Credit: Courtesy Crescent Resources
Credit: Courtesy Crescent Resources

Figuring out exactly what Gen Y wants is the Rosetta Stone of 21st-century marketing. And some early efforts are starting to crack the code.

The Boston Consulting Group recently surveyed 4,000 Gen Yers to try to understand what guides their consumer behavior. First and foremost, the survey found that this generation consumes media very differently from their parents: 42 percent of them watch television on their computers, versus just 18 percent of non–Gen Yers, for instance.

Gen Y is much more engaged in online activities, like rating products and services, than other generations, and they’re much more likely to favor brands that have Facebook pages and mobile websites: 33 percent of them said so, versus 17 percent of non–Gen Yers. The survey also found that nearly twice as many have smart phones as older folks (59 percent versus 33 percent). In fact, 53 percent said that they use social media when exploring a new brand—and are thus highly susceptible to digital word-of-mouth.

Never Too Early to Reach Out

To see how this market research can be turned into action—before you even have an apartment to show—consider the strategy used by Charlotte, N.C.–based developer Crescent Resources at a student housing project in Austin, Texas. The new, 167-unit Circle West Campus has 476 beds and was 92 percent pre-leased—even though renters were unable to physically tour a unit as the property underwent its final stages of construction. This meant Crescent had to carefully showcase its Circle brand using only marketing materials online and in its leasing office.

“We had to provide the students with visual representations of the amenity areas and units and also create the experience of community in the temporary leasing office,” says Cristina Carrion, community manager at Circle West Campus. “We show off our style on Pinterest and tweet contests, notifications, events, shout-outs, and more on Twitter. And we provide an updated calendar of events and stay in touch with the students on the Circle blog.”

The Circle West website features Facebook plug-ins on every page, and its Pinterest and Twitter accounts are active as well. The strategy includes appealing to Gen Y’s obsession with technology by giving virtual tours of floor plans via iPads.

Communication + Unity = Community

Crescent also coaxed students’ desire for community by asking them to “Live in the Circle,” and by tempting their wild sides with coasters and beer cozies handed out and left in nearby bars.

This focus on the hyper-local can pay dividends, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in March. The study found that Gen Y has a much stronger sense of, and desire for, community than generations that came before them.

When AvalonBay unveiled its AVA brand earlier this year in Seattle and San Francisco, it generated a high level of traffic through a marketing campaign that’s highly “social,” according to Kurt Conway, senior vice president of brand strategy and marketing for the firm. And now the company is bringing that same strategy to AVA H Street in Washington, D.C.

“Through its location in the heart of the H Street district and the social spaces of the community—which serve as an extension of a resident’s apartment—and through amenities in the lobby loft and outdoor courtyard, [we’ll offer] places to both ‘chill’ and socialize,” Conway says. “We’ll also reach the target audience through online listing services, blogs, social media, and local outreach to the H Street market.”

With a heavy focus on local events, the marketing for H Street will be consistent with that of the rest of the AVA brand. For instance, at its AVA Queen Anne development in Seattle, AvalonBay hosted a rock concert and offered those attending a goodie bag of branded snacks, such as organic granola bars.

The aim is the same in D.C. “We’ll be integrating into the neighborhood, participating in events like the H Street festival and co-sponsoring events with local merchants,” Conway says.

Crescent’s branding efforts were of a similar mind. To appeal to Gen Y’s desire for a sense of community, Crescent plastered its leasing office windows with mock movie posters that mimicked actual movie posters, reading “Now Leasing” as the title.

“It was clear that the market was extremely competitive and that we had to promote our brand by using an emotional connection to create a strong memory point with our target demographic,” says Jonathan Denton, senior regional manager for Circle West property manager Greystar Student Living.