A model for membership

by Tom Ferry

Real estate associations have provided a system of support to generations of agents and brokers. Whether large, national organizations or small, local groups, they offer tools and resources intended to help industry professionals succeed and better serve their clients.

Joining a professional organization often allows immediate entry into a circle of driven and knowledgeable individuals who share an interest in advancing their careers. For real estate agents and brokers, membership in an association can immediately provide the tools, training and resources they need to succeed.

As the real estate industry continues to evolve, associations function as a reliable support system for professionals. For the cost of dues, members take advantage of benefits such as networking events, business tools, discounts and education opportunities.

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Associations can also seem unwieldy from the outside – with membership numbers ranging from hundreds to millions, they often have to fight the perception that the voices of individual agents go unheard. The decades-long history of some associations might make them seem stale compared to market disruptors. Agents might question membership fees and associated expenses when they look at their individual budgets, particularly when companies like Zillow purport to offer some of the same services, sometimes at lower costs.

Associations still provide many of the services they always offered to agents and brokers. Now, however, many feel called to help real estate professionals remain relevant in a marketplace in which they have to deal with competing, non-traditional business models.

Brandie Miner, senior director of communications at Georgia Association of Realtors, cites networking and education opportunities as two of the driving factors in attracting agents to her association. Associations help agents make connections with other professionals from across the state and build their referral network, she said.

“We did a video a few years ago talking about various benefits,” Miner said. “[One member] said pretty much every conference that she’s gone to she has made a connection that has eventually ended in a referral. In that way, the conference registration pays for itself.”

DeAnn Golden, president of the Atlanta Realtors Association, said agents come to her association for continuing education opportunities and the chance to work with like-minded professionals.

“It’s friendly competitors that are coming together for the greater cause of cooperation and being better,” Golden said. “It helps when you know the other parties in a transaction.”

Communication challenges with a growing base

Bob Goldberg, chief executive officer of the National Association of Realtors, said his organization is constantly working to improve lines of communication so that he and his board can understand the mindset of its members. When he became CEO two years ago, Goldberg implemented an executive outreach program to strengthen those ties with members and increase engagement.

“I created a team whose only job is member engagement: to go out and make sure that they are talking, engaging, showing up at meetings and doing a lot of face-to-face things that I think a lot of associations over the years have lost the ability to do,” he said. “We have [nearly] 1.4 million members, so it’s a big task to go out and really get in front of people.”

At the national level, the organization also has to stay in touch with smaller associations that make up the three-way agreement of local, state and national groups. Goldberg saw a gap there as well and instituted a plan to keep staff involved in what’s happening across the country. “I assign two or more of our senior executives and our vice presidents to each of our respective 13 regions around the country,” Goldberg said. “They have responsibility for going out and ensuring member outreach.”

Goldberg’s efforts appear to be working. Membership numbers remain strong for the largest association. However, these figures do tend to follow the market, and recently the market has been pretty positive for real estate. In 2012, during the height of the housing crisis, membership dipped below 1 million. While the recession that some economists are bracing for isn’t expected to have such a close tie with the real estate industry as the last one, any economic downturn could cause members to reconsider their business expenses, and dues dollars certainly aren’t immune to that.

Atlanta Realtors surveys members to find out where they feel resources should be used.

“We want to respond to what their needs are in an ever-changing environment,” Golden said. “That has probably been one of our greatest resources for making decisions – polling our Realtor members to see what would they feel the value would be. That’s best done by listening to what our members want and taking that feedback to heart. The leadership at Atlanta Realtors Association are practitioners. They are brokers. They are agents. They are people that are in the field every day, seeing what is needed. And so we’re able to come together in a very well-orchestrated manner with board meetings, committee meetings and executive meetings.”

Education and advocacy

An association’s focus on education is often two-pronged, as both an effort to maintain professionalism among the ranks and to help fill the many gaps that exist between licensing classes and the actual practice of real estate. A 2018 survey by NAR found that 29 percent of its members had fewer than two years of experience in the field.

Overall, Goldberg noted that with business-minded members, it’s important to demonstrate a clear return on the investment of dues dollars. “For us it’s all about how do we make our members more profitable?” he said. “How do we help improve their ROI?”

The Georgia Association of Realtors works hard to make sure agents stay informed of the latest developments in the industry through its quarterly magazine and social media outlets, according to Miner.

“We have a pretty robust following on our social media channels,” she said. “We try to share industry news via those channels. And some of it is just sharing. It is not necessarily giving an opinion on our end, but we like for our members to stay informed as much as possible. Each social media channel kind of has its own voice and mission. Our Twitter channel in particular is what we tend to use for retweeting news.”

Hearing members’ voices — the positive and the negative

Keeping every member of an association happy at all times is an impossible task. But that doesn’t mean member complaints go unheard, according to Goldberg.

He said he appreciates it when members make their dissatisfaction known. “I love it when members love what we do,” Goldberg said. “I love it when members don’t like what we do, because at least they’re engaged.”

He regularly communicates with Realtors on social media and personally responds to nearly anyone who contacts him within three or four days, whether through email, texts, calls or social media platforms like LinkedIn.

“I feel it’s our obligation as an association,” Goldberg said. “I’ve made the same request of my staff: Get engaged in social media. … We’re here to be stewards for our members. We’re their association. Our job as key staff is to be out there, listen to what our members say and help answer their questions.”

The Atlanta Realtors Association surveys members to find out what direction the group should take.

“We want to respond to what their needs are, and they’re changing needs in an ever-changing environment,” Golden said. “That has probably been one of our greatest sources. Our Realtor members have to see what would they feel the value would be. So I’d probably say that’s the best. By listening to what our members want and taking that feedback to heart. Also, the leadership at Atlanta Realtors Association are practitioners. They are brokers. They are agents. They are people that are in the field every day, seeing what is needed.”

Adapting to new challenges

Technology is constantly changing the face of real estate and how agents connect with their clients. From the advent of market disruptors such as Zillow and Redfin to the rise of the smartphone, agents constantly have to be aware of new technology, tools and tactics.

Associations sometimes respond to those changing dynamics in the marketplace by investing in tools that are intended to make members more competitive.

For the Atlanta Realtors Association, a tool has to appeal to a broad spectrum of agents and brokerages before it is adopted and made readily available.

“Sometimes when we’ve looked at things at the association level if we elect not to pursue it, it is typically with that mindset,” Golden said. “Would it have appeal to all members? And is it really something that’s more of a competitive advantage that one particular business model might utilize? If so, then we’re going to leave it to the brokerages to pursue.”

Developing new technology is expensive and risky. The process is time-consuming and there’s a strong possibility that the end result will be disappointing. The tech might be too hard to use, it may not solve the problem it was developed to address or something better might already be on the market, leaving agents to wonder why their dues dollars should go toward creating such tools.

In the past, the NAR often dedicated its resources to developing in-house technology, such as the Realtors Property Resource program. Goldberg has shifted the focus to partnerships with outside companies, most notably ending the association’s involvement in the Upstream data management project last December. NAR has created member insight panels to help companies develop useful tech tools with the particular needs of real estate professionals in mind.

“We have a lot of partnerships with companies that we don’t have an equity investment in, and we also have companies where we do have in some cases have a very small equity position,” Goldberg said. “It allows us to help influence all that’s being done so that we can put a lot more arrows in the quiver of providing benefits to our members.”

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