As the World Wide Web approaches its 21st anniversary as a consumer phenomenon, it might be instructive to revisit what the Web is, what it should be—and what it isn’t.
It isn’t the “sum total of all human knowledge,” as Al Gore once put it, unless, of course, one believes that the flapdoodle that masquerades as interpersonal communication that clogs the Internet each day has any value as knowledge. The Web also is not a new medium insomuch as what it transmits—words, pictures, sounds—all predated its development. Rather, it’s a new means of distribution—user-selected—for existing forms of media.
The Web is also a place of business—a storefront where information is exchanged, sales pitches made, transactions undertaken, and goods and services delivered. The apartment industry is fast figuring this out.
“This industry is starting to grow up,” says Keith Dodds, senior vice president of marketing for Aimco, the Denver-based REIT that serves 250,000 residents with apartment communities in 38 states; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico. “We’re leaping forth into the 2000s,” he adds, only half facetiously.
That’s because it was only last year, long after Amazon, Apple, and Expedia proved the Web was a place to do tremendous business, that Aimco (www.aimco.com) and two of its multifamily counterparts, Memphis, Tenn.–based MAA and Atlanta-based Gables Residential, got religion and transformed their websites into multidimensional destinations for transacting business.
“All along, we’ve been trying to use the website to show our apartments,” says Lynette M. Hegeman, vice president of marketing at Gables.
But then, early last summer, the company reinvented its site to do a whole lot more. Now, the site (www.gables.com) not only shows floor plans and pictures of the firm’s various properties, but also highlights amenities at those properties, prequalifies prospective renters, gets them approved, and leases them an apartment, all online. Not to mention the resident portal that allows existing tenants to pay rent online, automatically, or make service appointments or rent a cabana by the pool. Or the recruitment portal for prospective employees.
The site is loaded with “hyper-local community content,” Hegeman explains.
“Once we get in front of them, it’s about allowing the visitor to narrow their search by giving them as much information as they could possibly want,” she says. That includes asking about such things as workplace, income, and desired amenities so that Gables can suggest appropriate neighborhoods and properties to prospective customers.
Gables’ site has been search-optimized to work with Google and other search engines to highlight Gables when a prospective renter searches an area in which the company has properties. “Instead of looking at quantity of traffic, we’re looking at the qualified demographics of each prospect,” Hegeman says.
Serve One, Serve All
All three of the sites are organized to serve three different constituencies: prospective renters, existing renters, and prospective employees. MAA (www.maac.com) and Aimco have added a fourth group—investors—because the companies are publicly traded REITs. That makes these new websites a combination rental office/concierge/recruitment office/investor data center all rolled into one. Buttons on each of the sites clearly mark these distinct service areas.
Aimco, Gables, and MAA also use their sites to brand their communities, pointing out not only their property amenities but also their corporate reputations and philanthropic and charitable activities.
As Aimco’s Dodds explains, “People search for apartments, not for brands, but once they find an apartment, they want to know who they are renting from.”
Melintha Ogle, vice president and director of marketing for MAA, agrees. “It’s still a local decision,” she says, “but once you’ve got your short list, the company matters.”
All the marketing executives with whom we spoke also noted the need for an active presence in mobile and social media, not only to drive traffic, but to handle it as well. “More and more of our traffic is coming from mobile [devices], but most of that is residents accessing service portals,” says Dodds. Still, 14 percent of visitors are coming in via mobile devices too.
Such a robust Web presence does come at a cost, however. All three of the aforementioned companies used third-party vendors to help develop their sites, and they continue to use vendors to host part or all of the websites. Managing the sheer volume of information involved requires specialized expertise, but the firms don’t use on-staff IT people to code and operate the sites; these tasks, as well, are farmed out.
Then there’s the research that must be done before any changes are made. Each of our companies used focus groups to learn how prospects navigate a website and to determine the best way to design their websites to maximize the visitor experience. Aimco conducted eye-tracking studies, which examined how prospects read a site and led to refinements such as feature placement and use of graphics.
“We tried to develop it so people could quickly self-identify,” MAA’s Ogle says. “We’re focused on making the customer experience spectacular,” Aimco’s Dodds adds.
MAA unveiled its new site last March and, so far, it’s working well, Ogle says. Twenty percent of applicants are now leasing online, and, she notes, “We’ve seen a 17 percent increase in the number of resident portal sign-ups since launching our new website. Currently, 70 percent of our residents have an active myMAA.com log-in account, and 34 percent pay their monthly rent online, compared with 24 percent the month before we launched the new website.”
At Aimco, the number of residents paying their rent online has risen by a third since the company’s improved site went live about six months ago. Dodds doesn’t have any hard research on site traffic, but says “it appears that the time on site certainly has increased, and task completion has improved.”
At Gables, Hegeman doesn’t specify whether Web activity has increased since the new site launched in October, but she says that an early 2011 test of online leasing worked so well that it was rolled out across all the company’s properties within six months.
Each of the three marketing executives interviewed says their organizations plan continual improvements and enhancements to their sites as well as stepped-up efforts in mobile and social media. As Ogle points out, the Web—not a sales associate—“is the first impression now.”
Or, as Hegeman puts it, “You want to attract, you want to engage, and then you want to close.”
Sounds a lot like a store.
William F. Gloede is a contributing writer based in Spruce Head, Maine.