When I went back into real estate in the mid-90's I expected a level of real estate technology at least as high as our commercial real estate firm had possessed ten years earlier; rather primitive computers, word processors really, that could spew out selective mailings to our client data base and generate offer forms and sort-of-slick marketing packages. Instead, the largest residential real estate office in my town with 34 full-time agents had a single IBM typewriter for correspondence and two clunky terminals hardwired to the local multiple listing services. Most of the agents in the office didn't care how old the terminals were because they didn't know how to use them anyway. They subscribed to and carted around MLS books with tiny little listings that were published and delivered every week.

Within a year technology began to creep in.

It was slow at first; a few agents bought PCs to sit on their desks, the office sponsored beginning classes on word processing and client management software. These were followed by complaints from 50 percent of the attendees that computers had no place in a people-to-people business.

Then progress kicked down the door. By 1998 most of the major real estate firms had web sites as did quite a few tech-savvy agents. The first sites were static, nothing more than brochures on line although some had an occasional flashy graphic. But these soon morphed into portals where visitors could search that agent or office's listings.

We all know where residential real estate is now. Huge percentages of buyers begin their home searches online and sign up to receive automatic e-mails when a house matching their criteria comes to market. The big offices spend megabucks on their sites and reap hundreds of customer leads each day. There probably is not a single agent in the country without an email address and those without their own URL are few and far between. Zillow has married the web to satellite technology and Redfin is striving to make agents on the ground a relic as they pioneer what amounts to phoning in home showings and remote control offers.

Still, it is a people-to-people business and many of the top producers have resisted technology and survived quite nicely thank you. Now among the recent innovations is one that marries the personal with the technical, real estate blogs. This should come as no surprise as there are now, according to Technorati some 55 million blogs world wide and the mainstream media is beginning to treat them as a legitimate information source. The National Association of Realtors® devoted part of the program at its 2006 conference and Expo last week to the subject, inviting a panel of leading proponents of real estate blogs to speak to the subject.

Blogs, in the unlikely event you don't know, are interactive websites where the owner suggests a topic and invites readers to comment. Blogs tend to center around a special interest - politics, pets, knitting, and thousands of other topics. Sociologists are billing them as a way to build communities and that is, in part, the direction that real estate blogs are taking.

As a marketing tactic the first priority of a blog should be to build brand identity. An agent or an office should attempt to project a personality through the blog and building community is one path to that end. An agent who is an avid golfer or one who represents golf centered developments could blend features on new golf products, tournaments or up and coming local talent with information on his real estate listings, using information to draw in the reader who will then become acquainted with the agent and perhaps add to the conversation with information or opinions of his own. That reader will then hopefully talk about the blog and the sponsoring agent in the locker room of the local club, even if only to encourage his friends read his own contribution to the site.

An agent might build a blog completely around his readers' interest in real estate, i.e., "Talk among yourself, I will give you a topic: ‘Has the bubble burst in Des Moines?'" Everyone loves to give an opinion; to see it in print is a real plus, and blogs can be almost destructively addictive. Once a comment is posted, the author is compelled to return again and again to read any responses. All of this amounts to a lot of traffic to an agent's web site and probably a lot of buzz from bloggers to their friends.

There is apparently a movement in larger cities toward blogs that concentrate on housing trends, gossip, and out-and-out snarky comments on shoddy construction, dishonest contractors, etc. Perhaps not a mechanism to build a consumer base but possibly a public service.

We found blogs that were truly devoted to marketing. One, run by a developer focused on each of the seven developments he is currently trying to sell. Others promote the owner as a real estate guru, encouraging questions from readers while touting his expertise and his listings. A blog from an agent in Northern Virginia focuses on wooing the real estate junkie, with numerous tables on sales, housing starts, and mortgage applications in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Many provided links to cultural, government, and services web sites as well as maps for newcomers to the area.

But blogs can be dangerous. It is very possible to get carried away with the brand identity shtick, especially if the principal blogger is fascinated by his own opinions and ego. One agent in a western state was totally consumed, as was his blog, by tales of his ever-so-clever seven children. Yeach! Another, in the Midwest, pictured himself as another Greenspan. The verdict? Almost as unintelligible; not nearly as smart.

But the big trend in blogs - and it looks like there is still time to get in on the leading edge - are community blogs. We looked at a number of them and the format is common. The sponsor recruits local businesses, charities, event sponsors, and so forth to contribute posts on a regular basis. Perhaps the local businesses could be asked to pay for the privilege (i.e. the "ad") but blogging expenses are small and good will is priceless. The Montgomery County Community Blog (which like many blogs, unfortunately fails to tell readers where Montgomery County or Washington County or the "charming town of Lincoln" is) features recent articles on driving from a teen safety foundation, pet travel tips from the Humane Society, an invitation from the sponsoring real estate firm to submit a favorite Thanksgiving recipe, and a note about the Great American Smoke Out from the American Cancer Society.

Many of the community blogs that we found were located in recreational or tourist areas. They pop up when one searches for Park City or Taos and who knows when a visitor might decide they have to retire or buy a second home in the area. Chances are good they will contact an agent with a familiar name who has been helpful in the past.

There is a lot of advice on the Internet which can help an agent (or a mortgage company or home inspector) weigh the advantages of a blog and a lot of examples of good and bad blogs. The market will soon be saturated with the community service model, but if your local area doesn't have one it seems like an ideal way to generate customers, referrals, and good will.