Resident 2.0

The following is the complete text of Mike Whaling’s interview with Resident 2.0 about how social media is affecting the multifamily business and how apartments companies can use these tools to their benefit.

R2: Talk about the prickly subject of social media … are people are taking it seriously enough? If I have a Facebook page, MySpace profile and a few YouTube videos, is that enough?

MW: Social media is hot topic right now, so many people, especially marketers, are taking a serious look at it. However, there’s a huge difference between having a Facebook or MySpace page and actually participating in conversations on those sites. YouTube videos and other multimedia content do a couple of different things to benefit apartment communities that we’ll talk more about later. The key is to recognize that there are already many conversations revolving around your brand online … you can’t fight those conversations, so instead try to find ways to give your residents to talk.

R2: Is social media an effective way to have residents buy into my community?

MW: Absolutely, but only if you’re willing to show your residents that you buy into them first. There are just as many, if not more, ways to connect with current residents as there are ways to communicate to prospects. If you can engage residents on sites like Facebook, Ning and Twitter, you can quickly show that you’re listening and reacting to their ideas and concerns. When residents know you care, they’ll become “ambassadors” for you.

R2: How can social media help me drive leads and close leads?

MW: First, social media can help boost search engine rankings. When prospects start looking for a place to live, you’ll appear higher on the list by engaging in popular sites such as MySpace and Flickr. Keep in mind this only gets you so far because you’ll likely lose that prospect if those pages don’t provide fresh, exciting content that keeps them interested.

Let’s talk real results: We have clients who are seeing significant increases in traffic to their website (up over 40% in some cases). Plus, they’re getting more traffic to their property blog than their primary website. More interestingly, we’ve seen nearly a 100% increase in lease conversions at several communities. People know what the community is about when they walk through the door, so they’re much more likely to sign that lease on their first visit to the property. There’s not enough data out there to determine what effect it might be having on retention, but we know residents are coming (and staying) because of the interactions through social media.

R2: What are the common misconceptions? How is social media being misused by apartment companies?

MW: One huge misconception about social media — across many industries — is the “broadcast” mentality. You probably won’t gain much traction if you’re just promoting your own specials, photos, etc. Companies need to be willing to use the tools for their intended purpose — connecting with users to build stronger relationships.

Just like it’s difficult to build a national brand in this industry, I think it’s also difficult to implement a nationwide social media campaign. The social media programs that work are built on relationships — a tough task to accomplish across a large portfolio of units in multiple markets. Focus on building relationships locally, and that’s where you’ll see your greatest successes.

As for the “right” way to use social media, the rules are still being defined. That being said, it’s a bad idea to pay for reviews or otherwise try to “game the system” on these sites. In many cases, it’s not necessarily misuse — but you’re not getting the most out of the interactive tools that these sites make available.

R2: Why is social media a smart thing to invest in as a marketer?

MW: It’s the evolution of marketing and communications. First, there was broadcast media that let us shout our message to the masses — very wide reach, but lots of misspent ad dollars. Then came the search engine. Google lets your customer find you based on very specific keywords. Now, you can follow the thoughts of those customers — and respond to them — almost as they happen.

R2: Even for those markets where they don’t yet have a large percentage using social media, Google is still a tool that people use. It seems everybody searches. It only takes a small handful of influential bloggers to say something that lands them on a property’s Google search results. Thoughts?

MW: I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to always be listening for anything that is being said about you and your brand. A couple of points here:

  1. Invest in the tools to listen effectively, and have a plan to respond when necessary. It’s probably not feasible to have everyone in the organization communicating with residents and prospects, and it’s really not even necessary. The goal is to know where the conversations are happening, then be able to execute a response plan when something bad does happen. Even at it’s worst, it’s still just basic crisis management.
  2. Doing all of the other things we’ve talked about will minimize any potential damage. If you’re doing your job and you’ve built a strong online community, you’ll be surprised to see how many residents will come to your side to support you if something negative does happen. Additionally, if you have taken a comprehensive approach to building your brand online (creating great content, starting conversations with residents, etc.), it’s much less likely that one or two bad reviews will rise to the top of the search engine listings. Do what you can to control the message.

R2: Talk about ratings and review sites … how can apartment companies avoid the nasty reviews on ApartmentRatings.com? What should they be doing about this?

MW: Review sites should not be ignored. They provide a significant opportunity — especially when you analyze trends in consumer behaviors online. Consumers want to know what everyone thinks about you before they make that buying decision. However, just participating in social media won’t save you from nasty reviews. Some reviews can get personal, but most bad reviews are rooted in truth. If you need to get your act together, your residents will tell you so.

For most products and places across all industries, the majority of reviews are actually positive. Property managers should be actively creating opportunities for residents to leave reviews whenever possible. Grab the link to your property’s page on ApartmentRatings, Yelp, Kudzu or RentWiki. Put that link on your website, on your resident portal, on your email signature. Print it on cards, print it on work order receipts — find any way you can to get that link in front of residents and make it as easy as possible for them. Ask for the review, ask for their genuine opinion, but don’t bribe. Consumers are smart and can smell fishy reviews. Keep at it — happy residents will become your best salespeople!

R2: What are some of the excuses you hear out there for why companies are not moving forward with social media initiatives? What are some of the comebacks for these excuses?

MW: I actually don’t hear many excuses anymore — companies want to jump in. They might not know what it means for their business yet, but they want in. The most frequently mentioned excuse has to be “We’re just not there yet.” The problem is, the conversations about their brand are still happening in the meantime, and those companies aren’t even aware of those conversations until it’s too late. In nine months — when you think you’ll be ready — you’ll just be that much farther behind the eight ball.

