Messaging With Meaning
A look inside some of the year-round efforts that go into leasing and marketing student housing properties.
The delicate task of marketing to students is an important part of doing business. With heavy competition in many markets, owner-operators, marketing teams and leasing pros are required to be as creative and targeted as possible. Multiple stakeholders, a requirement to deploy social media at expert levels and a constantly shifting demographic don't make matters any easier. Marketing campaigns need to be sleek and edgy, but also mindful of parents, who are often the source of rent payments.
It used to be that the push for renewals tapered off after the holidays, then leasing accelerated by the start of the second semester. These days, marketing and leasing is a year-round commitment.
"The days of ramping up your pre-leasing in January are gone," says Danny Soule, managing director of CLASS Leasing, an apartment leasing and marketing firm that works with several student housing properties across the country, with a large swath of clients in Texas. "Now, a property must have a yearlong plan to constantly sell a 'sense of community' to both the residents and other students who are potential renters for the following year."
The online presence of a community becomes more important with each new freshman class. A skilled team that can manage a strong website and incorporate all pieces of social and mobile media is required for a solid reputation around campus. Building brand awareness for some companies requires demonstrating an understanding of young people that will set a property apart from its competitors.
"Friday Night Forever," a song by Dan Gautreau and Wolfgang Black, played through the sound systems of clubhouses in the more than 40 Campus Crest Communities' (CCG) properties across the United States on move-in day this year. The music laid the soundtrack for a video, playing on TV screens as students finalized their paper work and moved their belongings into their new apartments.
The video was shot at Campus Crest properties with real tenants and showed snippets of life at the apartments. From the indulgence of celebrating your 21st birthday to a restorative yoga class the next day, the mini-film flashes through scenes of basketball games, poolside barbecues and students dancing and roasting marshmallows over a fire pit at night.
It's part of the Glory Days marketing campaign, crafted to cement buzz and branding around the idea that life at Grove properties is supported by a company that gets what college is all about. The program is designed to increase Facebook presence with a free-rent-for-a-year sweepstakes and an invitation for students to Tweet what might be on their "college bucket lists."
"The key is being authentic," says Emily Leverone, CCG's director of marketing. "We want to reflect that college is a real-life experience, which is why we don't use stock photography images on our websites. We also try to break up our social media mix with Facebook trivia, Instagram campaigns and Pinterest items, so that it's not all one big sales pitch."
Every year, CCG rolls out a new campaign that begins on move-in day. It's part of a multi-pronged approach to get leases signed and to further develop the company's reputation as providing a place to live that promises good times as well as opportunities for participating in community advocacy. From the top down, the company promotes the idea of making the most of college on all fronts. Its goals, executives say, are to develop independent, responsible adults. But first, they have to get your attention.
"We work to get our students indoctrinated into the community in August when they arrive," Leverone says. "We make it a big, special event with a week's worth of activities, and we launch [the annual marketing campaign] from there. Our focus is on renewals in the fall, and then we shift gears with the start of the new semester after the holidays and start focusing on new prospects."
Campus Crest Communities Co-Chairman and CEO Ted Rollins says the top two traffic-drivers are social media and event marketing. "We've always taken a layered approach to how we create the perception of the product in any given marketplace."
One of the foundations of that perception is a standardized website across all the properties with a few set portals for customization. The websites look the same, but flickr and Facebook links on each property's page enable managers to publish content unique to each community, and to monitor residents' posts.
"It's valuable for us to establish our web presence in this way," Rollins says. "It's a very efficient method to execute our marketing strategy from a cost, time and quality standpoint. A lot of operators have a different website for every property, and there's no continuity. We know this works for us. We've had good cross-selling from families sending siblings to two schools where we have properties in the market."
Whether it's a company T-shirt or a promotional event, marketing is designed to drive traffic to the website, and then to the property. But leasing is slightly different for a community that is under construction. CCG is opening six new properties in 2013.
"In a new market, we have a lot of awareness to build without the project to point to," Rollins says.
