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The Shibboleth of Real Estate



Can You Be Referred To?

Recently my wife asked for some insight into referring a current client who was looking for a specialty property. The client is considered high-end for the market segment they were looking in and was looking in several states. My wife is very protective of her clients and strives to do what’s best. In the rare occasion that we don’t have a connection in an area, she researches agents before referring. Sure her franchise has a referral program, but by the time it gets put through that system, the poor receiver of the buyer referral is looking at a 40-50% referral fee. Most good agents will not take clients with that high of a referral fee; so we’ve always referred directly.

Believe it or not, she had a hard time finding an agent who appeared to have their act together enough, on-line to refer to. It took a lot of research before deciding.

Secret Handshake

In contemplation of what to look for in an agent, we of course, went to the internet and started with Twitter friends, than Google, than the franchise pages, than RealSeekr, etc… and lastly (you’ll love this) ActiveRain. Why? Activerain would let us “hear” the voice of the practitioner, find their websites and sorted it by location. We decided that there was a secret handshake – a combination of clues to look for that weren’t foolproof, but certainly may help us sort through who might be a good agent to refer to in the future.

The Combination

There is a story in the Bible, in Judges, of a situation where after a battle a people group were trying to separate those who were friend and foe. The group used the word “Shibboleth” as a pass phrase, as it was unique to their culture. Those who said the word incorrectly, were killed as enemies. Real Estate has it’s own “Shibboleth.”

This is what we considered while pouring over lists of agents:

1. Did they have a Website and (preferably) a blog

They HAD to have a website, and we preferred to see a blog. What were we looking for? Was it relevant, was it up-to-date, was it professional…. Since we were looking at ActiveRain, the points weren’t important because those could be generated by “Great Posts”, rather we were looking for recent posts and how well written the agent was. If they had their own blog, than we looked there.

2. Presentation

We saw countless agent pictures (many company listings without photos). Do agents need to pretty? No, but they need to look professional. If we saw the typical mug-shot against a wall in the office, we moved on. If the agent can’t spend at least $30 at JC Penny’s for a professional picture, than they aren’t going to take the career seriously enough.

3. Did the web presence endue a sense of professionalism, experience etc… ?

When I look for agents to trust, I don’t care that they have 30 years experience (that generally tells me they are of the old guard and not with current trends) but rather look for someone that has shown in their online presence that they “get it” and have closed enough transactions to be sure they can close another. Seeing an agent with 5-10 years experience with an up to date webpage, that is more about the consumer than themselves and provides local information and IDX is a great clue that the agent has a sense for current trends and services.

4. Resume versus Services

The death nail in any agent advertisement, for me, is the “Million Dollar Producer” line. In most markets you only need to sell three houses to be a million dollar producer. As both a consumer and someone in the industry, I want to know what you can do for “ME” not what you’ve done for you. Knowing that you made some money last year doesn’t impress me. If you’re selling so much, do you really have time for me as a client? Do you have teams and systems in place to help you with your “high” client base? As a referring agent and/or consumer I want to know about your knowledge base and ability to serve a consumer.

5. Agency

Believe it or not, there were some agents who eluded to the fact that they preferred to care for “all clients in the transaction, equally.” Putting it into context with other things from some agents and reading their blog post on the subject’ they were supporters of Dual Agency. Yeah, right… As if I would ever refer a client to an agent who wanted to provide them less service so that the agent could make twice the money. Moral of that story – be cautious of what you blog about. (Especially if it were your first and last post for 8 months ago)

Ok, So It’s Not All About Me

I know, I know… I’m a Yuppie Elitist. I’m OK with that. Yes, I know that there are some very promising agents who haven’t embraced a good web presence or been around enough to establish themselves. However, I don’t think that what we were looking for in a referral agent was beyond reason. Referring a client properly can ensure future business from the friends and family that they left behind, but more so it’s about serving the current client here and now. Your referral for services to another agent or vendor reflects on you. Be careful…

I am sure that there are other things to look for in an agent than the five I’ve listed, but these were my hot buttons. Agents need to be more careful about their on-line presence. It could make you money – but it could also cost you money. The possible commission from this referral could be up to $75,000 – does your web presence convince me that you deserve this?

