Social media for apartment marketing is one of those perennial topics of interest that stirs up plenty of chatter, but little in the way of valuable business practices that improve the bottom line.
The core difficulty is that our industry is often sloppy in how we think about ways of using social media at an apartment community. We latch onto a trend without first identifying how that trend relates to our business or how embracing the trend will offer some kind of tangible business benefit.
You are not the user.
For example, we hear lots of discussion about how to get leads through Facebook, Twitter, or even Instagram. But this, of course, assumes that people actually use those services to look for apartments—and even today it's still not clear that they do. Moreover, if they do it's not because they're liking a bunch of Facebook pages for apartment communities and laughing at the memes that they post. It's because they use Facebook's new Marketplace for Apartments.
We have a saying in the world of web design that relates to this problem: You are not the user. In other words, you can't make marketing decisions based on what you might think is cool or useful. You need to make decisions with your customer in mind, thinking of their needs, their experience, and how they actually shop for apartments. So the process should be less "Hey, I saw this food brand do this thing on Instagram that I liked. Our community should do that too!" and more taking the time to put yourselves in your prospect's position to try and understand how they shop for an apartment.
What we want to do in today’s post is lay out the typical way that a prospective resident moves through the sales process in hopes that it will help clear up where and how social media can enter the process.
How does the leasing process start?
The leasing process begins when a prospect first decides they need a new apartment. That said, we shouldn't think of this first moment of need awareness in the same way we might in other industries.
In some industries, like restaurants or clothing, awareness of the product on offer will come before awareness of the person’s need for that product. Even if I don't want to buy a burrito right now, I am generally aware that there is a place called Chipotle and that they sell burritos.
But apartments don't really work this way. There is only a very small number of times in my life when I will be looking for an apartment and when I am, I'm not going to make a purchasing decision based on some vague awareness of a brand. If I'm hungry, I'll make a decision basically on a whim to try some restaurant I'm vaguely aware of. But it is unlikely, in that case, that I will suffer anything worse than a disappointing meal if things go poorly.
Signing a lease for an apartment is a far more expensive and high-risk purchase. So the decision-making process is very different. This brings us to the first thing we need to cover: Relying on a brand in multifamily doesn't really make sense.
The Problem with Branding
We all know the basic idea behind branding as a marketing strategy. Create a reputation with prospects that is so strong that they immediately think of you when they need whatever it is you are selling.
This is where social media can be extremely powerful: You can use it to create a brand that makes people more likely to buy from you. With a savvy branding strategy, you can get people to think of your company as being smart, fun, clever, amusing, etc.
Think about Oreo’s viral Super Bowl tweet:
Power out? No problem. pic.twitter.com/dnQ7pOgC— Oreo Cookie (@Oreo) February 4, 2013
But there's an important caveat here that many people don't consider when thinking about a brand. Brands can do two things really well:
- Create a first impression with consumers that will make them more likely to try the product.
- Create long-term loyalty with consumers that prompts them to keep buying the product.
However, that brand-based model doesn’t really work in multifamily because our product is fairly unique. I’ve become aware of Chipotle over many years as I’ve ate there multiple times and come away happy with my purchase.
I could do this because a burrito is a low-risk, high-frequency purchase. When I tried it the first time, the worst thing that could’ve happened is that I wouldn’t like the food and would be out $7. When the risk is that low, it’s very easy to get someone to try your product.
Plus if I decided that I liked it, odds were good that I would go back again and again to buy more burritos. And over the course of those many transactions, I developed an awareness of Chipotle such that they now have a pretty strong brand in my mind.
But with multifamily that’s not how it works. One doesn’t casually sign a lease and live in a place for 12 months because the worst that could happen is actually pretty bad. My stuff could get stolen or damaged, my life could be very unhappy, I could lose a lot of money, etc.
Additionally, because most properties ask for 12 month leases up front, that makes an apartment a very low-frequency purchase. And because even millennials want to someday own a home, I'll probably only sign a small number of apartment leases in my life.
So while I can build a good brand for a low-risk, high-frequency purchase, it’s much more difficult to do that with a high-risk, low-frequency purchase.
The Rise of Consumer Research
So how do people buy when getting ready to purchase a high-risk, low-frequency item? They do a lot of research. According to Google, they look at 10+ sources before making a decision. This is very much the case with housing searches. According to the National Association of Realtors, 90% of housing searches begin online.
