Here to Stay

ILSs play an important role.

Some industry observers believe they no longer want or need Internet Listing Services. Don’t count Lisa Trosien, president of the Aurora, Ill.-based multifamily consulting and education firm ApartmentExpert.com, among them.

Trosien is among many apartment industry experts who feel the ILSs still play an important role, can perform functions individual property management companies cannot, and give back much to the industry that spawned them.

It’s true, she says, that there are some property management companies with the conviction they can do as good a job as the ILSs by optimizing their sites and pulling in those would-be renters who input very specific search information.

By contrast, ILSs are able to drive traffic of renters unaware of specific properties, Trosien says. “If you went in and did a vague search of, say, ‘Chicago apartments,’ the top 12 on the screen are all ILSs or apartment locators in Chicago. If I try the same with ‘Boston apartments,’ every single one of the top 10 are ILSs. Equity Residential makes it into the top 12 at position 11.”

Additionally, Trosien says, ILSs can perform valued functions at lower costs than can many companies dipping into their own resources. “They can get high-def photos and videos, for instance,” she says. “They are constantly tweaking everything they do to make the product and the user experience better.”

In addition, Internet Listing Services all have applications designed to meet the needs of the increasingly mobile population of renters, Trosien reports. For that reason, it doesn’t make sense for individual property management companies to develop their own apps if doing so is cost prohibitive.

“A lot of companies out there don’t want to spend that type of money and time,” she says. “The principle that should be applied is, ‘use other people’s money.’ If the property management company doesn’t want to take photos, I’d rather have one of my ILS partners come out and shoot the photos for me on their dollar. You’ll spend a little more money [using ILSs], but probably not as much as you’d spend on your own. And you’ll improve the user experience.”

Often overlooked by the multifamily sector is the fact that ILSs pump millions of dollars into the industry through education, Trosien says. They are supporters of the National Multi-Housing Council, National Apartment Association and Institute of Real Estate Management.

They essentially serve as partners to owners and managers from the site level on up to corporate suites, providing, for instance, many of the trainers who teach classes for free to local apartment associations. They also sponsor events such as Capitol Conference in Washington, D.C. These institutions and events are all supported by For Rent.com, ApartmentGuide.com, ApartmentFinder.com, Apartments.com and Rent.com. “People forget this,” Trosien observes.

“They forget all the work these ILSs do behind the scenes. They’re huge proponents of education and do a lot to help those of us in the industry.”

Offering a different perspective is Eric Brown, CEO and founder of Detroit-based Urbane Media, founder of Urbane Apartments and veteran of 20 years as a senior vice president with a major apartment community developer.“The ILSs drive leasing leads, but the model is broken,” he says. “The ILS model by design tosses everyone into the same bucket, and when that happens, you and your apartment communities become a commodity. The traditional ILS model also ‘gates the prospect,’ meaning it is specifically designed for the user to stay on the ILS site, therefore never getting to the apartment operator’s website. The ILS model has a very defined shelf life, which is directly proportionate to the ad placement.”

A significant source of leads

Esther Bonardi, industry principal at Yardi Marketing Solutions in San Bernardino, Calif., maintains that ILSs still draw traffic and deliver leads to apartment communities. Many top ILS sites see two to three million visits a month, she says, and dominate most web searches when general apartment search terms are used. “Our PopCard Reports, which track lead sources, still indicate that ILS sites are a significant source of leads for many clients,” she reports.

Still needing Internet Listing Service advertising are those management companies that do not have the ability to proactively optimize their own websites and apply pay-per-click campaigns to drive traffic to their sites, according to Bonardi. Without a strong SEO/SEM initiative in place, a manager’s best resource to capture an online customer is an ILS, she argues.

“However, managers need to make sure their listings are current and accurate,” she adds. “It no longer makes sense to manually update ILS advertising. Managers need a tool that integrates with their property management software to syndicate and update pricing, availability, photos and amenities from one convenient dashboard.”

Not needing ILSs

Still, there are some apartment communities that don’t really require ILSs, Bonardi says. For instance, urban apartment communities or communities in highly desired neighborhoods are often able to effectively market their properties through their own websites, which have been optimized for long-tail keyword searches, she says. In addition, social media and blogs can drive a considerable level of traffic for properties in popular neighborhoods.

“It’s important to realize that you don’t just drop advertising,” she adds. “You replace it with a different marketing initiative, such as strategic SEO, pay-per-click campaigns, social referrals campaigns, and more.”
Trosien says for those management companies that have all their properties or strong concentrations of properties in single markets, it’s easier to handle the tasks performed by ILSs on their own. “If you are in Minneapolis and have all your properties there, you can probably do it,” she says. “But if you are in 50 different markets across the U.S., it makes sense to use ILSs.”

For his part, Brown says savvy apartment marketers are discovering the leverage and long-term benefit of driving traffic to their own websites via content marketing and pay-per-click campaigns. A handful of apartment marketers, he says, are following the lead of major brands like Red Bull and Ford Motor Company and embracing a strategy in which content is created and distributed in-house. Content such as articles, videos, podcasts and social media efforts enhance SEO.

“More than 80 percent of all shoppers type something in a search box before ever heading out the door,” he says. “The goal is to be found on an Internet search by prospects looking for an apartment. And the real benefit is that thoughtful content on the Internet has an infinite shelf life. The apartment marketer who is working to expand its digital footprint has a distinct advantage and a lower cost per lease.”

It’s that cost per lease that’s the bottom line, Trosien says. It’s essential to look at the cost per lease of any company that brings a renter to your door. “If the cost per lease doesn’t make sense, stop working with them,” she adds. “But there’s no one size fits all. You have to look at what’s best for the asset, best for the owner, and what brings you the lowest cost per lease.”