With state budget woes preventing new spending on college dormitories, off-campus housing has become the BMOC (big man on campus) when it comes to housing students.
No longer a niche sector, off-campus student housing continues to benefit from the growth in the number of students, as evidenced by a recent National Multi Housing Council study that shows a 20 percent jump in freshman applications between 2008 and 2010. Unfortunately, the marketing of student housing hasn't kept up with its maturation. Many student apartment properties still focus their marketing on the physical attributes of the community. But proximity to campus and photos of the property's pool, game room, and computer center only go so far. Today's students want to know the kind of “community” they will be living in, so it is important to promote activities and a learning environment in more detail than for conventional apartments.
Today's student housing market isn't split simply between undergraduate and graduate students. Within the undergraduate universe, there are meaningful differences between the housing preferences of sophomores and seniors. And freshmen, if they aren't required to live on campus, are a market all their own.
More importantly, though, at any large university—those with an enrollment of, say, 10,000 or more—students tend to find their comfort zone in sub-groups: transfer students, international students, athletes. Successful firms understand how to reach these subgroups with both specific marketing plans and on-site events that cater to and serve their specialized needs.
Indeed, the marketing of student housing is its own art form. An effective marketing program is tailored to meet the needs of the numerous submarkets within any college community and implements specific ways to target those student segments. Here are some of the communities you can target—and how.
International students: Since international students tend to pay their rent in advance, they can be a desirable group to target. If the university you serve has a sizable international student population, your marketing plan should include bilingual literature, as should your website. Consider hiring bilingual leasing agents or property managers. Once these students sign the lease, find ways to cater to their special needs. For example, provide a weekly one-hour class where foreign students can become more accustomed to speaking English, or provide specialty foods at your social gatherings to make them feel comfortable. In other words, think creatively.
Transfer students: These are students who may not know anyone else at that school. And they often must find a place to live off-campus because there is only housing for freshmen on campus. How do you make these students feel welcome and ease their transition? Your website should reach out to these potential residents, giving them information about the college and the area that returning students already have.
Community college students: Even though these students are often from the surrounding cities, many of them still want to live close to campus, away from their parents, and be active in the college lifestyle. And most importantly, these are not nine-month residents like traditional four-year university students; they're often year-round residents. Don't forget to market to them, too, by reminding them that they can have their cake and eat it, too, by living near the college—at your property—as well as near a job. Given that the average age of community college students is 24, compared with 19 for traditional four-year college students, many will have to shuttle to places of employment in addition to the campus.
Conscientious students: Consider “green” students who place high value on environmental issues. You can target them by organizing a “green challenge” at your property that rewards the floor that conserves the most resources, has the highest recycling percentage, or has the cleanest surroundings. Invite an environmentalist to judge the contest, and provide free pizza or a donation to a charity chosen by the winner.
Social students: The “echo boom” students are the most socially networked generation ever. Think of how many events you could build around social activities to develop a friendly persona for your property and a community of connected students. And be sure to highlight your property's sense of community in your advertising. Promote your pool parties, marathon dance sessions, and movie nights, and watch as interest in your community increases from a higher caliber of resident.
Whatever you do, make your marketing “real.” Remember, this generation is proud of declaring that it doesn't like to be marketed to. Hugh Hodge, senior vice president of Atlanta-based Ambling Cos., says his firm uses photos of actual students who live at its properties in company advertising. “We put their photos on the side of a bus; they really enjoy being able to say, ”˜Yeah, that's my friend who lives here.'”
JIM ARBURY is vice president of student housing for the National Multi Housing Council and directs its National Student Housing Council.