Student housing companies are pressed to put out good first impressions, before students even step onto a property.
Long gone are the days when a sleek website was all that was needed to set a property apart from its market competitors and "speak" to Gen Y customers. Millennials are glued to their phones and tablets, this much is known. But to market with an increasing palette of virtual tools requires more sophistication each year. Dan Hobin, CEO and co-founder of G5 Digital Experience Management, says successful marketing in the social and mobile arena with such a savvy target as students (and their parents) involves an intimate understanding of the "zero moment of truth," or ZMOT, phenomenon. According to this way of thinking, consumers have already interacted with a product or service long before they make a move toward being a customer. This goes for electronics and clothing just as much as an apartment to rent.
"In student housing, ZMOT means that if a property's website, Facebook, Twitter, Google + Local and Yelp accounts haven't been optimized and managed properly before a student walks in, they will rule you out," Hobin says.
Young would-be renters are interacting with their moments of truth in changing ways. Some leaders in the field of social and mobile marketing say that Facebook messaging is taking the place of e-mailing, and that Google + may soon start outpacing Facebook.
Here, three companies that help student housing operators market effectively with technological tools share some of their best practices.
365 Connect brought home five technology awards in 2012, including the Governor's Technology Award in Louisiana for its Locate, Lease and Live technology platform. The company targets the resident's lifecycle. 365 Connect uses a three-pronged approach that populates messages across the Internet, makes leasing easier and more seamless, and keeps residents engaged through a content-driven resident platform that is integrated to make up a community's presence on the web.
The 365 Connect platform offers, for example, a service that automatically disperses information to housing search engines and classified sites that target prospective residents looking for an apartment. The platform offers the ability to convert existing listings to featured listings on sites such as Rent Jungle and delivers leasing data to housing search engines Trulia and Zillow, as well as an array of classified sites, some targeted to students.
"We have spent several years building data feeds off our platform to sites we see as the new breed of housing search engines," says Kerry W. Kirby, president and CEO of 365 Connect. "As soon as a community site goes up on our platform, it starts pushing floor plans, pricing, photographs and amenities out across the Internet. It is viral marketing 101, as it automatically puts our clients' communities on multiple sites with zero effort on their part. As the Internet has become a crowded place, there's no one secret place we can post content and expect an avalanche of people to come walking through the door. We need to be everywhere."
In addition to syndicating leasing data, 365 Connect can deliver a mixture of information and messages that begin on a property website then automatically post to social media sites. The mix of messages is intended to draw a user to return to the property's community website. The messages include leasing specials, community news, and local events. One of the areas the company focuses on is the property's community calendar. Kirby says leaving the calendar empty month after month is a big mistake, as the calendar needs to be viewed as another content-distribution channel.
"Because we're built on a platform, we're able to do mass updating," Kirby says. "We want managers to post whatever they want on the community calendar, and when they do, they are creating viral content that is automatically pushed to Facebook and Twitter. They don't have to think about it, they just type into a box and hit 'submit.' Managers are busy, and we designed a platform to make life easier for them. They can add an array of content to the calendar, such as when the pool will open this year, or a date and time for a holiday party, to local community events, like food and arts festivals — we call it 'community advocacy.' Our platform delivers major holidays and notable events to the calendar, such as the 4th of July, full moons and national recognition days. A site user can click these events to learn more. We fill out the calendars on an annual basis, so no community on our platform ever has an empty calendar. The strategy behind this is to drive an array of diverse content across the site."
Additionally, RSS feeds that flow off the site enable people to obtain information they want about the community without having to visit the website every day.
"RSS feeds are another method of creating viral marketing through content. If a site user is interested in a certain floor plan, but wants to wait for a leasing special, they don't want to keep coming to the site for updates. They can simply program that feed into their Smartphone, Gmail interface or browser setting and get that information delivered to them. We use RSS feeds to push a variety of content off the site, which is part of our viral content strategy."
The company also relies heavily on videos from YouTube, which it has integrated into its platform. Each site 365 Connect creates includes a section called "Learn TV" that streams videos about food and cooking, fitness, finances, travel, green living, in-home technology tips and more.
"We have communities that will end up with 3,000 views on their videos a month, whereas a community newsletter might receive 50 views. Nobody wants to read anymore," Kirby says. "People want information, and they want it fast. The traffic we see on Learn TV is astonishing. It is another method to deliver content to residents, and create a robust platform that becomes a true community portal."
But even though Kirby's business is focused on viral marketing and easy delivery of varied information, he cautions about oversaturation of pure marketing messages.
"I believe social media is a place to dispense information," Kirby says. "Student and multifamily housing operators have struggled with how to manage social media and what information to send out without being too strong in marketing."
"We stepped back and looked at social media as it relates to the apartment industry and said, if we're just posting the same leasing message over and over, no one's going to want to engage with us. Our answer was to create a platform where managers are able to deliver content that is related to more than just leasing. It enables them to become community advocates by being a viral distribution hub of local information. We have created technology that brings back the guiding principles of real estate — location, location, location. Market it, and all else will follow."
