the fact that there are no other distinguishing qualifiers, e.g., “Century21–(Geogaphy).”

All of this is important because there are 1,600 search results on Facebook when you run a query for “Century 21.”  Over 500 of those 1,600 results are fan pages.  The quality of each page (based on a cursory review) is spotty and inconsistent, at best.

C21So: on the world’s #1 social network, it is hard to tell at-a-glance what the heck is going on, when it comes to Century 21.  I’ll say it again: there is no rhyme or reason, no overarching strategy, no way to consolidate nor highlight the company’s massive scale in order to present a compelling and unified presence.

I do not raise these issues to call-out Century 21 specifically. Having met (and, full-disclosure: unsuccessfully pitched) the folks at Century 21, I know them to be smart, nice and well-meaning.  I point to them only as one great example of WHAT CAN GO WRONG if a large company takes too long to establish some guard-rails on their Social Media approach.

And again, this situation becomes much worse – hardly containable and neary untenable – for companies that rely on a franchise model.  Those franchisees who don’t feel amply supported by Corporate will tap their entrepreneurial zeal to ensure that they miss no opportunity to toot their local horns.  If “the folks in Corporate don’t ‘get’ Social Media,” the franchisee will experiment on their own. And, as we’ve seen via the C21 example, they’ll largely do a lackluster job.

In the end such companies will have hundreds – maybe thousands – of “stray” Social Media sites.  Inconsistent.  Abandoned.  Off-kilter.  Hardly any of these independent Social Media efforts do a good job of boosting the master brand, yet all of them are still clearly affiliated: dragging down the brand, calling out the lack of strategy.

This post is not a call for control for controlling’s sake; it’s a call for planning for brand’s sake.

But surely I am missing something?  And I hope you’ll tell me all about it in the Comments?

Posted on: February 9, 2010 at 11:07 am By Todd Defren
23 Responses to “Social Media Abhors A Vacuum”


  • Courtney says:

    This is a great post. Establishing a clear and to the point connection between social media and a company is essential. If not, it certainly points to a lack of strategy and organization. A well-run, efficient Facebook page or twitter profile suggests that a company is current, up-to-date, and well-run.

  • Jim Towner says:

    I am employed by Century 21. In my position of Director of Career Development I am charged with helping our C21 Affiliates grow their business thru Recruiting. This is my personal opinion based on over thirty five years of experience in the real estate residential brokerage business.
    My first note is that I believe a Real Estate Brokerage Owner’s primary job is “Recruiting”. Agents sell houses Brokerage owners sell Agents a System. Of course there are variations on this theme. In order to effectively “Recruit” we must be able to demonstrate to our Primary Customers who are already licensed agents and people contemplating a career in real estate sales, that at Century 21 we have a better way of performing the three most vital functions for success: First @ Century21 we have better ways of finding more and better buyers and sellers, Second we have a better way of Convincing Buyers and Sellers to work with us, and Third we have a better way of working with buyers and sellers to create LOYALTY.
    Social media and Social Networking are the new tools that we must incorporate into our own strategy of recruiting and be able to demonstrate how we have effectively incorporated a Social Media and Networking strategy into “Our Way” of Finding, Convincing and Selling to LOYALTY.
    In other words, if we want to convince Agents as well as buyers and sellers who are Socially Media Aware and users of this new medium of “On Line Social Media and Social Networking”, then it is obvious that we need to demonstrate our mastery in this new arena. To anyone who has achieved a modicum of success in the real estate sales business we all know that we were already great networkers and socializers. Now we must learn to use these new on line tools that provide us with even greater reach and opportunity.
    Like all new technology, there is a danger in getting caught up in the technology and forgetting why we are using it. While many in the Social Media sphere are focused on the latest and greatest app, we who are tasked with growing and maintaining a viable and implementable real estate franchise system must be able to provide clear direction that can be adopted by our existing customer base while trying to attract a new generation of customer who is already conversant and comfortable with these new on line processes and systems.
    It does seem that while we are talking about new tools we are still tilting at the same windmills of the Coordination of a Marketing and Sales Strategy. Bill Lublin touched on a great point when in his post in this stream he stated “ sales people who are not professional marketers…” Whether we are discussing Old media (print, radio, TV, Billboards, you name it) or newer on line media the same problem exists. Selling is different from marketing. I believe the concept of a balanced marketing mix still applies today. What is the correct mix? I believe that is a work in progress.
    Coordinating the efforts of independent contractor real estate agents and independently owned and operated real estate franchisees is a huge task. It was and is not uncommon to see diverse messages and strategies in older marketing mediums among agents, franchisees and corporate. It might be over simplification to say…new medium but same problem, but I think there is a huge amount of truth here.
    So what is a franchisor to do? I go back to my initial position of what is the core business process? I believe that Finding, Convincing and Building Loyalty should be the guide post for agents, brokerage owners and franchisors. If you cannot clearly define, articulate and demonstrate these then the new social media tools will get you more exposure but what will it expose and will it result in more and better agents and more sales?
    While social media and social networking are monopolizing the business conversations we ignore fundamentals at our own peril. Ultimately we need to be able to demonstrate to our various customers that “now that we have your attention or engaged you…we can deliver the goods.” The wonderful and scary part of the “New Media” is Good news travels fast but bad news will travel faster, farther and it lasts, kind of like a Tootsie Roll…don’t think so…just ask a politician. For those other fossils such as me who might read this…do we believe that sales and or marketing were the demise of the Edsel? Or was there another reason….?

