Michael Kwan takes a look at ActiveRain

I guess John is back to his panda slaying, rock throwing ways, because he’s asked me — Michael Kwan — to step in as a guest blogger for John Chow dot Com, just as he did Matt Coddington a couple days ago. This is in addition to my newfound duties as a hardware reviewer for John’s bread-and-butter site, TheTechZone, more affectionately known to most folk as TTZ.

Anyways, today we’ll be doing a ReviewMe review of ActiveRain, an online social network designed for real estate professionals in the United States and Canada. Unlike MySpace, Friendster, and Hi5, ActiveRain is very serious business, providing a venue where real estate agents and similar types can interact with one another, you know, when they’re not at each other’s throats fighting for sales.

The Consumer Side of Things

While it may appear to be geared largely towards the real estate professionals themselves, there is much value to be had on the consumer side of things as well. Sure, you can go to your favourite real estate agent’s website and take in their propaganda, but when you go to ActiveRain, you get a better opportunity to learn about them as a person. In fact, each member (joining is free) can have a blog wherein they discuss whatever they’d like, real estate related or not. You can also look into how they interact in the forums, where they may (or may not) be demonstrating their l33t speak skillz.

As a networking site, ActiveRain gives each real estate professional their own profile page. There, you’ll find things like a photograph, which company they associate themselves with, a link to their website, contact information, areas of expertise, and so forth. You’ll also notice that each ActiveRain member has a score. And yes, that score does have a certain level of significance. How so?

Staying Active is the Key

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Well, the pros — like Leilani Fong from my hometown of Vancouver — get points for being active on the site. This includes regularly updating their blogs with new entries, participating in the forums, and otherwise being good all-around ActiveRain members. The reward for having a high point count is that they (and their blog entries) are more likely to be featured on the front page. As such, the most active members get a better opportunity to receive loads of exposure. You’ll notice that our friend Leilani is far from having the highest point total on the site. I guess she’s too busy out there wheeling, dealing and making sales to actually participate on ActiveRain.

Come to think of it, the real estate professionals who have the highest point totals may not be the best people for job. After all, they’re spending all their time updating their blogs and posting random entries in the forums, rather than using that valuable time doing their job. Maybe it’s time for a career change. Maybe it’s time to try being a dot com mogul like John. (I kid, I kid.)

By contrast, Bryant Tutas of Poinciana, Florida is one of the most active members on the ActiveRain site. When I went to check which blogs had the most subscriptions, “Broker Bryant” came out on top. He’s also got 150 times as many points as the aforementioned Leilani Fong. That’s because Ms. Fong doesn’t keep a blog and Bryant seems to put up a new post about every two days. He’s even got some cool pictures to go with his entries (although the excessive use of bold in his text is a total turn-off).

An Expressionless Face

There doesn’t appear to be too much control in terms of blog layout and formatting, being restricted to some default look that an ActiveRain chief decided on at some point. That’s unfortunate, as it would have been nice to give them a chance to let the creative juices flow. Then again, maybe we have to remember that these are real estate professionals after all, and not graphic artists. The site as a whole is pretty bland-looking, though, but I’ll talk about that a bit more in a moment.

ActiveRain claims to be the home of the web’s most active real estate blogging community. I guess that title isn’t too hard to earn when there doesn’t appear to be too much competition. Sure, there are other real estate bloggers, I’m sure, but this is the first time that I’ve come across a whole community of them, gathered up in one nice, little package. This is of great value both to the consumer and the active professional: the prospective buyer (or seller) can shop around for who they think is best for the job, and the real estate professional has an opportunity to put their best foot forward and get some free linkbacks. Free exposure is always a good thing (kind of like me guest blogging for John).

More Than Meets the Eye

I do have to note that the site isn’t just filled with realtors. They have people signed up on there that handle just about everything concerning your home, whether it’s during the buying process or not. No, you’re probably not going to find a good electrician or plumber through ActiveRain, but you will come across people that can help you with your mortgage, notaries to assist you with the paperwork, and house inspectors to ensure that your future home is actually in decent shape. That said, by and large, ActiveRain is made up of real estate agents and that is clearly the focus of the site.

ActiveRain is a pretty useful tool for people in the business as it helps them connect with colleagues that they probably wouldn’t otherwise encounter. They can see what the real estate scene is like in bigger cities like New York by simply sending a message to a fellow member. Or they can check out the trends in Martinsburg, West Virginia if that’s what tickles their fancy, all without leaving the comfort of their homes.

It’s just like any other industry: you want to stay on top of things by attending conferences and talking with your fellow real estate professionals. Myself, I’m a freelance writer, so I frequent forums and sites where other writers converge to talk about getting clients, how to decide on a rate, and all that good stuff. ActiveRain does the same for real estate professionals.

This is a Pro Website?

In terms of the site itself, the layout is utterly simple and minimalist. It’s got a plain white background, not much in terms of graphics other than the user-provided images of themselves, and not too much unique content, again, other than the blog posts, forum entries, and profile pages provided by the members. You’ll also find a simple search tool wherein you can look through the profiles, blogs, and so forth. The About, Guidelines, FAQ, and Contact pages are pretty basic as well. And I thought that selling real estate was all about showmanship. I guess flashy graphics and background music wouldn’t exactly be professional.

When you look at the main page, you’ll notice that they have a large map of the United States. From there, you can click on your state of choice, narrowing down your selection further by picking a county or a “top city.” For example, Bellevue, Washington is one of the more popular cities, probably because that is where ActiveRain is based. There are 95 real estate professionals living and/or working there who have set up an account with ActiveRain.

What’s in a Name?

Speaking of which, I’m not sure if I really understand the reasoning behind choosing ActiveRain as the social network’s name. John Chow tells me that activestate.com is already taken by some enterprise-level software developer, so I guess they went with rain instead based on how much of the wet stuff that Bellevue-ites must get (I’d know; I’m only a couple of hours drive from there). Personally, I wouldn’t have selected ActiveRain as the name, as it does not draw any sort of immediate association to the real estate business. It sounds like some sort of WordPress plug-in… or maybe it’s just the blogger in me coming through.

As a Canadian, I’m a little miffed that they didn’t go through the trouble to draw up a clickable map of our lovely nation. Instead, you need to scroll down the page (“below the fold” depending on your monitor resolution) to find the list of Canadian provinces. Yes, provinces only, so if you live in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, or Nunavat, you’re out of luck with ActiveRain. Well, at least until they expand further north (if they do).

Below this, you can navigate to a member through links to new members and top referrers, as well as profiles by the type of professional they are. According to the figures provided at the time this post was written, 10,814 of the 18,075 total members are real estate agents. That’s about 60%.

Nice Concept, Needs Some Makeup

All in all, I’d say that ActiveRain is a good concept, capitalizing on the rising popularity of user-provided content and the increasing need for a sense of community and belonging. Real estate professionals can easily promote their services while, at the same time, conversing with colleagues regarding all sorts of issues surrounding their industry. I would have liked to see some more customization in the blogs, and the “featured blog posts” sidebar is significantly longer than any other portion of the front page, giving it a somewhat lopsided appearance. The site could stand to take a cosmetic facelift, but most of the key (core) functionality is there.