November 24, 2015

A Guide to Craigslist Apartment Marketing History

Posted by Jake Meador


One of the most common tools used for marketing apartments online has, historically, been the free classifieds service Craigslist. There are several reasons for this.

  1. Craigslist works for prospective residents because it allows them to see a lot of apartments.
  2. Craigslist works for property owners and managers because it's almost always free.
  3. Craigslist is reasonably easy to use for both advertisers and readers.

That said, Craigslist has always been a bit of an awkward friend to the multifamily industry.

Because Craigslist wants to create a level playing field for ordinary people to buy and sell goods, they've often taken steps to make it easier for smaller communities to advertise on a comparable level to larger communities. Also, because they want to be a useful site and not just filled with spam, they've introduced fairly aggressive anti-spam measures. (When they an account as a spammer and start blocking posts, that is called green ghosting. You can learn more about that here.)

For these reasons, Craigslist apartment marketing is constantly evolving. The objectives Craigslist has don't always nicely align with the objectives of multifamily marketers and so this creates an extremely fluid situation that savvy marketers have to adjust to. In this post, we want to share a brief history of how Craigslist has changed in recent years and offer some advice for apartment marketers trying to use Craigslist.

The Old Craigslist

The Old Craigslist (the pre-November 2013 Craigslist) was something of a Wild West for online marketers. The only major thing that could derail a marketer was green ghosting, but as long as you weren't consistently violating their Terms of Use, you could usually steer clear of green ghosting without too much difficulty.

On this version of Craigslist, the best posting strategy was to do the following things:

  • Use a consistent posting schedule that was within the limits prescribed by the Craigslist Terms of Use.
  • Use customized HTML that allowed you to embed lots of images into the post itself.
  • Use high-quality, floorplan-specific photos in each post.
  • Use prominent calls-to-action that make the community's phone number large and prominent.

We wrote extensively on how to succeed at Craigslist in this old era, so you can learn more about that here and here.

There were several reasons to think that this version of Craigslist would be short-lived, however. The HTML templates like the ones we provided our customers looked spectacular, but they also stacked the deck on Craigslist in favor of companies that either knew how to create those posts themselves or worked with folks like us who could create posting templates for them that they would then post to Craigslist. So the mom-and-shop landlord down the street didn't really have a chance because they couldn't create those kind of posting templates and they didn't have the money to hire someone to do so.

So in November of 2013, Craigslist implemented some changes it had been promising for some time: Stripping out much of the HTML functionality from apartment posts. You could still use HTML to format text, but you could no longer use it to embed images or hyperlinks in the post. All photos now had to be uploaded through the image uploading tool and all text was plain, black text with the occasional bullet point or larger point size.

We were amongst the first in the industry to address this issue in our post from October of 2013. We wrote the post about two weeks before the changes rolled out nationwide because the changes were first implemented in Texas, where we have a number of clients. When the changes went national in November, there was a massive amount of consternation in the industry and tons of posts being published about the issue.

Middle Craigslist

From November of 2013 to April of 2014, Craigslist went on with the new HTML limitations. We encouraged people to diversify their traffic--something we'd been talking about for over a year and a half, actually--while still posting consistently on Craigslist because there are still lots of users there. The changes, after all, didn't affect Craigslist's users at all, just their posters.

The other thing we noticed is that large calls to action that include plain text links to floorplan-specific landing pages did extremely well for our clients. So successful posting to Craigslist during this era looked like this:

  • Use a consistent posting schedule that was within the limits prescribed by the Craigslist Terms of Use.
  • Use high-quality, floorplan-specific photos in each post uploaded with the Craigslist image tool.
  • Use prominent calls-to-action that make the community's phone number large and prominent.
  • Avoid burying relevant information under paragraph upon paragraph of marketing copy. Keep the marketing copy short and heavily emphasize a couple key bits of data--phone number, address, website (with a link to the floorplan-specific landing page).

But then Craigslist introduced another change that seems to have hit in late April of this year and that is currently implemented across the country.

Current Craigslist

Craigslist is now using an anti-spam measure that blocks phone numbers when the post is first loaded in a browser. The phone number is covered up with a button that says "show contact info." So until users click the button, they cannot see the phone number anywhere on the page.

The good news with this change is it makes Craigslist less friendly to spammers who scrape phone numbers off the site. That's a massive win. The downside is that it adds a step for users to figure out how to contact a community. And typically adding steps causes conversions to drop. (We wrote about the changes here.

That said, there is a good workaround for this issue: Include phone numbers in the images you post of your community. By doing this, you're still protected from scrapers who will pull your phone number from the ads and your number is easily viewable for Craigslist users. (Click the link in this paragraph's first sentence for a tutorial on how to add your number to a photo.)

Another noteworthy development is that Craigslist's search function has incorporated more images into it and you can actually click through images without clicking on an individual post:


So in the new era of Craigslist apartment marketing, these are the things you'll need to do to be successful:

  • Use a consistent posting schedule that is within the limits prescribed by the Craigslist Terms of Use.
  • Use high-quality, floorplan-specific photos in each post uploaded with the Craigslist image tool.
  • Add your leasing office phone number to your photos that you upload to Craigslist.
  • Use prominent calls-to-action that make the floorplan landing page URL large and prominent.

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