The Power of Stories: Humanizing Your Website

Adding real-life interviews with people in your market can give your site a warmth that sets it apart.

December 1, 2001

Dear Mr. Internet,
My website has lots of great information and is attractively designed, yet it seems sterile. How can I make my site more personal and provide a sense of warmth to its visitors?—Chris Wallace, ABR, CRS, Prudential Hodrick Realty, Williamsport, Pa.

Dear Chris,
Boy, did you ever hit on an issue that affects the vast majority of real estate websites. The fact is, no matter how terrific and valuable your site content is, it will come off about as appealing as a hard drive until you find some way to let people connect to you on an emotional level.

The key to providing this kind of human connection on your site is remembering that people relate powerfully to stories about other people, especially people just like them. Here’s how.

Before you get started, it’s important to understand the distinction between a story and a testimonial. A testimonial, a statement by a satisfied customer on the great service you provided, can be a great way to build credibility. But because a testimonial still has the agenda of promoting your services, it doesn’t inspire as much trust and is less successful in creating real human connection.

Well-crafted stories about real people, however, can go right to the heart and make that emotional connection to your visitors. For example, a story about a young couple’s first anniversary in their new home, preparations for a garage sale before a move that yields a long-forgotten box of family photos, a elderly couple reminiscing about how the area has changed since they moved in thirty years ago will have a direct appeal to readers because they or someone they know has probably had a similar experience. Those connections makes your site seem attractive, warm, and friendly and provides a powerful and unique way to turn casual site visitors into clients.

Here’s what you need to do to obtain the powerful, heart-connecting stories that will be eagerly consumed by your site’s visitors.

1. Choose your subject.

Find a home-owning family, couple, or person within your service area who is consistent with your primary target market. For example, if you specialize in first-time buyers, find a young family that just recently purchased a home (not necessarily through you) and has an interesting story to tell. Keep in mind almost everyone has a story, and if you work your farm area regularly, you probably already know many of them. Other ways to locate good stories are to solicit subjects through your newsletter and to let people in your farm area who interact with many customers—barbers, druggists, and ministers—share stories they hear with you.

2. Enroll them.

Ask potential subjects if they would agree to let you interview them and post their story on the community section of your website for a month (or for however long you plan to leave each story up). You’ll be surprised at how many people will feel flattered by your request. Also ask if it would be all right to take a picture of them in front of their house to include with the story. Once you have your subjects’ verbal permission, it’s a good idea to have them sign a release form giving you permission to use the story and image on your site in the manner you plan. Any good attorney can prepare a sample form for you that will keep you from running afoul of copyright and privacy laws.

3. Prepare your questions.

Write down the questions you plan to ask so that you won’t forget an important point during your interview. Be sure that your questions touch on topics that will appeal to your site's target market. Taking the first-time homebuyer example, you might ask questions such as:

  • What made you first think about buying in this neighborhood?
  • Now that you are here and settled in, what do you like most about this area?
  • What do your kids like most about living here?
  • What is the most unique and unusual thing that has happened since you moved here?
  • What are your thoughts about the community and the people that live here?
  • Tell me about the most interesting person or family you've met so far.
  • If another family asked you about moving to this area, what words of wisdom and advice would you offer?

Notice how all the questions are open-ended? They're designed to have your interview subjects talk as much as possible. The questions you ask during the interview will help bring out the richness of even the most common happenings.

4. Conduct the interview.

Set up a one-half to one-hour appointment with your subjects. Ideally, this meeting should be done at the subjects’ home so they are as comfortable as possible. Ask permission to use a tape recorder, so you don't have to interrupt the conversational flow by writing things down.

5. Write the story.

Have the tape transcribed, then edit down the responses to focus in on the two or three most interesting and emotionally connecting answers. Try to keep the story to between 500 and 600 words. The final step is to write a short, introductory paragraph that describes your subjects, their kids, pets, and so forth, and leads into the interview. Once this is done, read the story again to correct spelling and punctuation, then send a copy to your subjects for final approval before you post it on your website.

6. Notify the subjects when their story appears.

It might also be a good idea to send a small token of appreciation to thank them for their time.

If this process seems like too much work, keep in mind that an assistant, virtual or otherwise, can accomplish much of the work. Your assistant can make calls to locate likely subjects, set up the meeting, obtain the necessary releases, transcribe the material, and maybe even edit the story. The one task you should definitely do yourself is the actual interview. If your subjects aren’t your clients now, they probably will be eventually because of the special way you honored them. The interview gives you a great opportunity to start building that relationship face to face.

We all live in a world filled with great uncertainty and rapid change. More than ever, people are searching for real, human connections. If you use actual stories to provide that sense of "touch" in the otherwise antiseptic environment of the Web, you’ll set yourself apart in a most profound and human way. Yes, this human approach will provide additional business, but perhaps more importantly, it will give you a deeper sense of connection as well.

Tip of the Month

Most of us are aware of the importance of using a signature at the end of each e-mail message. However, what most real estate professionals don't realize is that there’s a way to enhance the impact of your signature by including a “Vcard.”

A Vcard is an Internet-standard personal electronic business card in the form of a small, text-based file that’s attached to your outgoing e-mail messages. Although it typically contains all of your contact information, the real power of an Vcard is in the way this information is transferred. Recipients who use professional-level e-mail software, such as Outlook, Outlook Express, or Netscape Messenger, can instantly transfer all of your contact information to their e-mail address book database simply by opening the Vcard attachment within your message. In this way, your clients and prospects will remember you and be able to find your contact information easily when they want to get in touch with you.

Since a Vcard consists of your contact record, you need to create one for yourself in your own e-mail contact database before you can start including it with your signature for outgoing e-mail. Once this is done, you can set your e-mail software to automatically add your Vcard after your signatures on every outgoing message.

Keep in mind, too, that a Vcard should be used as a complement to your signature, not a replacement for it. You can include marketing messages within your signature that aren't allowed in the Vcard standard.

A final note: As usual, America Online e-mail doesn’t conform to Internet industry standards, which means that Vcards don’t work for AOL recipients. Therefore, delete the Vcard attachment on messages you send to AOL subscribers.

Michael Russer, a.k.a. Mr. Internet®, is CEO of Russer Communications. He is a leading speaker and author in the real estate industry and has been writing about Internet marketing and virtual outsourcing since the dawn of the commercial Internet.

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