Get More from Your Online Advertising

Last week, I noticed an interesting status update on LinkedIn.

This particular update was shared by Victor Bosak, an Advertising Sales Consultant & Digital Media Strategist for RentPath — the company that owns Apartment Guide, Rent.com, Lovely and a handful of other real estate-focused websites (ILSs).

Here’s what Victor posted:

This is why working for RentPath is amazing! We’re not afraid to put our numbers out there front and center! And these are JUST phone calls and emails! We don’t track/include driving directions/maps, links to property/management company websites, or any other irrelevant numbers to inflate our stats. A lead is a quality connection, that’s it!

It included a link to this image, showing the number of leads that RentPath sites delivered in September 2014 (2.6 million):

That’s a big number. And it should be even higher. Here’s the part that caught my eye:

“We don’t track/include driving directions/maps, links to property/management company websites, or any other irrelevant numbers to inflate our stats.”

Just to be clear, a company *in the business of advertising rental properties* is actively discounting measurable actions taken by potential customers on those ads. Actively telling their advertising customers, “If we’re sending traffic to your website, we’re not taking credit for it.”

The Purpose of Online Advertising

Now, when I want to use an online advertising channel to promote my business — be it Google, or Twitter, or any other site where I’m paying to get in front of new customers — I want to know how that channel is performing for me. And one of the first metrics I’m going to look at is traffic referred to my website. It’s certainly not the only metric, but it’s *always* a factor. Always.

So I had to ask why an advertising company would consider referral traffic to the property’s website to be an irrelevant metric. I honestly couldn’t understand this.

Victor jumped right in to clarify his statement; here’s his reply:

It’s not that I consider it to be irrelevant, necessarily. It’s just that having working in this space on and off for the past few years, it has been my experience that 9 times out of 10, we never get credit for that traffic on the other side of the fence. Sure, the Google Analytics (if the client actually has it built into their site) may show referral traffic, but most times the argument is made that they (the client) has no idea what happened once they (the consumer) got there. And really, it’s not the purpose of an Internet Listing Service. If that was our real goal, we’d all have some sort of SEO and SEM product built into our packages, but we don’t.

The point I was making … is the competition builds those referrals into their lead story. “We brought you 50 leads this month” doesn’t tell the story that 3 of those leads were actually just 1 person who decided to take multiple actions within the site. This in turn inflates their numbers. Apartment Guide doesn’t do that. If a client visits the property website, the management company website, and then submits a lead, that’s considered 1 lead. Not 3. And as you may know about the space, we’re judged on our lead volume, cost per lead, and in some cases, cost per lease (though many clients are admitting now they can’t hold us accountable for conversion/what happens on site).

I see his point. I’ve seen this play out before. And in the world of apartment marketing, this is a serious problem.


When a Referral Isn’t a Lead

Apartment marketers are often quick to “hate on the ILSs,” looking for any shiny new penny they can find to try to reduce their dependence on the advertising sites that have been a staple for many operators for years.

But if those marketers really want the ILSs (and any other advertising/marketing partner) to improve the results they deliver, then it’s also crucial that they too evolve, doing their part to attribute leads more accurately and look beyond “cost per lead” as the key performance indicator for advertisers.

So I want to go back to Victor’s observations, breaking down each one, and suggesting some tips to help apartment marketers do their part to get as much as possible out of their advertising dollars.


“9 times out of 10, we never get credit for that traffic on the other side of the fence. Sure, the Google Analytics (if the client actually has it built into their site) may show referral traffic, but most times the argument is made that they (the client) has no idea what happened once they (the consumer) got there.”

As I mentioned before, one of the first things I look at on any website is what other sources are referring visitors to my site. But in order to do this, you have to be using the proper tools on your end.

Get Google Analytics for your website
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  • Set Up Google Analytics Properly on Your Website

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Google Analytics is an amazing resource. And it’s free. Anytime you launch a new website, you should require that Google Analytics tracking code be installed, through an account that YOU own (not your website provider).

Once the code is installed, you’ll be able to see where visitors are coming from, how they’re using your site, and much, much more.

However, Analytics isn’t fully set up out of the box.

You need to take the extra step to set up Conversion Goals. These will allow you to see how many leads you’re collecting through your website, and you’ll be able to properly attribute those leads to the referring source that should get at least some of the credit.

Goals will help you track the performance of all of your digital marketing efforts, not just your ILS spend.


“Really, it’s not the purpose of an Internet Listing Service. If that was our real goal, we’d all have some sort of SEO and SEM product built into our packages, but we don’t.”

