Credit: Legacy Partners

Los Angeles is famous for its traffic: 3.8 million people in motion everyday (or gridlocked, as the case may be) on L.A.’s labyrinthine network of mean streets, boulevards, interstates, and freeways. When Foster City, Calif.-based Legacy Partners Residential began a lease-up for La Jolla, Calif.-based Windstar Communites at the apex of the 105 and 405 freeways in El Segundo, Calif., Legacy director of marketing and training Sarah Noe knew the advertising campaign was going to immediately benefit from some car-captive audiences.

To grab the attention of traffic-tired eyes, Noe and her team used mega-signage, including the installation of two internally illuminated hot-air advertising balloons tethered to the rooftop. The first to ring into the leasing office? It wasn’t an automobile driver—it was a traffic helicopter pilot, who could see the phone number on one of the balloons as he hovered above the interstate. “We still have the call recorded,” Noe says. “He literally said, ‘I can see your phone number from here, and I am looking for an apartment in the area. Can I come in and take a tour?’”

That high-flying prospective lead isn’t serendipity. As multifamily companies take stock of marketing expenditures in the current economy, Noe and others are seeing a return to creative, offline, and grassroots efforts to generate leads, lock in leases, and retain residents. “We all get caught up in viral and Internet campaigns—wondering whether I am twittering enough or if the community is on Facebook and has enough friends,” Noe says. “We’re spending thousands and thousands of dollars on online marketing. The reason we all originally went to online marketing was because it was cheap. Well, it’s not cheap anymore.”

The Human Touch
As a result, Noe is looking offline for marketing tactics that work. For the lease-up at Legacy’s 7950 West Sunset this year, Noe again took advantage of ambient traffic by funneling the majority of her marketing budget into—get this—human directionals. Turns out the sign-spinning (and sometimes costumed) corner characters aren’t just effective for mattress discounters and super electronics clearance sales. “I’m not one-sided in my marketing,” Noe explains. “The guy spinning a sign still attracts my attention, and it was our largest source of leads. Sometimes it’s a no-brainer: Why would I spend all of my money on Internet marketing when I have a huge pool of traffic on Sunset Boulevard that sees me everyday for free?”

Other multifamily companies are having similar success leveraging the human touch. As a boutique apartment development and management firm in New York City, Gotham Organization continues to rely on event and experience marketing to create communities with high-caliber resident referral rates, the firm’s No. 1 lead-to-lease metric. Gotham’s rooftop open air concert series is now in its third summer season and features the likes of Lady Gaga performing for residents with the Empire State Building as a backdrop. If that’s not enough cache to get residents bragging (and subconsciously marketing) to their friends, family, and colleagues, Gotham is happy to toss in a gift certificate to Barney’s for residents who successfully bring a buddy on-board at one of the company’s Manhattan properties. 

Like most companies, Gotham still relies on complementary Internet-based marketing, even if its primary outreach is decidedly more personal at the property level. “We complement each leasing effort with a full Internet media campaign and make sure we have postings throughout all of the apartment search engines,” says Gotham vice president of marketing Katherine Sabroff. “It is rare to live through such a generational shift in media, which has refocused itself to an online presence, especially when it comes to real estate marketing.”

Likewise, Chicago-based RMK Management Co. has coupled event and experience marketing with a full-fledged Internet marketing platform and has abandoned advertising in non-electronic media. That doesn’t mean the firm is necessarily giddy for gigabyte-sized investments in wandering the Web looking for prospects. “Over the past year-and-a-half, we have dropped all of our print advertising except for one corporate ad, and right now, the results are still in the works, but it does not look like it hurt us any,” says RMK executive vice president Diana Pittro. “But by the time I account for all of the banners and scrollers and headers, I don’t know whether they help me or not. Sure, I get a click report, but what is that? They give me a report with 50,000 clicks—10,000 of those clicks could be them monitoring their site. What do I know?”

Just as successful—and easier for non-tech-minded marketing mavens to appreciate—is RMK's down-home event efforts, which include resident appreciation weeks, pet adoptions, and even blood drives. “We try to tie it into an appreciation and betterment of our larger community instead of just having a wine-and-cheese tasting,” Pittro says. “But we’ll also have a monthly or quarterly theme: June was ‘Life’s a Beach,’ and we brought sandboxes into the clubhouses and had luaus. Those things are all a part of what sells somebody and keeps somebody.”

Never Say Never  
Back in Los Angeles, Legacy is finishing the lease-up at 7950 West Sunset by focusing the marketing campaign around orange circles—bootlegs are orange and round, and round orange signs hang in just-rented units that say “I’m taken, and I could be yours.” Meanwhile, prospects and walk-ins get orange Tootsie Roll pops with the Legacy and 7950 logos. “You’d think a marketing campaign with a big giant Tootsie Roll lollipop for a theme wouldn’t work, but it was memorable,” Noe says.

The company is alsp preparing for two upcoming community openings: One in Anaheim, Calif., where the marketing team will tailgate with fans at Angels Stadium as well as a lease-up closer to the suburb's downtown area where Legacy will go online for a viral email game that will match player personalities to their perfect floor plan. And don’t think print is dead, either. “I pick up apartment guides at the carwash all the time, and I see other people reading them, too,” Noe says. “There are times when we have nothing better to do with ourselves, especially if we are in the market for a new apartment.”

Gotham’s Sabroff is also one to never put the kibosh on any marketing avenue. As the firm prepares to open 200 West 72nd in January 2010, Sabroff anticipates a traditional marketing push that will see an Internet campaign as well as the use of personalized broker services for units at the high-end apartment community. “We’ve never used billboards or bus wraps. As a small firm, it just has not been cost-effective for us yet,” Sabroff says. “It’s not in the mix now, but I never count anything out.”

Indeed, keeping all options open seems to be the multifamily marketing mantra du jour as firms battle the economy, concessions, and the allure of completely virtualizing outreach efforts to rent prospects. “I think there has been an opportunity with the current economy to take a good look at the way you spend your marketing money,” Noe says. “We have all spent so much time trying to think of new value-added ideas that we have forgotten how to simply be creative. I think it’s a good time to kind of get back inside of the box instead of being so far outside of the box.”