Making A Mark
Communities and leasing teams are combining traditional new approaches to craft the perfect marketing formula.
Student housing companies are continually searching for the best ways to stay competitive in their markets to serve the ever-changing student population and to stay on top on-going leasing cycles. The results include unique combinations of traditional marketing and sales techniques along with sophisticated use of new technology platforms to develop the best formula for a community and its student body.
Catering to the student is an evolving challenge that complicates all aspects of the student-housing marketplace — new technologies, constant turnovers, staying abreast of current trends and the competitive market are all issues that ring true to student housing leasing and marketing teams.
"Staying fresh and relevant is always a challenge," says Donna Preiss, CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based The Preiss Company. "Each year we grow older, yet our clientele never ages."
This challenge is something not seen across all sectors of the real estate industry; however, it is a driving factor for the student housing business. Companies — property owners, managers and leasing teams alike — strive to stay current and keep their audience's fleeting attention while also competing in the market and maintaining occupancy and lease rates.
Michelle Fuller, senior director of real estate for Dallas-based Greystar Management Services, echoes Preiss' remarks, explaining that a challenge her company faces is creating successful marketing campaigns that reflect the quickly changing trends of students. To combat this obstacle, Greystar focuses on creating campaigns that are forward-thinking and adaptive to the leasing cycle but that still drive home the central branding message so the property becomes easily recognizable within the community.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that not only are trends and ideas constantly changing, but so is the student body with an influx of freshmen and transfer students each year. With each cycle, companies must introduce their brand and properties as the best option for the incoming students and usually their parents.
"Constantly having to drive brand awareness to a new set of freshmen and transfer students is hard but necessary," says Ryan Sundling, creative coordinator with Denver, Colo.-based Cardinal Group Management. "If not done well, it could have negative effects for the duration of the time that class is at the university."
Cardinal Group fights this challenge with a market-based approach. Some universities allow for on-campus advertisement during freshmen orientation, while in other markets the company takes a more guerilla approach with street teams, fliers and on-campus pranks to reach the new student body.
With the young audience, a little flash can definitely catch their attention, but companies have to be able to back it up, notes Claire Murphy, national marketing and training director for Dallas-based Grand Campus Living, and building brand loyalty within the student housing market is no easy feat.
Fostering communities where students want to create a home for their college years is part of the student market challenge. Communities are trending toward luxury, all-inclusive activities, and high-end furnishing and amenity packages that are becoming a new norm in the marketplace.
With this in mind, communities are continually trying to out-shine each other to attract and retain residents; however, sometimes less flash is more. Quality service and product are typically the clinchers for initial leases, lease renewals and word-of-mouth marketing.
Communities and leasing teams are keenly aware of the role happy residents play in creating a strong brand awareness and loyalty within the community.
"We understand that the best way to attract renters is by keeping residents happy and then supplying them with the tools and motivation to share their experiences with their friends," says Danny Soule, managing director of Atlanta-based CLASS Leasing. "It is better to spend money on your existing residents and let them spread the word as opposed to dropping thousands of dollars on signage and print ads."
Creating resident advocates can easily be one of the best marketing campaigns for a community, but it's also important to not overlook the influence that parents have on a student's living situation. A successful marketing strategy should also involve the parents of potential students, as some parents have a stronger say in a student's housing options.
Along with the effort to stay in the know with their target market, communities are utilizing the popular social media platforms for leasing and marketing campaigns. Between social media blitzes to online marketing sources and peer review sites, online marketing is both the present and future.
"A robust digital marketing mix continues to be on the forefront of marketing and leasing trends," explains Fuller. "Providing students with an interactive experience through the property website and social media continues to impact leasing and renewal capture ratios."
Students want to feel connected to the property and gauge how they fit in with the community. Creating a cultural vibe for your community and offering online interaction through videos, chats and pictures allows potential residents to get a sense of a property and the community the company is cultivating, says Fuller.
However, striking the right balance with an online presence can be tricky, and Sundling warns that a community's media presence should be well thought out and properly used.
Companies and communities may be wasting valuable time and money on ineffective social media pushes, as many strategies too often focus on posting the funniest meme to achieve the most "likes" instead of building a brand for the community. The coveted "likes" will naturally come if communities create a solid brand that fosters interaction and that people enjoy.
