The Challenge of Apple to Social Marketers Everywhere


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The other day, at the as-yet-unnamed Houston Social Media Club dinner, we got to talking about (what else) using social media for marketing purposes. I was reminded of that discussion checking out the new InmanNext post on Engagement by Michael McClure (that’s Mr. ProfessionalOne to you). [By the way, kudos to Chris Smith for getting InmanNext launched with its slate of writers, thinkers, and doers. Great job, Chris. I’ll give you all the negativity over cocktails in San Francisco.]

Michael lays out generally solid advice, as he usually does. If you’re looking for guidance on how to use social networks generally, you could do a whole lot worse than his post. Now, Michael gives the following sage advice:

First, because success IRL is predicated heavily on the quality of the relationships you build. I won’t attempt to explain or justify this point, because I think most people know it to be true.

Second, because this same principle – the idea of success hinging on the quality of the relationships you build – is equally true in Social Media. Remember that people are people, whether online or offline.

Third, because there is a direct correlation between the quality of the relationships you have and the degree to which you successfully engage within those relationships.

For those of us who have been in or around this whole social media marketing thing over the past few years, all three points are rock solid. But on this blog, we don’t rest with rock solid conclusions — we push on into the frail forsaken frontier of foolish questions.

The foolish question of the day, then, is: What assumptions must we make in order to accept these three as rock-solid principles?

Put another way, those marketers who strongly advocate social media as the future of marketing must wrestle with, and answer, the challenge of  Apple, Inc.

The Apple Conundrum

What is fairly amazing about Apple and social media mavens is the undying love the latter has for the former, despite every evidence that the former thinks the latter are full of crap.

I know Michael, for example, has posted comments and photos about his MacBook Pro on Facebook that are nothing short of love letters. He’s fairly typical in admiring and adoring Apple and its famously cantankerous CEO, Steve Jobs. If you were to survey everyone who has the words “Social Media” in his job description, I’d bet that a supermajority own multiple Apple products.

Thing is, Apple has never been, does not today, and does not appear to be interested in engaging in social media at all. In fact, Apple doesn’t appear to be interested in engagement, as defined by Michael and others, at all. They’re not all that interested in having a relationship with you; they value you as a customer (and quite frankly, that is open to debate), but really don’t seem to want much more than that.

Apple has never had a corporate blog. It does not have a Twitter account. There is no Facebook Page for Apple. If anything, they’re quite anti-social. Here’s a story in the New York Times entitled, “Apple’s Obsession With Secrecy Grows Stronger“, in which the reporter writes:

Few companies, indeed, are more secretive than Apple, or as punitive to those who dare violate the company’s rules on keeping tight control over information. Employees have been fired for leaking news tidbits to outsiders, and the company has been known to spread disinformation about product plans to its own workers.

Note that the dateline for this article was June of 2009. Not exactly at the birth of the Social Age. Facebook reported 250 million users just a month later, in July of 2009.

And yet, it’s impossible to deny that Apple has been one of the few companies that appear to do no wrong “IRL”, as Michael would say. Apple’s post-tax earnings look like this:

  • 2007: $3.5 billion
  • 2008: $6.1 billion
  • 2009: $8.2 billion
  • 2010: $14 billion

In three short years, Apple more than tripled its net income. It dominates the smartphone market. It created a whole new sector of computing/entertainment with the iPad. It has changed the way the world consumes music. It has been, by any measure, tremendously successful. In real life.

With zero engagement. Zero relationship building. Zero social media, of any kind.

How is this possible? Social marketers have to wrestle with the problem of Apple and provide answers.

One Popular Answer: The Product Rocks

The answer you’d get from most people is something along the lines of, “Well, yes Rob, Apple doesn’t do blogs or Facebook, but they make incredibly sexy products.” Yeah, I know that better than most. I dislike Apple tremendously, but somehow, I ended up with a MacbookPro, two Cinema LED monitors, a MacBook Air, an iPhone 4, and a couple of iPods. Can’t deny it; they make great stuff.

