It may not have happened overnight, exactly, but in fairly short order, online reputation management has become mission critical for multifamily operators.
According to a Kingsley Associates study conducted on behalf of RentPath, 91.4% of apartment shoppers rely on reviews and ratings to some extent when looking for their next home.
However, the game-changing rise in importance of sites like Yelp and Google over the past decade has left many operators overwhelmed by the task of responding effectively to ratings and reviews; some don’t even respond at all. And even those who make a generally strong effort are often so focused on responding quickly to individual reviews that they fail to realize the other opportunities a robust reputation management program presents.
Sophisticated operators have realized that an energetic reputation management initiative can yield more than a five-star rating. The honest online feedback can serve as invaluable market research into how to improve operations, and an operator’s responses can even enhance the search engine optimization (SEO) value of a community name.
“Online reputation management is something to embrace and not be afraid of,” says Kim Morgan, marketing manager for Oak Brook, Ill.–based JVM Realty Corp., which owns and operates communities in secondary Midwestern markets. “When apartment managers really dig into these programs, they’ll see that the benefits can be plentiful.”
SEO Goes Deeper
Industry experts note that online reputation management is emerging as a way to enhance a community’s SEO efforts. “I think reviews and responses are going to play a bigger part in Google rankings,” Morgan says. “It’s already starting now, with the content that lives on these reviews being analyzed a little deeper by search engines.”
Angie Amon, director of research at RentPath, a digital marketing company, says a community’s responses to online reviews can be a good avenue for boosting its visibility to Google.
“SEO is just one of the wide-ranging benefits of reputation management,” Amon says. “This is free market research in the form of genuine feedback from residents that indicates what you’re doing well in addition to potential areas of concern. Properly responding to reviews will reflect well in the eyes of prospective residents, offers opportunity for improvement, promotes resident satisfaction, and can optimize your community name online.
“We also know that, while prospects don’t rely solely on ratings and reviews to make their decisions, a community [that doesn’t have] any reviews at all will definitely raise a big red flag with apartment shoppers, so operators have many reasons to encourage their residents to leave online reviews,” Amon adds.
Forward-thinking operators view negative online reviews not just as something to respond to quickly and then forget; they see the bad reviews as an opportunity to garner the authentic feedback residents might not provide when hastily filling out expensive surveys. Armed with this invaluable information, they can, if need be, adjust their operations to improve the resident experience.
Of course, any resident can blow something isolated out of proportion and leave an angry online diatribe in retaliation. But when a critical mass of reviews addresses the same issue, an apartment company can use those reviews as a spur to action.
“Certainly, positive reviews are a reinforcement of everything you’re doing right,” says Dawn Miller, vice president of marketing for ROSS Management Services, which oversees a portfolio of apartments through the Mid-Atlantic and Washington, D.C., areas. “But your negative reviews will show you either have a perception problem or your community is experiencing an actual, physical problem.
“If people are repeatedly complaining about dark parking lots, [for example], then we have to address that,” she says. “We have to make sure the lighting is working properly and install additional lighting if needed.”
The feedback from online reviews can really help a community refine its amenity package, Morgan says.
“Don’t just be sad that some people gave you one star,” she says. “Try to extract value from those negative reviews and then show that you’re improving upon the situation. We’ve used both negative and positive reviews to implement and improve the features that are in demand from today’s renters. Things like our pet parks, package-delivery systems, and fitness centers have all benefited from the feedback we’ve received online.”
In instances in which operators make changes because of reviews, they need to “close the feedback loop,” according to Amon.
“Responding to individual reviews is great, but it’s important to find an avenue or platform to let everyone know that you heard them and took action as a direct result of them taking the time to leave a review,” she says.
Getting the Basics in Order
While certain operators are making savvy use of their well-designed reputation management programs, other apartment managers are still struggling with the fundamentals. Chief among the objectives of any reputation management effort should be to respond to all reviews—negative and positive—within a short period of time, ideally 24 hours, operators say.
Also critical: the tone of responses. They must be respectful and professional no matter how exasperating the review and the reviewer may be.
“The worst thing a community manager, or whoever is responding, can do is show any kind of frustration or attitude in their wording,” says Caroline Forehand, vice president of marketing and training for The Bainbridge Cos., a Wellington, Fla.–based owner–operator of luxury multifamily apartment communities throughout the eastern United States. “Prospects want to see how you respond, and you can really mitigate the impact of a tough review with a thoughtful reply. So it’s important to write your response in a positive way.”
Miller echoes those sentiments. “We’re not going to argue with someone who leaves a negative review,” she says. “We really try to be understanding and apologetic: ‘We’re sorry you had this experience.’ We also state our desire to correct the problem. We then try to take them offline so that we can contact them directly and address any concerns they have.”
Also important is the establishment of a well-defined response procedure. Are you going to use a third-party vendor to write and manage the responses, or will that be handled in-house? What kind of system will you use to receive notifications that a new review has been posted online? What degree of internal review is required before a response is posted? There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Owners just need to figure out the process that works for them and adhere to it.
Experts also note that operators shouldn’t view reputation management as existing in its own silo. Instead, on-site staffs should think holistically about how their day-to-day operations and interactions with residents can pay off down the road with positive online feedback.
“Our on-site staff—whether it’s leasing agents or maintenance staff—have ‘I can make your day’ on their name tags, Forehand says. “It’s about empowering them to understand that they’re there to solve our residents’ problems and make a difference. And that ultimately leads to a good reputation.It may not have happened overnight, exactly, but in fairly short order, online reputation management has become mission critical for multifamily operators.
Likewise, at JVM’s properties, maintenance technicians and leasing associates are instructed to call a resident before closing out a service request. “Make sure the resident is happy,” Morgan says. “Don’t close it out until they tell you it’s OK to close it out.”