"A lot of effort and time goes into the way we penetrate a market and how we do event marketing and build the brand in that market. We put a great deal of thought into how we integrate with a new community, down to the way we set our offices up when we're there. Some people integrate with the community by dropping rate and getting people to come because the rates are low. We try not to do that when we come into a new market because it creates a hangover on your rent roll the following year."
New sites usually feature a full-scale model so students can see and interact with an apartment. "There are a lot of visuals so you can really get a sense of the experience," Leverone adds. "Then we create events they want to come to and start to build that sense of community, even before the property is physically there."
While there are times when a unified approach works for some operators, there are others when tailoring a campaign to the climate of a market is most effective.
At Campus Apartments, the company's staff in its home office in Philadelphia is relatively small. The majority is dispersed around the country, positioned to take the temperature of each market to determine the best marketing approach for optimum leasing.
This is partly to do with the fact that the company is both an owner-operator as well as a keeper of a portfolio it manages for hedge funds, institutional investors and high net worth individuals who have either entered the student housing space or have a portfolio of assets that includes student housing investments. In many of the markets where Campus Apartments owns assets, it also manages for others. Conversely, it manages in some markets where it does not own.
Leasing and marketing varies by product type, just as a high-rise urban development geared for graduate students would attract different tenants than a low-rise, more suburban property courting younger residents.
"The people on our teams are required to know what makes a campus tick," says Miles Orth, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Campus Apartments. "In some markets, marketing to the Greek students is vital. You have to know the right target in each campus market and how to pursue them." In Northeast markets, particularly near the University of Pennsylvania, Campus Apartments' properties tend to lease up faster than others.
"We've tried to look at data to peel back the onion in order to learn how different types of campuses lease, but it tends to be related to the campus traditions. There are times when we'll time marketing to what's happening with the campus housing office."
Campus Apartments is targeting a 3 percent rent growth for fall 2013. The company came in at just below 95 percent for fall 2012.
Across the board, whoever the target tenant may be, the company finds a transparent leasing structure to be most effective in many markets. Rents are published as low in the early season, and they go up as the months go by.
"We publish our leasing tiers rather than withholding our rate increases," Orth says. "We've become completely transparent in our specials so the customers know what they're going to get and when they're going to get it. The caveat that's built into that is that we have a system that will automatically increase rents based on velocity, in the unlikely event 1,000 students show up for an early deal."
By design, student housing marketing is more nuanced than it is in other areas of real estate. In addition to selling to the student, there are the parents, roommates and friends to consider in any approach.
"Many people in a student's life influence their decision of where to live," Soule says. "A conventional renter will base a decision more on the rents and the tour of the property. This puts a greater emphasis on reputation management and the ability to sell to both the student and parents, and it's why we like to get contact information for all these parties. A hand-written thank you note mailed to a parent after a tour can go a long way to securing a lease."
Third-party management company Greystar Student Living has a stable of at least 10 marketing approaches that complement an owner-operator or investor's goals for a property. Greystar Student Living has 14 clients and manages 24 student assets, approximately 13,000 beds. Some owners want to drive rent growth, while others are focused on occupancy, depending on their future plans for the asset. With this in mind, the company develops collateral and techniques tailored to meet desired returns.
"If they want us to focus on occupancy, we have to hit certain pre-leasing goals," says Michelle Fuller, senior director of real estate for Greystar Management Services and head of the student living platform. "Some of our clients have a long-term hold and they are OK with 96 percent because they really want to push the pedal on the rent growth in the asset."
If occupancy is the target, Fuller says getting into the market as early as possible is important to get renewals locked up.
"Then, you have to have advanced, guerilla marketing on campus because it's a numbers game. We need enough traffic to fill up to 100 percent. When we focus on rent growth, we emphasize the services, showing the student what value they receive for the extra rent, including management services and amenities."
Guerilla marketing to students requires creativity. Soule says marketing to parents during the holidays is one example of reaching customers with a simple, inexpensive campaign. "This is the perfect time for a direct mail campaign or an e-blast as the students and parents are together under one roof and your property can become a topic of discussion.
"I also love the term 'disruptive marketing,'" Soule says. "Students are bombarded by products and messages every day, so you need something different to catch their attention. Your 'Now Leasing' banner is not going to break through all the noise."
— Lynn Peisner