If you work in the multifamily industry, you should understand the value of ownership. Your whole livelihood is built on it, after all: You own living spaces. You lease them out to people temporarily. They pay you money. The end.
Today we want to talk about the concept of digital ownership. Specifically, we want to talk about what it means for you to not only own your real estate property, but to own your online property.
Too often in our industry, communities rely on web platforms they don't control. This means it is harder for them to control how users learn about their community. It also can leave you vulnerable to the whim of whoever owns the web platform you are building on. When you rely on someone else's web platform, that "someone else", whether it's an ILS, a social network, or a search engine, can dictate what the community does or does not do as part of their online marketing.
So things could be humming along nicely on Monday. Then on Tuesday the owner of that platform you're relying on changes things up. And now on Wednesday you're scrambling to figure out what to do.
Unfortunately, some of that is unavoidable. People are going to find your site via search engines. They're going to be active on social networks. You can't help that.
So we are not saying that you should ignore the digital platforms you do not control. Rather, we are saying that you also should promote platforms that you do control and, in fact, that you should build your marketing strategy around that platform rather than around platforms you do not control.
What platforms are outside your control?
Let's start by defining the platforms you do not control. We'll talk about what those platforms are, why they do (or don't) matter, and how you should think about your relationship to them.
Internet Listing Services
These are the industry dinosaurs. Traditionally, of course, they were necessary because the costs of producing and distributing media in a pre-internet world were very high—it required photographers, designers, printers, and a distribution network of delivery people and newsstands.
In the digital era, none of those conditions still apply. Media is cheap to produce and cheaper still to distribute. You don't need the listing services anymore.
Certainly, if you wish to advertise here you can. You'll still reach an audience of some size, though that audience is shrinking. But think about where you spend your advertising dollars.
In the first place, any money you spend on ILS's cannot be spent on search ads or social media ads, both of which may offer a better ROI. Second, what would your ad spend with a listing service actually buy? It'd buy you a mostly indistinguishable placement in a lineup of communities—so you're set next to all your competitors and in a way that makes distinguishing between you and them very difficult. It is possible that ILS's may still offer some value for your community, but you should think very carefully about it before investing money there.
The other looming danger for the ILS's is this: Google could flip a switch basically whenever they want and replace ILS's over night. Don't just take our word for it. Munish Gandhi, a blogger at Multifamily Insiders, is saying the same thing.
According to one study, 81% of shoppers will do research online before making a purchase and 60% of all shoppers will begin their purchase process on a search engine.
Like it or not, search engines are a part of life and they aren't going anywhere. Google alone handles 1.2 trillion searches per year.
Given that search engines are an embedded part of online shopping, the obvious question is how apartment marketers should use search engines? The most important thing to do on search is to basically view any brand-related search terms (search terms that mention your community by name) as an extension of your website. They are there to promote your property as much as your actual website is.
The example below shows a good example of what your goal as a marketer on search engines ought to be.
There are three different types of search results on most apartment-related searches, as seen in the example above.
- The ads are at the top of the page and marked in green.
- The organic results are marked in blue in the bottom left.
- The local result is marked with a blue rectangle on the right-hand side of the page.
If you are doing your job as a marketer, the top result in all three spaces is going to be about your property. So the top organic result is your website. The top ad is a link to your website. The local result gives the searcher relevant data and can direct them to your website.
What do all these things have in common? You're getting people off Google and on your website. Once they are on your site, you can have greater control over what they see and move them down the sales funnel in the way that works best for you.
Social Media Networks
Social media networks live somewhere between search engines and ILS's.
ILS's you can basically abandon without consequence in many cases.
Search engines you cannot escape in any circumstance we can imagine.
Social networks sit between these two poles.
To begin, the real value of social media in our industry is not through building a page with a large number of fans, followers, or "likes." In every case, the problem you're going to run into with this strategy is two-fold:
First, it is not immediately clear why someone would just have a general interest in the multifamily industry, such that they would "like" a bunch of random community pages on Facebook. So you probably will never get many followers, regardless of how much work you put toward doing so.
Second, many social networks are taking "organic reach" of brand posts down to zero, so even if you somehow get 1000 fans, most of them will never see any of the content you post.
The real value of social media is if you have some money you can spend on additional advertising after you lock down the brand-based search pages on Google. Those must be your first priority.
That said, if you have extra advertising money after doing that, one viable option is building a demographic-based targeting campaign on Facebook. This allows you to identify a pool of probable residents using Facebook's advertising tools and then set up ads that reach only those users.
We have been experimenting with this for several months now and results have been inconsistent, which suggests that some communities may not benefit from this strategy, but when Facebook advertising has worked it has worked very well.
But again, pay attention to what we're using the platform to do: We are not building up a presence on Facebook through a page that we send Facebook users to. We are, rather, driving traffic off Facebook and onto the community website.
Once again: Emphasize the spaces you control. Use the spaces you don't control to move people to the ones you do.
How should you think about these platforms that you do not control in general?
Generally speaking, platforms you do not control are tricky to use well. The key is to think in terms of how that platform serves actual business outcomes for your community and also how that platform compares to other platforms.
Generally speaking these are all going to be pay-to-play in that you're leaning hard (or entirely) on an advertising budget to support your presence on each platform.
So you need to collect lots of data on how people interact with each platform, see how many leads you're getting from the various platforms, and make sure that you're spending your advertising budget as effectively as possible.
What about the platforms you can control?
Writer and artist Austin Kleon has written about the importance of, as he put it, "owning your turf."
The basic idea is that Google, Facebook, and listing services and all the other places people build an online platform, may someday not exist or their agendas may change so dramatically that it no longer makes sense to keep working with them.
The only platform you can create that you own is your own website or blog. That will always be a tool that is intended to promote you and that is under your control. So you need to invest most of your time there because that is the lowest-risk place to invest online resources.
In our industry, this means there are two primary places you should be investing most of your marketing time and money—websites for your individual communities and websites for your corporate portfolio.
Your website is a digital leasing agent.
What should go on your website?
To answer that question, begin by thinking about your website as a digital leasing agent. What things does a leasing agent need to do for your community? Those are the primary things your website should do.
To begin, leasing agents handle phone calls from interested prospects. So your website should encourage people to call your community and schedule a leasing tour.
Leasing agents also give tours, of course, so your website should use video tours to give prospects an online viewing of the unit from the comfort of their home.
Finally, leasing agents answer questions about the community about things like rent rates, pet policy, other amenities, and so on. So your website should provide people with that information.
To be sure, you can have other features on your website too. An online rent payment system is helpful for many residents as is an online maintenance request feature. So by all means include those things. But never forget that the primary purpose of your website is to drive traffic to your community with the goal of leasing apartments.
Sadly, the days of the open internet are over. Most people will primarily access the internet through Google, Facebook, and a small number of other online platforms. So you cannot totally get away from borrowed platforms as you think about building an online marketing presence for your apartment community. However, you should do as much as you can to emphasize your website and drive people to it rather than building your marketing house on borrowed turf.