During the past decade, the apartment industry has been moving away from traditional forms of marketing to more sophisticated digital strategies.
That transformation accelerated when the pandemic hit.
“Screen time is up since the pandemic began and customers are ingesting more digital content than ever before through channels like social media, email and advertisements,” says Garin Hamburger, Senior Director, National Property Marketing for Cushman & Wakefield. “Our marketing and leasing teams have been capitalizing on that increased exposure to reach customers.”
During the pandemic, it seemed like many strategies for generating leads and converting residents changed. Many of those lessons learned are here for the long term.
“All tactics implemented weeks before and during the pandemic will definitely stick around,” says Tracy Fauntleroy, Director of Corporate Brand Marketing and Communications at Morgan Properties. “We are moving to a digital world and have to find new and innovative ways to reach our audiences.”
But that doesn’t mean the industry has arrived at its destination yet. Marketing to prospective residents and converting them to new residents will continue to grow as technology improves.
Morgan Properties began incorporating more of a digital marketing strategy before the pandemic hit. Amid the pandemic, the company, like many other operators, doubled down on digital marketing.
“Once everything began to shut down, it became more important than ever to find new and innovative ways to reach prospective residents,” says Fauntleroy. “It was also important to make sure that Morgan Properties’ digital presence was cohesive with the look and feel of traditional leasing materials.”
Along those lines, Morgan rolled out digital brochures. “It gave the prospects something to remember the unit by and highlighted the key features,” says Jillian Fikkert, Director of Property Marketing. “These digital brochures give prospects all the same information through links and act as a one-stop shop for new resident materials.”
With many potential residents sitting at home during the pandemic, Cushman & Wakefield saw the chance to market its communities across multiple platforms.
“By marketing our communities across multiple platforms, prospects have had more opportunity to find, see and interact with our brands,” Hamburger says. “Prospects notice us in social media interactions, Google searches, news websites, mobile applications, email inboxes and various other platforms. Our marketing team has also been strategically persistent with our messaging and exposure.”
Cushman & Wakefield also made automated marketing campaigns a strategic marketing staple. “These campaigns, which ensure every lead is informed and nurtured, also assist with conversion,” Hamburger says. “This has become a great supplement to our onsite leasing efforts.”
When in-person tours ceased at the height of the pandemic, apartment operators also relied more heavily on their websites to turn digital visits into leases.
“Websites became our most powerful leasing tool and we quickly implemented and improved virtual tour offerings,” says Debi Wherry, Senior Vice President of Operations at Fogelman.
When prospects made it to GID/Windsor Communities’ website after the onset of the pandemic, they encountered a different viewing experience than they would have before COVID. After the coronavirus hit, the company redid 110 websites in 30 days.
“There wasn’t the emphasis on the call to action and the other functionality that was needed [on the earlier version of the site], especially with all of the different types of tours,” says Jamie Gorski, Chief Marketing Officer at GID/Windsor Communities.
GID/Windsor Communities incorporated a link that allowed residents to attend virtual open houses. It also emphasized its reviews and ratings with the new design. Gorski says the change helped the company improve its customer service, as evidenced by its ORA scores increasing six points.
“Between monitoring social media and then looking at reviews and ratings, we were able to use that data to improve our customer experience,” Gorski says.
Reviews and tours aren’t the only website additions that helped GID/Windsor during the pandemic. Like many companies in the apartment industry, it also relied on artificial intelligence tools, like chatbots, on the front-end of its website.
AI is nothing new to the apartment industry. For years, the sector has been trying to harness its powers. For instance, companies like Morgan Properties and GID/Windsor implemented chatbots before the pandemic. And, while the industry still isn’t close to fully realizing the potential of the technology, these tools were valuable as everyone went online during the pandemic.
“This new marketing tactic proved to be very effective during the pandemic, as it allowed prospects to easily get the information they need without having to dig through the website or call the office,” Fikkert says. “Now, all Morgan Properties’ communities utilize chatbots.”
Many of these bots will take prospects directly to the information they need instead of forcing the user to click through multiple pages. In a world where people want instant information, these tools are necessary. “It just becomes much easier for customers to get information quickly, schedule appointments and get the basics done,” Gorski says. “Customers are looking for that answer right away.”
In addition to taking a prospect directly to the information they need (instead of potentially having them get frustrated and leave the site), the AI tools also provide follow-up.
