The prospect journey has morphed, contorted, and then changed even more over the past decade. It has shifted pronouncedly even when just considering the past few years. Odds are the journey will shift even further within another five years.
While some form of online research has long been part of the home-search process, the traditional mold of prospects visiting an apartment community and meeting with the on-site team before signing a lease only happens some of the time now. Essentially, prospects want leasing experiences that mirror other facets of a fast-paced digital-centric world.
“It can be tricky for operators, because just when they think they’ve zoned in on the precise desires of the modern-day prospect, other potential layers to the journey will be introduced,” says Chase Harrington, president and chief operating officer of Entrata. “The idea is to strike the balance of providing prospects with anything they might need in the moment while remaining agile enough to shift on the fly when demand parameters change.”
Operators seem to agree, and several share their thoughts as to what might be coming next in the prospect journey—and how they can meet those demands to further cultivate the prospect experience.
Generational Communication Methods and Continued Fine-Tuning
The renter base features four distinct generations—and for the first time, each of them constitutes a significant portion. While the industry has acknowledged communication preferences might differ amongst Gen Z, millennials, Gen X, and baby boomers, meeting those varying preferences must be a more pronounced focus moving forward, according to Katie Nelson, vice president of marketing for Maryland-based CAPREIT.
"We're really going to have to understand the different generations of prospects and how to tailor communication to them," Nelson says. “Four generations are looking for homes, and we have to go through different types of advertising avenues to reach them. We have to understand what each generation desires to see before they visit the community and know the best methods to communicate with them throughout the prospect journey and beyond.”
Nelson indicates that operators will need to blend new technologies while also leaning on old-school methods that have long worked for older generations. For instance, written notes and phone calls—concepts the industry largely has moved away from during the tech revolution—might still have significant value to older generations.
Nelson also notes that industry impacts from the pandemic remain, at least from a tech perspective. Seemingly every industry story in 2020 and 2021 focused upon how the pandemic accelerated tech implementation and that the industry had no choice but to hurriedly adopt concepts such as self-guided tours. Fast-forward a few years later, and the industry has decided which pandemic-era tech tools to keep and which ones can further evolve.
For instance, CAPREIT had been onboarding video leasing and Zoom tours at select communities, but the pandemic forced the company to expand their use. The concept of enabling prospects to move in without ever encountering an associate on site remains active, but now it's a matter of fine-tuning some of the related tech. In CAPREIT's case, the company is exploring how to properly implement self-guided tours at communities built in the 1980s. CAPREIT has also utilized centralization in certain regions, in which a centralized associate helps prospects navigate the leasing process at multiple communities in a specific area.
Other pandemic-fueled concepts will help set the blueprint for the future prospect journey, Nelson says, including smart-access entry, not confining prospects to regular on-site business hours, and artificial intelligence (AI) tools to create a 24-hour open store for prospects. Essentially, communities must have the online resources to answer virtually every question a prospect could have, whether through chatbots or AI-fueled phone calls and texts, at any time of day.
“We’ve found that prospects research so heavily online that by the time they get to a phone call or contact form for your community, you’re probably already in their top three,” Nelson says. “So, it’s really a matter of fine-tuning your process to make sure you can answer those questions precisely where they’re looking and when they want that answer—which is pretty much immediately.”
Onus on Personalization, More AI
While the pandemic was a learning experience for operators, it also drove prospects further toward convenience-based options. Technology-enabled services, such as virtual tours, 3D walkthroughs, contactless leasing processes, and online payment methods, have become an expected part of the leasing process, and operators agree that the industry will have to continue to make headway in that area.
"The prospect journey is most ripe for improvements in personalization and convenience," says Melanie Stiles, vice president of marketing for Texas-based Birchstone Residential. "Prospective renters increasingly expect personalized experiences with tailored apartment recommendations, customized content, and individually targeted promotions. By leveraging data and technology, operators can provide that personalized experience that meets each prospect's individual needs and preferences."
With this ongoing metamorphosis, Stiles believes the industry will have to put an increased emphasis on digital marketing efforts. With renters regularly spending more time online, apartment communities have had to adapt their marketing strategies to better engage renters through digital channels such as social media, email, and chatbots.
Stiles says Birchstone aims to remain acutely aware of changing renter habits, even if subtle. For instance, 2023 renters might be more price-sensitive, focused on health and safety, and prioritize apartments with amenities such as home offices or outdoor spaces. Prospects are placing a greater emphasis on sustainability and ethical business practices, as well.
"Communities prioritizing sustainability, such as using eco-friendly materials or reducing their carbon footprint, can appeal to residents who prioritize these values," she says.
Stiles also notes that while effective communication has always served as a crucial component of attracting renters, it is only becoming more pronounced. Quick and effective responses are one way to gain trust and loyalty, she says.
“Prospective renters value transparency throughout the apartment rental process, from pricing and availability to lease terms and policies,” Stiles says. “By providing clear and accurate information, community teams can build credibility with prospects, who will move on quickly if they don't trust the brand.”
AI and machine learning (ML) will continue to carve a presence in the industry, Stiles believes. They will be prominently present in creating personalized recommendations, with AI-powered apartment search engines that utilize a renter's search history, preferences, and behavior data to provide tailored recommendations. ML-powered image recognition and predictive analytics will help prospects more easily locate homes within their desired parameters, she says.
"Overall, by leveraging AI and ML technologies, the industry can offer renters a more personalized and efficient experience with more accurate search results, faster leasing processes and better customer service," Stiles says.
Better-Connected Tech Will Help Meet Renters Where They Are
Elaine De Lude, vice president of Maryland-based LIVEbe, believes a common theme will emerge around any technology utilized by the industry in the coming years.
“In the future, it will be better tech and more-connected tech,” she says. “It will be further fueled by AI and contain more options for customers to select how to engage with us.”
De Lude believes the prospect journey will ultimately be shorter and that virtual reality will play a larger role in how prospects choose to experience a potential new apartment home. She cautions that as tech implementation and centralization efforts become a larger part of multifamily operations, operators will have to become more self-aware. They'll have to possess a firm understanding of who they are before opting to implement some of the buzzy concepts simply because everyone else is.
“Centralization and more tech may or may not be the way to go for every company,” De Lude says. "Operators will have to ask, what's our company philosophy? Are we high-touch or low-touch, and do we truly understand what our customers want by market? The ease of the journey should be the same high- or low-touch, but the emotional human connections may differ.”
De Lude adds smarter outreach and utilizing tech to create relationships with local and national businesses are musts for the industry moving forward. Whereas handing out apartment flyers in a nearby parking lot is no longer a viable method to attract potential renters, knowing where potential customers work and play—and determining how to connect with them in their spaces—will be paramount moving forward.
As the prospect journey continues to morph, operators that evolve accordingly will best position themselves to attract the modern renter.