Matthew Rathbun is a Virginia Licensed Broker and Director of Professional Development for Coldwell Banker Elite, in Fredericksburg Virginia. He has opened and managed real estate firms, as well as coached and mentored agents and Brokers. As a Residential REALTOR®, Matthew was a high volume agent and past REALTOR® Rookie of the Year & Virginia Association Instructor of the Year. You can follow him on Twitter as "MattRathbun" and on Facebook. Matthew's blog is

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  1. Gia & Grant Freer

    July 2, 2008 at 8:51 am

    Shibboleth is one of those wonderful words that instinctively wants to make you open an encyclopedia or research it further in Wikipedia and other online resources. I can still recall it from Synagogue sermons and Sunday school, and more recently watching re-runs of the West Wing (Gia and I have every series on DVD and it’s always been one of my favorite episodes). The analogy to Real Estate is so well suited, especially now that the internet and social media have opened up new ways for us to engage, interact and demonstrate our expertise. It doesn’t take a lot of money to present oneself in a professional manner online. Everyone should take reference to this post by Matt and see if your online presence follows his checklist.

    p.s. we were wondering what to do tonight – ice cream and West Wing it is 🙂

  2. Dan Green

    July 2, 2008 at 8:54 am

    Terrific perspective of how one class of home buyers starts their home search.

    Web sites (and blogs) are “always-on marketing”. Many agents still don’t realize that their unprofessional and outdated web presence is actually causing them to lose business for which they didn’t even realize they were competing.

    This post is the EXACT reason why I update my blog every business day.

  3. Matt Stigliano

    July 2, 2008 at 9:08 am

    I guess I better get to work on my website then! Haha.

    As a relatively new agent, I really liked this post, for several reasons. One, it helps me think of what I would look for in an agent when referring a client, but two (and maybe more importantly), its got me thinking of what I should do to make myself into an agent that someone would refer their clients to. So thanks on both ends! I also appreciate hearing from an agent that “million dollar producer” doesn’t mean much (I’ve been thinking that for years, especially since I lived in Los Angeles for 8 years) and that although experience is great, its not the be all end all of real estate. As a new agent, we sometimes feel beat down by other agents with a gazillion years under their belts, all because we are “new” and haven’t closed a bazillion transactions. I’ll get their someday, just give me some time.

    As for me, I’m actually very excited this morning. I’ve been reading agentgenius for about three months and using both the site and a feed reader to read the various articles that pop up. I’ve been warned to death that feed readers are bad for my health and finally, I’ve found something that I felt ready to comment on. I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve done it. I’m in the game now. So look out agentgenius readers, here I come. Once I start, I may not stop.

    I would like to take a moment to thank everyone here at agentgenius, as everything I have read so far has been great. My head is swimming with ideas and tips from the three months I’ve been floating about, being the ever present voyeur.

    See you all soon…


  4. Jennifer Rathbun

    July 2, 2008 at 9:17 am

    It’s amazing to see in print our thought process when picking an agent. Thanks!

  5. Marc Grossman

    July 2, 2008 at 10:23 am

    Matt, I have the same issues when searching for an agent to refer business to. I also have a referral website & when choosing agents go through a very similar process that you do. I also understand your frustration. It’s amazing what you come across.

  6. Matthew Rathbun

    July 2, 2008 at 11:04 am

    Gia / Grant – I really like RealSeekr and hope that more agents will join. That will be a great site to find agents in the future.

