The resident at the St. George Manor apartment community in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego wasn’t happy. With her water suddenly cut off, she took to Facebook to vent. “She posted on our Facebook page, saying, ‘What’s going on? I’ve got no water!’?” says Melissa Deen, marketing director for San Diego–based Sunrise Management, which runs 9,000 units across Southern California and Arizona, including those at St. George.
Within minutes, the community’s manager posted a response to this effect: “We were just told by the water company that there’s been a temporary shutoff and that service should be restored within a few hours.”
Sunrise’s experience is a textbook example of how to do social media right. The original message could have elicited a defensive response from a community manager. Instead, with training and practice, Sunrise was able to reply with just the right response.
One key reason behind Sunrise’s success is its assigning of one senior, on-site employee to be responsible for all content on the community’s Facebook page. That creates a dedicated, experienced online presence, as well as accountability for what gets posted. The exchange on Sunrise’s page represents another lesson for operators: When things go wrong, share—don’t hide—your experience.
“You have to be quick to respond, and be open, honest, and direct,” Deen says. “Give them some response, whatever it is; let them know you’re looking into the problem.”
Real Connections Needed
Here’s a news flash about social media for apartment operators: It’s not just about how many “likes” you have on Facebook. Instead, it’s about connecting with your residents (and, hence, their networks) to make sure your real-life communities are as sticky as possible.
“You shouldn’t really be using your Facebook page or Twitter as a classified ad or a way to sell apartments,” Deen says. Adds Joe Greenblatt, Sunrise’s CEO: “At the end of the day, it’s all about engagement, which leads to more traffic and higher retention.”
Nearly all of the companies interviewed for this article point out that maintaining that engagement through social media takes time, and that it’s critical to give associates that time to do their jobs. Through automation, Sunrise has alleviated its on-site associates of some administrative functions, such as processing rent checks, so they can focus on interacting with residents.
Just as the number of “likes” your Facebook page gains shouldn’t be the main focus, neither should interacting with them. After all, if people are going to take the time to “like” you, you’ve probably already won them over. The point, rather, is about getting your brand in front of a liker’s network. Since the average Facebook user has 150 to 200 friends, having someone “like” you presents an opportunity for you to start a relationship with each of their extended friends.
Networking can benefit the liker, too. Many apartment firms have signed up with San Francisco–based RentMineOnline.com, a tool that puts the traditional resident-referral bonus into the social cybersphere. The service works by offering existing residents incentives to sign up for the service—say a $5 Starbucks gift certificate. It then asks them to recommend their community to their social media networks. RentMineOnline says it’s helped residents make more than 7 million recommendations for its apartment-operator clients.
“RentMineOnline has been very useful in leveraging social media to connect with our respondents’ networks,” says Alexis Vance, national marketing director at Phoenix-based Alliance Residential Co., which operates 50,000 units in 15 states.
Even though the ROI of social media is hard to measure, your efforts still need to pay off. At Farmington Hills, Mich.–based Village Green, which operates 40,000 units nationally, the company uses its social media presence on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and even Pinterest to highlight community events, promote resident engagement, and communicate.
“We see social media as a tool we can leverage to achieve a [marketing] cost below our target level of $250 per lease,” says Sara Dixon, social media manager at Village Green. “Our goal is to engage users with great content and increase our overall reach.”
Alliance has taken its social media per-lease tracking capability to another level by making real-time availability about its units accessible on its properties’ Facebook pages. “All inquiries then feed directly into our lead-management system and online-app feature,” Vance says.
Silver Bullet or Shotgun Blast?
For many apartment companies, the time-suck aspect of running an effective social media strategy has raised the question of where to best spend that time: by scattering your brand across several sites, or by focusing on just one or two social media outlets. The best answer? Probably both.
Philadelphia-based Madison Apartment Group, which owns 19,000 units, casts its net wide to pull in as many interactions as possible. “Our social media strategy is to provide our communities with another platform to reach their residents while also increasing the search engine optimization of their websites,” says Stephanie Haefner, Madison’s director of interactive marketing. “Each of our communities has its own Facebook, Twitter, and foursquare pages. For search engine optimization, we also use Google Place pages, Citysearch, Bing, and Yelp.”
At Alliance, meanwhile, social media begins with a targeted approach. That means starting a community with a single, focused online presence instead of initiating several outlets at once. “Additional channels—such as Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, and others—are then added as each property’s strategy develops,” Vance says.
Contributing editor Joe Bousquin is based in Sacramento, Calif.