What exactly is the purpose of an ILS?

I’d argue that it’s just like like any other advertising site — to promote your business in front of an audience that you otherwise might not be able to access, and to effectively deliver traffic in the form of collected leads, traffic to your location and traffic to your website. I want any advertiser to deliver a potential customer and get out of the way. (We also know that ILSs can help with organic search, too.)

So if we know that’s what we’re trying to get out of the money we’re spending on ILSs, how do we measure their effectiveness?

Measure your advertising
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  • Understand How Your Ads are Performing

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While I understand the need to measure industry-specific metrics such as cost per lead, cost per lease, and marketing cost per unit, I also think there’s a place for more general online advertising metrics and cost models that give a better picture of the total performance of your ads.

Here are a few key diagnostic metrics that you should be asking for, in addition to number of leads delivered, to better understand how your listings are performing (I realize some ILSs already provide these reports):

  • Impressions in search (as well as impressions for specific searches or keywords)
  • Profile clicks
  • Featured message clicks
  • Ad engagements (Share, save, compare, etc.)
  • Website clicks
  • Phone calls to the property
  • Driving directions requested

When the ILS doesn’t share this data with you, you don’t get a true picture of how well your ads are actually performing.


“The competition builds those referrals into their lead story. ‘We brought you 50 leads this month’ doesn’t tell the story that 3 of those leads were actually just 1 person who decided to take multiple actions within the site. This in turn inflates their numbers. Apartment Guide doesn’t do that. If a client visits the property website, the management company website, and then submits a lead, that’s considered 1 lead. Not 3.”

Victor is making two separate points here.

1) To his first point, those referrals are part of the lead story. They *should* be reported as a productive outcome of your advertising spend … just maybe differently than they’re reported today. More on that next.

2) Duplicate leads reported separately. I totally get what he’s saying here, but any decent CRM or lead management tool should be able to sort this out. It’s ridiculous if other advertisers are trying to report these as unique leads. Unique actions, yes. But unique leads? Sorry, that doesn’t fly.

Use Lead Management tools to track leads
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  • Use CRM to Track Touchpoints, Not an ILS

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That said, if you’ve ever used a lead scoring or marketing automation system, you know that prospects that take multiple actions on your content score higher. They get bumped up the list as “hotter” prospects who might be primed to buy.

If the ILS has this data, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t pass this on. Help me and my leasing team understand who our best prospects are and which leads are most interested.


“We’re judged on our lead volume, cost per lead, and in some cases, cost per lease (though many clients are admitting now they can’t hold us accountable for conversion/what happens on site).”

Again, we’re back to the standard accepted metrics in the multifamily industry. But there’s a lot to be gained from looking outside the industry to how other advertising channels report data.

In addition to the diagnostic metrics above, I think it’s helpful to consider alternative cost models used by other online advertising marketplaces.

Lead volume and cost per lead (on a monthly subscription) creates an incentive to deliver as many leads as possible, without necessarily focusing on the true quality of those leads. Cost per lease is asking the advertiser to do your leasing team’s job, too, which doesn’t help either side.

Here are some other ways to look at your advertising spend that may provide some helpful insights:

  • Cost per thousand impressions (CPM)
  • Cost per click (CPC)
  • Cost per lead (via phone call or email)
  • Cost per ad engagement (Share, save, compare, etc.)
  • Cost per website conversion (Tracks through to lead conversion on your website)
  • Cost per video views

Cost per Lead Advertising
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  • Look Beyond Cost-Per-Lead

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Think about where the prospect encounters the ILS.

In terms of customer intent, the ILS often sits very early in the process, when the customer is just starting their search and getting their first exposure to your brand. The prospect is just starting to narrow down their options, so they may not be a very qualified lead at this point.

Put another way, there’s a good chance “cost per lead” may be the wrong metric when the customer isn’t quite ready to become a lead yet.


Whew, time to take a breath…

Now What?

I share this with you because I want you to be a better marketer.

I want you to get more for your advertising dollar.

I want your advertising partners to be more open with you about the results they’re delivering for you.

But in order to get there, you have to do your part. Ask better questions. Dig into the reports and find the metrics that matter. Compare notes with your peers, and look at what other advertising channels offer. Make sure you’re using the necessary tools to understand and validate how your advertising is performing.

Victor’s numbers should be higher. And that is good news for you, if you’re ready.

(Thanks to Victor for the data, insights, and unintended inspiration.)

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