"Don't force it," notes Sundling. "The real power of social media is in what your residents and brand advocates are saying about you, not what you are saying to them."
Katy Smerko, national director of leasing and marketing of Austin, Texas-based Campus Advantage, agrees, noting that Campus Advantage is seeing an uptick in online traction especially from peer review sites, such as Yelp, and social networking sites.
Brand interaction is becoming a strong factor for students vetting residential options, possibly even more so than brand awareness, and being able to capitalize on that is one way to push your property to the top of the list.
"By getting your residents to be ambassadors for your community, you can create a wave of peer influence that can help drastically increase your leases and renewals," Soule says. "We have had great success with events, games or trivia that can be leveraged into a property's social media program."
Soule suggests sponsoring scavenger hunts that involve posting clues to a property's Facebook page or online check-in-based giveaways that promote interaction between the property and its residents or potential residents, although typically incentives are needed to create a robust resident participation.
Digital marketing and the advancement of online leasing and renewals are both making a mark in the student housing industry, and many companies are using these tools as a way to reach the always-plugged-in market.
"By giving the students and the guarantor the option to solely sign online, you are effectively leasing 24-7. Tenants can sign documents whenever they have time, even if it's at 2 in the morning," says Smerko.
Grand Campus Living has also experienced success with digital marketing and online leasing options for its properties. Murphy explains that Grand Campus Living opted for a digital marketing approach and website to help provide a specific and purposeful focus, which gave the company an approximate 75 percent higher return on inquiries than previous projects.
Aspen Heights has experienced great success with its grassroots and online marketing campaigns through social media platforms, including Facebook. The company's grassroots efforts have proven to increase brand recognition in ways that are unique to the industry, explains Zach Borger, vice president of sales and marketing with Austin, Texas-based Aspen Heights.
"This is reflected in our initial social media number just days into the roll out of a campaign," says Borger. "At the start of school, our Facebook page for Aspen Heights Starkville, Miss., quickly reached thousands through creative and interactive features lead by the on-site team."
And yet, successful marketing and leasing campaigns are as varied and numerous as the students themselves. The Preiss Company has had huge success with a T-shirt campaign, originating at a Texas property and quickly sweeping the nation. The shirts feature a short slogan, "I Rock (using a hand-symbol graphic) Texas (or the state of any given property)", and have become hugely successful with the targeted demographic and beyond.
While some properties enjoy success with strong digital marketing campaigns, other markets do not respond the same way and tried-and-true sales techniques and brand marketing produce better results.
Greystar works diligently to craft consistent, yet relevant, marketing to attract students throughout the ever-changing leasing cycle. For the initial lease up of Circle West in Austin, Texas, Greystar created the "living in the circle" campaign, which featured a mix of materials and media that rotated through the leasing cycle. The marketing plan included a campaign with movie-themed flyers and 11 poster designs, which were used as ads, window screens and flyers that changed through the leasing cycling. The company also incorporated a website with an interactive experience and daily updates on construction. Additionally, the staff utilized a "living in the circle"-branded vehicle to pass out marketing materials and attend tailgating and other campus events.
"Students started to recognize our brand by the image alone," says Fuller. "And the property leased to 100 percent at above pro forma rents."
Traditional sales techniques and approaches still carry weight in markets, but companies and employees must have the motivation to bring in the leases.
"We believe all properties need to ensure they are getting more than just "their fair share" of the leases in the market," says Rick Burkhalter, general manager of Duluth, Ga.-based Sales Inc. "We've found that this can be achieved primarily by applying great sales techniques with a qualified and motivated sales person."
In one recent success story, Sales Inc. closed on 68% of the prospect traffic which increased lease applications from 13 to 31 per week. With 185 signed leases in six weeks, the property pre-leased to 98% occupancy for the first time in its four year history.
Being able to combine successful marketing and sales strategies, high-demand properties and new technologies are helping communities stay competitive.
With so many factors in the mix, it is impressive that companies are able to find the right blend of marketing and leasing approaches that work for a specific market and community and continue to hit the mark with the constant influx of new students, ideas and techniques. But practice — and in many cases flexibility — makes perfect in the student-housing marketplace.
The successful formula for marketing and leasing a property is unique to each community, but the ingredients are the same: brand recognition, property advocates, a motivated sales team, great service and locking in the attention of students and parents."
— Amy Bigley Works