    Dan – Glad I could re-enforce your efforts to keep up to date

    Matt – I have been teaching Real Estate courses for many years, but the materials I have found in the have been very valuable. I have learned a great deal by not being a lurker but participant in the social media aspect of blogs such as AG. I am really fond of new agents. Typically they are more inclined to try new things and learn things that will help them and their clients. Don’t let the more experienced agents keep ya down!

    Jennifer – I’ll say nice things to you later 😉

    Marc – I am getting leary of referral sites, becuase it’s just one more group taking chunks out of an already dwindling income and there is a better way… Maintaining your own referral site and list of reputable agents is a great idea!

  7. Ken Smith

    July 2, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    I always have the hardest time referring a client when I don’t already have a relationship with the person. The agent you refer reflects upon you and can either help or hurt your reputation.

  8. Jonathan Dalton

    July 2, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    > As if I would ever refer a client to an agent who wanted to provide them less service so that the agent could make twice the money.

    I’ve practiced Dual Agency when appropriate (and not collected twice the commission, incidentally). By your logic, this means I’m a bad agent?

    I’m also going to channel the BawldGuy regarding agent experience/web presence and say it’s about skinning cats. Having a slick-looking website doesn’t mean that the agent is selling any homes.

  9. Matthew Rathbun

    July 2, 2008 at 9:40 pm


    I apologize, I was not intending to offend you, but I personally do not believe in single agency dual agency. In the Virginia statutes outlining fiduciary responsibilities, there are basically eight statutory requirements. Of those eight, if taken as literal only about two of them can be done while in a Dual Agency relationship. I can’t trust most agents to do Dual Agency well. Here is what the top legal authority from Virginia has to say:

    Dual Agency is ALWAYS a conflict of interest. Virginia law merely permits you to engage in it with the informed consent of the parties provided you act accordingly. Their informed consent, once obtained, does not mean the conflict ceases to exist, merely that the clients consent to your acting as a dual agent notwithstanding the existence of the conflict. This is an important point to remember: the conflict does not go away just because you get the requisite consent. You still must act in a manner consistent with the conflicting interests of your clients.
    Lem Marshall, VAR General Counsel
    March/April 2004 issue of “Commonwealth” Magazine has articles on the issue and there are very few agents who don’t think that Dual Agency should be illegal for single agents.

    As far as the “slick” webpage, I fully agree that folks can buy a great webpage and that it is not the end all be all, however using the totality of the circumstances it’s the one of many indications that I can find on my own. It’s a matter of looking at the overall presence of the agent and using the hits given at the time.

  10. Jeremy Hart

    July 3, 2008 at 11:45 am

    Matt (the other one, not the author), welcome! Matt (the author, not the other one) was right when he said that some of the best education you can receive in this business will be from the folks on these – and many, many other – pages.

  11. Paula Henry

    July 3, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    One of the greatest compliments I can receive is the referral from another agent who has checked me out online. I know this sounds like the tagline so many agents put on the back of their cards (which I don’t have) but, I’m serious.

    This week I received confirmation that I am the agent of choice for a referral from an agent in North Carolina. I’ll be selling her mother’s home….and she interviewed three agents.

    I can’t say with certainty if my website or blog are appealing, it’s a matter of preference, I’m sure.
    It helps they felt they already knew me and the quality of marketing I do online.

  12. Eric Blackwell

    July 4, 2008 at 8:33 am

    Expanding a bit on what Ken said…

    I either need to KNOW you or KNOW ABOUT you from someone I know before I will refer….that having been said a blog that has your authentic voice and where you are coming from does allow me to KNOW you.

    Great post.

  13. Jennifer in Louisville

    July 4, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    For me whenever I have a referral to send out, I don’t mess with those social networking sites (activerain, etc) when deciding whom to send it to. It has been my experience, that some of those persons are SO OBSESSED with doing hanging out chatting, that they’d rather do that than work.

    I go straight to google, and see who has the strongest web presence for a variety of main keywords appropriate for my clients in that particular area. Then, I go through and hit the rest of your 5 point checklist. 🙂

    If they don’t show up in search results for google for me, I don’t care if they are #1 on Activerain.

