Remember the craze in multifamily Web design just a few years ago that had residents and prospects alike splashing onto your home page to be treated to luxurious lifestyle imagery, soothing spa music, and pithy tag lines? Virginia Love does. “We all had websites that said, ‘Welcome to a world of peace and serenity,’?” recalls the vice president of training and marketing for Chicago-based Waterton Residential, which manages 17,000 units nationally. “Now, people want to get onto your website and immediately know how much an apartment is and when they can move in. When it comes to information, you need to give it to them right off the bat.”
Otherwise, it’s off they go, creating a bounce rate—a unique visitor who navigates to a website and then leaves without taking any further measurable action. For transaction-oriented Web platforms (think Amazon and iTunes), bounce rates are a critical measure of marketing success that indicates whether a customer is making a purchase and provides insight into how buying habits are specifically influenced by Web architecture, design, and branding. The conversion from website visitor to bona fide customer has, thus, always been closely linked to bounce rates.
“You need a clear idea of what you want to accomplish with your website,” explains Chris Brasher, marketing manager for Provo, Utah–based Property Solutions, a prospect and resident portal and payments provider to the multifamily industry. “Do you want to do marketing? Generate guest cards? Do you want leads? Saturate the prospect with your brand? These are all different things that might compete with each other from a design and functionality standpoint.”
At Waterton, Love tracks bounce rates for all incoming traffic, further delineating the data between residents and prospects and whether a visitor is using a mobile device or a desktop/laptop. The firm typically sees mobile bounce rates of 30 percent for traffic to the firm’s resident portals and mobile bounce rates of approximately 50 percent for prospect websites. That puts Waterton squarely in the industry average, according to Property Solutions data across Web platforms for more than 500 multifamily clients. For incoming desktop visitors, bounce rates are typically half those of mobile.
Still, although bounce rates remain a revered metric, the value of those numbers from a business perspective has diminished, particularly as companies perpetuate their value proposition across multiple platforms.
The reason bounce rates tend to trend highly among mobile users is rooted in the evolution of smart phone functionality—and it might not necessarily be a bad thing. “Mobile bounce rates are higher because consumers using smart phones are expecting to quickly access a specific type of information with very little navigation,” says Dan Hobin, CEO of Bend, Ore.–based G5, which specializes in online marketing solutions for the multifamily and other industries. Hobin says time spent on a site, particularly as it correlates to actionable items and bounce rates, is increasingly becoming a more valuable metric for apartment Internet marketers than bounce rates on their own. “How long is it until they fill out a guest card? How long until they have called a unique phone number for an appointment? That information can be a lot more powerful.”
Delivering such actionable items, particularly to time-sensitive smart phone browsers, is quickly becoming an essential characteristic of apartment firm Web design and functionality. “You simply can’t force mobile users to hunt for information,” Love says. “Consequently, we’ve stripped both resident and prospect sites down a lot to give our portal visitors what they’re looking for and not bury them in the minutiae. We want to get straight to the point: Lease an apartment; pay your rent; make a service request.”
Checking the Pulse
Delivering initial screen content to Web visitors is going to increase bounce rates. An apartment prospect looking for the phone number of a community he wants to tour is understandably going to bounce when that information is succinctly provided on the splash page he’s been directed to.
“There might be cases when high bounce rates aren’t a cause for concern,” says Lynette Hegeman, vice president of marketing for Atlanta-based apartment owner/manager Gables Residential. “For example, most mobile traffic is for contact information and availability, so those types of content pages might have a higher bounce rate for search users when they find what they’re looking for right on that page. Google and other search engines often take users to the exact pages they’re looking for, as well, which could in turn reflect a higher bounce rate.”
Indeed, sophisticated apartment operators say that bounce rates—like a pulse or heart rate—provide no information in and of themselves. Instead, they’re a symptomatic data metric that points to changing variables elsewhere on a multifamily Web platform. “Our bounce rate from organic searches from search engines is low, around 20 percent, but the bounce rate from direct traffic is around 50 percent. Why? Because most Gables employees have Gables.com as their home page and tend to navigate off of it when they use the Web, creating a bounce,” Hegeman says.
The apartment sector is also finding that bounce rates are affected by referring source and apartment pricing and availability. Bounce rates resulting from incoming traffic from social media sites such as Facebook tend to be high. While the reason behind social boomeranging is still unknown, social media survey evidence points again to how information on a website correlates with user expectations. According to an ongoing study on social media habits of apartment residents by Houston-based J Turner Research, the No. 1 reason apartment denizens hit a social media page is to look for community event information, typically not a top item for inclusion on the splash pages of resident and prospect portals.
And while bounce rates remain a revered metric among the transactional e-commerce set, the limited supply of units in any given apartment community makes them less important as a measure of business success. Simply put, bounce rates are likely to jump in tandem with pricing and occupancy increases as Web visitors self-qualify out of the transaction. “You don’t want to rent to everyone out there,” says Brasher. “Your website acts as your No. 1 filter. If someone comes to your website and is not the ideal prospect and they create a bounce, that’s OK.”
Chris Wood is a former senior editor of Multifamily Executive and a freelance writer based in Sonoma, Calif.