NAA Conference Report: Social Media Marketing Fact and Fiction

New Orleans--60 percent of [American] companies have incorporated social media into their marketing strategies and 93 percent of companies believe they should have a social media presence.

Courtesy: JT Turner Research

New Orleans—Social media marketing continues to generate buzz in the apartment industry and beyond. In her first five months, lifestyle guru Martha Stewart attracted over one million followers on Twitter—and she spends only five minutes a day on this marketing activity. According to a study conducted last year by Cone, LLC, 60 percent of [American] companies have incorporated social media into their marketing strategies and 93 percent of companies believe they should have a social media presence. How do these trends affect the multi-housing market, how important is it for the apartment market to use this medium, and what’s the best way to implement social media?

A panel comprised of Joseph Batdorf, J Turner Research, Robert Turnbull, RentWiki, Mike Whaling, 30 Lines, and Jamie Gorski, The Bozzuto Group provided tips and shared opinions during “Resident’s Use and Perception of Social Media and the Multifamily Industry: Strategies to Evaluate our Community’s Online Presence.” Moderated by Don Canfield, Linnell Taylor Marketing, the session was presented the first morning of the National Apartment Association’s (NAA) Education Conference & Exposition.

Courtesy: JT Turner Research

According to Batdorf, who shared results of an ongoing national survey conducted by his market research firm, 93 percent of residents have never visited an apartment community’s social networking page—and nearly one in four residents (24 percent) don’t visit social networking sites at all. These findings are based on responses from 15,964 apartment residents collected between January 1, 2010 and June 13, 2010. Five multifamily communities participated.

The overall percentage of residents who have visited any apartment community’s page more than doubles, from 6 percent to 13 percent for properties that have established a social networking page (primarily on Facebook or Twitter). Batdorf added that the survey asked which social networking sites respondents use the most. Facebook leads with 69 percent followed by LinkedIn with 15 percent, Twitter with 9 percent. Nearly half the respondents check their social networking accounts daily and 19 percent check weekly. To view all the data collected during the first six months of the survey program click here. Drilling down among student housing participants revealed that much higher usage numbers can be expected in the future as this demographic joins the renter pool.

Why are some companies hesitant to incorporate social media? “Fear is the big white elephant in the back of the room,” said Turnbull. Concerns include: 1) employees will waste time (but, noted Turnbull, according to eMarketer there are already 30 million smart phone users in the U.S., and employees are already using these devices to access these sites during breaks from the work day); 2) “haters” will damage our brand (but, Turnbull pointed out, companies that embrace feedback typically find that the same critics will later defend you online); 3) we’ll lose control of the brand (this is an illusion, because the consumer already controls the brand; 4) social media requires a budget—it’s not cheap or free (true, agreed Turnbull, you’ll do best with a social media manager who reports to the director of marketing, but tap into the expertise of young talent including interns); 5) fear of lawsuits (“you’re not changing the message,” said Turnbull, “just where it’s heard”).

Turnbull suggested that newcomers approach social media slowly but decisively. “Don’t start if you won’t keep it up. Tweet once a week and make it consistent. Add Facebook. Ramp it up as you go. You can engage today,” added Turnbull, “by setting up Google Alerts to help monitor activity. Then create an action plan based on these comments.” He also suggests conducting mock trials to walk through different scenarios so that you’re not caught off guard when feedback comes in. “Don’t be defensive, be funny—and be transparent.”

“This will be a fun debate,” said Whaling. “Nothing worries me more than handing my brand message to an intern.” [During the Q&A Turnbull pointed out that the brand message is established by the director of marketing.] Whaling offered tips for outsourcing this function to a “ghost” blogger who Tweets and posts to Facebook on your community’s behalf or by hiring a marketing firm that sees what tools and strategies your company needs.

“Outsourcing offers benefits,” said Whaling. “You minimize the time investment and hit the ground running. But it’s not your voice and it still takes a time/training investment.” Also, the trend in search engines is moving towards local multimedia content. Make sure the social media consultant can provide local content. Overall, added Whaling, goals need to be specific, attainable, and realistic. “Measure outcomes not output. Ask yourself whether it’s having an impact on how people are seeing the brand, rather than focusing on how many times a day you’re posting on Twitter.”

The Bozzuto Group has been using social media marketing successfully for brand management—to enhance the brand and to build buzz. “This is exciting. It’s a wonderful feedback loop,” said Gorski, whose goals include following the crowds and being where the people are—not only as a customer retention tool but also to drive leads and attract new leases. The Bozzuto Group has a carefully planned social media presence as well as a Director of Interactive Marketing who oversees the activity on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere.

“We measure exposure and also engagement such as retweets, likes and wall posts,” explained Gorski. “And we also mystery shop on social media.”

Every Bozzuto community has its own presence with testimonials, videos, newsletters, floorplans, etc. In addition to content suggested by the Director of Interactive Marketing, each community has a brand champion who is responsible for responding to comments, training others, and monitoring activity. Residents are equally engaged and have used social media to meet other neighbors and plan their own events in addition to interacting with the property management team. Gorski noted that a recent grand opening party drew 350 people which she attributes to a powerful combination of social media and email marketing.

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