“When a customer comes to us, then this immediately takes over and starts emailing the customer and setting up an appointment,” Gorski says. “It really is nurturing the prospect.”
Gorski says these tools should improve the level of service in the apartment industry. It may take a busy leasing agent a few hours to return an email, but AI systems respond immediately. “In our industry, we have not been great at returning emails or even returning phone calls,” Gorski says. “These tools allow that and even have online appointment setting.”
Despite the features these systems provide, Gorski is expecting even more functionality down the road. “They’re always improving the technology,” she says. “The communication ability is improving. And that is exciting.”
In the future, Gorski sees AI systems getting better at predicting which prospects are going to close and how they want to communicate, whether it is via text, email or call. She thinks they will eventually handle 90% of the leasing process. “I think we’re just going to get so much better using these tools,” she says. “We’ve never really had great lead scoring or predictive forecasting, but we will get better and better with these AI tools.”
When shutdown orders and social distancing made in-person visits impossible during the worst of the pandemic, many companies quickly pivoted.
“Self-guided tours also emerged as a valuable option and prospects enjoyed the opportunity to view the community on their own, mitigating safety concerns,” Wherry says.
Like many companies, Morgan Properties also utilized virtual tours in several ways. On YouTube, the company shared videos of leasing professionals behind or in front of the camera walking through the various unit types and describing in-unit finishes. Its Matterports provide prospects the ability to “walk around” the unit using a 360° viewer, while it utilized Realync to share the virtual tours with a group of potential roommates or international prospects. “This tool was rolled out at the majority of Morgan Properties communities that were near college campuses,” Fikkert says.
Atlanta-based apartment owner, developer and manager Audubon also relied on different tour options. “From self-guided tours to FaceTime connections with an onsite associate, these [tours] marked a significant change to a core aspect of our business,” says Brady Ellis, Marketing Director for Audubon. “We also shifted our focus on the digital front to make sure we offered all of the resources a prospective tenant would need from the comfort of their own home, primarily in the form of 3-D virtual tours where the space would translate more effectively than through photos.”
Ellis says the combination of digital strategies, including a strong virtual tour platform, helped the company lease successfully in 2020. Now that virtual leasing has become established, it will be expected by consumers after the pandemic.
“Making sure we accurately represented ourselves online on everything from pricing to amenities offered was critical, and something we will continue to focus on in the future,” Ellis says.
Ellis isn’t alone in this expectation. While Morgan Properties sees in-person tours increase, Fauntleroy says there is now a new expectation that virtual leasing and tours will still be available to those who prefer that method, especially future residents moving from out of state or international students.
Wherry also thinks virtual leasing is here to stay. “For leasing, we anticipate more prospects will turn to virtual tours despite lifting restrictions,” Wherry says. “In our experience, the new generation of renters prefers to review their options first and then ask questions. They also enjoy showing their friends and family their options for living, which is easier with virtual tours.”
But that isn’t all. A segment of the population doesn’t want to interact with a leasing agent during a tour. “Many communities will also continue offering self-guided tours for those who prefer in-person tours but are not comfortable with face-to-face interactions,” Wherry says.
But there can be issues with self-guided tours. “In the guided tour with the agent, the agent can explain what the community is about and maybe offer additional features or floor plans,” Gorski says. “That communication piece really makes a difference. We see that in our closing ratios.”
GID/Windsor Communities’ self-guided tour conversion rates are about half of what they are for in-person or virtual guided tours.
“The question for me and my organization is how do I improve that self-guided tour so that the prospect understands that we will truly take care of them,” Gorski says.
While improving self-guided closing ratios can be a challenge, it’s nothing compared to what apartment marketers and leasing agents have overcome in the past year and a half. After adjusting in the face of COVID, there is little doubt they’ll continue to evolve to deal with whatever marketing challenges they’ll face in the future.
Fogelman Properties (Fogelman) is one of the country’s largest and most experienced privately-owned multifamily investment and property management companies. As a fully integrated company, Fogelman specializes in multifamily acquisitions, property management, construction management, and asset management. Founded in 1963, Fogelman operates 94 multifamily communities totaling more than 28,000 apartment homes spread across 10 states in the Southeast, Southwest and Midwest. For more information about Fogelman, please visit www.fogelman.com or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.