  14. Karen Goodman

    July 6, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    I just made a referral a week ago for one of my listing clients that is moving out of state. Since my website is currently through Point 2 (soon to be moved to WordPress), I started with their system and narrowed the list to agents that were requesting referrals for the town that my clients want to purchase in. Since the town is actually a short drive from a major city, the list wasn’t all that long.

    Then I checked out the agent’s websites and hoped to find a decent blog. I wasn’t necessarily looking for the custom high priced website, but I did want to see someone that did more than slap up the standard template without even editing the text.

    But, the most crucial step was to follow up with a phone call to the agent that I thought was the best match. I want to have a conversation with anyone I’m going to refer to before I hand over a phone number to my client. I agree with Ken’s comment (#7) that my choice of referrals reflect back on me. If the agent I suggest is incompetant, why whould they ever trust me again.

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Business Marketing

The rise of influencer marketing and its effect on digital marketing

(BUSINESS MARKETING) More businesses are planning to invest a larger part of their marketing budgets on more relatable, branded content and influencer marketing.



Influencer speaking to camera for marketing segment.

The digital age has created more savvy consumers, and the barrage of advertising on top of the plenitude of content online can be a lot. Many consumers have learned to hide ads or they simply scroll past them to their content of choice. Most business owners know that digital marketing is a crucial part of any ad strategy, and branded content and influencer marketing continues to grow in the market, because consumers see that it’s different from traditional advertising.

Hardly anything stayed the same in 2020, and traditional advertising also has shifted. Advertiser Perceptions reported on the trend for 2021, based on a survey from late 2020.

“More than half of advertisers using paid branded content and influencers say doing so is more critical than it was a year ago. Throughout the second half of 2020, 32% increased spending on branded content and 25% spent more to back influencers. They’re now putting 20% of their digital budgets into the complementary practices, which is more than they put into any other digital channel (paid search is 14%, display 13%, paid social 12%, digital video 12%).”

The benefits of branded and influencer content are that you are speaking to the consumer where they already are, when you choose an influencer. The people who follow their accounts are more likely to trust that the influencer would only share something they like or use themselves. The best matches are when the influencer marketing fits nicely into the kind of content, the voice, and any specialties they already deal with.

The word “influencer” as well as the concept rubs some people the wrong way. Marketers see the value, though, as influencer marketing can be effective if done well, and the cost to hire them is often less than a traditional ad campaign. If I want to know about food in a city, I’ll follow the hashtags until I find a local food blogger or micro-influencer whose style I like. Then I’ll seek out those restaurants when I visit. Sure, some of the meals are comped, but the truth is that food bloggers and influencers like to share their food recommendations. I have been influenced this way more than once, and not only for food. I am not alone in this, either, which is why it’s an important part of a marketing strategy.

In influencer marketing, the content creator is then given free rein to create within their own style, voice, and persona. They need to connect with their audience in an authentic, familiar way without creating a dissonance for their followers between their public page(s) and the brand. The level of trust is fairly high with influencer marketing, and many influencers realize that promoting something crappy or something outside of their area of expertise or recognition hurts everyone involved.

The power of storytelling comes into play here, as with all good advertising. Branded content is specifically all about the story, often the story of the business’s philosophy or some lifestyle aspect that goes with the brand’s vibe–or is so off that it goes viral. Some branded campaigns join into or build off of conversations already happening in the wider world. The purpose is to have people engage with the brand, with the content, build awareness, encourage conversations, sharing, comments, all with the long term goal of fostering a positive image of the brand so that down the line, they will become consumers.

