Digital technology, marketing automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are revolutionizing every aspect of multifamily marketing and leasing. The pace is fast and the technology solutions ever-changing, so it can be hard for marketing teams to keep up. Given the increasing array of data available on every digital move a prospective resident makes, the human at the other end of the digital device can sometimes get lost.
The most effective marketing pros of the future will understand data and what the prospect wants, and will deploy the right tools at the right time. The upshot will be fast, seamless conversions of prospect to resident or resident to renewal. Handling the process effectively will require a combination of hard and soft skills anchored in both data analysis and an understanding of human behavior.
Diving into Data
One of the best resources covering data and preferences is the NMHC/Kingsley Associates Renter Preferences Report, an authoritative data source on the preferences and behavior of today’s apartment renters. The last release of the report in 2017 included responses from more than 272,000 residents at institutional-grade communities, and we’re gearing up for an updated release of the survey results in November at the 2019 NMHC OPTECH Conference & Exposition.
This vast data set is complementary to the growing amount of information that multifamily firms are collecting about their own prospects and residents. Marketing automation, website traffic monitoring, resident surveys and even home automation devices are generating massive amounts of new data. Regardless of whether your customer data is external or internal, next-level data analysis is beginning to shed light on how resident preferences and online behavior affect decision-making.
More multifamily marketing teams indicate that they have access to skilled number-crunchers who can conduct this type of sophisticated analysis to uncover significant connections and insights into consumer behavior. That analysis also facilitates micro-targeted marketing efforts, thus avoiding the expensive, ineffective approaches of the past.
Many of these number-crunchers include data scientists, specialists in a burgeoning field that is leading the way to more data-informed corporate cultures and business models. But the internal demand for these scientists’ services is so high that they are often siphoned off to other departments, where colleagues are seeking answers to other vexing questions that emerge from their stacks of data.
Applying the Technology
For marketing professionals, the new data is shining light on the customer decision-making journey and experience. This theme was heard repeatedly at the 2018 NMHC OPTECH in November. As Kettler Chief Marketing Officer Daryl Smith observed during a session on digital marketing: “We have an opportunity to really curate an experience for our consumers in a more robust way than we ever have before.” To seize that opportunity, the digital marketing experience must evolve.
Advances in marketing automation are helping, but there are challenges. While a proliferation of products aims to enhance the customer journey, integration remains difficult, and converting data to business intelligence remains a challenge, especially in the midst of exploding volume.
Help in better understanding our customers may come, ironically, from robots. Marketing and leasing lend themselves particularly well to the deployment of machine learning and artificial intelligence, due to their high volume and high data output requiring fast, accurate interpretations of information. The biggest stumbling block has been that the high-touch component of both processes does not mesh well with AI’s somewhat clunky early deployments.
But what separates machine learning and AI from rules-based algorithms is the learning part. AI is programmed to learn and get smarter as it encounters new information. While the first deployments have been with chatbots, many are asking: What other processes can be automated?
The chatbots provide a good road map to the future. Executives are taking note of improved conversion rates and other positive results yielded by chatbots, which were initially used to back up leasing agents and provide 24/7 coverage. AI technology is improving the efficacy of the automated response to the point that during digital exchanges with customers, prospects have a hard time telling the difference between the chatbot and a live leasing assistant.
While the day when robots replace marketing and leasing professionals may be some way off, the day when skill sets need to evolve is already here. The most successful marketing professionals will have the quantitative skills of a data scientist combined with the insight and understanding of a psychologist. A rare combination indeed.
Rick Haughey is vice president of industry technology initiatives at the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC).