If you are reading this article on a desktop computer, you’re already way behind the curve. Even laptops—and for that matter traditional keyboards—are likely to become things of the past as the focus of Internet development increasingly moves to mobile phones and wireless handheld devices. According to ongoing research by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Internet and American Life project, a survey group of Internet activists, journalists, and technologists says keyboards, laptops, and traditional PC-centric online interfaces are likely to become relics by as early as 2020 as mobile phones become the primary means by which people access the Internet. The good news is that—for once—the multifamily industry seems to have already embraced the bleeding edge of mobile technologies. Companies, including ForRent.com, MyNewPlace.com, UDR, and Spherexx.com, have already developed mobile-ready multifamily Web sites and even iPhone apps to extend the reach of the apartment industry into the mobile arena.
“The idea is to capture consumers in anyway that they would conceivably communicate, search, or interact with multifamily apartment owners,” says Brock MacLean, senior vice president of national sales and development for Norfolk, Va.-based For Rent Media Solutions, which launched version 2.0 of its iPhone and iPod touch application in April. “As an industry, we have invested so much into our Web sites, but the fact of the matter is that consumers are interacting well outside of that medium.”
Indeed, a January 2009 study by Reston, Va.-based digital media research firm comScore indicates that more than 63 million Americans use their mobile devices to access the Internet for news and information. The frequency of Internet access among mobile users is additionally on the rise. According to comScore’s research, 35 percent of those accessing the Web via mobile devices are doing so everyday, more than doubling the amount of daily users from 2008.
ForRent’s iPhone app, which saw more than 3,000 downloads from the Apple iTunes service in its first week, provides users with a GPS and zoom-powered mapping view of nearby available apartments and powers up displays with floor plans, pictures, and video. Users can save search results and obviously contact the property directly via iPhone. “We wanted to be sure that we had some things that are intriguing for consumers,” MacLean says. “You want to be user-friendly, but you need to include features like video to drive eyeballs to the property.”
Revamping existing Web sites to handle mobile-friendly browsing is also a key strategy for those attempting extreme handheld outreach. San Francisco-based Internet listing service (ILS) MyNewPlace launched MyNewPlace for Mobile in May and will feature search functionality across its listings; multimedia and photo-detailed listings; mapped property locations; and click-to-call functionality so users don’t even have to find a number to the leasing office. “Up until now, searching for an apartment meant being stuck in front of the computer,” says Mark Moran, MyNewPlace’s vice president of marketing. “Now consumers have all of the information they need to find a new apartment right in the palm of their hand.”
Leading the Way
While ForRent and MyNewPlace stream existing ILS content for all clients via the new mobile platforms, Dallas-based Spherexx is designing mobile-specific and even iPhone-specific Web sites for a range of multifamily companies, and is enabling mapping, video, floor plans, price-checking, and even concession coupon delivery over its mobile platforms. Spherexx’s client list includes multifamily heavyweights such as Riverstone Residential, Lincoln Property Co., ZOM Residential, Greystar Real Estate Partners, and Sterling American. Company president and CEO Becca Wilson hopes Spherexx will help those firms tap into the Gen Y demographic. “There are over 2.5 million iPhone users in the United States,” Wilson says. “Half of them are under the age of 30 and almost half of them have incomes over $100,000.”
ForRent is likewise excited about the Gen Y prospecting and lead generation that mobile apps afford multifamily and is eager to continue leveraging wireless platforms as they evolve. “It fits in with our 18 to 35 renter demographic,” MacLean says, “and it’s extending the reach of content in a way that we didn’t even contemplate two years ago.”
And just in case you were wondering, the use of text messaging as a marketing and resident communication vehicle is still seeing adoption across multifamily. So much so that Andres Lemos, principal of Miami-based multifamily marketing and investment firm Miami Waterview Properties, has also become an equity partner and COO of Blunami, a consumer-focused, text message-based loyalty program looking to expand into multifamily. In addition to offering opt-in text message marketing that provides information on availability and pricing as well as a simultaneous lead e-mail to property management, Lemos says texting offers additional opportunities when it comes to communicating with existing residents, too.
“When you want to let your residents know what is going on as fast as possible, text messages do it,” Lemos says. “It’s ideal for reducing overhead and powering operational efficiencies.” And whether text messaging and larger mobile apps are used to reduce on-site cost, promote and market communities, or recruit and retain new residents, Lemos says the cell phone, as impersonal as it might seem, offers new opportunities at establishing rapport.
“The best thing about mobile is the adoption among the introverted people who would otherwise shy away from walking into a leasing office for any reason,” Lemos explains. “It enables a relationship, a customer-service type application, and a very hands-on tool for property management.”
Or thumbs-on, as the case may be.
Smile and Dial
Mobile phone apps promise new avenues of outreach to a wide range of demographics for three reasons.
1. It’s Hot. More than 63 million people use mobile devices to connect to the Internet, and 2.5 million people use iPhone alone. Creating mobile applications, or at least retooling existing Web sites for mobile browser friendliness, is key to reaching this on-the-move demographic.
2. It’s Short and Sweet. Despite vast improvements in mobile functionality, remember that the mobile audience is interfacing with a device that is relatively the size of a bar of soap or smaller. Maximize multimedia opportunities such as video, photos, and floor plans, but keep the long, scrollable romance paragraphs to a minimum.
3. You Can Reach Out and Connect. Looking to reach out to Gen Y professionals or the corporate executive demographic? Then mobile is for you. From the iPhone-toting hipster to the Blackberry-faithful CEO, mobile-based multifamily platforms get information out to a wide range of residents and prospects any time, any place.