At Gulf Stream Isles, a garden-style community in Ft. Myers, Fla., managed by Waterton Residential, prospective residents are encouraged to punch a few numbers from a banner hanging at the property into their cell phone. By sending it to a special, five-digit “short code,” the prospect receives an automated text message within 30 seconds that ticks off Gulf Stream Isles' floor plans, pricing, and general availability. An 800 number linked directly into Gulf Stream's 24-hour call center is included, and the text message urges the prospect to call, right then.

Chicago-based Waterton, which owns and manages nearly 18,000 units nationally, started beta-testing text messaging at a few of its properties this summer, through a partnership with the Internet listing service ApartmentGuide, according to Virginia Love, Waterton's training and marketing director. “Not only are we seeing increased traffic at the communities where we offer this, but those prospects will actually come into the office and show you the text message on their phone, so you know exactly [how] that lead was generated,” Love says. “For so many people in the 18-to-34 demographic, it seems like that's the only way they want to communicate today.”

Love is right. In 2006, U.S. consumers almost doubled their text usage from 2005, sending 158 billion messages, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, a cellular industry trade group. And no wonder: Nearly 96 percent of deployed phones are text capable, and all new phones sold in the States since 2006 support text messaging. Not surprisingly, consumers in the 18-to-34 age group—also the sweet spot among apartment renters—are the biggest users of the technology. “People want to get texts, and they want the phones that have the latest and greatest text options, [and] it's fun,” Love adds.

THE TEXT WAVE Indeed, as text messaging becomes more mainstream in American life, it's becoming the central focus of “mobile marketing,” a new way for advertisers to reach out to people who respond to an ad with a text message. Now, that same trend is sweeping through the apartment industry, as Internet listing services such as ApartmentGuide, ForRent Media Solutions, and Apartment Home Living have begun offering text messaging as a free add-on to their print and online advertising packages.

And apartment owners and managers are responding. For instance, since Austin-based Apartment Home Living started offering text messaging options last spring, more than 1,450 communities have signed up for the service. “We've had a lot of success with it,” says Krista Washbourne, marketing director for Apartment Home Living, who says the service can send photos, too. “It's such a huge trend; people don't want to miss out.”

At Norcross, Ga.-based Apartment Guide, president Arlene Mayfield says nationally, the firm is averaging 17,000 text leads for clients each month. “This is still very, very new in the apartment industry, so obviously, we expect that to increase,” Mayfield says. “But there's no doubt about it: Prospects are using this as a way to find out about apartments.”

THINK BEFORE YOU TEXT Like anything, there are dos and don'ts for implementing your texting strategy. At Apartment Home Living, for instance, Washbourne says clients have achieved greatest success when their signs are close to an area where prospects can stop their cars. “The placement of their collateral is very important,” she says. “If it's close to a stop light or an intersection, they get a lot more text messages.”

Size matters, too. At one loft community in downtown Houston, a 10-foot-tall banner on site helped generate more than 100 text leads per week, says Washbourne. Aside from physical banners and yard signs that display short codes, some Internet listing services are finding success by putting the codes in print ads, or sending Internet-to-phone texts when prospects enter their cell numbers into Web forms.

What you put in your text message is also important. While customized messages aren't yet the norm, some Internet listing services, such as Carrollton, Texas-based ForRent, are already offering the capability. “Depending on their mobile strategy, our advertisers can return up to three customizable texts per keyword,” says vice president Brock MacLean. “They can list everything from this month's specials to community amenities.”

If you are able to customize your texts, observers say that sending a call to action—or incentives—is crucial to getting a response. “Tell them to come in for a tour today and get a $25 gift card to Starbucks,” Love says. “Then, make that offer unique to your text campaign, so you can track where that lead is coming from.”