It's been a few years since we updated our case study on traffic patterns on apartment community websites. In that time, we've seen signs that both ILS's and Craigslist are probably trending down. So we figured it was time to refresh the data. In this post, we'll share our results and talk about how your community should respond.
Traffic Sources for Apartment Websites
When we talk about traffic sources for any website, there are a few different marketing channels we might be talking about. Here's a basic list:
- Organic search (the blue links on the Google search page, basically)
- Paid search (AdWords, Bing Ads, etc.)
- Direct (website visitors who type the URL of the page directly to the search bar)
- Referral (traffic from links on other websites)
- Display (traffic from people who click banner ads—large graphic-based ads on other websites)
- Social (traffic from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.)
- Email (traffic from email campaigns)
Different industries have different traffic patterns. For example, I freelance with a few soccer sites and most of our traffic is social media. In other search verticals, like insurance or law, you might see a majority of traffic via paid search and referrals—people finding the site via AdWords ads or a link on someone else's website. Because insurance and legal search verticals are highly competitive, you often will not see as much organic search traffic to them.
One of the big ideas here is that different search verticals have different patterns because people interact with the content in that search vertical differently. We have an extended post on this, but the reason why is fairly simple.
Some industries get a ton of social traffic because they are something that people generally are interested in and so they produce content that people post and share on social media networks. Other industries rely more on search because they are something people are not generally interested in, but will look at when the have a specific intent. Multifamily is decidedly in the second group.
So what pattern do we see in multifamily?
Briefly stated, the apartment industry is dominated by search. We looked at 863,755 website sessions from this year scattered across 75 different communities. Here are the results, sorted by how many visits each source sent to our communities.
- Organic Search: 367,387 visits (42.53%)
- Paid Search: 267,787 visits (31%)
- Direct: 146,747 visits (16.99%)
- Referral: 33,162 visits (3.84%)
- Display: 23,487 visits (2.72%)
- Social: 21,886 visits (2.53%)
- Email: 3,299 visits (.38%)
In chart form, it looks like this:
How to Interpret the Data
There are a couple things we should note about the data before moving on to prescriptions for apartment marketers.
First, it is possible that this data actually undervalues organic search.
Here's why: In an experiment, Groupon found that around 60% of traffic that their analytics software identified as "direct" was actually coming from organic search. Intuitively, this makes sense: Think about the last time you typed or copied and pasted a URL directly into the search bar. We all do it sometimes but it's far more common to just type a keyword into the bar and let Google work for you. So it's possible that the true number for organic search is over 50% of all visits to apartment websites—which is pretty staggering.
Second, display traffic outperforms social media on average.
Social traffic is the wildcard here. We had six communities in our sample get 10% or more of their traffic via social media. One community actually gets 34% of its traffic from social, in fact. Another gets 27% of their total traffic from social media. So there are communities that are getting traffic from social. We'll have more to say about them in the future. That said, if you remove those six communities from the data set, the numbers for social get really, really bad. With those six removed, social accounts for only 1.41% of all traffic on average.
What this suggests is that there might be opportunity on social for a small slice of communities, but for most people it is not a strategy worth pursuing. In most cases, banner advertising is outperforming social despite the fact that you are statistically you are more likely to survive a plane crash than you are to click a banner ad. And that strategy still outperforms social media in our industry. That is, as they say, not great Bob!
Referral traffic is down.
The third thing we noticed is that referral traffic is down. On average it accounts for only 3.84% of all website visits. And unlike social media, referral doesn't have as many success stories. The highest traffic share we saw from referral data is 23%. That result came from a community that is not currently running any paid advertising at all, either paid search or display advertising. So it has a smaller overall traffic volume which means that even a small number of referral visits accounts for a larger percentage.
Why is the decline of referral significant? Two reasons: Referral traffic is often how ILS traffic is labeled. So we're seeing a low number of visits from ILS's. Second, referral traffic also includes Craigslist visitors. So Craigslist also appears to be trending down.
How should your community respond to these changes?
We have three main recommendations.
First, be patient with SEO.
As the data shows, organic search is the number one traffic driver for most communities. Of the 75 we looked at, 57 had organic as their top traffic source.
Of course, SEO is complicated work. New domains have an especially hard time ranking well and sometimes there can be penalties that take awhile to discover. So there are no guarantees in SEO work—and you should run away from anyone offering to do SEO work who does offer guarantees. That being said, generally speaking organic search performs well for apartment communities. So you should plan on emphasizing SEO as part of your marketing strategy.
Second, don't rely on ILS's and Craigslist as much as you used to.
It's not just our data that suggests ILS's are slipping—J Turner Research data does as well. The Craigslist decline is a new wrinkle though. Our best guess, though we'll need to take some time to observe more and collect more data, is that Craigslist is beginning to fall prey to the same problem that affects ILS's: It's an old form of technology, Craigslist is basically an online version of the old classifieds section. So, like other tech that has just been ported from older eras, it is struggling.
When people need normal classifieds listings, they are increasingly going to consignment groups on Facebook. When they need car sales or apartment shopping, they go to search engines and those engines don't take them to Craigslist.
Third, paid search can get you through rough stretches.
15 communities had paid search as their number one traffic driver. Certainly, you can argue that this is not ideal since you are paying for those site visits. That said, in most cases a good paid search strategy on Google will still be much cheaper than advertising on a bunch of ILS's plus it is way easier to customize the strategy and increase or decrease spending as needed.
And the benefit with paid search is significant: If you're a community that is struggling to gain ground in organic search, being able to get a few hundred solid AdWords visits every month can be huge. It doesn't take a lot of leases to make up that cost, after all.
But what about local SEO?
One thing we haven't talked about in this post is local search. "Local search" is that set of local listings that shows up on the search result page that includes a phone number, address, website link, and directions link. The reason we aren't talking about local in this post is simple: Local SEO doesn't derive its value from sending people to your website. Local's value is in being able to give people the information they need directly on the search result page.
Put bluntly, you could get zero visits via local search for an entire year and that still would not mean that local search is bad. As long as people can use local listings to get your phone number or directions to your property, local is doing its job.
As we did with the mobile case study, we'll be following up on this post with a follow-up piece talking about why the traffic patterns are trending in the direction they are. For now, though, if you run with these main ideas—trust organic, don't rely on ILS or Craigslist, and use paid search intelligently—you should do well. Thanks for reading!