That observation turns out to be the key.

It turns out, the answer to my question above is, “In order to accept that success depends on the quantity and quality of relationships, and therefore success turns on engagement, the assumption one must make is that the product or service is a commodity.”

When you’re selling something like cotton fiber, or pig iron, or pork bellies… then you’d better work on relationships and engagement like crazy. Because your competitors are selling the exact same thing. So you compete either on price or on intangibles.

Since real estate people rarely (if ever) compete on price (that’s a whole separate set of chapters), what they compete on is the intangibles: engagement, relationship, likability, reputation, and so on. In that world, of course, everything will turn on engagement and relationships. In no way is Michael wrong in his observations.

It does, however, mean that we all assume that the service being offered is an undifferentiated commodity.

Or Is It?

On the other hand, consider what the number one criticism of social media real estate is from longtime practitioners, whether agents, brokers, or managers. The number one criticism is that there are top producers in just about every single market who do little to no social media of any kind, “because they’re too busy closing deals”. Some folks ask, “When do you have time to do any deals when you’re spending hours on Twitter and Facebook?”

Ah, those questions grate, don’t they? I know you’ve heard that line of thinking before; I know I’ve heard it many, many times.

Rather than focusing on the stinging unspoken rebuke (well, oftentimes, they’re quite loudly spoken), however, it might make sense to focus on the underlying reality. And question whether the assumptions we make about real estate are in fact true.

Is real estate an undifferentiated commodity service, such that success will turn on engagement and relationships?

Or is it, perhaps, a bit more subtle? Maybe some agents are simply better than others; they provide a better service, a better “product”, if you will. None of us appear to be able to define what “better” means (and believe me, I’ve asked a whole bunch of times), but could it be that in some inchoate way, the consumers know when they’re getting a superior service?

That, in a sense, they’re buying an Apple?

Could it be that consumers will gladly engage left and right, become your Facebook Friend, have coffee with you, chit chat about the market, do searches on your website, read your blogposts, and then hire another agent who (for reasons known only to the consumer) seems to provide a “better product”?

I know, I know — foolish questions on a Friday filled with folly. Feel free to ignore the whole line of thinking and return to exploring Google Plus.

But… what if I’m right?



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Rob Hahn

Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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7 thoughts on “The Challenge of Apple to Social Marketers Everywhere”

  1. The same agents who are running that lame line “How do you close deals spending so much time on FB” maybe spending around half that time sitting around in old customer database solutions that can’t get close to what Facebook can offer in terms of hustling past clients, SOI, etc. The best agent gets that FB is a new tool, you just need to use it the right way. And many Top Producers are still riding a strong wave of face to face network connections that will appear immune to social media effect until (sorry to be morbid) their clientele start to pass. 

  2. Rob, you may have a point. Many top producers in my area are not on fb or twitter, or even have a blog. If they do have a blog, it’s very corporate, and there’s no sense of engagement. Yet they are doing very well; they’re selling real estate.

    • Real Estate is about relationships. If you use twitter, FB, youtube, blogs etc to inform your marketplace & build relationships, you can do very well.

      Social Media is a tool.  Success in business comes from meeting people, forming relationships, providing value and keeping them happy.  

      That you find people to meet is important; where you find people is secondary.

  3. I think what it comes down to is the same bottom line I got from watching the Banksy film “Exit Through The Gift Shop” over the weekend:

    Banksy shows that there are folks that create art, and then there are artists.  Those that create art are looking to the world to validate them – artists actually get their validation from themselves.  And if other people end up feeling the same way about the art, then the artist develops a true following.  Same thing with Apple.  Same thing in Real Estate.

    I’ve gotten a LOT out of the Simon Sinek book “Start With Why”.  He really made me think about why I do what I do.  I’ve realized that I have to ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT and BELIEVE IN what I’m doing – whatever rewards may come from that are secondary.

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