Excitement filled the offices of Village Green last summer. The company, an apartment owner and operator based in Farmington Hills, Mich., had placed a two-bedroom apartment for rent on eBay, and it seemed like everyone in the office was constantly online to see what the unit was bringing. For employees and hopeful bidders, there was yet another element of drama: Village Green had placed no reserve, or minimum price, on the eBay-listed unit, which meant that someone could rent it for almost anything.
"It's more exciting if there's no reserve, and we're willing to give this away for $99 a month," explains Brian Owen, assistant vice president of communications for Village Green. "That's what created the buzz for us." The buzz to which Owen refers wasn't just confined to the company's offices. Local media picked up on the story, giving Village Green lots of inexpensive publicity for the creative leasing and marketing ploy.
In a world of ever-decreasing attention spans, Village Green's eBay apartment represents a fresh marketing strategy for apartment firms, many of which are going beyond print and electronic listings to experiment with unconventional methods to reach and capture new residents. Some promotions–such as auctioning an apartment for rent–have worked better than others, executives say, but most seem satisfied with their new ventures and the lessons that they learned.
The barter system is alive and well in suburban Washington, D.C., where two apartment firms–AvalonBay Comm-unities of Alexandria, Va., and KSI Management in Centreville, Va.–turned to local pro sports teams to boost their marketing efforts.
AvalonBay paired up with the Washington Mystics, providing rent-free apartments for five months to members of the women's pro basketball team. In return, the WNBA team provided the apartment REIT with elevator signage, signage inside the MCI Center (soon to be renamed the Verizon Center, where the team plays), radio spots, television billboards, elevator posters, and ads in game programs. Leads were limited, but that wasn't the campaign's goal. "It's been more about driving brand awareness and consumer awareness to our product," says Kevin Thompson, senior director of marketing for AvalonBay.
KSI chose D.C. United, providing housing for the major league soccer team at greatly discounted rents. In return, the team included KSI promotions in mailings and e-mails to season ticket holders. "Because we're in an international area, I felt [D.C. United's] season ticket-holder base was a good match for our tax-credit communities," explains Karen A. Kossow, KSI's assistant vice president of sales and marketing. However, the soccer initiative fell short of the company's expectations. "We did not see the results we hoped to," Kossow says.
KSI, which owns and manages both tax-credit and luxury properties in the Washington market, has also tested radio programs, working with talk-radio station WTOP-FM. During the workweek, the station concentrates on news, traffic, and weather, but on the weekends, the programmers change the frequency's format, exploring lifestyle issues instead. Interested in covering apartment life for the area's many renters, WTOP management approached KSI regarding hosting a show. The multifamily company, which did have to pay for the airtime, accepted, and Kossow agreed to be the host.
During the weekly one-hour program, which aired for 17 weeks (early April through mid-August of 2005), Kossow discussed KSI tax-credit and market-rate communities as well the apartment firm's services. To reduce the cost of the air time ($21,250 overall), KSI partnered with company vendors, who joined the radio broadcast to draw attention to their own products and services. "Sponsors paid for the segments they were on," explains Kossow, who says KSI ads that aired during the show also mentioned these key vendors as well. Participants included representatives from Apartments.com, RentNet, and the Washington Post, which talked about their resources for finding an apartment. Other providers–American Express, All Friends Pet Care, Complete Landscaping, and Flexcar–also joined KSI on air.
Without such participation and financial support, KSI says the radio show, called "Apartment Chat," probably wouldn't have been worth the risk. In fact, it doesn't plan to do the show again. "Because the cost ended up being minimal, it was worth trying," Kossow says. "If we had to absorb the whole cost it wouldn't have been worth it. We went out on a limb to try something new."
Whenever unexpected items appear for sale on eBay, the press is all over the story. That's why Village Green's Brian Owen thought the "publicity stunt" of listing a rental apartment on eBay might garner some local attention. He was right. Television stations took notice, with the local Fox affiliate featuring the eBay apartment in a money-saving segment and the ABC affiliate doing a two-minute piece on the auction itself.
Of course, those TV stations didn't discover the apartment auction by themselves. Village Green prepared numerous fliers, bookmarks, and press releases, to alert the media and potential bidders, placing bookmarks with the eBay URL in printed apartment guides, for example.
The expenses were relatively minimal for the effort. The fliers cost $150, and actually listing the apartment on eBay was another $150, adding up to a $300 investment for Village Green. But the company took great care with its selection of photographs for both the apartment and the property itself (Village Green of Troy, Mich.). "We focused our efforts on creating the best possible image and using the best pictures we had," says Owen, who knew the listing and fliers would get lots of attention. "We made the property and unit look like you had to have it."
Six people decided just that. And, after 30 days of bidding, 32 bids, and 2,200 online views of the listing, the two-bedroom apartment in Troy finally went for $730 a month. The unit's actual asking rent was $800, but Village Green was running a $50 special at the time. So, in the end, the lucky renter saved $20 a month and Village Green got countless amounts of free publicity. "It worked out better than anyone expected," Owen says.