One of the newest technologies in the apartment business today is also one of the simplest, at least by name. But using Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, to boost your bottom line is still a complex equation when it comes to multifamily management. One thing's for sure: RSS has hit the 'Net running by enabling property owners to notify prospects within hours of the perfect apartment becoming available. Want a garden-style, two-bedroom, one-bath rental on Maiden Lane for $1,500 a month? Enter those search criteria into a Web site such as Apartments.com, and an RSS "feed" will alert you as soon as it hits the database.
"It's a terrific second channel to get your content out to users, in addition to having listings on your Web site," says Jeanne Anderson, director of product development at Apartments.com, which started pushing RSS feeds to subscribers in 2005. "Now, you can have an even more immediate relationship with residents, who can arrange to get your information directly."
Observers say the tell-me-now technology also has the potential to change how business gets done inside apartment firms. "At the moment, there's more potential for us to apply [RSS] on an internal basis to streamline our own business processes," says Brad Woodard, director of Web development at Chicago-based AMLI Residential, which manages more than 28,000 units in 75 apartment communities nationwide. An internal RSS feed might notify a manager that today's work order at a property across town–or across the country–was completed, or that all outstanding leases have been signed.
"Using RSS for availability listings just scratches the surface," says Jeremy Bencken, co-founder of Apartment
Ratings.com, which launched an RSS feed for users of its property-rating Web site last May. "It's just as applicable to the corporation as it is to the consumer."
Content by Request
Not familiar with RSS yet? Don't worry. According to a recent study from research firm Ipsos Insight and Yahoo!, only 12 percent of all Internet users know RSS exists. Even fewer–just 4 percent–knowingly use it. But 27 percent of users receive RSS feeds, whether they know it or not. If you've ever personalized a "My Yahoo!" or "My MSN" page to receive customized content, such as sports scores or the latest celebrity dish, chances are that you received that information via an RSS feed.
Until now, news sites and blogs have been the main proponents of RSS, using it to alert readers when new content is available. A subscriber to an RSS feed on WashingtonPost.com, for example, might have all Washington Redskins headlines pushed to her My Yahoo! page, where she can click on them to be redirected to the newspaper's site. Of course, she could receive multiple feeds from various sites, and only actually visit the Web pages that interest her at that moment.
"In the old world of the Internet, everybody was trying to control the data," says Craig Donato, CEO of Oodle.com, which indexes classified ads, including apartment listings from Apartments.com, ApartmentRatings.com and a wide range of newspapers, and makes them searchable from one spot. "There's a kind of mind shift occurring, where it's now about getting prospects to your front door."
Connect to RSS
Signing up for RSS, however, is still a bit clunky. First, users need an "aggregator," or reader, where content can be sent, such as a My Yahoo! page. Then, they have to subscribe to each Web site's individual feed, usually indicated by an orange box labeled "RSS" or "XML." Clicking on that box typically produces a new window of raw code. Users must then cut and paste that window's address back into their RSS readers for the feed to work. While some services are working on streamlining those steps, nearly half of all would-be subscribers abandon the set-up process, according to the Ipsos study.
"I don't know if my mother will ever subscribe to RSS," Donato concedes. And other tech-savvy execs still aren't convinced RSS is a must-have in the multifamily realm. "My gut feeling is that it's an interesting technology, but I'm not sure it's really relevant to the apartment industry," says Mike Mueller, founder of Realty DataTrust, whose VaultWare software provides firms with real-time availability and pricing information. "The problem with sending out a feed is that by the time the renter actually reads it, the unit could be taken. With our software, when they hit the 'check availability' button, they know in real time what's actually available."
Advocates say despite those issues, RSS has big potential. "There are really two distinct uses for RSS right now," Donato says. "One is distributing RSS feeds to consumers, which is still pretty minimal. The other is using RSS to syndicate your content to search engines and other partners who are going to drive users to your site, which is much more prevalent as a business-to-business use."
The good news is that developing that kind of feed isn't difficult, nor should it be exceedingly costly. "Anyone with a computer can publish RSS, and it doesn't cost any more than any other form of Web programming," says Stephen Lefkovits of Joshua Tree Consulting in Oakland, Calif. If you do make the RSS plunge though, remember, your feed is only as good as the information behind it, and it better be right before you unleash it on the world.
"The last thing you want is for invalid pricing information to get distributed," says AMLI's Woodard. "If someone suddenly gets an apartment for $9.88 a month instead of $988, that's when the alarm bells start going off."
–Joe Bousquin is a freelance writer in Newcastle, Calif.