Since the rise of social media, REALTORS across the country have come to the realization that to run a successful real estate business, their skills can’t be limited to just home sales. To be competitive, agents must be able to design and run advertising listings, marketing campaigns and generate leads.

We can all agree that social media platforms and search engines were practically designed for these purposes. Billions of potential homebuyers and sellers are already online, hours upon hours, every day. Agents simply have to make sure their websites and listings are easy to find and that their ads reach as many qualified leads as possible. But there’s a catch. One thing ad management networks do best is collect information on users and then use that data to optimize advertising and marketing outreach. So while technology has been a boon for lead generation, it also managed to set the real estate industry back several decades. You see, audience targeting can lead inadvertently to Fair Housing Act (FHA) violations.

According to the National Association of REALTORS’ Real Estate in a Digital Age 2019 Report, 47 percent of agents said they use social media to promote listings and for generating high quality leads. For anyone who uses sites like (but not limited to) Facebook, Instagram and the Google Display Network, you need to know about audience targeting and how easy it is to accidentally cross the line into discriminatory advertising.

Just to show how common this problem has been, Google had to remove more than two billion ads in 2018, many of which violated the company’s policies, such as discriminating against groups based on race, age and religious beliefs. So there’s a good chance that real estate professionals who used any one of the big ad manager platforms to run ads and listings prior to 2019 violated antidiscrimination laws. That’s because those networks allowed — and even encouraged — users to create audience profiles. So an agent could select who sees a listing based on extremely personal traits, such as income range, marital status or even what type of food a person eats. The practice essentially deprived certain groups from seeing listings. That’s problematic for anyone who doesn’t want to violate the FHA, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability.

Audience targeting tools have been removed from most real estate advertising platforms. These days, social media companies and ad manager networks are very careful about their sites being used as a vehicle for discrimination. In part, it’s because the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) slapped one social media platform with a lawsuit for violating the FHA and the federal agency also admitted to investigating other tech giants for doing the same. The suit, announced in March 2019, accused Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram of “show[ing] targeted ads to users” and “encouraging, enabling and causing housing discrimination” across their networks. In a statement, HUD secretary Ben Carson said, “Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live. Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”

Within months, Facebook created a new real estate advertising portal and removed micro-targeting tools; Google announced a similar overhaul to its ad network this past summer. The changes, which occurred abruptly and with no warning, shook the real estate profession to its core. According to Facebook’s “2019 Real Estate Trends and Insights Report,” nearly 90 percent of agents’ and brokers’ media budgets went to online ads.

Ryan Rodenbeck, owner of Spyglass Realty, was one of the few agents who wasn’t affected by the changes. He already felt that using social media platforms for advertising listings was too limiting. Rodenbeck believes agents should focus on branding instead, which is something that Facebook says their audience-targeting tools are much better suited.

Rodenbeck is an expert at running what Facebook calls educational promotions. So instead of posting an audience-targeting property listing, he can run a campaign that promotes the speed of which a property in a specific zip code went under contract. In this case, it’s not a violation to use micro-targeting tools because he’s not listing a house for sale or for rent. Rodenbeck’s goal is to raise awareness of his agency, Spyglass Realty. Advertisements that celebrate newly sold properties or those under contract, as well as ads hyping Austin neighborhoods, in blog posts like “Must-Visit Attractions in Barton Hills,” help to bolster his brand without depriving anyone of their right to housing.

“Facebook, Instagram and Google display ad networks aren’t great sources for generating new leads,” he says. “The ones we do get from these platforms are kind of fickle.” If generating new business on social media is the primary goal, you have to put in a lot of time and energy and will get very little in return. “That’s why you want to use these sites for branding,” says Rodenbeck.

Tech companies are keeping some audience-targeting tools, but now there are built-in protections for the platforms and users. For example, REALTORS can place zip-code-target ads. But unlike earlier iterations, there’s an automatic 15-mile radius minimum. The goal, of course, is to prevent someone from excluding what they might believe are undesirable neighborhoods, such as those with a heavy concentration of minorities or low-income earners.

Other changes that protect REALTORS from committing housing discrimination violations is by taking away the option to micro-target audiences based on age and gender. Now, any person over the age of 16 can see any published real estate listing.

There has been some understandable pushback. One example is when a broker has a listing in an age-qualified community. It doesn’t make sense to run an ad if it’s going to be delivered to people of all ages. On the other hand, if the listing agent attempts to target a specific age group anyway, the platform reserves the right to remove that ad. After the HUD lawsuit, platforms are not in the mood to negotiate. Repeat offenders can have their business accounts suspended from the platform entirely and permanently. So for anyone weighing their options — a lifetime suspension vs. a deluge of calls from unqualified prospects — one of these can severely debilitate a small real estate agency while the other is a temporary inconvenience.

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