  • Im no expert, but I believe you just created an incredibly effective point stage. You definitely know what youre talking about, and I can essentially get behind that. Thanks for becoming so upfront and so sincere.

  • Bill Lublin says:

    Todd; Great post – and while I agree that Century 21 has not done as good a job as they might in educating their franchisees, I don’t totally agree with your analysis of where they failed.

    I am a Century 21 franchisee and am active in social media. As a presenter at a national leadership conhference several years ago, I also met with the folks at corporate to talk to them about the need for the franchisees to be assisted in understanding how social media could be used to connect with their communtities (both geographic and demographic) as well as the need for them to monitor ,measure, and manage their reputations through social media. They were interested at that time in determining how social media could help them drive eyeballs to the corporate web site since that was (in their mind) the measurable ROI. They were not interested in offering training to the franchisees, feeling (I believe) that the franchisees would be better served by addingd a social component to the web site which they thought would drive more buyers and sellers to the site, and therefore to the franchisees. Whether that worked or not you would have to ask them.

    I do think you are being unfair in thinking that the franchisor had great influence with the franchisees though, and that it was solely a lack of direction on their part which led to the chaos you point out.
    Because franchisees are independent and are not mandated to follow the lead of the franchisor in implementation (though trademark compliance is a different story) an overall social media strategy is really difficult to maintain. For that reason, comprehehnsive training is needed so that they indidvual offices and agents “buy in” to the social media vision of the franchisor – and even then, for our type of business ‘one size of social media dosn’t fit all”. For salespeople who are not professional marketers to implement effective social media strategies requires a thorough training program which allows them to create a sustainable social media strategy -because there is little ability on the part of the franchisor to force compliance.

    All of that being said when you mention in your last answer “that Corp must not ABDICATE its responsibility to set some basic rules of engagement, whether in the form of tone, tools, responsiveness expectations, even use of graphics.” I agree with you completely. Corporate could have instigated suggested standards through educational programs that would have had a larger number of people walking in step if not in candence and led to less dilution of the brand. Hopefully they may still find that to be the case….

    • Todd Defren says:

      Bill, thanks for weighing in, especially since you have unique insights into the situation!

      I think we are largely in agreement – which is why I specifically called out how the franchise model is particularly tricky when it comes to balancing “corporate policy” with the wants of independent franchisees. All of which led us BOTH to the need to set some basic rules, provide training as necessary, etc. Meanwhile, “silence give consent,” i.e., if there ain’t no rules, then they get made up on the fly – leading to a diluted brand online.

      • Bill Lublin says:

        Absolutely we are in agreement in the main – and my only reason for stopping in here was to wish you happiness on your well deserved vacation – Thanks for setting up such awesome guest bloggers for your absence -

  • Lmarconi says:

    Great post! I’ve never commented but I really enjoy your ability to bring up very big questions with a very small amount of words!
    However, I’m not expert but this post immediately brought to mind a big question for me. I’m wondering what the implications would be of replacing or reshaping franchise social media presence into something uniform and corporate approved. Maybe most the franchises do a lousy job at creating a solid social media presence, but what if there are a few who are really good at it (and I’m sure there are)? Would a uniform policy cause them to lose some creativity or change something that’s already working well for them? Further, the franchisees know their employees, their geographic area and their individual character and therefore better than corporate and might be in a better position to adapt their social media presence to suit those needs. A Century 21 in a rural area may focus more on Facebook and decide Twitter isn’t useful for reaching their target audience, while a group in a major metro area may need to develop a huge social media presence. A uniform corporate policy could restrict that ability for the franchise to adapt their web presence to their environment and comfort level and show off their individual character.
    Obviously I agree that some uniformity of online branding and social media guidance and encouragement is necessary, but is there a delicate balance between being too hands-on and too hand-off? Perhaps I’m off base here, but as someone who tends to resent the bland corporate social media presence that I see all too often, I worry that a more hands-on policy might takeaway the uniqueness and personality of connecting with a hometown branch. Would like to hear what you think!

