Student housing operators are shifting the bulk of their marketing budgets to social media and focusing on popular social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. They’ve realized their target audience is a heavy user of social media and responds well to social media marketing.

“With this generation, you have to make a social connection,” says Judd Bobilin, a partner with Chance Partners, an Atlanta-based student housing developer.

Ten years ago, student housing operators spent the majority of their marketing budgets on direct mail, according to Bill Bayless, CEO of American Campus Communities, based in Austin, Texas. Flyers, brochures, and letters were the staples of the student housing operator’s marketing tool kit. The expense involved in printing these materials was considerable.

Today, however, Facebook and Twitter, along with company and property websites, have taken precedence. And the expense entailed in a strong social media campaign is a fraction of the cost of a traditional campaign.

“As the market has evolved, we have evolved as well,” Bayless says. “We have absolutely shifted our marketing budget to online activities, and social media is the primary way that we market and communicate with residents.”

E-Mail Becoming Passé
The decision to focus on social media marketing makes sense, operators contend. Over the past 10 years, the number of students using the Internet and social media has increased substantially.

A decade ago, the amount of money student housing operators dedicated to their websites didn’t even come close to the amount they spent on direct mail. Most student housing developers and operators were still trying to figure out the best ways to leverage their websites, and they were also unsure how students and prospective residents used the Internet.

A 2002 study from the Pew Research Center found that 86 percent of college students used the Internet, compared with 59 percent of the general population. At the time, the most popular online social activity was forwarding messages to friends or family via e-mail.

Today, the organization estimates that nearly 100 percent of students use the Internet. Many students even consider e-mail passé, and the most popular online social activities are posting on Facebook and tweeting on Twitter.

If you think back 10 years ago, it was important to have an online presence, but social media was still in its infancy. In fact, Facebook didn’t launch until 2004, and most companies, regardless of the sector, considered Facebook to be personal rather than business oriented.

Today, however, companies in the student housing space must participate in social media to engage their customers, according to Miles Orth, executive vice president and COO at Philadelphia-based Campus Apartments. It’s worth noting, however, that most student housing operators link their social media efforts directly back to their company or property websites.

Facebook Fans
In particular, Campus Apartments is a fan of Facebook. “We’re focused on Facebook, and we leverage it in two ways: resident engagement and brand awareness,” Orth explains.

For example, Campus Apartments recently used social media to reach out to residents and potential residents. The company hosts an annual pool party at its community in Tucson, Ariz., and it uses social media to publicize the event.

“The party received 1,500 RSVPs on Facebook, and it was shared with 6,000 people,” Orth notes. “Social media allows us to engage in ways that would cost us tens of thousands of dollars if we used traditional marketing methods.”

Orth notes that Campus Apartments has cut its marketing budget overall, spending less money per bed and per unit, but that it continues to invest in social media marketing. “By leveraging social media, we have been able to dramatically reduce marketing costs,” he says. “It’s been a humongous change for us. If we were to rank marketing tools, we would rank social media as No. 1.”