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Nov. 18, 2013

MHN Interview: Kevin Thompson, SVP of Marketing for Bell Partners

KevinHeadshot thumbnailBy Leah Etling, Contributing Editor

Greensboro, N.C.—Kevin Thompson, senior vice president of marketing for Greensboro, N.C.-based Bell Partners, has been known to say that when it comes to multifamily, residents literally “live in our box of Tide.”

It’s an intriguing analogy from the experienced consumer product marketing executive, whose diversified experience includes stints at AvalonBay Communities, Iams, Fruit of the Loom and Promus Hotel Cos. At Bell, Thompson has pushed for creative marketing approaches that get realistic about how to connect with residents, and takes the time to listen to their feedback and concerns.

While an apartment residence might not typically be thought of as a tactile product, the Tide analogy melds the residents’ living experience with the marketing of a successful multifamily brand.

“Our consumers actually live in our product (the apartment home), as thus live in our brand, too,” Thompson explained. “And because our customer do live in our box of Tide, any flaws or inconsistencies in delivering the brand and service promise are magnified. Conversely, any positive experiences are also memorialized. We need to be constantly aware of the intimate connection between our products and our consumers. Only with this realization do we get the right sense of the importance of our brands.”

MHN: Bell recently introduced a new marketing campaign centered around the concept of “Hassle-Free Living.” Tell us what you did differently and how it worked?

Thompson: Well, we wanted to get beyond the usual providing superior customer service mantra, so we started thinking about a residential living environment that would be characterized by the elimination of problems and issues before they happen. Ergo, Hassle-Free Living®. We began with a series of resident focus groups, to hear what our existing customers had to say about the concept. The most interesting aspect of this novel approach was the fact that residents responded to the Hassle-Free Living idea by recognizing that they, too, have a responsibility in making a community a great place to live. For example, residents felt that things such as picking up after their pet and respecting the late hours quiet time was the minimum they should do to contribute to their larger community. Out of this came our Good Neighbor program and the birth of our messages “Bell Makes Good NeighborsÔ” and Bell is “Where Good Neighbors LiveÔ.”

MHN: Taking the time to meet with residents in focus groups is a significant investment. Did it generate the results and feedback you’d expected? What did you learn?

Thompson: I think you’d be surprised that it wasn’t really a major investment in terms of resources. It was more about the time we spent working at it. But we did get results that we didn’t expect. When the focus group participants overwhelmingly said that they have a role in making the living experience outstanding, that they also have responsibilities and it’s not just a one-way street from management company to resident, we were pleasantly surprised. We basically received permission to partner with residents to create a hassle free-living environment. This may sound like an obvious conclusion, but it’s a pretty novel idea for our industry. And, in addition to our residents liking this idea, this campaign was recognized by MHN this year as a [silver] winner in the Best Marketing Program category.

MHN: You’ve spoken at the AIM conference on best mobile practices for multifamily. Is the industry still lagging behind on adopting mobile as a way to reach prospects, and how can we catch up?

Thompson: When it comes to mobile, the multifamily industry still has room to catch up with other sectors. I’m not sure we are taking the first step, which is to recognize the importance of mobile in our larger lead generation strategy. The fact is that between 10 to 30 percent of leads come from mobile devices, including tablets, and this trend is only going to increase. Catching up is not so much a matter of technology, which is fairly simple and uncomplicated. It’s more a question of promoting the recognition and awareness that mobile is already here and our customers are already using it for much of their everyday routines—banking, shopping, social. Our prospects are ready to use mobile to search for an apartment, submit maintenance orders, pay their rent, and communicate with our leasing staff. We, as marketing leaders, need to shift more media dollars and strategic focus on this resource.

MHN: Reputation management is an industry hot topic, and many multifamily firms have been hit really hard with bad reviews online. What do you advocate as reputation management solutions for the multifamily industry?

Thompson: No matter how good you are in managing your residents’ living experience; there will always be negative feedback from some quarters. That’s just human nature. In fact, I heard a statistic that 82 percent of all feedback on ApartmentRatings.com is either negative or neutral, so the odds are already against you before you even begin. However, you need to embrace the feedback and engage the discontented customers. Of course, this is challenging, and some might think it’s just better to ignore them, but that approach generally just exacerbates the situation. Instead, reputation is far more effectively protected when you have a response platform that entails listening, communications, and building relationships with residents.

MHN: Do you have any “best practice” tips for responding to negative reviews?

Thompson: While each organization has a different approach, I would recommend that you try to centralize all incoming reviews to a designated team, who can then immediately respond to the more general comments, forward comments to the regional/community teams for more local responses, and most importantly, provide some oversight, analytics and topline trends to ensure that the company is providing quick and professional responses. Furthermore, you should provide your local teams with some pre-written response templates, job aides, in-house training webinars/courses, so they completely understand your response strategy and procedures, and let them know the important role they play as a Service Ambassador for your company and brand.

MHN: Social media is overwhelming for some companies, and often confused as being the same thing as reputation management. How do you differentiate the two?

Thompson: Social media is usually an ongoing conversation between and among residents. We are not necessarily focused on intruding on that conversation, although we do provide information and responses when directly engaged. On the other hand, reputation management is the task of protecting the good name of the company. This task may involve the use of vehicles like social media. In a certain sense, managing reputation is an end, while social media can be, in this context, a means to that end.

MHN: What’s next for Bell Partners on the marketing front?

Thompson: With our goal of providing our communities with highest qualified leads at the lowest possible cost, we are constantly evaluating lead generation sources. Given the Internet is our primary lead source, we are looking to enhance our websites (and select Internet Listing Service sites) with tools such as dynamic tracking numbers, expanded 24/7 call center connectivity, live customer reviews, and more. As I noted earlier, I think ORM and Mobile should remain at the forefront of our strategies, too.

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