If you think 20-somethings are the only apartment renters using social media, Holli Beckman has a story for you.

Beckman, the director of marketing at W.C. Smith in Washington, D.C., recently asked a handful of residents to write an online review for the property where they lived. Of the 120 people she asked, 42 percent did so, including an older resident who has lived in her rent-controlled W.C. Smith apartment building for—brace yourself—52 years.

“It made me smile,” says Beckman, whose firm uses social media application RentLingo to generate reviews and referrals for their properties. She believes that social media—and in particular, the infinite number of interactions between people and their networks online—has become the new word-of-mouth.

“What used to be talking to your neighbor has become something that gets done online,” Beckman says, referring to consumer decisions large and small. “People are using Facebook as a resource. They’re using it as a tool before buying shoes or a car.”

They are often doing the same before they rent an apartment. Now, apartment firms and technology companies alike are tapping into this trend to turn that “social search” into more actual renters through Facebook-linked applications such as RentLingo, LeaseStar Social (formerly RentMineOnline), RentSocial, and more. This fresh crop of startups and young companies is quickly taking social to the next level for apartment operators who are well past just setting up community Facebook pages, and instead are looking to convert social leads into actual leases. 

The reason why is simple. Apartment firms initially started getting into social media with a hyper focus on getting as many people to “like” their pages as possible, but with little sense of purpose beyond that. Today, they’re actively trying to tap into the ever-expanding networks of people who have liked them, so they can capture every lead—and lease—possible. Such technologies now offer a more connected, social, and efficient apartment search for renters, and improved track-ability and lead targeting for multifamily operators.

“Everything about the multifamily industry is social,” says Ed Spiegel, vice president of social products for RealPage in Carrolton, Texas, and founder of RentMineOnline (now LeaseStar Social), who believes social networking applications are ideal tools for the apartment industry and their customers. “It’s about building community, living with friends, and making new friends.”

Social Specialists
To understand the benefit of the new social media tools now hitting the apartment industry, it’s best to start with prospective renters and the hassle of finding an apartment, especially in an unfamiliar area.

“In the offline world, you would look for a place to live by asking which of your friends lived near where you’re looking, where they worked, what their community was like, how they liked their building,” says Dan Laufner, CFO of start-up RentLingo. “It’s laborious.”

RentLingo changes that model by connecting users through a Facebook-verified login or Craigslist link which allows them to see where friends, colleagues, and classmates are renting; ask targeted questions of their network; search for roommates; and write reviews of properties and neighborhoods that they can then post on Facebook. “If people similar to me live there, that’s a proxy for a lot of things,” says Laufner. Apartment firms also use RentLingo to connect with residents, offer referral bonuses, and encourage them to write online reviews.

In terms of privacy, RentLingo takes a multilayered approach. While apartment firms can always see the identity of a resident who reviews their property, those details are disguised to the wider world of the Internet; residents can use initials to protect their privacy. RentLingo doesn’t disclose the location of a person’s home  publicly either. Users can only see properties or neighborhoods where friends or friends of friends live or may have lived in the past. As far as sharing that information with others on RentLingo, users must also pay attention to their own privacy settings.

Mike Whaling, president of social media consultancy 30 Lines and co-founder of social media toolbar provider TurnSocial, believes the advantages of social tools like this outweigh privacy concerns for many users.

“If something gives me a more convenient way to connect with my friends, I’ll give up some convenience to do that,” he says. “No one is forcing you to use all of these tools. It is up to you what you post.”

LeaseStar Social works in a similar way. Established in 2007, the online referral site operates on the assumption that people value the opinions of friends, and friends of friends, when it comes to finding a place to live. (RealPage bought the start-up in 2012.)

“There’s an element of trust,” says Spiegel about the program, which is now used by 2,000 properties. “Even in a referral situation, that trust level is the most important piece.”

Users log in through Facebook and quickly discover what properties around the country have been recommended by those in their immediate and extended social networks through the site’s referral program. If they end up renting an apartment through one of these links, then their friend may receive a  referral bonus (typically $250), just as they would through a traditional referral program.