    • Todd Defren says:

      You were worried about commenting? This is good stuff. See me after graduation!

      Specific to your excellent points, you netted it out yourself with this line:

      some uniformity of online branding and social media guidance and encouragement is necessary, but is there a delicate balance between being too hands-on and too hand-off?

      Yes, there IS a delicate balance, and your points about “local, more knowledgeable” control are well taken. What I am saying is that Corp must not ABDICATE its responsibility to set some basic rules of engagement, whether in the form of tone, tools, responsiveness expectations, even use of graphics. With such measures “settled” there is still PLENTY of room for local flavor/personality.

  • Chuck Hemann says:

    Todd – What I find most interesting about this example is that we often encourage companies to get involved in social media at an individual level before trying to scale it across an enterprise. However, in the example you’ve presented here getting involved at the franchise level may do more harm then good to the overall brand. My initial inclination just having read your post would be for the corporate entity to put some guidelines in place, but for the individual franchise sites to live on. Chances are good that Century 21′s customers (or any company with this type of business model) have a closer connection at the franchise level than the corporate level. Always enjoy the posts…they are thought provoking.


    • Todd Defren says:

      Thanks for the comment, I hear ya on the “start as individuals” point and am glad you understood my case. As I noted below:

      What I am saying is that Corp must not ABDICATE its responsibility to set some basic rules of engagement, whether in the form of tone, tools, responsiveness expectations, even use of graphics. With such measures “settled” there is still PLENTY of room for local flavor/personality.

  • jgraziani says:

    Great post, Todd. If someone isn’t actually involved with a franchise or, as in my case, a federation, it’s not the kind of thing most people would think about. I work for the national office of AAA, a federation of 50 not-for-profit clubs throughout North America, and we have thought a lot about these very issues. Each club has a geographic territory, and since social media has no boundaries, it has been challenging at times to figure out how clubs can participate in social media without violating their agreement with the other clubs not to promote/sell on another’s turf. As long as a social medium — such as Twitter or Facebook — provides an opportunity for a AAA club to make its settings private then the clubs can participate in that venue. They just have to ensure that their friends or followers are in their own territory. So far, no real issues with that. The best example I can give is Twitter. The AAA national office has five Twitter accounts based around broad topics: @AAAnews, @AAAauto, @AAA_Travel, @AAAsafety, @AAAdiscounts. And several clubs have accounts as well: @AAASoCalNews, @AAATexasNews, @AAA_Washington, @AAA_Arizona…you get the idea. When we can, we all re-tweet each other. It works out pretty well. Facebook is similar. belongs to the national office, but the clubs have private group pages. Now, with a name like “AAA” you’re likely to see a lot of stuff come up in a search that’s not associated with this company. But we’ve always had to deal with that — ever since the first phone book was printed! This is just one more challenge/opportunity and we work within the parameters/rules/norms that we have to try to make it work for the organization, the clubs, and the members. We are always open to suggestions as well! Thanks again, Todd, for bringing up this issue.

    • Todd Defren says:

      I am glad it is working for you at AAA; certainly the referring back-and-forth (at least via RTs) is helpful. I’d still suggest that you might have too many channels, which might confuse consumers. Feel free to contact me sometime (tdefren @ shiftcomm . com) if you want to brainstorm!

  • Warren Sukernek says:


    We find this lack of strategy and planning in our social media listening projects for enterprise clients all the time. The problem is exacerbated with global accounts. To make matters even worse, there are abandoned official looking accounts, littered all over the place. For example, there is @OfficialTMobile which is an abandoned account, but @TMobileOfficial is the UK account. The active US account is @TMobile_USA. What customer has the secret decoder ring to decipher all of this? All roads lead to customer confusion!

  • Dan Greenberg says:

    This is not dissimilar from what we saw on the web a decade ago (and still, to a degree see). Take a large, complex company like IBM or GE. For a time, every business unit… even every division or product line… could throw up (pun intended) a page. No strategy. No controls. No standards. It looked messy and it was impossible to navigate. It brought the brands down.

    With time, centralized control was established and tools were created that made it easier to follow central policies than not. Why would you create your own page template if one is available? Why would you create a new nav if doing so meant less traffic to your page? Control of the web presence and corporate policies became consistent with deployment of the brand in other venues and media.

    I believe the same carrot and stick will apply in social media. Franchisees will get the carrot of pre-made templates and tools… and the stick of brand control built into their franchise agreements. It will take a few years, but the cost in damage to the brand to do otherwise ensures that Corporate will act.

  • I would add that the planning should include a way to leverage the massive network you’re going to create. At a minimum the main office should listen to the dialogues and be present to them so that they can guide when they’re needed.

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