NEW ORLEANS, LA - Ah… isn't technology great? The multifamily techies first developed an array of amazing tools to market our properties and then made it possible to stay digitally connected with our residents. And then came the world of Social Networks, making the possibilities seem even more endless. So how does a multifamily owner navigate the maze we call the Internet? In what corners of the Net do these hordes of leasing prospects lurk? How does the leasing team find them and what do managers do with them once they become a resident? What about Twitter and Facebook? Intuitively, we know our properties need to be on them, but why and how does a busy staff find the time to manage and post to all of these sites?
Finding Prospects Online:
Let's first examine the world of prospecting, a little panning for gold as the old miners would say. Today, the bulk of our prospects are online shoppers and start the apartment search process on the Internet. Experience reveals some important human habits in this cyber world. First, most people know generally where they want to live and are not willing to move to Timbuktu for a deal. They may even canvas the area, see a few things they like and then research them online looking for floor plans, pictures and other details.
Taking it to the next level, that future resident may contact the property online looking for any specials and to possibly schedule a visit. This tells us that our prospects are "community driven"; they are looking primarily for a home in an area they want to live.
So, where are the prospective residents hiding and how does one grab them to get them in the door? The answer…they are everywhere, scattered across the net like ants and you need to be in every ant hill. The property starts with pushing its community out across as much of the broad spectrum of the Internet as possible. This is called syndication of content in Net lingo. To compete, the property needs to place ads (Craig's List anyone?), link to other sites and push property content to other sites. The Internet effort is really no different than a traditional ground campaign of placing flyers in the local coffee shop, staking some signs along the street and maybe buying a billboard or two. Does that physical sort of work translate to the Net? Yes, and with the right Net technology, it is a whole lot quicker and easier!
Emerging Marketing Technologies:
We have always seen a small number of companies that will post community content on a number of high traffic sites for a fee. We are now seeing some multifamily technology platforms that can feed data into other Internet sites in real time. These are known as data feeds. Information such as floor plan sizes, pricing, photos and some content about your community are lifted directly from your community website (or what appears to be a website) and placed on another site such as Oodle, Cazoodle and RentBits. The purpose is to shine the spotlight on your community and then promote it on other sites. This creates linkage to drive traffic back to your community…just like leaving flyers in a coffee shop!
Facebook and Twitter have emerged as the "New Media" with a twist of micro-blogging, networking and a splash of media broadcasting. If you run into a site these days without a Facebook and Twitter link, it seems like old school Internet. So, what is all the hype? Social Networking is growing at a faster rate than any other media platform in history. FaceBook users exceed 400 million and Twitter now has over 105 million registered users. A Social Networking presence puts the property into many of those nooks and crannies where renters reside online.
So why jump in the mix? Think about it, you are in the "Community Building" business, and Social Media is the ultimate tool to grow and strengthen a community. The key to Social Media is to continuously seed your Social Network pages with updates so that news and events are not stagnant or pushed off of the radar. The most common problem is that property managers complain they do not have time to regularly post on the Social Network sites. A search of Twitter reveals a graveyard of apartment sites that have not had a posting in over a year. But as always, savvy tech companies are preserving their multifamily niche by providing a solution.
Emerging Social Media Technologies:
Companies that specialize in providing multifamily technology are now creating automated Social Media posting engines with the ability to take postings made on the community website and post them in real time to Twitter and FaceBook. A busy manager can post a special on a floor plan or an event on the community calendar and the posting is automatically posted to Twitter and FaceBook with no further effort. This gives both prospects and residents the ability to "Follow", "Friend" and even become a "Fan" of the community and get real time postings as they happen. It keeps Social Media content fresh and consistent, and managers free to handle other tasks.
Service After the Sale:
Well, we found them, we networked with them, we linked to them and scattered ourselves from Oodle to Cazoodle and everywhere in between. What else can be done? The term "Resident Portal" is not new and its evolution as the "can't live without it" tool has had the multifamily world buzzing for years. So what is it and why can't I live without it?
The Resident Portal actually goes way back to the emergence of the Internet and was pioneered in the multifamily space by a company named Electric Streets. The idea was to build a place for residents to easily communicate with community managers and obtain helpful information related not only to the community, but the area that surrounded them. This sounds good so far, so where are the issues?
The products on the market vary greatly with some products being geared to only a hand full of functions such as service request and online payments. Others are content heavy, but place a lot of burden on community managers to keep them updated. Experience again has confirmed the digital demographic of today's apartment resident who grew up using the Internet. Accessing virtual self‐service centers to make service requests, communicate with managers and obtain community information is the norm, not leading edge. Observe "today's renters", and you will quickly see they use cell phones for texting, order all things online and have friends they never physically met via Social Networks. With this piece of the Internet puzzle in place, the Resident Portal arguably becomes the most important retention tool your property can have.
Emerging Resident Portal Technologies:
Resident Portal providers have seen the need to assist managers in keeping portal content updated, and automate some of the resident interactions that are key to improving resident retention rates. We now have portal products that bring some of the content management automatically into the picture such as posting holidays and generic events on the resident calendar, publishing a monthly newsletter and posting videos. There are also some that automate delivery of graphic birthday and holiday cards to residents, as well as lease renewal reminders. In short, they not only update themselves but they reach out and touch your residents, a key component to resident retention. In all relationships, be them business or personal, we want to feel remembered; your residents are no different. Ever receive a birthday card from Southwest Airlines?
There are amazing things available in multifamily technology that provide extra virtual staff members dedicated to interacting with future and existing residents. We know the market is no longer based on "build it and they will come", but on "build it and then shout about it from the highest hilltop". Today's market is challenging with prospects and residents having an extensive choice of where to live. The online shadow market is not only alive and well, but dominates the pool of available renters. The need to build a community not only on the ground, but also online is an absolute necessity in finding today's renters and making them yours. The truly creative technology firms have given multifamily owners and managers the ability to reach across the Internet and communicate with the world and their residents on auto-pilot.