Credit: cleftwich

With the Great Recession officially behind us, 2011 could mark the beginning of a golden era for multifamily. A demographic wave of Gen Y renters is barreling toward apartment owners’ doors, and many 30- and 40-something Americans are awakening to a new perspective on the benefits of renting. Couple that with the fact that development was dead in the water for nearly three years, and you’ve got a demand curve that’s looking pretty bright too. Yet, as the nation’s next housing boom takes hold, memories of careening rents and free-falling occupancies are still fresh in our collective conscience, and few are ready to start gushing about the good times just yet. Along with that cautiously optimistic perspective is a new appreciation for technology, which was, out of necessity, perhaps the single area of multifamily that kept moving forward during the slump. Three leasing cycles later, mobile marketing, social media, and enterprise-wide executive dashboards have all become ingrained in an industry that has traditionally been viewed as anything but an early adopter.

For an insider’s look at how technology can help savvy operators improve their game during the upswing, Multifamily ­Executive queried three of the best tech heads in the business. On the virtual horn were Kristy Simonette, senior vice president of strategic services at Houston-based Camden Property Trust; Steve Sadler, vice president of strategic business services at Atlanta-based Post Properties; and Donald Davidoff, group vice president of strategic systems at Englewood, Colo.–based Archstone. The fact that the word “strategy” has supplanted “technology” in each of their titles is a testament itself to how far multifamily IT has come.

MFE: What did technology teach you during the recession that you are applying in the recovery?

Sadler: How to do more with less. We learned a lot about capitalizing on internal talent versus outsourcing for application development. It has really helped us focus on solving our customer needs to stay ahead of the competition.

Simonette: During the recession, we looked for ways to lower our expenses using technology. For example, we deployed video conferencing equipment to all of our regional and district offices. Travel was reduced and meetings were held via video conference on a regular basis. Now, we use it to interview job candidates remotely and conduct staff reviews. It’s something we learned by being forced to tighten our belts, but video conferencing is a behavioral change that has stuck with Camden. We have become very dependent on it as an easy-to-use, inexpensive technology.

Davidoff: The biggest difference now is that the industry is more comfortable with technology than ever before. There are more vendors and more product options than ever. A growing minority of companies now recognize the strategic value of technology investment. Another big change is the importance of mobile technologies—the iPhone, iPad, and Droid platforms are truly bringing mobile to the masses.

MFE: What are your top two technology priorities for 2011, and how are you deploying capital to achieve them?

Sadler: Mobility for both our marketing and resident services websites and communication and collaboration for our associates centered around the adoption of SharePoint and Microsoft Exchange will be our top priorities. We’ve allocated 56 percent of our marketing budget to online sources, including Internet listing services and pay-per-click campaigns.

Simonette: Our big customer-facing technology priorities include our resident portal, myCamden, and a resident communications platform. Marketing and technology are colliding, and, in fact, both departments at Camden now fall under one umbrella department called Strategic Services. We’re dedicating dollars to Internet positioning beyond traditional Internet listing services, and we’ve seen some exciting results from Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.

Davidoff: We’re also focused on anything customer-facing, including enabling mobile applications and websites. We’re spending our marketing dollars on Level One to track calls and our lead management system to better capture e-mail leads and walk-ins. It helps us analyze cost per lead and cost per lease, so we can determine the most effective spend.

MFE: How would you grade the multi­family industry on its use of social ­media thus far? What can we learn from how other industries use this technology?

Sadler: I give us a D, frankly. Nobody ­really knows what works yet and how to measure it. I’ve learned more about social media from outside our industry—primarily that you’ve got to learn how to leverage the relationships people already have within their own networks. I think it’s important to understand what the communication tools are and then decide how we can use them to support our strategies and business plans.

Davidoff: There’s been a lot of sizzle, but not a whole lot of steak with social media. Demographic evolutions are much slower than the speed at which all the buzz about social media in multifamily housing would have you believe we need to move at. In my opinion, there’s very little risk in taking a “crawl before you walk” approach.

MFE: How can we better leverage real-time data in the multifamily industry? Are you or any of your colleagues using executive dashboards?

Simonette: Having access to real-time data is the trick to obtaining competitive technology advantages, and the hardest part is collecting and consolidating data across multiple platforms. Still, we’re using dashboards across the entire company, at the site level, on the operations side, and at the regional and district levels. We have transparency into our business that we have never had before in multifamily.

Davidoff: We have invested in an enterprise data warehouse and a variety of operational and financial dashboards and scorecards. The more you can put actionable insights into the hands of those running the business, the better they know where they need to put their attention.

MFE: What is your technology plan when it comes to mobile marketing?

Sadler: We’re taking the entire leasing cycle mobile. Our mantra around here these days is, “Look, Lease, Live, Leave.” And we’re focused on providing all of the functionality that supports each step on a mobile device.

Davidoff: Mobile is part of everything we’re doing now. Our focus is more on transactional tools than anything else, like paying rent, making service requests, and communicating with our sites. We’re trying to look at how prospects and residents are actually using mobile, as opposed to getting caught in the trap of thinking up “cool” apps that customers likely will never use.

Simonette: We’re all in. We launched our mobile platform in January 2010 for prospects and residents. Mobile is only going to continue to grow as consumers conduct more and more business with a smart phone. The future is mobile. It’s a vital part of our company.

MFE: What’s important to you from a strategic standpoint? What is the here and now of multifamily technology in 2011?

Sadler: For us, it’s being nimble enough to deliver sound technology for our internal and external customers. You just can’t afford to wait for third parties and vendors to deliver on product promises.

Simonette: You’ve got to keep your eye on what’s coming. We’ve actually created a position devoted to innovation. That person’s charge is to find technologies that will make us more competitive, operate more efficiently, or save us money. This is really where the marketing and technology are becoming blurred and have become a fun new universe.

Davidoff: Anything to do with enhancing the customer experience and making associates’ jobs more efficient so they focus on customer interactions.