At the Broadband Properties Summit in Dallas earlier this year, attendees heard the kind of story that keeps property managers up at night. During a session on the future of multifamily technology, panelists were discussing the rising trend of user-generated content about apartment communities popping up on the Web. Then Ashley Glover, president of Velocity, the utility and billing division of multifamily software firm RealPage, chimed in with a real zinger.
"A client of mine entered her property's name into Google, and the first thing that came up was a resident's YouTube video of cockroaches in the kitchen," Glover said. "That was the very first search result under the community's name."
Believe it or not, the experience of Glover's client is hardly an isolated incident. The popular YouTube site alone lists page after page of videos documenting roaches in apartments, and users often list property and firm names along with their postings. As more and more residents harness the power of the Internet to give their opinions about the places they live, unvarnished, uncensored, and often unflattering content about multifamily properties is increasingly showing up online, and chances are some of the properties that are being "reviewed" could be yours.
What's in a Name?
While other industries, such as consumer electronics, have for years engaged in online reputation management (ORM) to influence user-generated content and lessen the negative impact of that content on their brands, the multifamily space is just now waking up to this trend.
"A lot of companies, ours included, are struggling right now with reputation management," says John Selindh, vice president of marketing at Houston-based Camden Property Trust, owner of more than 62,000 units nationally, which is currently evaluating how to tackle the issue in 2009. One possibility: It's considering how to use the results of its internal customer satisfaction surveys to quantitatively and proactively present the company's resident experiences online. "As we go into budgets for next year, we're looking at how much we want to allocate to the management of our reputation online and what the upside is versus the expense."
One of the most vexing problems for companies facing these issues is that user-generated content often scores high in search engine results, even above a company's own site. While search engine companies closely guard the exact reasons why as proprietary trade secrets, online marketers say simply optimizing a site's search phrases?known as search engine optimization, or SEO?is no longer sufficient to assure that your site always appears at the top of your search results.
"A lot of Web 2.0 properties, such as blogs, Facebook, and YouTube are very search-engine friendly," says Brad McCormick, executive vice president of digital communications at New York-based public relations firm Porter Novelli, which advises clients on reputation management. "So when people post stuff on those sites, they're much more likely to come up on a Google search. You can't just optimize your own site. You've got to engage in reputation management, too."
So what is reputation management? It starts with tracking what's said about you online, and then deciding how?or if?you want to respond to it. Then, it's about creating and generating positive content about your company to help push that cockroach off the page and drowning out the Nasty Nellies with your own, upbeat message. Most importantly, it's about engaging with your customers to sing your praises for you?the best advertising your money has never been able to buy.
"Basically it's understanding?and accepting?that you no longer have full control over the perception of your brand," says Andy Beal, founder of Trackur.com, a Web-based tool that allows firms to know who is talking about them online. "But that doesn't mean you can't do anything about it. Reputation management is the process of listening to the conversation, joining the conversation in terms of creating your own content, and then managing the conversation when you see something negative show up on Google so that you keep your good name."
If that sounds like a hassle, and you think you should be able to sue people who trash talk about you online, go ahead; it's a free country. But people who have tried say it's a waste of time, and the Communications Decency Act protects owners of sites that provide a platform for such content. Just ask Heather Lutze, now an independent technology consultant who formerly worked for John Scherer a.k.a. The Video Professor. In 2007, Scherer tried to sue 100 users for posting negative comments online about the way his company charged customers' credit cards, to no avail. "You can definitely hire a lawyer and go after them," Lutze says. "But we tried, and free speech won every time."
Taking Back Your Good Name
To start engaging in the Web conversation about your brand, you first need to know what's being said about you. You can do that with monitoring tools like Beal's, which costs $200 a month and is optimized with filtering capabilities. Big social media marketing firms, such as Nielsen's BuzzMetrics and Radian6 will do the job for you as well, though you'll likely pay upwards of $5,000 a month for their services. But they'll not only monitor what's being said, they have staff who are trained to identify what content should be responded to, and how. While that may be desirable in some cases?if a resident is complaining about a work order that never got completed, for instance?companies closer to the apartment industry [Joe: code WW: like who?] say outsourcing your responses to resident gripes might not be the best strategy in comparison to an onsite face-to-face response.
Or, you can use the simple "alerts" tools on Google, Yahoo! and MSN.com, all of which are free, and monitor your reputation yourself. Just set up an alert to look for your company's name, and the tool will e-mail you each time it finds you mentioned on the Web. Just remember, if you set it up, you've got to have someone within your organization who stays on top of it.
That's exactly what Eric Brown, founder of Urbane Apartments, an owner and operator of 14 garden and loft communities with 325 units in and around Royal Oak, Mich., does. "We use Google Alerts; we have stuff set up on Twitter and Yelp; and we keep an eye on ApartmentRatings.com, too," says Brown. "We just try to listen for what's being said and participate in the conversation."
And while Brown, a former senior vice president at Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Village Green Cos., acknowledges that the size of his company allows him to monitor his reputation in ways that would challenge larger firms, he also says he has 100 percent occupancy, a waiting list of potential residents, and gets $200 to $300 more per unit than his competition. "I know the big guys are going to say I'm small and that they can't do this on a big scale," Brown says. "But I would counter that by saying, I'm in Royal Oak, Michigan, and have you looked at the Michigan economy lately? We're full, and we're getting more rent than the guy across the street." Indeed, corporate size shouldn't be an issue to simple online reputation management efforts per se. Camden's Selindh says the much larger apartment company has experimented with these online alert tools, as well, though he notes comprehensive, in-house monitoring would be cost prohibitive.
Brown says one successful tactic he uses is to respond to resident issues himself. "If somebody's upset that the boiler went out in their building last night, I call or e-mail and say, 'I'm sorry; that shouldn't have happened. What can I do to make it right?'" Brown says. "I've found as long as you show up and say, 'Hey, how can we help?' you'll get a positive reaction. It's actually an opportunity to turn that person into an evangelist for your company."
Urbane has also created its own Facebook and MySpace pages, and encourages its residents to comment on its internal "Urbane Lobby" social pages. A Google search on its name returns its own Web site, other user-generated content created by the company, and listings of its properties on third-party sites. And that, along with the company's relative success in its market, is no accident. "We're very fortunate in that regard, and I really think it has to do with this whole social media wave," Brown says. "There's no question that the way the public is buying things today is much different. And I think we're seeing changes right before our eyes."
Contributing Editor Joe Bousquin is based in Sacramento, Calif.
Keep your credibility with three easy steps.
Use free or low-cost tools such as Google Alerts and Trackur to find out what's being said about you. Knowing is half the battle.
Decide which content should be responded to, but only do so in a professional, positive way. If it's a resident, ask what you can do to help them solve their problem. Doing so in a public forum shows prospects that you care.
3. Create and encourage.
Create your own, positive content on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Ask happy residents if they'd consider posting a positive comment online, but don't dictate that they do so.