Slowly but surely, the retail real estate industry is embracing social networking. From Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn to Foursquare, firms are increasingly experimenting with sharing information, reaching out to consumers and finding new ways to promote properties.

One clear piece of evidence in that regard is the number of attendees at the 2010 ICSC RECon posting Twitter updates from the conference floor. Last year a handful of attendees were posting. This year more than 70 attendees are providing frequent observations and adding a new dimension to the conference. Now, some attendees are interacting with each other virtually in between sessions and sit down meetings. And many posted frequent updates commenting on former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's keynote address on Sunday.

It’s all part of a learning process for the industry. Many developers and property managers have embraced social networking as a way of better understanding and communicating with the customers that visit their properties. It’s also an avenue to deliver news about in-mall events or special sales that complements traditional marketing channels like print advertising and direct mailings.

Columbus-based Casto, for example, has been busy building Twitter and Facebook accounts for most of the properties in its portfolio. It has even added signage at some of its properties promoting its social media presence. In addition, the firm has a Twitter feed for its corporate headquarters. Sarah Benson, who heads up marketing efforts at the firm, said social media has been a major emphasis for the firm in the past 12 months. It also recently hired a social media expert to further develop the company's efforts.

Santa Monica-based regional mall REIT Macerich has also been aggressive in building out a social networking platform for its properties.

Macerich has overcome one of the challenges that face many owners attempting to delve into social media. Some firms are finding that it’s difficult to get retailers to take part in property marketing efforts because local store managers don’t have the authority to make those kinds of decisions. For many retailers, marketing efforts are centralized at corporate headquarters. In addition, mall firms traditionally are talking to the heads of real estate with retailers—not their marketing teams.

But Macerich’s size and large portfolio of malls has allowed it to work more directly with head marketers at retail firms and it's gotten greater participation from them in its marketing efforts. Mechelle Peters, associate vice president of corporate and retailer marketing, says Macerich has worked hard to cultivate relationships both with corporate heads of marketing and local store managers. “It’s helped us figure out how to use our tools and build their businesses,” Peters said.

Efforts over the past 12 months have resulted in programs like Great Denim. The firm held a denim drive at most of its 72 properties to support local charities. At the end of the two-week period, the malls hosted Great Denim events, during which volunteers packaged the donated jeans for delivery. Participants also got expert advice on which styles of jeans best fit their bodies. And retailers that carried denim products took part by having special sales. The events were promoted heavily in part through Macerich’s mall Facebook and Twitter pages.

Despite the experimentation, most industry pros think that the retail real estate space is just at the beginning of trying to figure out how to harness new technologies to promote and enhance the in-mall shopping experience. Orlando-based Crossman & Co. President John Crossman went so far as to say that the industry “needs more visionaries” in finding methods to build online communities. “We need to be more celebratory. You have to know what makes up the community around your shopping center and how to celebrate it,” Crossman said.

For example, some firms have opted to stop putting Christmas trees at malls in fear of alienating customers with other religious beliefs. It’s this kind of fear of alienation that’s led firms to be similarly conservative when it comes to reaching out to customers and led to a lot of monotony and consistency in the design and tenanting of retail properties. But Crossman argued that the thinking should be reversed. Every holiday important to a mall’s constituency should be recognized and owners and managers should emphasize making retail centers more unique.

Chestnut Hill, Mass.-based W/S Development Associates Inc. has also experimented with social media—primarily through Facebook and Twitter—and Partner Thomas J. DeSimone said the firm stresses building connections to surrounding communities through its centers’ design, tenanting and marketing strategies.

The Web site for the firm’s Legacy Place lifestyle center in Dedham, Mass., gets more than 60,000 unique visitors a month. And it has 3,000 fans on Facebook. Metrics indicate, as well, that visitors referenced from Facebook spend 25 percent to 40 percent more time on Legacy Place’s site than other users.

“It takes a real investment of time and money to make these kinds of connections with customers,” DeSimone says. But it’s also not just about an online strategy. It’s also because the center itself has been popular and successful since opening and meets the needs of the community. In fact, many industry experts cite it as one of the best-executed lifestyle centers built in recent years.

Success on projects like Legacy has contributed to W/S Development’s ability to pursue other new developments, a few of which it is highlighting at the conference.