That said, creating a MySpace profile and adding a bunch of friends does not constitute a social media initiative. I also think that apartment marketers need to talk about social media with their ILS. Some ILS providers are heavily promoting their presence on social media sites, but it’s debatable whose brand is getting the most benefit out of those efforts. Understand what your ILS is doing and how that can potentially complement your own social media strategy. Their job is to drive traffic to your site, your job is to find ways to connect with those folks after they find you.

R2: Talk about the ROI of social media. I’m sure there are companies that are still debating whether they should make the leap.

MW: It’s tough to justify a lot of our marketing expenses, particularly when it’s a change from the traditional tactics that not everyone is comfortable with yet. I would definitely avoid advertising on social media sites at this point. The return is almost zero. Users just tune the ads out. An investment in social media should primarily focus on your people’s time — the time required to listen to your audience, understand the unique cultures that have developed on these sites, and start finding ways to engage that audience in two-way conversations that address their concerns and promote your message.

The ROI of social media can be messy, because it often doesn’t fit into just one department — whether that’s marketing, advertising, internal communications, customer service. The truth is, it affects all of those functions, so focusing on one metric (such as leasing office traffic) won’t really give you the whole picture.

R2: What about those who say social media works for big brands with lots of customers and online conversation, BUT my company only sees a handful of customers discussing online so why should I care about investing in listening and engaging?

MW: I actually think that social media and other types of online tools level the playing field for the smaller companies, for a variety of reasons. Individual apartment communities aren’t trying to reach millions of people with their message anyway. They’re trying to reach people in a specific area, plus anyone who might be relocating into the neighborhood. Find ways to focus your efforts on the people (local bloggers) and events (meetups) in that specific neighborhood or region … you’ll be surprised to learn how much chatter is going on in your area that you can leverage to build your brand.

R2: Should companies be reaching out to consumers who talk about them online? I know that vast majority appreciate the fact that companies make the effort to reach out, and since these are public conversations, many do it in order to be heard. What are your thoughts on this?

MW: I have had discussions with industry marketers about who should take on the role of resident communications: Should it come from the community or the property manager? It depends. Do people know the property manager who’s full of personality? Are you pushing to build the community’s brand? Either way, people don’t want to hear corporate gibberish; they expect companies to take on a very human, very conversational tone. Be professional, but have fun and be yourself, too.

Give residents and prospects the answers they’re looking for. They’ll definitely appreciate it, and if you’re lucky, they’ll pass the word.

R2: What are the results of being “in social media,” listening and engaging?

MW: You get an almost-instant view into the thoughts and feelings of your audience. By listening for buzz surrounding your brand, your neighborhood and your competition, you’ll know right away what people think about you, who is looking for an apartment and what the people in your community are most interested in. Engaging those people just shows that you’re part of the community and you want to help them. And when you help, others feel like they need to help you back — whether that’s by referring a prospect, cleaning up their place when they move, or being more willing to offer discounts to your residents.

R2: Companies are looking to figure out whether social media spending is something discretionary or if it should be core to their marketing strategies. How should they figure this out?

MW: I’m fairly convinced it’s not just a marketing tactic. There are significant cases to be made for social media tools to help customer service and internal communication/training, too. There’s a strong movement toward more open communication across all departments and all levels in a company. It can get complicated, but this also provides an opportunity for collaboration that hasn’t been available until just recently.

Here’s an industry example: Use a wiki or a private social network to let all of your onsite staff across a portfolio share marketing and operations information with each other instantly. If something is working well (or isn’t), a property manager could post the suggestion or pose a question to all of the other property managers throughout the company. Social media tools can provide quick, measurable feedback that can enable informed decisions across an organization.

R2: People have become used to thinking about marketing in the traditional sense. They are focused on how to reach as many people as possible. Now the option of using social media to reach potential consumers comes along and they ask, how can I scale this? Thoughts?

MW: Recognize that the metrics are different. Not all of them, of course. At the end of the day, it’s still about renting apartments. But I think we really have to look at the tools that are becoming available and the ways to get to most out of them. In most cases, these websites are all focused on building one-to-one relationships in one way or another. That’s obviously very difficult to scale throughout a large organization, but the good news is that the basic principles are the same almost everywhere. Test things out, find what works at one community or in one region, then apply those basic concepts in other regions. Unless you have the brand recognition of a Southwest Air, Dell or Comcast, I think a national “umbrella” approach will have a tough time gaining traction.

R2: What do you see in the future for apartment companies in terms of social media listening and engaging? Is this just the beginning?

MW: This is definitely just the beginning. Social media will become increasingly integrated into property websites, and communication as sites like Facebook and Twitter will become more mainstream. Additional emphasis will be placed on conversations that are happening in “real time,” so listening tools like Search.Twitter.com will be critical.

Features such as Facebook Connect or Google Friend Connect will make property sites more personalized by showing prospects exactly which of their friends have left reviews about the community. I think we’ll also see more property blogs and media sharing from sites like YouTube and Flickr. The fun stuff is just starting to happen.

Many of these topics apply to businesses of all sizes in almost all industries. Want more great discussion about how social media and other online tools can help your business? You can contact Mike by phone (614.859.5030), by email (mike@30lines.com), or via Twitter (@30lines).

If you’re looking for more information that is specific to the multifamily housing industry, please visit the Resident 2.0 group on Facebook.

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