Social Networking as an Apartment Marketing Tool

Despite an increase in activity on apartment social networking sites, residents aren’t attributing a significant amount of importance to this medium, according to J Turner Research’s most recent findings.

Despite an increase in activity on apartment social networking sites, residents aren’t attributing a significant amount of importance to this medium, according to J Turner Research’s (JTR) most recent findings.

In fact, when asked how important an apartment community’s social networking page is for communication, residents gave it a 4.53, on a scale of 0 to 10 (with 10 being most important), reports Joseph Batdorf, president of JTR. Still, activity at those properties that are updating their pages at least twice per month increased from 10 percent in Jan. 2010 to 25 percent in March 2011.

“At this point in time there’s not a lot of engagement,” says Batdorf, despite the fact that 46 percent of respondents engage their social media accounts on a daily basis, with an additional 7 percent using their accounts on an hourly basis.

Apartment companies continue to look for ways to interact with residents and prospects through social media, however. “It’s a word-of-mouth marketing channel. You have a story to tell; you want to share it; here’s a network to share it on,” says Mark Juleen, vice president of marketing at Carmel, Ind.-based J.C. Hart and managing partner at The Resident Connection, who has noticed an evolution of mindset during the past four years of the AIM (Apartment Internet Marketing) conference.

Four years ago, he says, people didn’t know what to do with social media, but they were curious. A year later, the general consensus seemed to be that it didn’t scale. The following year, he recalls, people were back to curiosity but didn’t know where to start. This year, says Juleen, everyone had embraced the idea that it was here to stay, and people were experimenting with new ideas.

“Is [social media] for retaining residents?” asks Juleen. “Absolutely. We get people talking about us; they become a little more engaged with the property or with the brand, and as a result they are more confident in what we represent and where they live.” For prospects, he adds, “it can strengthen [our] value position. If you come to a brochure Website that just shows floor plans and pricing, it looks like everybody else. If we can add additional information—resident events that we do, local businesses that we have relationships with—now we’re creating a value proposition to people that says we are more than just a box with a price.”

But of those residents who indicated that they have, in fact, visited a community’s networking page, the top reasons given in JTR’s survey were to see what other people were saying about the community (62 percent), to conduct preliminary research about the community (54 percent) and to find discounts or deals related to signing a lease (34 percent).

Getting started

The first step in a social media plan is to outline your expectations. A property new to the social media world needs to understand that relevant content is key, explains Alexis Ames, national director of marketing at Phoenix-based Alliance Residential.

“We make sure [our on-site staff] go through our training department and that they understand what our expectations are,” says Ames. Formulating a goal from the beginning is crucial, because “if it’s to get a bunch of new leases, then maybe social media isn’t the right place for them. … You may get some referrals; you may get a new lease here or there, but it’s really about creating a sense of community.”

Other companies, however, believe that social media sites are, in fact, useful for prospects, and many tools have been created around this notion. J Turner, for example, recently launched a Facebook app that uploads positive comments from surveyed residents directly to a community’s wall, which not only provides content to the page but also provides prospects with reviews of the property. And RentMineOnline, which was voted best new company in apartment marketing at this year’s AIM conference, uses social media as a referral tool (see sidebar).

While some companies set up their social media plans in-house, others prefer to bring in a marketing agency, as J.C. Hart did several years ago. But Juleen suggests having an internal team member who is “extremely passionate about the idea of making social media work for your company,” adding that having a third-party resource can also be critical “to get you out of the apartment box a little bit.”

After establishing a plan, Juleen advises evaluating, and perhaps redesigning, your Website before deploying a social media campaign. “We want to make sure if people are looking for an apartment, that what they find on our Website is exactly what we want to show off,” he points out.

Testing it

While testing out new initiatives is key, it’s important not to roll out everything at once—and, industry experts point out, not every tool works across every industry.

While daily deals have become increasingly more prevalent, the multi-housing industry has yet to use this tool effectively, according to experts. (The recent AIM conference led to brainstorming that apartments could potentially partner with companies that offer these discounts; for example, a winery near a community may offer half-price bottles; a community could decide to host an on-site tasting.)

Another thing that doesn’t work, adds Juleen, is “assuming that if you build it, that it will work similar to an ILS, where, because people are on Facebook or on Twitter, that they’ll want to follow you. That’s not the reality; you can fail miserably in social media without a strategy behind your content.”

Ames agrees. “It’s not just fire away at whatever we think is the newest and coolest thing,” she notes. “We want to be on the cutting-edge of the new technologies within social media, but we also want to make sure that it’s relevant to our target audience and it’s going to help our associates.”

