What do eight Internet posts on the price of meat in Florida have to do with apartment resident retention? A lot if you are Don Sanders, vice president of marketing and training for The Cornerstone Group, a Sunshine State multifamily owner/operator based in Hollywood, Fla. At the 2010 NMHC Technology Conference in Dallas, Sanders detailed how social networking on Cornerstone community web pages—on anything from grocery specials to pool parties—is paying off in resident retention, even if its not bringing boatloads of leads to the front door.

“Social networking still isn’t really bringing in the new renters,” Sanders said, “but it is becoming a critical component of creating the sense of community that is necessary for renewals.”

Still, while most multifamily firms admit to at least dabbling in social media, polarization persists between apartment companies that have totally embraced social media as part of their marketing platform and those who remain skeptical of the true net worth of social networking to the bottom line. Apartment heavyweights on both sides of the issue pressed their cases with spirited, congenial debate across several panels that probed social networking's relative impact to the business of marketing and operating apartment communities.

In the conference's opening session, Alexandria, Va.-based AvalonBay Communities' vice president of marketing Kevin Thompson and Greenbelt, Md.-based The Bozzuto Group's chief marketing officer Jamie Gorski were pitted against San Francisco-based BRE Properties' senior vice president of sales and marketing Todd Katler and Englewood, Colo.-based Archstone's group vice president of strategic systems Donald Davidoff in a mock us-versus-them debate with an NFL theme. According to Davidoff, social media testing at Archstone has revealed bounce rates (the percentage of visitors who visit a website and then immediately leave without exploring it) above 60 percent from social driven web visits, compared to typical bounce rates of 20 percent to 30 percent. “That’s the difference in quality between traditional SEO- and ILS-driven media referrals and what we are seeing from social media sites,” Davidoff said.

Echoing Sanders’ experience at the Cornerstone Group, Gorski countered that firms looking to social media to generate prospect leads are missing the larger value proposition of using sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Foursquare. “Some of the main reasons you engage in social are not to generate leads,” Gorski said. “You do it to protect your brand, to extend your brand, to communicate with customers, to understand what they are saying about you, and to make improvements.”

All of the panelists agreed that apartment firms need to make a concerted effort at online reputation management, particularly on ApartmentRatings.com and Yelp.com, which are typically first page links generated by search engines. “ApartmentRatings has enormous organic relevancy,” Thompson said. “You can do any search and the ApartmentRatings listing will be on the first page.”

Katler played the debate roll well, insinuating that BRE would invest in newspaper print ads before developing a social media platform and questioning the applicability and relevancy of fan- and friend-driven social media sites like Facebook to apartment marketing. “There’s nothing that cool about being friends with an apartment community,” Katler said. “There is a lot of talk about social media being ‘where our customers are at,’ but to me it lacks direction. Social media is devoid of a clear path for our industry, which is why it doesn’t work.”

Gorski and Thompson argued that social media is incremental to all other marketing efforts, and highlighted the role social media can play in customer communication, as well as advances being made in measuring social media ROI. “I will admit that social is more art than science, but there is social currency out there,” Thompson said. “There are measurable, quantifiable things, whether it's the number of followers, number of leads, number of fans, or number of [social media-driven] renewals.”

Perhaps epitomizing the general industry thought trend, Davidoff said that it is incumbent on all apartment firms to investigate the value of social media in an overall pyramid of investment dollars and to spend resources accordingly. For Archstone, that value proposition has yet to arrive. “We have 95 percent occupancy with 70,000 units and 20 percent year-over-year growth in lead count,” Davidoff said. “There are lots of ways to drive results that don’t include classic social media outlets, and our numbers are proof of that.”