Figuring out Social Media

As management companies and residents alike flock to Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, their use as marketing tools can be both intriguing and inconclusive

These days, “extreme sociability” doesn’t mean being a bit too extroverted at the company Christmas party. For multifamily communities, for example, it means coming to grips with the growing importance of social media as a leading marketing tool and a vital channel, as well as maintaining strong resident communications and good will. But as with any new marketing channel, users are scratching their heads. Yes, they’ll give it a try, but the questions linger: Does social media marketing really work? How and why? Is it just a fad?

“Most multifamily companies are struggling with it,” says Lisa Trosien of and a multifamily consultant, educator and professional speaker. “They don’t know how to do it the right way, and most of them have unrealistic expectations. The myths are that social media marketing is easy, free and will solve everything,” Trosien adds. “None of that is true.”

So what is true about social media marketing? For one thing, companies are embracing Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media networking sites whether they understand them or not.

According to “The Value of Social Media Report,” published in February by marketing research firm Econsultancy, 81 percent of companies expect their social media budgets to increase in 2010. The major goal is to increase Web site traffic, with such other marketing goals as better brand recognition and reputation also high on the return-on-investment wish list.

“Most of the time social media is being used to find new tenants and to appeal to current residents,” says Mike Whaling, president of 30 Lines, a digital marketing firm. “Social [media] is a great way to get your story out there, to get people talking about you and sharing with their friends.”

As Whaling says, besides the “viral” nature of social users sharing messages with friends, social media marketing can be extremely targeted. An e-newsletter, for example, can be specifically targeted to residents and prospects and posted immediately on Facebook pages and Twitter posts of recipients’ friends.

Listening in

Social media also is a potent device to “rate” neighborhoods and exchange tips, Whaling says. “People rent an apartment based on location and price,” he notes. Managers can post comments, saying, for example, “We want you to know all the cool stuff going on in the neighborhood.

“This way, the management company can position itself as a community hub, or information concierge, for residents and prospects,” Whaling adds. “Then what happens is, it resonates with others as they see it, and they’ll start talking about it.”

Some Web sites are doing this themselves., for example, is an Internet listing service that features a blogging area where users can tout (or pan) a neighborhood. is a site that exists as a pure community ratings service, like Yelp for renters.

Many management companies aren’t too keen on the idea, Whaling notes, but “it’s just a fact of life.” Communities can be participants here, too, he says, and they should be. “If you take that neighborhood approach, management companies can start to listen for what’s going on, to find content for their audience about festivals, parades and concerts—all things that are great fodder for a community’s own social outreach,” he says.

While getting involved in social media is somewhat simple on its face—after all, joining Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn takes minutes, as does updating them with new content or posts—mistakes abound. Trosien, for example, cautions apartment owners and management companies to set up their Facebook presences correctly, as a “fan page,” not a simple “page.” If a company erects just a “page” on Facebook, that’s a violation of the site’s terms of service, she says.

“I get two or three calls and e-mails a day asking why their Facebook page is gone,” Trosien says. “I always ask, ‘How did you set it up?’ And they tell me, and I say, ‘Unfortunately, it’s gone and Facebook has the right to take it down.’” If you’re one of those community managers who has made this mistake, you’d better start over again from scratch. Trosien cautions that there’s no way to migrate a simple page over to the correct fan-page format.

A jaundiced eye

Some onlookers feel that social media marketing is a contradiction in terms.  “From a demand-generation standpoint, I think it’s bogus,” says Laura Ramos, vice president and senior analyst with Forrester Research. “Anyone who thinks they can open a Twitter account and have the leads flow into the pipeline is badly mistaken.” Ramos isn’t alone. Even though many companies are racing to keep up with the times, many are unsure of what the payoff actually will be.

According to the Econsultancy report, indicating that increasing marketing budgets flow to social media, 61 percent are saying their organizations are “poor” (34 percent) or “very poor” (27 percent) at measuring return on investment from social media. And in what may shake the confidence of property managers and owners even more, there is some evidence that users themselves aren’t too sure of social media’s bona fides.

According to a recent survey by online advertising company ARAnet., just 18 percent of 1,029 respondents cited social networks as a preferred source of recommendations, compared with 60 percent citing information gathered first-hand from friends, 40 percent who rely on TV broadcasts, and 39 percent finding recommendations from search most preferred. The only channel performing worse than social media for recommendations was billboards.

And yet companies are flocking to use social media in any way they can. The results may come in unexpected ways, such as enhanced search marketing. As apartment community representatives tweet or blog about a community and its issues—and as residents contribute their own observations to the conversation—everything is posted to sites crawled almost instantaneously by the big search engines like Google, Yahoo and Bing, which post the results in real time. The result can be a huge boost for a community’s search marketing program.

A boost to search

“Social networking is where the content finds you through the lens of friends,” says Steve Rudel, senior vice president and director of insights, Edelman Digital. “And search is an intent-driven medium where, when you want to find something, you go seek it out. Social and search have been thought of as separate in the past, but I think we’ll see a real convergence, where search gets more social and social produces a lot more searches. Push and pull will merge.”

Rudel notes that the major search engines now allow the ability to search the content of friends’ social postings, so social comments about apartment communities is indexed and is also high in search results.

One example of this is Urbane Apartments, based in Royal Oak, Mich. A small management company specializing in urban, loft-type spaces, it uses social media to compete against bigger companies with larger budgets.

“We credit the use of social media as a significant part of our recipe,” says Eric Brown, the company’s founder. “Urbane shows up No. 1, page one, on Google organically for relevant search terms for prospects looking for an apartment locally, which didn’t happen by itself.”

For Urbane, traffic to its three Web sites increased 108 percent from September 2008 to September 2009, primarily via social media efforts, Brown says. As a result, the company did 54 percent more tours and showings. The big payoff: Rentals increased by 69 percent in that time. One of Brown’s biggest social marketing wins entailed another integrated channel effort—in this case, social media combined with a live event. The results, he says, were greater than the sum of each channel separately.

Last October, Urbane Apartments staged a grand-opening party at one of its communities, featuring a “Draw on The Walls” contest. Twelve local artists were invited to create their designs with Sharpie markers on the community’s meeting room walls, and the compelling activity was (naturally) tweeted extensively by excited participants and attendees.

Sharpie Pens picked up the story, and began blogging about the event. News of Urbane Apartments as a cool and happening place to live quickly went viral. “This is an example of how Urbane, as a small business has been able to continuously move the Google needle relative to search results, when local prospects are looking for an apartment,” says Brown. He calls this confluence of social and search “Link Love.”

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