Sometimes, apartment living can breed strange bedfellows. Who hasn’t been paired with an oil-and-water roommate? When that happens, the best each side can do is learn to get along. You may even find an unlikely friend in the process.
It’s a fitting analogy for what’s happening between apartment operators and the online apartment review sites where residents post their unabashed opinions about multifamily communities. Once reviled as industry pariahs where haters could unfairly bash a community with negative rants – true or not – online review sites have quickly become the go-to source for prospects looking for the right place to live. That’s why apartment operators, some willingly and some less so, have started to embrace them.
“We have been very skeptical of apartment review sites,” says Jesse Holland, president of Albany, N.Y.-based third-party fee manager Sunrise Management and Consulting, which runs approximately 2,000 units in the area. “That said, we are looking at them. We want to know what’s being said and who’s saying it.”
Holland’s got good reason for keeping an eye on those review sites. Prospects now overwhelmingly turn to online review sites such as Move.com, ApartmentReviews.net, ApartmentRatings.com and Yelp when making a decision about where to rent, according to Houston-based J Turner Research’s Trends in Resident Technology and Communications Preferences 2012 report. More than 74 percent of respondents said they used review sites, and that those review sites had a significant impact on their decision to rent an apartment at a particular community.
“The use of ratings and reviews sites as part of the apartment search and research process [is] immensely popular,” the report concludes.
Writing on the Wall
Indeed, part of the rise of online reviews for apartments has come within the broader proliferation of review sites for finding everything from a good family restaurant to a good family therapist. Before that larger trend emerged, sites such as ApartmentRatings.com, an early entrant that focused exclusively on apartments, were arguably ahead of their time. But that site in particular, which was used by residents more than any other site in J Turner’s research, has often been viewed by apartment pros as a clearinghouse for unchecked resident rants.
“A lot of times, we find the majority of the people who post to those sites are the ones who have an ax to grind,” Holland says. “Often, that one disgruntled person posts several times.”
Whether those reviews are cut into the fabric of the Internet with an ax or not, consumers across all industries today want to see what others have to say about a product or service before making a final buying decision, whether for $10 worth of take out, a $100 pair of running shoes, or a $50,000 car.
That’s caused other apartment operators to reconsider how they view–and leverage–online reviews.
“There are a lot of apartment companies that believe these platforms are only for dissatisfied renters that are merely looking to vent their anger and frustration,” says Stephanie Haefner, vice president of interactive marketing at Philadelphia-based Madison Apartment Group, which owns 19,000 units “We’re not one of them. We view the feedback and commentary on social media and ratings sites as a vehicle for engaging with our residents.”
That said, engaging with residents through online review sites can be tricky, and keeping an eye on who’s saying what about you and your communities takes time. But Haefner says committing to do both is key to remaining relevant in your prospect’s search.
“If my community has consistently positive reviews, and the prospect’s second choice doesn’t, you’ve got to believe that’s a positive for choosing us,” Haefner says. “That makes us the first and only choice.”
Madison recently instituted what it calls its Rate, Review and Recommend program, where it actively encourages residents to post their opinions on Facebook, Yelp, ApartmentRatings.com and Foursquare, while distributing traditional resident satisfaction surveys at key service dates, such as when a resident moves in, and when a work order is completed. It plans to integrate the results of those weekly surveys, performed by Lutherville, Md.-based SatisFacts, onto its ApartmentRatings.com community pages to provide a fuller picture of life at its communities to prospects.
Perhaps not surprisingly, as Madison has taken more of a proactive role in soliciting reviews from its residents, its residents have generated more reviews, most of which have been favorable.
“We are continually encouraging all of our residents to share their experience with us and others online,” Haefner says. “Since we’ve launched the program, we’ve seen an increase in reviews, most of which have been very positive.”
At Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Village Green Apartments, which operates 40,000 units nationally, more is also better when it comes to online reviews. “We routinely remind residents and prospects to leave reviews,” comments Jim Elliott, assistant vice president of communications at the firm. “The more reviews residents leave, the more positive reviews we get.”
Operators say that in order to use online reviews to your advantage, you’ve got to take the time to look at what residents are saying, put the effort in to respond to each and every comment, and proactively claim your properties’ pages on Yelp, ApartmentRatings.com, Google Places and the like.
Each company contacted for this article said it designates a senior employee to monitor what’s being said on review sites, and most take advantage of automated notification apps, such as Google Alerts.
Others are considering customized reputation management software. Many leverage ApartmentRatings.com Manager Center, which sends an alert when a review comes in, and allows operators to reply as the property’s bona fide manager. It all comes down to making sure you’ve got your ears–and eyes--glued to the digital sounding board that is your computer’s screen.
“It is essential to consistently monitor and respond to reviews — both positive and negative,” says Alexis Vance, national marketing director at Phoenix-based Alliance Residential Company, which operates 50,000 units in 15 states, and specifically trains its employees to engage with residents using social media and review sites. Always having the right reply, however, can be tricky, especially when a post is negative or even egregiously untrue.
“We respond to those concerns publicly by immediately posting a response,” says Village Green’s Elliott. “If we know who that resident or prospect is, we may also contact them directly via email or phone.”
Vance also likes to take the conversation off-line when it comes to unfavorable reviews. “The negative ones should get a request to discuss the matter directly, over the phone,” she says. How ever you respond to negative reviews, though, pros caution that you should never get in a back-and-forth argument with a resident online.
Yelp and ApartmentRatings.com also have options for community managers to register and dispute unwarranted posts with the site itself, though actually getting comments removed is still challenging in he said-she said situations.
“Even when you flag a review, it’s rare that a review site takes action, in our experience, because it’s so hard to determine who’s telling the truth,” says T. J. Rubin, founder of Chicago-based Fulton Grace Realty, a third-party management and brokerage firm. “The best course of action is to try to contact the negative reviewer directly - with extreme caution and a polite demeanor - to work toward resolving their issue. They’ll appreciate your attempt to reach out to them, and who knows, they might even revise or remove the review. In our experience, it’s much easier dealing with the actual reviewer than the review site.”
Give credit to your prospects and residents, too: If someone posts something that’s completely off base or markedly more negative than your other reviews, they’ll likely see through it.
“Today’s renters are Internet savvy,” says Haefner. For Sunrise’s Holland, it’s about making sure there are enough positive reviews to balance out any haters who may point their ire at you. “We try to encourage people to look at the big picture,” Holland says. “If the overall comments are generally fair and honest, I believe people will give the one-off situation less credibility.”
MFE Joe Bousquin is a contributing editor based in Sacramento, Calif.