- Mar 07, 2013
Digital content has become a major force in many aspects of the apartment industry—from the way potential residents discover properties to the way they evaluate their choices to the impact it has on the building and sustaining the communities within the property.
“People are doing more research online before making purchase decisions. This includes searching across different devices, as well as across
different sites,” says Heather Wilburn, Google’s strategic partnership manager of channel sales.
“People are also looking for multiple ways to interact with your business,” adds Wilburn. “One challenge that multifamily companies face is making sure they’re present in those moments that matter, across devices, throughout the research and purchasing decision process.”
According to industry sources, last year alone the average U.S. apartment shopper consulted over 10 sources before making a purchase. Additionally, 57 percent of shoppers trust customer reviews as a research source, along with other corroborating information, so it’s more important than ever to have a presence in all the areas where people are looking for
For apartment hunters, digital search is used by over 65 percent of individuals to discover potential properties in which to live, then that person evaluates the properties’ “reputations” based on the wide range of available digital content—ratings, reviews, blogs, fan pages, tweets, etc. “Like traditional advertising, consumer review sites are a critical stopping point along our customers’ path to forming a purchase decision,” says Lisa Trapp, Sequoia Properties’ director of marketing. “Unlike traditional advertising, we cannot control the message. So how we ‘look’ during this touch point influences whether or not a prospective resident decides
to call, email or
Trapp and Wilburn recently participated in an NMHC OpTech 2012 Conference panel on reputation management with Matthew Kilmurry, Avalon Bay’s director of interactive marketing and Mike Seashols, executive chairman of the board at G5 and NetBase.
Wilburn notes how eager folks in the multi-housing community are to learn about new ways to market themselves, better engage with their residents in a multi-device world, and do so in an efficient manner.
“They’re actively seeking assistance with managing their digital presence, which is a great sign that they’re aware of the benefits of doing so and they understand that this needs to be part of their marketing strategy,” she says. “They recognize there’s an opportunity here to reach customers and grow their business, and they’re actively seeking ways to do so effectively and efficiently.”
Many of the NMHC OpTech attendees had already invested in the topic, “launching activities like word alerts from search engines, increasing efforts to establish positive content, surveying residents to gain improved insights and reviewing popular content providers.
AvalonBay’s Kilmurry says the industry does a lot to take care of its customers, and it’s not too far off base to be thinking about an online reputation during the course of regular business.
“That means an integration of our online reputation into our offline management processes,” he says. “We need to bring in our online reviews [and] integrate them so our true offline customer service will be more in line with our online reputation.”
Tips for success
Monitoring content on a timely basis is a must for any apartment company, and it’s also a good idea to engage—both with positive and negative critics—where appropriate.
“A property’s reputation needs to be understood. You need to draw insights from the content to take corrective action, therefore minimizing sources of negative comments, then engage with the authors of that negative content and take specific corrective action to resolve,” says G5 and Netbase’s Seashols. “Engage with the authors of positive content and affirm their comments and hopefully turn them into strong advocates to create a passionate supporter.”
He further believes leadership support is necessary to shift some budgeted resources—both money and personnel—to manage a property’s reputation.
“Set up metrics to measure and analyze your progress,” Seashols adds. “Compare these metrics across the local properties that you compete for residents with. Compare these metrics across the competitive national owners/operators that compete for investors/bankers, if appropriate.”
According to Sequoia Properties’ Trapp, a successful reputation management strategy should start with customer experience management planning. “This should be the bedrock of any reputation management strategy. What happens online is simply an extension of the experience you’re providing to customers offline,” she says.
“More specifically, operators must identify their key touch points with residents, implement brand-worthy customs and rituals to be executed consistently by on-site management during these touchpoints, measure sentiment, and have the corporate agility to adjust initiatives over time through feedback management (i.e. surveying, customer focus groups, etc.).”
Among the most important practices for ensuring a healthy reputation is to consider how customers are looking to interact with you, on what platforms and in which online communities.
“Make sure they find you when they’re searching online, whether organically or through ads,” Wilburn says. “An easy way to do this is by creating a Google+ page and linking that to your AdWords account via Social Extensions. This allows people to find your business and then share that information with their friends.”
Once you’ve developed a presence, get the word out so potential customers know how to interact with you. This could be as simple as putting the Google+ badge on your website or other cross-promotional material. The important thing is to let consumers know how they can interact with your business.
“Think about the type of content in which your community would be interested, whether that’s photos, videos or events,” Wilburn says. “Make sure you’re speaking to them in a genuine way that helps to foster and encourage a true online community.”
A few steps that advertisers can take to ensure a healthy online reputation include:
■ Creating a Google+ page for your business and having it verified
■ Optimizing your search ads with social extensions
■ Adding the Google+ Badge to your website to help increase your followers.
In general, being on Google+ lets you see what people are saying about your business and allows you to respond to customer reviews, as well as engage with your customers and followers.
“We’ve got to get to a place where we are automating our responses in a way we can categorize them and identify our net promoters and solicit positive reviews from them electronically,” Kilmurry says.
Proof is in the numbers
With today’s constant stream of online dialogue, it’s not difficult to monetize or show the economic value a digital reputation has for ownership.
“At Sequoia, we have hundreds of conversations happening about our products and services on sites like Yelp, Google+, ApartmentRatings, SequoiaCustomerCare.com, etc. So in terms of visibility and reach, those sites generate over 130 ‘advertisements’ for our brand,” Trapp says. “If it were looked at as a typical media buy, the value of that exposure for Sequoia would be just under $600,000 per year.”
The company must ask itself: Does it want $600,000 a year in negative advertising?
“Probably not, thus, Sequoia’s strategy in 2013 is to focus on improving the micro-conversations that are driving macro sentiment online about our brand, products and services,” Trapp says. “By doing this, we are able to fully leverage the power of review sites and monetize them through an improvement in conversion (consumer to customer),” adds Trapp.
Economic value is an interesting buzz in the industry. “We are certainly putting a lot of time, effort and resources into this, and if you are going to focus on that [rather] than other lead generation tactics, I think the return on investment can be measured in a few ways,” Kilmurry says. “One conversion ratio is the percent of people who view your property online and the number of leads you are able to attribute to this—your online impressions.”
It’s therefore logical that if you have a higher reputation score than those in your submarket, you should be converting at a higher level.
“The end goal is to increase retention ratio, and by increasing your retention ratio and making customers happier, it’s going to show in your online reputation,” Kilmurry says. “It’s kind of a holistic view.”
Know your strategy
Consumers are increasingly shifting online, so an online strategy is crucial for any business to succeed in the industry.
“We’ve already seen businesses who have adopted early and are seeing good results; more importantly, it’s not too late if your business hasn’t yet created an online strategy,” Wilburn says. “There are a lot of tools and resources out there to help you get started. The most important thing is to have a strategy and have an online presence.”
Online reputation management is not just a conversation, and it’s not just social media. When done right, it’s an opportunity to humanize your brand.