Long gone are the days when the multifamily sector was playing technology catch-up. Even mom-and-pop operators have drip email campaigns and other go-to tech tools firmly entrenched in their operations these days.
Apartment marketers have energized the marketing stack with marketing technology—or MarTech—for every step of the customer journey from the initial lead generation/customer engagement part of the customer life cycle through resident retention.
What’s more, MarTech helps marketers gather more consumer insights than ever before. “Technology partners are connecting the software, hardware, wayfinding and in-the-moment support to ensure a great experience—and linking it all back to the customer relationship management system,” Mike Whaling, president at 30 Lines, said.
And with so many different marketing channels and customer touchpoints, the CRM enables the team to see which MarTech tools are adding value.
Ultimately, successful marketing is about the customer experience and how the customer feels during engagement.
“Whether I’m checking a website, texting or using chatbots—whether I am outside the building on my phone and then I step inside to have an analog experience with a leasing agent—that continuum of experience and technology has to fit together in a seamless way,” Richard Malpica, vice president & general manager for the Eastern region at Yardi Systems, told Multi-Housing News. Simply put, it’s an omnichannel world.
When apartment prospects engage human-to-human, they don’t want to be asked the same questions—like “are you looking for a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom?”—that they already answered via a chat engagement two days ago. This can tarnish the experience, according to Malpica.
“In a perfect world, the customer goes away thinking: ‘This whole organization has got their act together and their technology is cool and I like interacting with it and I’m going to tell my buddies!’ More and more of our clients are looking for that brand recognition in the service level they deliver,” Malpica pointed out.
Word of mouth is still one of the most effective ways to reach apartment occupancy goals, and MarTech has helped energize analog referrals.
The Rentgrata platform, for example, offers prospects the opportunity to message current residents of apartment communities when considering a new place. Prospects can have real conversations to gather feedback about floor plans, amenities and other aspects from a resident’s point of view. This is especially helpful for prospects leasing virtually or from afar. If the prospect chooses to move into the community, both individuals will receive a reward that is offered by the property.
The technology is being tested by multifamily owner/operator Venterra Realty Partners at multiple communities as a natural progression from the standard customer reviews. “Now, instead of a prospective renter sorting through reviews for one that matches their concern, they can ask a current resident, gaining real-life insight while potentially making a new friend along the way,” Stephanie Gonzalez, vice president of property & customer innovation at Venterra, told MHN.
By adopting this technology, according to Gonzalez, the communities provide residents with a differentiated living experience that they will feel confident sharing with anyone who asks. What’s more, the platform instills firsthand trust with prospective renters who may be thinking: “Who else lets you speak with their current residents?”
The platform will also deliver to Venterra anonymous data extracted from the conversations, reporting on important details including what prospective residents are seeking in a new home and items current residents think could be improved. Other advantages include resident retention, improved online reputation and better leasing conversion rates.
Go-To Tech Tools
Email is still a MarTech must, but texting has a much higher open rate. The more you can automate, the better you can make the experience—both for the customer and the leasing agents, according to Esther Bonardi, vice president of corporate marketing, multifamily marketing and the RentCafé Reach business unit at Yardi Systems. Text messaging has become a very important piece of marketing technology.
“We used to think that automated messaging wasn’t a great experience for the customer, but it can be, because it can be instant,” Bonardi said. When you can answer somebody’s question instantly—or at least let them know in an instant that their information is received and you’ll be in touch—that’s really important. Text messaging allows you to automate this communication, just like email.
Chatbots in particular have seen a revival since the onset of the pandemic, as businesses were looking for effective online tools to help them interact with customers in a socially distanced world.
Yardi, for example, recently introduced a product called RENTCafé Chat IQ. Powered by artificial intelligence, it includes natural language processing, so it understands what people are typing. According to Bonardi, even if users misspell or abbreviate words or use numbers instead of letters, Chat IQ incorporates natural language processing so that a customer can really have a conversation and gain information.
“At any time, if you want to move that chat to text message, you can have that same AI powered conversation through text messaging on your phone,” Bonardi explained.
The chatbot is trainable, too. If new questions come up that can’t be answered on the website, the chatbot will alert the management team and the leasing staff can go in and train it on how to answer the question in the future.
“Customers expect instant answers, but apartment companies aren’t staffed to do that effectively without some help from technology,” Whaling said. He is seeing demand for automated, personalized responses, often backed by AI, such as a marketing automation system, an email/text scheduling assistant, a chatbot or, in many cases, all of the above.
According to Whaling, the technology is good enough now that many customers don’t realize they’re being helped by an automated system—and these tools are very effective at taking the tedious, repetitive tasks off of the plate of the on-site teams.
For example, Kettler’s marketing technology stack includes both virtual and digital tools for consumer engagement.
“Our virtual tools enable our prospect acquisition strategy by allowing our future residents the opportunity to experience our apartment homes through virtual reality,” said Daryl E. Smith, senior vice president & chief marketing officer at Kettler. This approach lets Kettler’s consumers choose how they want to engage by presenting them with options for both online and in-person sales experiences.
“We also enable digital solutions such as a chatbot to further our online leasing experience with our prospects in a 24/7 format,” Smith noted, adding that this conversational AI tool serves as a partner with the on-site sales teams, in ensuring that prospects can be engaged at any time. “This enables efficiencies in our leasing efforts, while bridging personalization with our brand and our consumers need for convenience,” he said.
Putting It All Together
MarTech is continually evolving. Smith’s team at Kettler is currently keeping an eye on advancements in digital solutions that enable the tracking of daily consumer sentiment, and online solutions that digitize the renewal segment of the customer journey. “These are two key areas that need more digital lift in our operational environments,” Smith explained.
Whaling anticipates the multifamily sector will see new tech to help streamline background checks and lease applications. Marketing will become a revenue generator, especially as the apartment industry finds new ways to market new ancillary services/amenities that are becoming available.
In his view, each community is a valuable audience that other brands want to reach, yet very few companies are leveraging this opportunity today. “In general, follow consumer behavior and broader marketing trends like influencer/affiliate marketing, behavior-based ads and follow-ups, marketing focused on specific interests and communities and better augmented reality capabilities.”
If you’re going to try a new marketing tool, make sure you think through how to connect those shiny new objects back to everything else you’re already doing. “Don’t lose sight of the primary goals of marketing: raising awareness, influencing customer behavior and making the sale easier for the leasing team,” Whaling advised.
Apartment marketers sometimes chase the promise of some marketing concepts that are great in theory but almost impossible to implement in practice. “We’ve chased multitouch marketing attribution for years, but there are major technical and industry obstacles that make it unrealistic to attain beneficial attribution reporting today,” Whaling noted.
Smith agreed that the shiny new MarTech offering can be a distraction—but multifamily marketers have grown in their strategic insight in being much more finite in their product decisioning. “We realize the importance of digital and virtual tools and their relationship to our consumers. We also understand that it’s a very crowded marketplace with numerous products solving for the same solution,” he said.
Keeping pace with an ever-changing technology landscape can also be challenging—especially when it comes to choosing the appropriate evergreen solution in supporting a company’s long-term MarTech strategy needs, Smith added.