Think of 2004 Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, based on a study showing that around 2% of women saw themselves as beautiful. The widely studied, award-winning campaign featured women of all backgrounds and body types, without airbrushing and Photoshopping them into a narrow vision of “beauty.” While some people hated it, many loved it and applauded the brand for treading into traditionally uncharted waters. Among haters, fans, and people who weren’t sure what to think, the Dove Real Beauty branded content campaign generated conversations. The campaign also encouraged women to feel good about themselves and lift up other women. One could argue that the campaign you could argue that the Real Beauty campaign was a forerunner to the currently popular body positivity movement, which started gaining traction around 2012. Dove increased sales by at least $1.5 billion in the first ten years the branded content campaign ran.

The goal of branded content is to raise awareness of the brand, but the path from point A (creating the content) to point B (brand awareness, ultimately leading to better sales) is not a straight line. Brands are paying attention to grabbing attention, aka building brand awareness via more upper funnel marketing than lower funnel.

One thing that marketers are looking for now, however, is almost eliminating the funnel. With the mind-boggling increase in e-commerce since the beginning of the pandemic, clickable sales capability becomes important in any kind of marketing, including influencer and branded content. It pays to listen to customers, to find an influencer who meshes with your brand’s purpose, and to create thoughtful branded content that isn’t out of line with your core product or service.

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Business Marketing

Need design help? Ask a Designer offers free peer-review for better design

(BUSINESS MARKETING) Good design is more than just slapping some fonts and colors together. Ask a Designer promises free design advice on their new website.



A white sign in an urban setting reading "In Design We Trust" with glowing yellow lights above.

With the necessity to create and maintain an online presence for our businesses nowadays, content creation is essential. One impact this proliferation of content has had on entrepreneurs, bloggers, and small businesses is that many non-designers have had to take a stab at design work. Sometimes this works out for the amateur designer, but often it could be better: More effective, accessible, and appealing. This is where Ask a Designer comes in.

Creating designs online can be fun, but your average Canva, Squarespace, or WordPress user, for example, has no more of a sense of design than the man on the moon. Design work encompasses so much more than just slapping some words on a stock photo and calling it a day. While there are truly incredible and helpful free or inexpensive DIY design and business tools out there, nothing beats the power of knowledge and experience.

Ask a Designer provides one more level of professional review and counsel before a business owner puts their DIY (or even paid) design work out there for the world to see—or worse, not see. As a writer, I have always valued editorial reviews, comments, and feedback on my writing. Second eyes, third eyes, and more almost always serve to improve the content. It makes business sense to get as much feedback as possible, even better to get expert feedback.

For example, an experienced web designer should have a good idea of how to incorporate and test for UX and UI purposes, thus making the user interaction more functional and pleasant. A skilled graphic designer knows what colors go together for aesthetic appeal, accessibility, and even the psychology behind why and how they do.

Take logos. Pick a color, image, and font you like, and go for it, right? I’m afraid not. There is a lot of data out there on the science and psychology of how our brains process logos. There are examples of logo “fails” out there, as well. Consider the uproar over AirBnB’s logo that many thought evoked genitalia. Or the raised eyebrows when Google changed their color scheme to one similar to Microsoft’s palate. Just search for “logo fails” online to get an idea of how a seemingly innocent logo can go horribly wrong. I haven’t linked them here, because they would need a trigger warning, as many of the worst examples can be interpreted as some sort of sexual innuendo or genitalia. Searchers, be warned.

It always makes good business sense to use professional designers when you have the option, just as it makes sense to use professional writers for copywriting and professional photographers for photography. After all, if you have the chance to get something right the first time, it saves you time and money to do so. Rebranding can be difficult and costly, although sometimes rebranding is necessary. Having a designer review your design (whether logo, WordPress, blog, or other) could possibly help you from missing the mark.

How does Ask a Designer work, and is it really free? It’s super easy—almost like designers had a hand in it! Know what I mean? First, you go to the website or app and enter your question. Next Ask a Designer will assign your question to the appropriate type of designer in their network. Within 48 hours, they’ll get back to you with feedback or an answer to your design question.

