Visit the Facebook page of Zappos.com, the e-tailer that inspires fierce loyalty among its customers, and you’ll see its “Fan of the Week.” But while there are plenty of examples like these of corporate America getting social media right, many apartment firms’ presence in the space is still nascent, erratically maintained, and lacking focus. “A lot of community managers struggle to understand the most effective uses for social media,” says Esther Bonardi, a strategic client account executive at Santa Barbara, Calif.–based multifamily software maker Yardi. “Often, they still consider it somewhat frivolous, so they use it in a frivolous way.”
Take the first apartment community returned in a recent Facebook search for “Sacramento Apartments.” The page had photos of a community pool, along with a few unit interior shots. The property had racked up exactly 15 “likes” and zero reviews. While maintaining that bare-bones presence on Facebook could enhance the community’s search results, it completely misses the point of social media’s true killer app: disseminating your brand to exponentially more prospects.
Prospects to the Power of N
Tapping into the networks of your friends and fans online is the ultimate in leveraging social media. “The power of social media as a marketing tool is almost solely in making your business visible not to your residents or followers alone, but to all of their friends and followers,” Bonardi says.
That’s exactly the goal of San Francisco–based RentMineOnline, an automated referral service that uses the Facebook Connect app to entice a community’s residents to market the firm’s multifamily clients. Based on the same programs that pay existing residents for referrals that result in leases, RentMineOnline lets residents recommend a community to their Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, or e-mail networks. If one of the referrals yields a new lease, the resident gets the referral fee.
That viral social power has generated nearly 7 million recommendations for RentMineOnline clients’ properties. But it’s the algebra behind that number that truly shows the potential of social media. Those 7 million recommendations were the result of RentMineOnline reaching out to 1.5 million residents, of which only 3 percent actually responded to its pitch. But those 3 percent were the gateway to almost 7 million other people.
“Because the average user has about 150 friends, if they put a recommendation out to their entire network, the numbers start adding up fast,” says RentMineOnline founder and CEO Ed Siegel. For Trevose, Pa.–based operator Korman Residential, using RentMineOnline led to 87 new leases in eight months, after residents sent recommendations to 40,000 friends.
Despite lingering uncertainty when it comes to lead-to-lease ROI like Korman’s, other multifamily social media success stories are coming to light. Carmel, Ind.–based J.C. Hart Co.’s Mark Juleen helped his company drive more traffic to its site from Facebook during one month than from one of its ILSs. And Royal Oak, Mich.–based Urbane Apartments had the guts to start creating its own resident social network in 2008 and has racked up more than 5,000 “likes” on its Facebook page. For founder Eric Brown, it’s only natural that multifamily should excel, not founder, when it comes to social media. “If you think about it, we’re actually in a better place than most industries to leverage this stuff,” Brown says. “I mean, we already run real, living communities—we should be able to create virtual ones.”
Still, there are plenty of reasons why multifamily doesn’t have the same social media firepower as other industries. For one, when it comes to amassing thousands of followers, size really does matter. “Small and medium-sized brands have a harder time than firms like Nike and Gatorade,” Siegel says. “Even the biggest apartment companies aren’t household names.” And then there’s the fact that residents only shop for an apartment, at most, once a year. Compare that to the numerous selling seasons for consumer products.
It’s Not Always About You
At the same time, there are steps you can take to make sure your portfolio’s social media strategy is at least taking aim at the right targets. Among them is having your Facebook page serve not your property but the people who live there. “Most apartment communities still post info about themselves,” Bonardi says. “You want to make it about things that benefit your residents,” like cutest pet contests and Groupon-like local deals. Also, make sure you’re targeting not just your residents, but the connections and friends they have in their networks.
Finally, make sure you have a way to gauge your efforts. Like the tracking tools at RentMineOnline.com, you should be able to point to actual leases that result from your efforts. “I like to tell people that if their social media marketing isn’t producing more apartment leases, it’s just a hobby,” says Brown.
Contributing editor Joe Bousquin is based in Sacramento, Calif.