In the years I've worked in the multifamily industry, I've learned that two things often drive many of the big decisions that people make:
This makes a lot of sense. We sell living spaces. Given the riskiness of the purchase, you want employees who are good at relating to a diverse range of people. Moreover, given the amount of capital involved in many communities and particularly in today's new constructions it is similarly understandable that trust and familiarity plays a huge role in relationships within the industry.
Similarly, the look of a living space is a big deal. It's why sites like Apartment Therapy exist, after all, and why interior design shows are such guaranteed ratings grabbers. People want their living spaces to look great because they spend a ton of time in the space and they also feel that the look of their home reflects in some way on them.
The result is that we have an industry that is deeply familiar with a very relational and image-driven approach to making decisions. Generally, this serves us really well.
But then we come to social media. And many of the same intuitions that serve us so well elsewhere betray us here.
Why Multifamily Loves Social Media
Let's begin with the reason most people love social media: Social media does two things for us.
- First, it affords us an easy, simple way of seeing what our friends are doing and communicating with them.
- Second, and I strongly suspect this is the more powerful factor, it allows us the chance to create the ideal image of ourselves and project that image to the world. This is an academic study on how teens use social media to project an image of themselves, but I think most of us use these kind of tools in similar ways.
Now when you take these two facts and translate them into the commercial sphere, you can see a ton of potential for branding opportunities. Because social networks are popular, they have large audiences. Because they are mostly about personal branding, they give actual brands great chances to tie their product in a strong, public way to an individual person's identity.
This is all catnip for our industry, of course. We are drawn to the idea of being able to project a certain image online and being able to link that image to the images that individual people project.
The trouble here is that our marketing instincts end up outpacing our business instincts. Intuitively social media makes sense to us because it is a huge audience, it's a way to be relational, it's a way to project an image, etc. But, of course, we need more than intuition to justify marketing decisions.
Toward that end, here are five diagnostic questions to ask before deciding to market your apartment community on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Is there an audience for your community on the platform?
In one sense, this is an easy answer: Obviously yes! There are millions, even billions, of people on social media. Certainly there is an audience!
But that's actually too simple. Audience is about intent and timing, particularly in our industry where purchases are low frequency. So the things you need to think about when asking this question are:
- Is there an audience on this platform that likes or follows industry-related content?
- Will this platform help me reach people when they are ready to buy?
The first question is relatively easy to answer, in fact: Search for your competitor communities on the social network you're interested in and see what you find.
- Do they have a page or profile?
- What kind of following does it have?
- What do they post?
- Do people interact with it?
If you can answer those questions, you will probably have a better idea of the potential value that network offers your community.
The question of timing is trickier. That said, it is an important one to think about. If you are spending tons of money or time on a platform to reach people who are not ready to purchase yet you need to ask if that platform offers enough value. This is particularly true in our industry where our potential customers are actually a very small slice of the population.
You need someone who:
- does not currently own a home
- is not currently locked into a long-term lease
- is looking for a community in your area
- can afford your rent rate
- will pass your resident screening process
Let's say you have a Facebook page and you make a post that shows a video tour of your community and then you spend $50 to boost the post. Sure, that post is going to appear to hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people. And if you've set up your campaigns well, it may even be focused around people in the age range you're looking for who are interested in real estate.
But does that guarantee you're reaching the right people? No, it doesn't. That audience you just paid to reach almost certainly includes employees in the multifamily industry, realtors, home inspectors, and a host of other people, none of whom are going to be looking for an apartment in the near future. So maybe that post reaches 750, but if only five of them are potential residents, is it worth it?
It might be! But you need to work through the process to establish that point rather than assume that an impressive sounding number of active users guarantees you will have an engaged audience. It might or it might not. You need to do the work to establish that one way or the other.
Do you have a plan to track leases, or at leads, coming from those networks?
This is not too hard a problem to solve, but, again, you need to plan to solve it. Set up tracking numbers so that you can measure phone calls generated via different social media networks.
If you can track inbound calls and how many of those calls turn into leads, you can establish a cost-per-lead value for the social network, which you can then use to inform your decision about whether or not to use the network.