At RentSocial, a consumer-facing version of property management software RentSentinel, renters can also search for apartments in a social way, adding favorite properties, floor plans, or units to a “keepers” folder that they can share with roommates, friends, and family for fun or feedback. The site’s connection to RentSentinel means that users, once they’ve settled on a property, can select that as their “home” and use the site to request maintenance, pay their rent, and even meet their neighbors. “We wanted to create a more engaged experience for consumers,” says Andy Hamilton, CTO of the Chicago-based RentSocial, which currently has 20,000 users. 

ComVibe, another multifamily technology start-up, also focuses on the rental experience. It’s a little different from the others mentioned above: ComVibe doesn’t use Facebook, though it does use the content it gathers through its own software in a social way. The firm concentrates not on marketing, but on handling maintenance requests quickly and efficiently through an online application. That benefits residents, who appreciate the improved communication. And it benefits apartment firms, who can use the program to grab good reviews and post them online on a personalized property review site hosted by ComVibe. That helps the properties’ online reputations, SEO, and leasing efforts.

“We traditionally hear from residents when they’re unhappy,” says Kariithi Kilemi, CEO of Pittsburgh-based ComVibe, whose software is being used by four multifamily companies with a total of 120 properties. “When work is done fluidly and fast, we hear a lot of positive testimonials. The key thing is to capture that feedback at the point of service, because then you can make a huge impact on your community.”

That means that as opposed to tweeting the latest rent specials, apartment firms are now starting to use social media in a way that turns their residents into ambassadors for their properties.

“You have an actual base of people who should be your advocates. They write a bigger check to you than to anybody else,” RentLingo’s Laufner notes. “This already existed. We’re just trying to make it seamless.”

Spreading the Word 
Those results—positive word-of-mouth, recommendations from trusted sources—are what differentiate this newest generation of multifamily social media. After all, people tend to rely on a friends’ opinion more than a stranger’s, so leads that come through a social media platform tend to be of better quality with higher conversion and retention rates than other sources, according to multifamily operators. In other words, social is finally becoming about leases, not just likes.

“Social media tends to build a base that sustains itself,” says Eric Brown, founder of Urbane Apartments in Royal Oak, Mich., an early proponent of social media for the multifamily industry. Social media also produces leads well into the future, as opposed to an Internet listing service (ILS) banner ad that only posts for a limited amount of time, because social media are a much more constant presence in people’s lives.

“People visit an ILS once a year,” says Mark Juleen, vice president of marketing for the J.C. Hart Co. in Indianapolis, where he oversees a portfolio of 15 properties and 3,200 units. “They’re on Twitter and Facebook much more frequently [than that].”

Statistics do show the growing integration of Facebook and other social media sites among many users’ habitual haunts. According to the Washington, D.C.–based Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 41 percent of social media users in late 2012 said they visited social ­networking sites multiple times each day, up from 33 percent in 2011.

As social media grow in importance, so does the platform’s usefulness as a tool for smart apartment firms producing compelling content that people are willing to share with their networks, whether that’s a great review from a resident or hyperlocal tips on new restaurants or services.

“It’s all about the storytelling,” says  says Whaling. “How do you stay in front of residents and prospects? How do you get other people to talk about you?”

The opportunity for interaction matters too. At Mills Properties in St. Louis, a vibrant and actively shared Facebook page for a community near Washington University has demonstrated the power of social media in the United States and overseas.

The property has a large number of foreign students as residents, and “to harness the power of their network on Facebook, we consistently hosted contests and campaigns where we demonstrated fun and interactivity,” says Mike Brewer, vice president of operations for Mills, which has 10,000 units in its 46-property portfolio. “No matter what we delivered, we asked our residents to get their friends and family involved. When it came time for the kids back home to go off to St. Louis for college, guess where they wanted to live?

“In short, [social media] is word-of-mouth on steroids.”

But building that type of social media power takes time, with or without the latest Facebook applications.

“Those people you have relationships with will be your biggest supporters in the long run, but you have to earn their trust first,” says Brewer. “It’s a never-ending marathon.”