Student Housing Leasing in a Digital World

Panelists at the 2020 NMHC/InterFace virtual conference on how online advertising and virtual tours can attract students during the pandemic and beyond.

(Clockwise from top left) Kristy Bright, Mason McConathy, Gretta Dare, Jake Jarman, Billy Wilkinson, Chris Vasilakis.

How did student housing leasing and marketing strategies change during the pandemic? As the current health crisis is still affecting the process of selling leases and bringing students back, operators and advertising companies must adapt and find new ways of raising interest in properties and closing deals.

On the third day of the NMHC & InterFace Student Housing Conference, in a panel moderated by Redstone Residential President Jake Jarman, industry leaders discussed how their companies created new strategies to fill beds in these uncertain times.

Creativity and Adaptation

The panel kicked off with a conversation about the biggest challenges at the onset of the pandemic. The speakers emphasized the importance of having strong local teams and also the impact of a good digital campaign. According to Mason McConathy, director of marketing at University Partners, online advertising is becoming a standard practice in the age of COVID-19. “We did Instagram videos, we did virtual tours, we did FaceTime. You really had to be flexible,” he said.

Gretta Dare, brand consultant at uForis, supported this claim, adding that the need for online touring and leasing was accelerated by the pandemic. Parents and students are researching properties on their own and are usually looking for apartments outside office hours. “What we have to have is an online presence available for these people, so they can make these decisions on their own,” Dare said. In addition, positive feedback from current students can create interest for prospects and renewals. “Your most valuable asset is your existing residents,” Dare pointed out.

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Talking about implementing virtual reality presentations of apartments, Billy Wilkinson, CEO of Threshold, also noted the importance of well-made websites and landing pages. “If you are driving them to a place where they can’t see floor plans, it’s going to be problematic,” he said. Partnering with digital advertisers to monitor communities also helped to communicate crucial information in the early days of the pandemic. “If you didn’t have that set up before this, you could be put in a really tight spot as some of these kids immediately fled and went home,” McConathy noted.

Strategies for the Future

Going forward, some strategies which were implemented as a response to the pandemic should become common practice, the panelists agreed. And, besides monitoring communities, reputation management is vital. According to Kristy Bright, director of accounts at Agency FIFTY3, carefully handling online reviews helps to build a strong relationship with the residents—and, if managed by on-site members, negative reviews can create some difficult situations. “It’s important to have an outside, neutral, third party managing reviews on behalf of your communities,” she added.

Bright explained that digital advertising is not just a helpful tool in the time of COVID-19, but it also offers the opportunity to create customized campaigns, based on age and other factors. “The digital landscape is constantly changing,” she said. For example, TikTok is starting to become the main platform for student advertising, while Pinterest is a good place to start if you are targeting parents.

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What’s more, a successful campaign combines social media with the practice of geofencing. “You can basically draw an invisible fence around any local hotspot, serve a display ad to anybody who walks into that fence, and then be able to track that individual if they walked into the leasing office,” Bright explained.

VR Student Housing CEO Chris Vasilakis noted that, before the pandemic, virtual reality was “a cool, nice thing to have, that kind of stood out.” These days, when physical contact is limited, VR tours are not only crucial for leasing, but they can also put operators ahead of the game for the upcoming years.

But in-person leasing is not dead—it’s just becoming more of a digital world, in Wilkinson’s opinion. However, future students may fundamentally change the way they interact with the communities as they will grow up in a socially distanced environment. 

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