Here’s a newsflash 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,” says Melissa Deen, marketing director for San Diego-based Sunrise Management, which runs 9,000 units across Southern California and Arizona.

It’s about more than that, says Joe Greenblatt, Sunrise Management’s CEO. “At the end of the day, it’s all about engagement, which leads to more traffic and higher retention. Engagement with residents is a good thing.”

Here are five smart ways companies are thinking about social media:

1. It’s about their network, not yours.
Since the average Facebook user has between 150 and 200 friends, having someone “like” you is an opportunity for you to start a relationship with each of their extended friends, and by doing so, expand your own network. It's he true, exponential power of social media.

Many apartment firms have signed up with San Francisco-based, a tool that puts the traditional resident referral bonus (you know, where you offer residents $50 or $100 off their rent if they bring a friend or acquaintance to your community) into the social sphere.

“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 Company, which operates 50,000 units in 15 states. “Engaging in referral-based contests encourages our current resident base recommend our community to their friends and family.”

2. It still has to be about the money 
Even though it’s hard to measure, your social media efforts still need to pay off. That means keeping tabs on how much time you put into it, and specifically giving your associates time to engage with it, as Sunrise does.

At Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Village Green Apartments, 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 as a communications channel. While it can’t say how much that time costs, it does have a dollar threshold that it assigns to it, wrapped into its larger marketing spend.

“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. The effect may not translate into a prospective resident visiting the property immediately, or someone signing a lease that same day or week, but we’re looking to be a part of the larger conversation.”

3. Make Facebook About Real Time
At Alliance Residential, the firm has taken its social media per-lease tracking capability to another level, by making real-time availability about its units accessible through its properties’ Facebook pages.

“The viewer has the ability to see what is currently available at the community and inquire further,” Vance says. “All inquiries then feed directly into our lead-management system and online-application feature.”

While it hasn’t executed leases based on that functionality yet, Vance sees it as another line in her marketing spend. “We recently implemented this, and hope to see our first leases come through in the next few weeks.”     
4.  Use a Targeted Approach
At Alliance, 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.

“Alliance properties use Facebook as our primary social media channel, rather than engaging with all available outlets,” Vance says. “We have found this targeted focus allows our associates and communities to become more sophisticated in their interaction and engagement initiatives, which translates to a higher success rate in our overall social media strategy.  Additional channels—such as Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and others—are then added as each property’s strategy develops.”

5. Engage Employees
Of course, Facebook isn’t just for residents—or a way employees can goof off at work. It can also be an effective tool for recognition within your company. And given the geographically dispersed nature of the apartment business, it can help employees network with each other.

Philadelphia-based Madison Apartment Group uses its Facebook page not only to communicate with residents, but as a team-building tool inside its organization as well.

“We see Facebook as a way to engage our employees or perspective employees,” says Stephanie Haefner, Madison’s director of interactive marketing. “We have begun posting promotions and new hires to not only notify our residents of their new management team members, but also as a way to welcome new hires and put a spotlight on team members who excel. Our new tagline, ‘Find Your Place,’ is one that speaks to residents, but also to our team members inside the company.”