Online Reviews

The effects of ‘Yelping’ on the leasing process.

When renters choose new apartments, the biggest influence on their decisions is cost. But online peer ratings and reviews matter as well. Nearly all (96 percent) of respondents in an Apartment Finder survey released in August reported that online reviews influence their decisions when picking an apartment.

“Once apartment prospects review data online, in publications, referrals or direct mailers, many will now look for content that includes reviews or ratings published about their three or four final choices for apartment communities,” says Marcia Bollinger, president of Norcross, Ga.-based Apartment Finder. “The apartment industry is trending in the ratings/review space.”

How Yelp rates

Industry observers report that Yelp, originally a restaurant review site, has entered the apartment review sphere in the last couple of years. “The main thing I gather is [Yelp’s impact] varies from market to market,” says Mark Juleen, vice president of marketing at Indianapolis-based regional operator J.C. Hart & Co., which oversees 3,500 units across 16 Indiana properties.

“If you go to San Francisco and other larger urban markets, you’ll find there are more reviews—including reviews of apartments—on the platform. In Indianapolis, we’ve seen restaurant reviews take off, but not apartment reviews.”

Checking reviews for his company’s North Haven of Carmel Apartments, for instance, he found Google Plus reviews appeared highest, with Apartment Ratings.com reviews just below. The volume of Google Plus reviews has grown, he says, “and you get a lot more feedback and a lot more reviews on that site.”

At Atlanta-based Peak Campus Management, a student housing operator with a national portfolio of more than 30,000 student beds, vice president of marketing Jessica Nix reports the company places its focus on three review sites. “With the rising popularity of online reviews for everything, and not just among college kids, Yelp, Google Plus and Facebook are the mainstream,” she says.

Nix is quick to acknowledge that some review platforms are more frustrating than others in terms of dictating how companies can respond to reviews. “With Yelp, they will charge you as a manager to respond to a review,” Nix says, adding with a note of disbelief, “And that’s completely legal.” They will also show reviews or not show reviews, based on their subjective algorithms, and there’s nothing you can do.”

Still, Yelp is one of the most important review platforms Peak Campus Management monitors. The fastest-rising rival to Yelp, she believes, is Facebook, where apartment reviews are relatively new but can’t be ignored.

Voice of renters

Another significant name in the review space is Irving, Tex.-based Renter’s Voice (rentersvoice.com), which began providing online reviews of apartment properties three years ago. Co-founder Francis Chow believes apartment reviews are used as a “reassurance tool.” Prospects visit apartment community sites, learn about floor plans and amenities, and then seek reassurance through credible reviews.

In other words, they know what they want, complete their research, trust their instincts, but then want to determine whether others will confirm their views.

“In today’s world, the final piece that apartment communities need in order to convert that sale is to get the prospect to read what other renters are saying,” Chow asserts. “That’s where online reviews come in. We have been taking online reviews and using a review widget to place them on the apartment community sites, their blogs and advertising sources, like Apartment Finder.”

He likens that concept to a movie theater chain’s ownership placing movie reviews from Rotten Tomatoes on its site along with the movie listings. Different sites use different methodologies when posting on-line reviews, Chow says “We use a third-party source called Bazaarvoice to moderate our reviews,” he adds.

“That means there’s no emphasis on whether the review is positive or not. But if there’s a fair housing issue, a legal liability or a profanity, it doesn’t get on. Including both positive and negative reviews builds credibility, especially since some reviews include positive and negative [views].”

With consumers more and more reliant on the educated opinion of peers to help inform their shopping decisions, Bollinger says her company is “thrilled” to offer the Renter’s Voice widget to give prospective renters rapid access to insider information on the apartment communities that intrigue them. “Connection to peer reviews directly from ApartmentFinder.com socializes the potential renters’ search experience, letting them not only get an authentic picture of living in a specific apartment community but also join the conversation,” she says.

“The widget is another opportunity to connect high-quality leads to our advertisers. Apartment communities with user reviews on Renter’s Voice can prominently feature the widget on the Property Detail page of their listing on ApartmentFinder.com. With just one click, apartment shoppers are easily directed to Renter’s Voice ratings and postings by actual renters in the apartment community.”

Leveraging review sites

Best practices have emerged in leveraging ratings and review sites to help managers correct problems and learn where they stand with renters. “Our goal is to project a positive image and provide the kind of customer service that makes people happy to provide positive reviews,” Nix says.

“If it’s wrong, make it right. Sometimes they just need to be heard. Other times, it’s something we’re not even aware of. And that’s not because we don’t have relationships with our residents, and we don’t knock on doors and call their phones. It’s because our customer sometimes goes to online methods first.”

Nix’s goal is to have staff monitor reviews daily. Even if a resident-reviewer has moved away, she feels obliged to respond, and find out what went wrong so the company can learn from the experience.

Today, property management companies that do not monitor review sites are putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis the competition, Nix believes. “You’re leaving your business vulnerable and preventing traffic from coming to your door by ignoring or overlooking very direct feedback from residents that could potentially hurt your incoming traffic and renewals,” she says. “You need to be aware of your image and your online reputation in successfully leasing and managing your property.”

For his part, Juleen believes it is essential for management companies to claim listings of their properties found on online review sites.

“There’s a methodology of creating a business account and using that methodology to claim that business,” he says. “That allows you to update content within that listing, make sure your phone numbers and hours are updated, create a paragraph about that business and also add photos.

“There are two opportunities you have when marketing apartments. One is being found; can someone find you online when they’re doing a search? And the second is, what are people saying about you?”

These sites are the means by which prospects learn how other renters view apartment properties. And those renters’ comments carry weight because they go beyond “corporate speak” or the bullet-point brochure, Juleen says.

“If there’s someone who’s had a bad experience, and they’re using Yelp as their platform to report that, I want to know,” he adds. “That way, we can change our business practices or fix the problem, or by the same token thank people for leaving good reviews for us.”