As sensors and flow control actuators become smaller, cheaper, and more pervasive, the use of feedback control to manipulate the details of fluid flows becomes increasingly attractive. One of the challenges is to develop mathematical models that describe the fluid physics relevant to the task at hand, while neglecting irrelevant details of the flow in order to remain computationally tractable. A number of techniques are presently used to develop such reduced-order models, such as proper orthogonal decomposition (POD), and approximate snapshot-based balanced truncation, also known as balanced POD. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses: for instance, POD models can behave unpredictably and perform poorly, but they can be computed directly from experimental data; approximate balanced truncation often produces vastly superior models to POD, but requires data from adjoint simulations, and thus cannot be applied to experimental data. In this article, we show that using the Eigensystem Realization Algorithm (ERA) (Juang and Pappa, J Guid Control Dyn 8(5):620–627, 1985) one can theoretically obtain exactly the same reduced-order models as by balanced POD. Moreover, the models can be obtained directly from experimental data, without the use of adjoint information. The algorithm can also substantially improve computational efficiency when forming reduced-order models from simulation data. If adjoint information is available, then balanced POD has some advantages over ERA: for instance, it produces modes that are useful for multiple purposes, and the method has been generalized to unstable systems. We also present a modified ERA procedure that produces modes without adjoint information, but for this procedure, the resulting models are not balanced, and do not perform as well in examples. We present a detailed comparison of the methods, and illustrate them on an example of the flow past an inclined flat plate at a low Reynolds number.