Recently I was speaking with one of our marketing advisers about a client community we are working with. The community is under new ownership and is planning to do a rebrand. It's probably the right decision for them for a variety of different reasons we won't get into here. That being said, there is a potentially enormous problem the community could run into if they choose to go that route.
To get at the problem, we might ask a simple question: Is it worse to have a bad reputation or no reputation, to be disliked or totally unknown?
Put more plainly, the problem you'll run into with a rebrand is that you are starting from scratch on your online marketing. The result is that you'll often see a steep drop in visibility online and a related drop in leads.
So if this is your situation, let's talk. You're currently experiencing a lot of challenges due to your community's poor reputation. You're planning to do a rebrand in order to fix that problem. But you're nervous--and perhaps more nervous after reading the start of this post. If a rebrand is going to cause major marketing problems, is it really worth doing? And if it is worth doing in your case, what can be done to make the problem less severe?
To answer those questions, let's walk through the rebranding process as seen from a marketing and search engine perspective.
Why do your leads disappear after a rebrand?
Unfortunately, when you rebrand a community it also eliminates all the domain and page authority your website has built up with search engines over the years. "Domain authority" is a shorthand way of talking about the accumulated trust Google has developed in your brand due to years of observing that brand online. Google wants to give people content that is reliable and trustworthy so they often have a strong bias against new websites. SEO company Ahrefs explains it in this post:
Holding back brand new websites from ranking could give Google more time to evaluate the website quality and fight spam.
A week-old website suddenly breaking into the SERPs for a competitive keyword, beating the pages that have been ranking there for years is suspicious, right?
Besides, we all know that backlinks are one of the most important ranking factors. And it is highly unlikely that pages on a new website will accrue strong backlink profiles within a few weeks.
Think of it this way: We often think of a rebrand as being a clean slate with human apartment shoppers--it wipes away bad reviews, a bad reputation, etc. But it is also a clean slate with search engines, but for search engines a known website and domain that has been around for a long time without violating any major SEO guidelines is going to be much preferred to a brand new website on a new domain. The clean slate helps you by erasing lots of bad things with human prospects. But it hurts you because it also erases a lot of good things with search engines.
The result is that you become invisible on search engines--and around 90% of all housing searches begin on search engines. This is why you do a rebrand and then sit in your office waiting for the phone to ring. You've got a fantastic community, sure, but no one knows you're there and no one can find you online.
How long does it take to begin to rank well after a rebrand?
It is hard to give a specific answer to that question because some websites may climb the rankings in 4-5 months while others may take over a year. But you are probably going to spend at least a few months being basically invisible on organic search while Google evaluates your new site. One factor that can play a major role here is the name you select for the community. If the name is original, memorable, and easy to spell, you'll likely see a quicker jump up the rankings than if your name is one that several other communities already use, that uses weird spellings, or that prospects have a hard time remembering.
BLOG POST: HOW TO NAME AN APARTMENT COMMUNITY
This data is several years old, but the baseline principle hasn't changed much so it may be a useful way of looking at it. This is a screen capture from the analytics report for a soccer blog I used to run in my spare time. This is the organic traffic to my site over the first year and a half that it existed.
As you can see, it took a fair amount of time to build the site's traffic up to a high level. To be sure, I could have done more on it in the early days, but even with more effort it still would have taken a lot of time to build the site's authority and, with it, an audience.
In most cases communities that just went through a major rebranding campaign don't really have that sort of time—the owner or company just sunk a ton of money into the community and they want to see a return on that now, not in 18 months.
Are there ways to attract traffic right away, even before your website is ranking well organically?
There's another way you could ask this question: Is there a way to manufacture demand for my community, even when some marketing and advertising channels are under-performing?
The good news is that the answer to this question is "yes." There are several ways you can reach an audience even without a strong organic presence on Google.
With Google Ads you can essentially purchase traffic to your community site. While organic search depends in large part on having an established website with a good track record, Ads is a bit different. Because it is paid search rather than organic search, it's easier to start showing up in the search results relatively quickly.
You need to be careful on Ads, however. It is very easy to waste money on Google Ads--and Google is quite happy to charge you, regardless of whether or not your ads are doing what you want them to do. If you start out by targeting highly competitive terms like, "apartments in (city, state)" you're going to burn through a lot of money with little to show for it.
The best place to begin with Google Ads is with defensive ads. Defensive ads are advertisements that are set up to display when someone searches for your community by name.
Defensive ads do a couple things for you. First, they basically guarantee you top placement when someone searches for you by name. This is huge because people who search for you by name are going to be your best leads. If you can attract them, you'll be in a very good position from a leasing perspective.
Having a paid search ad on the page also makes it more likely that users will click on an organic search result for your community or on the Google My Business page. SEER Interactive has good data demonstrating this. If you have a paid search result and an organic result on the same page, you will attract a much larger share of clicks than if you are missing one of those results.
Though we have traditionally been skeptical of Facebook-based marketing efforts in the multifamily industry, Facebook has improved their advertising platform enough that we're beginning to see some real success on the platform.
Because Facebook allows you to target based on demographic and region, you can create advertising campaigns targeted at people who fit your general resident profile. This can give you a level of targeting not identical to what Google Ads can offer, but similarly powerful.
That being said, due to ongoing debate about privacy, Facebook's advertising platform is currently undergoing some changes, so we are going to hold off on saying more about this until we have a better sense of how things are going to play out. What we can say for now is that Facebook ads built around driving traffic to the community site via photos and video and built around demographic-based targeting have had some success for some clients.
Google My Business
Finally, you need to set up a local business listing with Google. This is a particularly tricky one because you probably have a business listing already set up for the community's old name/brand.
This is one place where rebranding can be especially dangerous. Citation consistency—having the same business name, address and phone number across all online references to your business—is essential to making sure your business is visible in online business directories. And obviously you're going to be changing your business name as part of the rebrand, which will make it very difficult to have that consistency.
There are many different online business directories out there and getting the exact same information to all of them is difficult. That said, if your citations are inconsistent, Google will look at your business listing and say "I can't trust this," and won't show it to users. So putting in the effort--or finding the right help--to make this happen is essential.
As a miminal requirement, you'll need to change your business name on your Google My Business profile. That will require you to re-verify your ownership of the business, but that simply requires watching the mail for a postcard from Google and then entering the PIN number they give you. You'll need to make sure that your new name is entered in the exact same way as what your website and other official documentation says. Even omitting an article like "the" may cause Google to have less trust in the accuracy and reliability of your listing.
In addition to having consistent name, address, and phone number information, you'll also want to have a link to your community website, community photos, and (ideally) user reviews on your business listing. All of these things are ways of building trust with Google and can be done, reviews excepted, quickly and without much difficulty.
The long-term hope for your rebranded apartment community is that your organic search presence will take off and that the money you put into it will pay off in a massive way for your business. But in the short term you need a marketing strategy to generate traffic to your community. The last thing you want is for your leasing office phone to be completely silent in the months after a rebrand for the simple reason that no one can find you online.
What you need is something that can get you from the time of your rebrand to the time when your organic search presence has finally become reestablished. Craigslist, Google AdWords, and local business listings can do that.