Irio Mobile Marketing
Wireless subscribers between the ages of 18 and 24 send an average of 110 text messages per day, according to a study by PEW Internet Research. By extension, texting must be an important tool when it comes to marketing to Millennials, and it's IRIO Mobile Marketing's core focus. Approximately 65 percent of the Dallas-based company's clientele is student housing companies, including the Dinerstein Companies, Greystar, Asset Campus Housing, Peak Campus and Campus Advantage.
IRIO offers three services that use text messages. Text-2-Win, Text-2-Community, and Text-4-Info. Managing Director Matt Davis says Text-2-Win, which entices leasing via sweepstakes and giveaways, isn't as widely used in student housing as the other two. He adds, though, that IRIO is seeing more management companies begin to use Text-2-Win to drive leads with prospective residents.
Text-4-Info allows those interested in a property to respond to an advertisement by texting a keyword specific to the property and receive in pre-determined information in return.
"Let's say the name of a property is The Bluffs, the ad would say text 'Bluffs' to 47464," Davis says. "The automated response they receive allows them to see highlighted features of the property. For example, they could press 1 for details on a 1-bedroom. From there they can set up an appointment or receive contact information."
IRIO creates a mobile website if a property doesn't already have one. When someone texts in, the property manager receives an email indicating there is a new lead, and he or she can view the response options that person viewed to get a heads-up about demand and what specific configurations the potential renter is most interested in.
"It's all about getting prospective residents to engage with a property at a level where they're not necessarily talking to an individual yet."
According to Davis, IRIO's Text 2 Community service has changed the way properties operate and communicate. The system loads all resident contact information and allows managers to text one resident, a group of residents or the entire property. Messages can be sent grouped by floor, building or other criteria.
"This is the product that makes a huge difference in the student housing industry," Davis says.
Texts alert tenants about emergencies or that water will be turned off, or the cable company will be servicing the building. Individual messages can be sent for package pick up or incentivized messages for renewals. Davis asserts that text messaging is more convenient and top-of-mind than any other form of communication because text message alerts appear on the home screen of most phones and can be read without opening an application."We say that texting is not just for personal use," Davis says. "It really can be used for your business. But we tell our clients to make sure their messages are relevant to the resident. You don't want to send a rent reminder to someone who has already paid, for example. If the messages aren't relevant, residents will opt out, then you'll have lost the effectiveness of text messaging."
A successful text program for one of IRIO's clients includes a feature that alerts residents when a maintenance call has been completed. This gives the renter peace of mind, Davis says, that the problem has been addressed. The notification also includes a touch-of-a-button survey.
"You take the worry away from the resident by shooting them a short text saying their maintenance work has been done. At the same time, you're getting feedback on your maintenance staff."
Social events are easily and quickly announced via text. "We've had several management teams tell us they've done away with printing flyers," Davis says. "You'd have to have someone design the flyer, then print it, take your maintenance staff away from what they're supposed to do or you've got to send someone out of the office to put flyers on 400 units. Then, you can't track what kind of read rate you're getting. To send a message to an entire community about a social event takes no more than two minutes. Flyering could take hours. Texts have a 98 percent read rate. Students today have grown up with text messaging. It's their speak. Students are not going to read a three paragraph email. Texting makes managers say what they need to say in a shorter way, and it increases their ability to communicate with this generation."
G5 Digital Experience Management
Bend, Oregon-based G5 helps clients, including multifamily and student housing operators, have the optimum 'digital experience' through a formula that incorporates numerous digital touch points. G5 focuses first and foremost on setting up a community to be search-engine optimized, with a streamlined, well-branded and easily found website at the core of its offerings.
Today, the company says, consumers are engaging with products and services via at least two devices, opening up the space where prospective renters make their 'zero moment of truth decision' about whether to become customers.
G5 reports that the increase in traffic to its clients' student housing mobile websites is exceeding its multifamily clients. "Our student housing client websites saw an average increase of 168 percent in mobile traffic to their sites year over year, while multifamily sites saw an average 74 percent increase year over year," says Amanda Patterson, marketing programs director.
"The whole reason we built the DXM platform was to base it on what we call the age of the customer," says Dan Hobin, CEO and co-founder of G5. "Right now, students are empowered. With their smart phones in hand, they have more knowledge and more ability to publish reviews before they're even customers. We built our platform to help our clients connect with this customer."
Hobin says the company's goal is to turn student renters into "advocates," which means people Tweeting and Facebooking positive messages about a property. Advocacy also means handling negative reviews diligently and responsibly from the property management perspective. The services the company offers tie together a community's website, Google + page, Yelp reviews, Twitter and Facebook accounts and mentions to optimize web search terms and manage a property's reputation.
"We have a score of 100 points of things you need to do to be completely optimized," Hobin says. If there is a bad review of a property on Yelp, for example, the G5 team trains property staff how to respond. "Managing the work flow is a big part of this," Hobin says.
Measuring the effectiveness of branding in the digital world is also an important part of doing business. Reporting and analytics practices measure the experience of the student throughout the process of searching for apartments, living at a property and reviewing the community or the management staff in the virtual world. An alert is sent out to G5 and their client when a resident has a negative experience, then G5 investigates the problem, whether it was an error on the website, a high bounce rate, or a negative review.
"I think a lot of student housing operators focus on their website, which is important, but the review sites are becoming more important. Google + and Yelp are the two biggest. We think Google is really pushing people toward Google + as the primary spot on the Internet."
— Lynn Peisner