Using social media to rent apartments is a lot more nuanced than it seems.
Media scholar Marshall McLuhan's famous catchphrase, the medium is the message, would have us believe that the means by which news and information is transmitted is more important than what's actually being said. In most ways, with the explosion of technology, this turned out to be true. But many who specialize in marketing to students via social media and mobile phones are starting to disagree. Just because Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the myriad other instantaneous media options are at your fingertips, doesn't mean you have to use each and every one of them. Likewise, several who eat, sleep and breathe this specialized type of marketing urge getting a strong message out to students, one that isn't solely a sales pitch, but that has been carefully crafted to have personality and to demonstrate competence to help students plan how to spend their free time, study better and find out what room their 10 a.m. lecture got moved to.
Student housing operators and the companies that support them in this function are continuously experimenting with the formula of marketing to students via the media they likely understand better than the rest of us do. Millennials were virtually born knowing how to use this technology. In the early days of social media, many student housing companies anxiously deployed social media marketing campaigns simply because they thought they had to, favoring speed and style over a strong voice or a well-branded identity. Also, they were mostly pushing rent specials and renewals. Now, the idea is go carefully forward into the social media universe, favor consistency over coolness, and err on the side of tweeting and posting more information that has nothing whatsoever to do with filling apartments.
"You need to show your customer experience in authentic marketing and actions," says Dave Beltramini, director of online marketing and strategy performance for G5 Digital Experience Management. "You need them to connect with your property. The balance of power has shifted to the customer. In many ways, you are not an apartment complex or property, you are a marketing company."
Beltramini says this involves maintaining multiple channels with tailored communications strategies — some that target prospective renters, and others that pay unique attention to renters who've already signed leases and are now calling your property home.
Kerry Kirby, president and CEO of 365 Connect, which recently won an award at the internationalW3 competition for mobile technology in the multifamily industry, says one of his goals for student housing properties is to link the community's website with Facebook and Twitter. This is a goal because in the earlier days of Facebook, some communities that tasked its staff with creating Facebook pages wound up with business pages that were spun off of a staffer's personal page, which meant he or she was the only person with the log-in information. "Properties will usually have to make new Facebook pages because they've lost the ability to access them," Kirby says. "Our answer to that has been that a student housing community should be able to have a consistent distribution of information. The community website becomes the hub, so anything posted there automatically posts out to Twitter and Facebook to create a loop. With Twitter, we're limited to 140 characters. When that information goes out there, it automatically creates a link back to what I call 'the rest of the story.'"
Kirby, who has been gathering statistics since Facebook and Twitter went public, says that more than half of social media users are accessing via a mobile device. For Facebook, Kirby says that 71 percent, with 75 percent of Twitter users, are accessing the technology on their phones. After Facebook began selling ads on its mobile platform, the stock in the company has gone up, and 41 percent of advertising revenue was generated from mobile use in the second quarter of 2013, Kirby says.
"Another channel that some people don't really think of as social media is YouTube," Kirby says. "YouTube gets more than 250 million views per day by mobile device. Analysts are predicting that by 2015, access to the Internet by mobile device will surpass computer desktop access. I think that speaks volumes about how people access information."
All these trends reveal even more about who Millennials are, and how they will respond to marketing over these types of networking media. "There are some reports out there that talk about Millennials as binge consumers of entertainment," Beltramini says. "They can watch an entire series of a TV show in one night. But they rarely watch television on a TV set. They rarely buy books or music albums or subscribe to magazines, yet they expect millions of videos, songs, books, blogs and tweets available at the touch of a screen. Access is more important than ownership for this group. They value experiences versus owning things."
Tyler Holmes, account manager for marketing firm Catalyst, tries to educate clients on Millennials' reaction to common oversights with social media at the property level. "One of the biggest things we see is a push to get as many Facebook fans as possible," Holmes says. "That's great when you're establishing your property in the market. But if you're just pushing rent specials, you're not engaging, even if you have high numbers of fans and followers. A lot of times when we've looked at analytics with social media pages, we see that when posts are being made about rent specials that individuals are dropping. They're un-liking, and they're un-following. It's becoming a negative thing."
Holmes says that using social media to engage a community is the primary objective for Catalyst's clients. He sites the 1,068-bed Campus Lodge Tampa as an example of some of the firm's work in engagement and branding. Campus Lodge's Facebook page has more than 4,000 likes, and rent specials and renewal pushes are almost hard to find among the threads of communication on the site. The content, which is very photo-heavy, includes recipes from a recent chili cook-off, photos of pie-tasting events, Thanksgiving Bingo Night, and the annual "Not a Pool Party" Pool Party. Using smiling faces of real residents, calendars full of dates of events at the property, interspersed with giveaways of cruises and free rent, there is incentive for residents to check in with the property via social media at least once a day.
"Millennials may follow Ashton Kutcher on Twitter, but are they going to follow an apartment complex the same way they would a celebrity?" Holmes says. "More than likely not, but they still very much want to engage with where they live. Being part of the conversation is always better than driving the conversation. They have to feel like they are part of an exclusive identity."
One talked-about turnaround project in student housing last year was that of WestMar Lofts inAtlanta. Interestingly enough, a student resident himself played a role in using social media to enhance the reputation of the apartments. Sean Standberry, who is the marketing and sales director of LYFE Marketing, is also a Georgia State student who moved into WestMar in 2011. Owner and manager Cardinal Group swapped rent credits for Standberry to run the property's Twitter account, making Cardinal Group LYFE's first customer. Standberry first sought to bring positive comments and feedback to the fore, and to amp up management's voice and consistency along media streams.
"On social media, it's more authentic, more of a conversation," Standberry says. His goal was to give managers more of a say in this conversation, so that it showed equal dialogue between residents and managers. He attributes the success of WestMar's social media campaigns, to handling residents' comments head-on and individually. He did so by re-tweeting positive comments and interviewing people who liked the community. When problems did arise, such as the Internet going down during a test, for example, Standberry says he responded the same way as if the resident had come into the office.
"We'd ask them to bear with us while we fixed the problem and would invite them down to the computer lab where the Internet was working just fine," he says. "They had so many beds [1,200], that it was hard to address everything. The biggest problem is commitment. A lot of other student housing properties are likely to place social media at the bottom of their to-do list. But social media is really something that has to be done two to three hours a day. You have to figure out how to relate to students, but most importantly you have to talk to them about your property. Twitter and Instagram are more like sales environments and Facebook is more for showcasing your property. You really have to make a commitment to social media and put a lot of energy toward it."
WestMar won the Student Housing Business Innovator Award in 2012 for Best Turnaround and Best Leasing and Marketing, and another Cardinal Property, Auraria Student Lofts, won an Innovator for social media in 2013.
LYFE understood how to leverage Twitter better than anyone on our team, and we were able to gather thougsands of followers at WestMar and at our other communities," says Alex O'Brien, president of Cardinal Group Management. "I think it's hard to quantify social media campaigns, especially Twitter and Instagram. It is hard to say Twitter received 'X' pieces of traffic. On the other hand, it is easy to say that word of mouth and reputation drive traffic. Sean and his team helped us start a conversation. That conversation, which began with pop culture and university events, ultimately led to talking about why you should live at WestMar."
— Lynn Peisner