Is your strategy on the network to focus more on branding or lead generation?
Branding means "doing things that will help people have a positive mental association with our brand." Lead generation is about "doing things that directly influence potential residents to call our community to set up a leasing tour."
Both of these strategies can be valuable, of course. HubSpot, a leading provider of marketing software, has lately started publishing more journalistic style reporting on tech news. That isn't directly influencing people to purchase from HubSpot, but it is potentially giving people a positive mental association with the brand, which does offer real commercial value over the long term.
You can use social media in similar ways. That said, there are a couple potential issues with branding strategies for apartment communities that you'll want to think about before investing a lot in a brand-focused strategy.
First, branding influence prior to making a purchase is going to be relatively vague and not that strong. It's strong enough to nudge a person toward a decision, sure, but probably not strong enough to drive a purchasing decision on its own.
For brands with cheaper products, products that people purchase often, or both, this is fine. If you're Pizza Hut, you know people already need to eat regularly and most of them already like pizza. So a positive mental association with your brand may provide the nudge needed to get a person to buy from you instead of from Domino's.
But multifamily obviously does not have that kind of product. An apartment lease is very expensive—it'll be the largest expense in most people's budget—and it is very risky because of how much your home affects your quality of life. So you need way more than a gentle nudge to motivate a purchase in these cases.
Second, brand-based strategies generally are about mass messaging. To use the example of Pizza Hut again, Pizza Hut knows that if they air an ad on TV to one million people, basically everyone on that audience will need to eat lunch or dinner within the next 24 hours. And most of those people will be able to purchase from them.
Because our product is so different in nature, we can't make those kind of assumptions. If you spent a much smaller amount of money than Pizza Hut just to reach 1,000 people you may only end up reaching a handful of people who will ever potentially rent with you. So it is likely the case that a lot of mass messaging stuff will not work in our industry because the potential customer pool is too small.
For these reasons, we generally do not encourage communities to use branding-based marketing strategies simply because they cost far more than they are worth.
Are there better channels that your marketing resources could go toward?
This is where the scarcity question comes into play. Ultimately your community has limited marketing resources. So the question is not just how much it will cost you in time and money to be active on a given social network, but whether or not there are better things you could do with that limited time and money.
Put another way, it may well be true that $500 of spend and 10 hours of employee time on Facebook could generate an appreciable number of leads per month. That's great. But then you need to ask if you could get a better outcome if you put that same $500 and 10 hours of time toward something like Google AdWords. (If you aren't using AdWords at all, the answer is almost certainly "yes," by the way.)
So the question is not just what kind of results you can get from that network, but if those results are sufficient to justify the required resources.
What are the potential risks and how can you mitigate them?
Identify the potential dangers with social media use and define a plan for both preventing those things from happening and for how you will handle it if something does happen.
Obviously there are nightmare scenarios. Rogue employees sometimes tweet inappropriate things or take control of company accounts when they are unhappy. That is one type of concern. There is also the more innocent sort of mistake that can happen if an employee means to post from their personal page and instead posts on the community page.
That said, there are other potential problems as well: What is your policy going to be for handling negative social media posts from other accounts? It's going to happen for the simple reason that it happens to everyone. Who will be responsible when it happens to you?
As you're reading this, you might be thinking "this sounds like a lot of planning and that will take a lot of time." Well, you're right. So refer back to the fourth question above: Is this worth all your time? It may well be, of course. But, again, that has to be established ahead of time. You don't want to realize the work isn't worth it after you have committed a ton of time to a project. You want to establish metrics ahead of time that will help you judge whether the time and money is worth it or not. Doing this gives you an objective standard going in that can, essentially, make your decision for you, which spares you a lot of hassle and headaches down the road.
Social media networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have potential as a marketing channel for most businesses. That said, there are unique challenges facing any apartment marketer who wants to use these platforms to advertise their community. So address these issues ahead of time and make your decision about whether or not to invest in social media based on what you find as you think through these problems. That will give you good expectations going and help save you from making a bad decision that could cost you a lot.