Resident Communications: It’s Personal

Sending messages to your buildings' occupants is an important aspect of property management, but getting them to see the messages and read them is a challenge―especially in today's high-tech world.

Larry Bellack

At first glance, communicating with residents in this day and age would seem to be an easy task. After all, businesses have never had more ways to reach customers: emails, text messages, apps, social media. The list seemingly goes on and on.

But one could make the argument that reaching residents has never been more challenging. Think about it: Our phones and desktops are forever dinging and buzzing to indicate a communication of one form or another has arrived.

With all this technology at hand, why is it becoming more difficult to actually reach people? Consumers are starting to tune out the dings. They are actively choosing to communicate in only the ways they want to. For personal business, they are using apps and messaging. For work, it’s still emails. And that is where the ineffective communication comes from. Are apartment operators personal or are we business?

The Disconnected Email

Although it wasn’t all that long ago, isn’t it hard to imagine a time when email was the cutting-edge communication channel? Now, in a world of texting and apps, it seems like a bit of a dinosaur.

Personally, I know many people who might go days at a time without checking their personal emails. I’ve heard some property managers grumble that only 15 percent of the emails they send to residents are opened.

The statistics appear to back them up.

According to Constant Contact, the average open rate for a marketing email in the real estate industry is 16.9 percent. That’s a low absolute number, but it’s also in line with other industry averages. Perhaps the open rate for informational emails to residents is a little higher, but it’s almost certainly not by much.

The truth is, email is a difficult medium in which to connect with residents because we are looking at it from a business lens. It makes sense for us, as multifamily operators, to think email is the best place to conduct business―to reach out about rent payment issues, to inform about maintenance progress in an apartment unit, to provide updates about community events. These are parts of our business, but these processes are part of a resident’s personal life. And personal email accounts just aren’t checked very often these days.

Costly Texts

On the surface, it’s hard to see much wrong with texting (SMS and MMS). It’s easy, and it’s efficient. Accordingly, it has become a fundamental part of communicating in our culture. 

But when you’re using it to communicate with residents, you may run into costly problems. To start with, texting can present significant regulatory issues. Residents have to agree to receive texts from a business, and unsubscribes must be strictly adhered to. Earlier this year, Uber was hit with a class-action lawsuit for allegedly sending unsolicited texts even after people unsubscribed from receiving text messages. 

Beyond the potential to come across as intrusive since a person’s mobile number is usually only shared with friends and family, spontaneous text messages can also be a costly practice for your residents. Not all residents have unlimited texting, and receiving unnecessary messages from their community could cause them to pay unwanted text messaging fees. This is not a quality customer service experience and will further cause residents to tune out your community communications.

Finally, even though texting functionalities are built into property management systems, having associates receive texts from residents after hours could trigger overtime pay requirements based on the new Fair Labor Standards Act.

Meet Them Where They Are

More and more, it seems we’re living in an app world. We’re a nation of smartphone addicts, and much of the time we spend on our phones is in an app. According to Hackernoon, in 2017 “users spent on average over three hours a day in mobile apps.” Another report notes that the majority of communication now takes place in apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger instead of the SMS and MMS technologies.

The reason? Convenience. According to the 2018 Citi Mobile Banking Study, 91 percent of mobile banking users responded that they’d rather use their apps than go to a physical branch. Similarly, booking software company TrekkSoft published a study revealing that almost half of its online bookings were made on mobile last year. More and more, consumers are leaning on apps to manage their personal needs. Consequently, their communication preferences are leaning further that way.

App push notifications are designed to quickly disseminate important information directly to the home screen of a person’s mobile device. In a multifamily app, the effectiveness of push notifications is especially valuable during crises. Earlier this year, apartment operators with communities in the paths of Hurricanes Florence and Michael reported push notifications containing storm-related information were read at a 65 percent rate.

While some may say that texting, push notifications and app messaging are essentially the same thing, app communication doesn’t represent the same regulatory and legal pitfalls as texting.

Resident communications via app technology fall into the transactional portion of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and CAN-SPAM Act. BulkSMS explains that notifications to facilitate a transaction a consumer has already agreed to―for example, messages that provide information about your existing account or warranty information about a product you’ve purchased (think apartment lease)―are exempt under the CAN-SPAM Act.

Simply put, residents conduct their personal lives on their mobile phones and within apps. They are no longer using emails unless they are at work. They don’t like getting texts from strangers―even their apartment communities. They bank on apps. They order food on apps. They conduct their social lives on apps. And in order to effectively communicate with them, it’s important to build our communication strategies around how residents live their personal lives. 

Larry Bellack is the president of Mobile Doorman, a leader in custom-branded resident apps.

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