"I don't want to open that email."
That's what I remember thinking when I sat down at my desk at a job I had shortly after finishing college. Things generally weren't going well for the company—they ended up going out of business within two years—and I was struggling in my own position as well.
When you're in a spot like that even something simple like opening an automated report that gets sent to your inbox can feel really scary—what are the numbers going to say today? Have we started to turn things around? If we haven't, what hard conversation am I going to have next?
If you're responsible for a community that is struggling to fill up vacant units or that has been running below-market-rate rent for a long time just to keep occupancy up, you probably know this feeling.
If that's you, I have some good news: You don't have to feel that way when you sit down to check your email.
In today's post we're going to talk about some of the reasons that communities struggle and suggest some ideas as to how you can begin to set things in order.
"Begin to set things" in order is the key, of course. Communities that are struggling don't turn around overnight. So you need to be ready to work to identify immediate goals, medium-term objectives, and some long-term aspirations for where you eventually want the community to be. Once you've done that, you need to identify some short-, medium-, and long-term tasks that you want to accomplish to help you realize those goals. That's what we're going to talk about in this post.
If you can execute on the plan we're going to describe below, you should be able to turn things around. And if you can do that, then your inbox doesn't have to be quite so scary. You may even start to look forward to opening monthly reports and seeing how revenue numbers are climbing.
The First Steps to Fixing a Struggling Apartment Community
We're starting with short-term fixes because these are the easiest to implement and should provide some level of help no matter what else you have going on with your website.
Short-term fixes like these will generally focus on your traffic generation strategy.
Quick fix apartment marketing solutions need two things:
- First, you need marketing sources that afford you the most control possible. If you're depending on an algorithm to fix the problem, that's a bad short-term fix because algorithms are not always predictable. We want maximum control during this phase because we're trying to find some immediate help for a struggling property.
- Second, you need marketing sources that don't take time to build but can be turned off and on like a switch. Using a slightly different image, you want a microwave, not an oven.
The good news is that there are options that fit this need and they are relatively affordable to use. There are three particularly important sources for short-term marketing succes:
- Google AdWords
- Google My Business
Google AdWords needs special mention here because in our experience it is still widely ignored in the industry despite the tremendous potential it has to transform apartment marketing.
With AdWords, you can purchase comparatively cheap search ads that Google will display to users based on search activity and criteria that you define as the advertiser. Do you want to show ads to people who search for "pet-friendly apartments in (your location)"? You can do that with AdWords.
Another easy AdWords win is to advertise on your own community name. It's cheap and it significantly increases the number of people who will actually click through to your website after searching for you. One study suggests it can increase the number tenfold! And, in case you're worried about cost, we should be clear: These kind of ads—we call them "defensive campaigns—are generally cheap. According our internal data, the average cost-per-click on these defensive ads across 300 properties over six months is $.90.
FREE EBOOK: GOOGLE ADWORDS FOR APARTMENT MARKETERS
The other perk with AdWords is obviously that as a paid advertising source it's something that you can turn on and off rather than needing to take a long time to build up your presence on it, as you need to do when going for organic search traffic. (There are benefits that come from using AdWords for longer periods of time. So if you can make AdWords a long-term part of your marketing plan, you should. That said, if that isn't an option and you just need an emergency traffic boost, AdWords can provide that too.)
Craigslist, meanwhile, is a more established marketing source in the multifamily industry. That said, many have struggled to figure out how to use it most effectively since the changes made several years ago that saw HTML templates disabled in the apartment listings.
Recent data also suggests that Craigslist is not as popular as it was several years ago. That said, it is free and still can give you a decent boost. So it's silly to ignore it, especially if you need traffic as soon as possible.
The other big idea is to establish a fixed routine for using Craigslist and then making sure that your team at the property is executing the plan. We have also written a post that helps regional managers and marketing directors implement a Craigslist plan at a specific community.
Google My Business
Finally, let's talk about Google My Business. Your Google My Business listing is your business's entry in Google's online version of the yellow pages. Google serves the data in your listing when someone searches for you by name.
Here's what it looks like on desktop:
See all the data on the right side of the search result page? That's all from the Google My Business listing. There are other important things about this listing as well.
