There’s no question that resident communications and retention are more important than ever. But the question is, “What is the most effective way to communicate with residents on their schedule?” Well, based on the fact that NMHC and others have found that 67% of residents prefer to be contacted online via email, it’s safe to assume that an online portal may be the best option for apartment communities that want to offer a communications hub for their residents.

A resident portal can be a very effective way to reach your residents on their schedule, providing better customer service and more emotional connections to the property. It can also become a marketing tool to attract prospective residents. Your ultimate goal should be to improve resident retention — a resident portal (that includes social networking) can be a very powerful tool, assuming that it provides utility and reasons for users to keep coming back.

The second question is, “What resident portal system should you use?” There are a number of portal solutions out there, from industry-specific portals to white-labeled social networking sites to open-source platforms that allow you to build your own site however you like.

The ideal resident portal would combine the communications tools of mainstream social networks with the specific functionality needed in the apartment industry. There are a lot of other considerations as well, such as hosting and maintenance, upgrades, security, Fair Housing, marketing and training for your onsite teams. It’s really just a matter of doing it yourself (or letting your web designer do it) versus finding experts to do it for you. I think the experts will ultimately win out in the end, but the industry-specific solutions have a ways to go before they offer the full suite of online communication tools that most properties need. Here is a quick overview of a few of the options that are currently available:

Option 1: DIY
Ning.comThis is the most customizable way, and it’s getting a lot easier as content management systems (CMS) become easier for non-techies to use. There are really two categories: CMS platforms and white-label social network providers. Customizable CMS platforms include Drupal, Joomla and WordPress. There are a number of white-label social networks available; the most popular right now are Ning and KickApps.

These are extremely flexible systems with the most powerful social networking tools, but they do not offer any apartment-specific functions (rent payment, maintenance requests, etc.), so those would have to build custom. That said, I’m a huge Ning fan and think it has serious potential in apartment communities. (Here’s more about them from Fast Company.) Cost: Ranges from free to as much as you are willing to spend on customization and design.

UPDATE: To see how one apartment company is using Ning, check out the Urbane Lobby from Urbane Apartments.

Option 2: Use an apartment-specific network
There are two players in this arena right now: AptConnect and LifeAt. The founders of AptConnect come out of the apartment world, so their site is much more focused on property staff-to-resident communications (with some social features), while LifeAt found early success with condos and HOAs, so their platform offers more in terms of resident-to-resident communications. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and both have great potential. For more on these sites, see the reviews (AptConnect, LifeAt) over at Multifamily Technology 360. Cost: Monthly subscription per property.


Option 3: Tie it into your property management system.
The big property managment systems like Yardi, RealPage and others have had portal options for a while, but these are quite limited in terms of social networking and resident-to-resident communications. Third-party services like BuildingLink and offer online maintenance requests and other tools, but generally lack the integration with any of the major PMS platforms. Cost: Monthly subscription per unit or per property.

Option 4: Tie it in with your property website.
Apartment website companies also have jumped into the portal mix. Resite, PropertySolutions, and SphereXX all have portal options, but again, these sites primarily focus on rent payment, maintenance requests and some basic community news. Cost: Usually monthly or annual subscription per property. 

Option 5: Create groups on existing social networks.
FacebookBypass all the mess above, and go straight to where your residents already are online. Facebook, MySpace, Yahoo! Groups, Google Groups … Take your pick: you won’t get the apartment-specific features, but these sites might be the best, most efficient way to engage the greatest number of residents. Find out which sites your residents use most, and make sure you have a presence there. Cost: Free.

Keep in mind, if you’re implementing any kind of resident portal, it needs to be easy to use and consistent with your brand. And, YOU NEED TO MARKET IT. Social networks only work when the users are engaged and have a reason to keep coming back (monthly rent payments don’t count…). I’ll have more thoughts on this in a future post.

So what do you think? Are you using a resident portal? Which one? If you could design the ideal communications tool for your community, what would it look like?

Companies/tools from this post:
Yahoo! Groups
Google Groups