While Ask a Designer is available to anyone to use, the website suggests it is especially helpful for developers, teams, junior designers, and business and product owners. They suggest, “Think of us as peer-review in your pocket.” The team at Ask a Designer will provide feedback on specific projects such as websites, logos, and portfolios, as well as answer general questions.

Examples of questions on their website give a good idea of the scope of questions they’ll answer, and include the type of feedback they provide. Sample questions include:

  • “How do I choose colors for dark mode?”
  • “I’d love feedback on a logo for a restaurant.”
  • “I’m an industrial design student and I’d like to move into automotive design. What are some resources that can get me to where I need to be?”
  • “Please send me some feedback on [website link].”
  • “How can I use my brand fonts on my website?”
  • “I’m a full stack software engineer. Are there any resources you could suggest for me to level up my design or UX skills?”

Ask a Designer is new, and so they currently list 2 design experts, each with 20 or more years of experience in their fields. They promise to add more “desig-nerds” soon. It may sound too good to be true, but from what they state on their website, this expert design review service is free. Considering the other excellent tools out there with some free components out there for business, it is possible that this is true. Whether they will add a more in-depth paid version is yet to be seen. In any case, it’s worth trying out the app or website for your burning design questions and reviews.

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Business Marketing

6 tips to easily market your side hustle

(BUSINESS MARKETING) It can be hard to stand out from the crowd when you’re starting a new side hustle. Here are some easy ways to make your marketing efforts more effective.



side hustle marketing

Side hustles have become the name of the game, and especially during these turbulent times, we have to get extra creative when it comes to making money. With so many of us making moves and so much noise, it can be hard to get the word out and stand out when sharing your side hustle.

Reuben Jackson of Big Think shared five ways that you can market your side hustle (we added a sixth tip for good measure), and comment with your thoughts and ideas on the subject:

  1. Referrals: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask!
    If you’re going to make a splash, you have to be willing to ask for favors. Reach out to your network and ask them to help spread the word on your new venture. This can be as simple as asking your friends to share a Facebook post with information that refers them to your page or website. Word of mouth is still important and incredibly effective.
  2. Start Where You Are
    Immediately running an expensive ad right out of the gate may not be the most effective use of your (likely) limited funds. Use the resources you do have to your advantage – especially if you’re just testing things out to see how the side hustle goes in the real world. You can do this by creating a simple, informational landing page for a small fee. Or, if you’re not looking to put any money into it right away, create an enticing email signature that explains what you do in a concise and eye-catching way. Check out these tools to create a kickin’ email signature.
  3. Gather Positive Reviews
    If you’ve performed a service or sold a product, ask your customers to write a review on the experience. Never underestimate how many potential customers read reviews before choosing where to spend their money, so this is an incredibly important asset. Once a service is completed or a product is sold, send a thank you note to your customer and kindly ask them to write a review. Be sure to provide them with links to easily drop a line on Yelp or your company’s Facebook page.
  4. Be Strategic With Social
    It’s common to think that you have to have a presence on all channels right away. Start smaller. Think about your demographic and do some research on which platforms reach that demographic most effectively. From there, put your time and energy into building a presence on one or two channels. Post consistently and engage with followers. After you’ve developed a solid following, you can then expand to other platforms.
  5. Give Paid Marketing A Shot
    Once you’ve made a dollar or two, try experimenting with some Facebook or Twitter ads. They’re relatively cheap to run and can attract people you may not have otherwise had a chance to reach out to. Again, the key is to start small and don’t get discouraged if these don’t have people knocking your door down; it may take trial and error to create the perfect ad for your hustle.
  6. Go Local
    Local newspapers and magazines are always looking for news on what local residents are doing. Send an email to your town/city’s journal or local Patch affiliate. Let them know what you’re up to, offer yourself for an interview, and give enticing information. The key is doing this in a way that your hustle is seen as beneficial to the public, and is not just an ad.

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