On mobile, the Google My Business listing will dominate the search results even more because of the smaller screen:
As you can see, the Cold Storage Lofts local listing takes up the entire screen in this case. It also includes buttons that will allow users to navigate to the community website, get driving directions to the community, or call the community.
This data can also show up when users enter more specific search terms on Google.
Here are two examples. First, if someone searches for your hours, Google can pull those into the search result page:
They can do the same with the phone number:
That data at the top of the page, where Google has pulled out the phone number for a community and displayed it in its own little box, is coming from Google My Business.
If you have verified and updated your Google My Business listing, it can make a huge impact on your community's visibility on search engines and make you look more legitimate and credible with prospects.
Medium-Term Apartment Marketing Solutions
Of course, sometimes the need goes beyond a quick traffic boost to give the leasing office a few more leads to work with. Sometimes the problems run deeper. Maybe you're getting lots of traffic, but it's not turning into leads. If that is the case, you'll need to take some more drastic action that will require a bit more work to implement and, likely, a bit more time as well.
That being said, the goal here is to figure out how to improve your website without having to redo your website. It's easier to make changes to an existing website than it is to create a new one. So there are a few things you can look at at this point to try and boost your site's quality:
- Does the site work well on a technical level? What are your page load times like? (You can test that with this tool.) Is the site mobile-friendly? (You can test that with this tool.)
- What kind of content do you have on my website? Do you have video tours? Floorplan-specific photos? Generic community photos? 360 videos? How useful is this content to prospective residents?
- How easy is your site to use? Can prospects find the information they care about without too much effort? Are the rent rates easy to find? How about pet policy? Where are the photos?
One of the best things you can do to help your site is to focus on improving your floorplan-specific content. Usually struggling apartment communities have low visibility due to bad traffic-generation strategies but they also have poor content on their website, which means their conversion rate from website visitor to lead is generally poor.
It's important to think about these issues because traffic alone isn't going to help you as a business because traffic doesn't pay the bills. You need leases. And to get leases you need web visitors turning into leads and you need leads turning into leases. Simply increasing your traffic won't guarantee better results unless you also are converting that traffic into leads and, ultimately, into leases.
If your content is poor then you may not generate as many leads as you should from your traffic and some of the leads you get may be really low quality. This means that you need to develop better content to show the prospects you're now getting to your website.
Ideally, you'll improve your content by hiring professionals to shoot video and photos that you then place on floorplan-specific landing pages. That said, even having floorplan-specific photos that are labeled by floorplan on your photos page is an improvement. You can also use those photos on Craigslist, of course, so there are multiple benefits to taking the time (and money) required to have high-quality photos.
Long-Term Apartment Marketing Solutions
The long game is a comprehensive rebuild of the community's entire web presence. AdWords and Craigslist are great short-term fixes and can be effective long-term as well. Local is an easy thing to fix and has big long-term pay off too.
But the easiest way to generate traffic to your apartment community is with organic search from search engines. This traffic is free and is mostly passive in terms of the work required to generate it. Once you've done the initial ground work—building a site optimized for search engines, having good content, avoiding practices condemned by Google—you should see more and more traffic arriving at your site via organic search. This takes time, of course, but eventually your goal should be to have organic search as your top traffic source.
Often it takes 4-6 months for a community to really start getting momentum in organic search, but sometimes it can take even longer, especially if you're trying to recover from any sort of Google penalty as a result of using SEO techniques that the search giant does not allow. So we're talking about a substantial amount of initial work to get the site up and running and ready for SEO success. That said, once the work is done the rewards are considerable.
Once your site is generating consistent, reliable traffic from organic search most of your traffic is coming in for free without any additional work required from you. You can then use Craigslist and AdWords to supplement your existing traffic as needed rather than relying on them to be your primary traffic generators.
We opened this post by talking about that experience I had in the rough job after college. Things got so bad I was scared to open my email. If you are responsible for a community with poor occupancy numbers and sagging revenue, you probably can relate.
But, of course, there is an alternative to that: You don't have to feel that way at work.
If being the person responsible for a poorly performing property is rough, then being the person who helped turn that property around brings with it a remarkable level of respect from your peers and confidence in yourself. Imagine instead going into a meeting or opening an email from your boss and knowing that you're one of the most profitable employees in the company because you're the one who helped turn around that struggling community. That's powerful, right? So, yeah, it's a lot of work to do all the things we've talked about above. But the reward is worth it.