While Alliance, for example, has some loose guidelines for social media, it allows its associates to engage with the medium on a personal level. And though some vendors offer services that post feeds to Facebook pages, Ames believes this takes away from what she calls a “genuine experience.”

“If [we’re] not creating conversation that’s relevant to the consumer … then it is not going to be successful,” points out Ames. “It’s critical that we have everyone on our team … on board with our social media strategy, because it’s helping everyone make sure we’re moving in the correct direction.”

Blogs should also be a part of this campaign, says Juleen of J.C. Hart, who moved the money from its previous paper newsletters to community blogs. “We used those other channels to share posts and get those out in the other … channels,” he says, adding that the industry has yet to fully embrace blogs.

What does the future hold?

JTR’s research indicates that activity on apartment social networking sites has more than doubled in the last 15 months, and Batdorf believes there will be a tipping point, when the majority of residents will be on board with the industry’s efforts.

But, “the issue is, will they become engaged?” he notes. “Are they going to become [more] engaged because the Facebook [page] is providing more content? Because there are offerings on [the site]? Because content is more interesting than it is now?”

One correlation he does point out is that the more active a property is on a social networking site, the more people appear to be checking out the site. Whether these numbers flatten or spike over the next few months will indicate whether the industry’s social media efforts are truly working.

So what’s the industry to do? Like most everything, it is looking toward other industries for inspiration. Ames, for example, instructs her staff to review recent marketing and technology blogs on a weekly basis. And when it comes to social media, it’s key to look at top profile pages on Facebook to understand those companies’ methods and whether they can be applied to the multifamily industry.

Juleen sees the industry “looking at ‘sexier’ brands” for inspiration. “People are looking at what consumer brands are doing. … The feeling I get [is] that people are trying to be more fun.”

In terms of new applications, some apartment companies, such as Alliance, are looking into integrating the iPad 2 into its social media plan. One feasible application, says Ames, is augmented reality, an app through which leasing specialists can, for example, show prospects local amenities by pointing the iPad in the direction of downtown, as opposed to simply pointing to a static map.

Ames also predicts that videos will become more frequently used, not just on the ILSs but also in terms of resident interactions. “Getting a video testimonial [is] extremely powerful,” she points out.
Alliance is expecting to roll out some video-oriented solutions soon.

And, of course, with so much energy devoted to these initiatives, tracking tools will become more important. “We have a long way to go when it comes to measuring where the resident is engaging with you,” says Juleen. “Measuring [whether the efforts] turn into a lead or create a more engaged customer is where the gap still is.”

Resident Referrals

“When a friend tells you something, it triples recall, triples awareness and quadruples purchase intent,” says Ed Spiegel, founder and CEO of RentMineOnline (RMO), which was voted best new company in apartment marketing at the 2011 AIM conference.

RentMineOnline powers referrals across social networks, with each community creating its own individualized program. RMO sends community-branded emails to residents, asking them to use their social networks to recommend the building. The first few residents who sign up may receive participation incentives, and residents receive referral bonuses.

“The fundamental shift is that the marketing power is really in the residents’ hands, because they have all their friends linked up on their network,” Spiegel points out.

Residents can sign in through Facebook. (RMO was one of only 20 start-ups selected for Facebook’s fbFund REV 2009 incubator program). Friends who click the link are redirected to a personalized landing page.

Since all comments are positive, managers don’t have to monitor comments. In fact, notes Spiegel, 70 percent of RMO’s clients don’t even have Facebook fan pages.

Even with limited work, the scope of the network remains huge. In the last year, RMO, via properties’ branding, has sent out just over 1.8 million emails—with an open rate of 26 percent—to residents, who have, in turn, reached close to 5 million prospects. Every Facebook post results in an average of approximately five click-throughs, and the open rate on emails sent from residents to friends is 47 percent, according to Spiegel.

RMO’s tracking data allows clients to track leading referrers, which can be put into use for various programming; for example, one client noted that most of its top referrers worked for the same company, so the client now provides additional incentives to that company.

Additionally, clients can view public friend lists, which allow managers to determine whether new residents already have friends at the community; Spiegel notes, “we are finding [that] the more Facebook friends someone has at a community, the longer they stay.”

After an initial one-year period, participating resident referral rate currently averages 9.4 percent, compared to 2.9 percent for non-participating resident referrals, with ROI averaging 255 percent, according to Spiegel.

To comment on this story, e-mail Erika Schnitzer [email protected].

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