Here are some of the standard options for marketing apartments today: Facebook, Twitter, Internet Listing Services (ILSs), text messaging, videos, Internet portals, Web sites, blogs. There is a greater proliferation of marketing alternatives for apartments than ever before. In the midst of such an abundance of choice, experts agree that apartment companies need to be deliberate in selecting among tools or they may easily lose sight of their ultimate marketing objectives.
“My main message is, beware of the magpie tendency,” advises David Davidoff, group vice president, strategic systems, at Archstone. Magpies, he explains, are attracted to “shiny new things.” It is easy to get sucked into using the next new product that is more fun, says Davidoff, but “at the end of the day, you do not have unlimited money and time. The majority of leads still derive from traditional sources that have been around a few years. They are not sexy, but they work.”
It appears that in the brave new world of new media, it is more important than ever to establish ahead of time a company’s marketing goals and to refer to the overall goals as new tools are adopted. “The first priority for marketing professionals is to develop an overall strategy and to set very specific marketing goals,” agrees Kevin Thompson, vice president of marketing at AvalonBay. “For example, is the strategy focused on generating the most leads, saving money, enhancing customer service, or something else?” Goals can also include driving down the costs per lead. “Companies have to decide for themselves what strategies are most effective. Decide first what marketing objectives you are trying to accomplish,” agrees Davidoff.
For example, Thompson argues that if lead-generation is the top marketing priority for the company, then social media may not be the marketing tool to emphasize. “It’s a mistake, and one that is commonly made in the industry today, to think that social media is primarily a lead generation tool,” points out Thompson. The purpose of employing these networking sites is arguably not so much to generate leads, but to develop a sense of community and retain customers, apartment marketers suggest. “Take for example the use of Facebook. For us, its primary purpose is to engage and retain our residents. In short, it provides a sense of community and makes residents more likely to stay in the community,” says Thompson.
Apartment companies need to consider if a marketing technique complies with their end goals also because time and money are limited—they do not have resources to spend an inordinate amount of resources on an unlimited array of marketing tools. “If the marketer tries to use every single option out there, they will run out of time,” says Davidoff.
Thompson suggests that the second step in a marketing plan is to examine the marketing budget. “Are there incremental dollars you can spend, or do you have to rob Peter to pay Paul in migrating from traditional to new media?” asks Thompson. For example, if in using some of the technology-enabled marketing tools, it is necessary to “rob” from the budget for traditional media that has worked very well, the apartment company may want to reconsider adopting the novel ideas.
Davidoff asks whether a company wants to employ a broad array of marketing outlets imperfectly, or be the master of a few techniques. For some companies, working on Facebook may mean they will have fewer resources available for ILSs, while other companies may favor using ILSs and spend fewer resources for Facebook, explains Davidoff. “My advice is, make a decision. Don’t do both just because both options are out there, or the new technique is more fun.”
Indeed, it is not necessarily “a major cost savings” to build and maintain social pages, says Thompson. “Social media is not attractive because it’s an inexpensive marketing tool. In fact, it requires a lot of oversight from existing staff,” he says. The apartment company can use its existing staff to maintain the pages. But the property owner would then have to trust the staff to keep the pages up-to-date and respond to questions and comments consistently, he says. “Our experience is that that is difficult to do successfully over an extended period of time.” As a result, AvalonBay tends to prefer to engage a third party agency to build and maintain its social media pages, which requires an additional expense.
A pyramid of needs
After determining its marketing goals and setting its budget, the apartment company should prioritize the various tools that will achieve those objectives. Davidoff suggests establishing a pyramid of marketing activities, with the most effective activities at the base and the least effective at the apex of the pyramid. “You are building the model from the most important activities at the base of the pyramid, to the more expensive, less core, activities at the apex,” he explains.
The way to build the pyramid? “Pretend for a moment that you have just enough time for one marketing tool. What will that be? That will be the foundational tool at the base of the pyramid,” says Davidoff. “Then ask yourself, if you had time for only two items, what will the second tool be? That will be the second layer on the pyramid. That kind of focused ranking forces you to think about the relative importance of all the various activities.”
Companies should then direct the most time and money to the marketing activities at the bottom of the pyramid and the least resources to tools at the top. “Focus the majority of your attention on the one to three activities at the base of the pyramid, because those are your most effective,” says Davidoff. A common tendency, he adds, is for companies in practice to pursue a strategy that is the opposite of what they should be following, by falling into the trap of devoting the most attention on the most exciting activities at the top of the model. “Nowadays, a lot of people spend a lot of time [on the tools at the top of the pyramid], because they are new and fun,” he says.
The Pinnacle Family of Companies concentrates its marketing energies in all its properties on activities that have been proven to work. “There is a baseline of marketing activities that companies should be adopting, although there are also idiosyncrasies based on individual properties,” says Michelle Betchner, vice president of performance at Pinnacle. Generally, Pinnacle employs ILS, Craigslist, social media and a strong outreach program to local corporate and retail businesses, to market all its properties.
Pinnacle subscribes to Facebook for most, but not all, of its apartment properties. Betchner points out that Facebook is employed not so much to generate new leases for the apartment property, but to boost the property’s placement on the organic listings on search engines. “Search engines look for consumer- and user-generated content,” says Betchner. “When you participate in social media, it helps you gain traction on the rankings on the Internet search engines. It also helps build community.”
In selecting among the technological marketing techniques, it is important to remember, as Betchner notes, that marketing strategies should also be property-specific. For example, it may be more effective to advertise in print than on ILS for some properties. And social networking may not be necessary for communities in which the residents are not heavy Internet users. Thompson notes that in his company’s experience, print advertising works very well in Class B and Class C properties and in communities that are close to universities. There should be, he says, a “micro” media strategy customized for each individual community. “Measure each media source for each community. Don’t think that one size fits all,” he says.
Surprisingly, the inability to measure results is not a reason to avoid using the new media-enabled marketing tools. On the contrary, the benefits of social media are measurable, maintains Davidoff. Davidoff, Betchner and Thompson all believe that marketing techniques should deliver quantifiable results. “I am a huge fan of focusing on those media that are measurable, so that you would be able to ascertain if their utilization has been successful,” says Davidoff. “Absolutely, we would like to be able to measure the results, as we like to see a return on our activities,” says Betchner.
For Facebook and Twitter, the means of measuring the results of their adoption by the apartment company depends on the initial objective. If the objective is resident engagement, the outcome can be ascertained by counting the number of posts on the social sites, the number of friends or followers, and whether these metrics have increased. If the goal is to obtain leads from Facebook and Twitter, a free application, Google Analytics, can measure the number of visits to the community’s Web site that resulted from the user clicking on a link from Facebook or Twitter, Davidoff explains.
In fact, e-commerce in general lends itself to measurability of results, notes Davidoff. For example, how many people called a phone number or went to a Web site as a result of the marketing effort can be studied. Different URL addresses can all feed into the same property Web site, and in this way the origin of all visits to the Web site can be traced to a print advertisement, an ILS, or a Facebook referral. The company can even distinguish between whether the visitor clicked on a link or typed in the URL address to get to the Web site.
In the end, Betchner agrees that what is important to remember is that if companies do decide to adopt some of the newer media technologies, the effort needs to be consistent. “You cannot post on Facebook or Twitter once a month and expect the strategy to work.” In fact, she says, it would be detrimental to set up but not conscientiously maintain the Web sites. “Don’t expect the sites to be on autopilot.”
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