But when you need to research a product online before buying, where do you begin? You almost certainly do not start with social media. Instead, you probably go to a search engine and begin there. So this is where the buying process begins for prospects—not on Facebook, but on Google.
A prospect begins searching on Google and, somehow, they come across your community. At this point, what are they most interested in? Again, they’re making a high-risk purchase so they probably don’t care about the memes you posted on Facebook. Really, they don’t even care that much about the amenity photos you have on your home page. The thing they care most about is what their apartment actually looks like.
So this is the thing you should be putting on your website (or social media pages) and you should be making it very easy for people to find it. If you’re doing this right, the result will be a higher quality lead because the bad leads will disqualify themselves after seeing the apartment online (instead of wasting your staff’s time with a tour) and the leads leftover will be ones who have already seen the community and now want to set up a tour.
Caveat: What about Facebook Marketplace?
To the extent that Facebook continues to be purely a social platform, we do not anticipate much changing with apartment marketing on Facebook. That said, Facebook's own ambitions are clearly not to simply be a social platform for internet users. Like Google and Amazon, Facebook is trying to become almost synonymous with "the internet" amongst their users. If you do it online, Facebook wants you doing it within their information ecosystem.
This is why Facebook has rolled out Marketplace and why it is now including apartment listings in their Marketplace system. They want people using Facebook as a commercial platform. To be sure, there are reasons a consumer would want to use Facebook in this way. Because you're connecting with other Facebook profiles, you may have a higher trust level with Facebook Marketplace than you would Craigslist or eBay. Additionally, because you are already in Facebook, it may be easier to use their service rather than jumping over to some other web property. So it is possible that Facebook is going to become more of a player in apartment marketing as they become more of a commercial platform.
All that being said, we're still in the early days of Marketplace and do not yet know how Facebook's new platform will perform. We are currently running some tests to figure out if people are using Marketplace to shop for apartments. But until we have a proven record of success with a number of client communities, we are reluctant to say anything more about this.
In short, it is possible that we'll see things begin to change a lot with social media for apartment marketers. But for right now it is too early to say. If you want to learn more about Facebook Marketplace in particular, read our initial editorial commenting on its potential.
Where Social Media Can Be Useful
Once a lead calls in and sets up a tour, the remainder of the process is primarily going to happen in-person. If you have floorplan video tours, you might email the lead a link to the video after the tour, but for the most part the process has moved offline.
This means that as far as the leasing process is concerned, social media doesn’t enter into the picture much at all for the simple reason that people don’t really use social media as much when making a purchase--they tend to use search for that.
That said, this doesn’t mean that social media can never be useful to an apartment community. It just means that its usefulness is more limited and the goals a community has with it ought to be more modest.
First, though it isn't technically social media, you need to make sure your local listing with Google is correctly set up. We've written a full guide to help you do that.
Second, because your residents are probably more active on Facebook than anything else, it may not be an altogether bad idea to have a Facebook page. But don’t use the page to just post memes and other stuff that isn’t valuable to your residents. If they want memes, they’ll follow Buzzfeed or Funny or Die.
Use your page to share valuable information with residents. If you have a successful resident event, post pictures of it. If you have an event coming up, announce it. If you have some project coming up that will affect residents, let them know via Facebook. Use it as a mass-communication tool, basically. There are two potential values to using Facebook in this way.
First, it’s providing something useful to your residents. It won’t be something that keeps them from vacating, obviously, but it is still a benefit that they’ll appreciate.
Second, recall that the average internet user uses 11 research sources before making a purchasing decision. It’s possible a prospect could find your Facebook research once they’re already deep into the research process. So while it won’t serve you in the marketing process very often, it is possible that once in a while a very thorough prospect will find your page--in which case having an active page certainly won’t hurt you in the marketing process.
The main thing to understand with social media for apartments is that the actual business value with social media is dwarfed by the hype surrounding it. We’ve worked with hundreds of communities across the United States and have seen very little evidence to support the idea that social media is a silver bullet for apartments with occupancy problems. So when you see the hype, remember that it’s hype. The place you need to be investing your marketing dollars is on your community website and on search, particularly with GoogleAdWords. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any value in social media for multifamily communities, but it means that we need to be realistic about what the value is and use our resources accordingly.