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Multifamily Executive: Rules of Engagement

December 10, 2012

An online relationship starts well before the lease is signed and can play a role in whether a renter renews.

Social media may account for just 2 percent of new leases for The Bozzuto Group, but when it comes to online engagement, the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts. Social media’s impact can’t be measured at just one point of the process.

The technology is a primary way for companies to enhance customer service and engage renters while slowly building up their brand, says Jamie Sue ­Gorski, senior vice president of corporate marketing at Greenbelt, Md.–based Bozzuto Group. With the sales funnel even less linear, social-media vigilance is about more than just marketing, Gorski adds. It’s all about creating and maintaining a solid reputation.

“There’s a new mental model in marketing brought on by an extreme shift in consumer behavior,” says Carla Sgroi, e-marketing manager at Newport Beach, Calif.–based Trinity Property Consultants. Case in point is the proliferation of apartment ratings sites, which have become the primary way prospective renters research a community. “It’s easy to disregard ratings sites, but there are a lot of things you can pull off of them,” says Sgroi.

Services such as RentMineOnline allow property managers to scour through ratings, pulling keywords off such reviews to visually map areas of concern, an effort also known as “keyword mapping.” While one keyword map may stress common words found in negative reviews, like “water” or “noise,” another keyword map may accentuate the positive and highlight the service a property provides.

The Medium and the Message

When a tenant has a problem, he or she is going to go public if the option is available—and it’s imperative that you respond appropriately, according to ­Lindsay Sims, a former property manager and founder of Cleveland-based Renter’s Boom, a social-media consultancy serving the apartment industry.

As Sims shares from one experience, “One of the tenants was in the workout room and the lights went out while she was on the treadmill. Instead of talking to someone directly, she put it on Facebook.”

There are few ethical guidelines for managing complaints online. In the past, the knee-jerk reaction from a property manager would’ve been to get defensive and lash out. But Sims suggests that responses should be focused instead on how managers intend to resolve the issue.

“Apologize,” she says. “It’s the best way to make everyone who reads it understand that you’re not just attacking.”

Property managers should be consistent in how they tackle an issue online—and be sure to do so in the proper medium. If someone complains on a Facebook wall or through a tweet, it’s best to respond through the same medium, and immediately.

Such responses will continue to help inject positive feedback onto a company’s site.

“If a conversation is going on about your brand, it’s likely going on right now online,” says Crystal ­Washington, a Houston-based marketing strategist and social-media consultant. “And if you’re not there to hear it, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Management companies should pay attention to ratings sites like Yelp, which have a huge trust factor among young renters and are now integrated with Apple Maps on the latest iPhone operating system. They should also engage with those sites to take hold of their reputation.

“If you don’t give [renters] any other information, that’s the only thing they’re going to see,” Sims says. “Why not provide them with other information?”

It’s equally important to encourage renters to report any positive experiences to combat the negative ones. Some owners and managers have adopted ­incentive programs to encourage positive reviews—like entering reviewers in a lottery for a gift card or even bigger-ticket items, like iPhones and iPads.

Once you’ve encouraged those reviews, it becomes another marketing tool. “In order to have a more accurate view of your reputation, integrate positive feedback and promote this site [to prospective renters],” Sgroi says.

Content is King

Owners should also identify bloggers and websites popular with the demographic they’re trying to reach. Once you’ve unearthed these key influencers, they can become another source of website traffic—you can lure their followers to your site by consistently posting content that aligns with their needs.

When Sims manages her clients’ pages, she highlights content that targets young renters, neighborhood-specific content that will engage consumers.

“Once they like the page, it’s a matter of keeping whatever content we put out as fresh as possible and as specific to their needs [as possible],” Sims says.

One of Sims’ most-viewed posts linked to a story about how to make a LinkedIn page fresh. It remains her most popular post because it helped young renters who were at a point of transition in their careers. Aligning content with his or her needs helps property managers provide more than just a roof over the Gen Y renter’s head.

And while it’s vital to monitor what renters are saying about your brand online, consultant Washington adds that to have a competitive advantage, apartment companies should also keep an eye on their competitors’ sites.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to swoop in really quickly on their consumers when they mess up,” says Washington.