Let's face it: Apartment marketing is weird.
Here's what we mean by that.
The particular quirks of the multifamily industry create all sorts of unique challenges and also require you to throw out all sorts of 'conventional' marketing wisdom:
- Our product is an extremely high-risk, low-frequency product so branding doesn't really work super well as a marketing strategy.
- Our product is hyper-local--so there's only so many people we can reach.
- We have a very, very small number of widgets we can sell. This means our potential customer pool is quite small.
The result is that many apartment marketers can end up feeling like this:
If you're new to the industry, either as an owner or regional director or an apartment marketing professional, we've put together this brief resource to help you know how to get started with marketing your apartment community.
We've broken the process down into seven steps with a few tasks within each step. Here is the full list. We'll expand on each item below:
- Create visual content.
- Edit photos and video.
- Create a website.
- Put relevant content on your website.
- Promote your community through relevant marketing channels.
- Set up Google Analytics and phone tracking numbers.
- Analyze the results and make adjustments.
Now let's talk more about how you do all this.
Step One: Create visual content.
There are two primary types of visual content you need to create.
- Photo Content
- Video Content
In what follows, we'll briefly describe what both can do for your community and how to get the most out of your visual content.
Photo content refers to both floorplan-specific photos and community photos. You need photos of every floorplan your community offers and you need more general community photos—the clubhouse, the exterior of the community, any other community-wide amenities you offer (fitness center, rooftop community space, etc.).
If this sounds like a lot of work, well... it is.
But here's the important thing to remember: There is no community so small it wouldn't benefit from having apartment photography, and there is no corporation so large that it doesn't need apartment photography. Put another way, every property can benefit from having photos of their individual apartments.
Video content refers to floorplan-specific video tours of each individual floorplan in your community. Why do you need those kind of videos? That sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it?
Here's the thing: The "product" you're selling is the apartment itself. A video that shows people exactly what they will be buying from you (if they choose to buy) is an extremely high-value piece of content with your audience.
Our analytics data backs this up. The time on page we see on pages with video tours embedded on them are consistently 2+ minutes. People watch the videos. Moreover, the video tours will further qualify good leads (so they're warmer when they contact your leasing office) and disqualify bad leads (so they decide on their own not to call your leasing office instead of wasting your team's time on the phone or with a tour).
Walkthrough video tours will take time to produce, but the results they generate make all the work worthwhile.
(As an aside, one of the persistent myths about online content is that people won't read long articles or watch long videos. It just isn't true. People won't read or watch boring content, sure. But if it's relevant to their needs or interests they'll absolutely read or watch it. You're reading this post, aren't you?)
Step Two: Edit Photos and Video
Editing your photos and video to make them as professional as possible is essential for two reasons:
- First, professional content builds trust with prospects.
- Second, professional content shows your community at its best.
Let's talk more about the trust point first.
Trust and Apartment Photography
As we said above, leasing an apartment is an extremely high-risk purchase. The worst thing that can happen when you eat at a restaurant is you get food poisoning—but that has a very, very low probability of happening.
The worst thing that can happen that may actually happen is something like "the server is rude to me." It's a low-risk purchase, in other words. So it's an easy one for a person to make. They don't need a lot of help to decide to do that.
An apartment lease is an enormously risky purchase for a bunch of reasons:
- You're going to spend something like 30% of your annual income on this purchase.
- You will spend more time with this product than just about anything else in your life. You are purchasing a home for the length of your lease.
- Getting out of a lease is difficult. If you have a bad landlord, it's very difficult to do anything about it and, in the meantime, they can make your life miserable.
So with all that background, put yourself in the shoes of a prospective resident looking at your website. If they see blurry photos, a bad video, or images that look like they were shot with cheap equipment, what will that make them think about your property? Will they think "I want to give this person 1/3 of my income and give them tons of control over my quality of life for the next 12 months?" Of course not. They're going to run in the opposite direction.
On the other hand, if your content shows that you are conscientious, that you maintain your property, and that you don't have anything to hide... well, that's the kind of community I not only am willing to live in, it's the kind of community I want to live in.
By the way, if you get to that "want to live in" place with more prospects, that will also translate into greater demand and higher rent rates.
Perception and Photography
Now let's talk about how your content helps people see your community. If you have professional-quality photo and video editing, your community is going to look great. This is what you're aiming for. If you look like a well-maintained, clean, comfortable community, that translates into warmer leads and, hopefully, higher rent rates.
Higher occupancy and higher rent rates also mean that it is very easy to justify the cost of professional visual content. If you do it right, it will pay for itself.
Step Three: Create your website.
You might wonder why this is step three instead of step one.
Simple: Your photos can be used in multiple places across the web:
- Google My Business listings
- Corporate website
- Display advertising
So while you're building your website, which is where your content is going to do its best work, that content can still be providing value for you elsewhere on the internet.
Now let's talk about what your website needs to be like. There are three key points to keep in mind:
- First, your website is a leasing tool. It's not a vanity project.
- Second, your website is for your prospective residents, not your leasing team.
- Third, good websites are friendly to human users and search engines.
Let's say a bit more about each of these.
Websites and Leasing Tools
The point of your apartment website isn't to simply be a digital placeholder. You don't have a website simply because that is what one does in 2018. That's not a reason to do anything, let alone something that is as resource intensive as building a high-quality website.
A good apartment community website is a 24/7 leasing agent. It's the place prospects end up when they search for your community by name. When someone googles your community's name, you want them to see a page that looks like this. Note how the ad at the top, the top organic result (inside the red square), and the blue local result on the right all are pointing people to the same web property.
But for that to happen, you've got to have a website.
Who is your website for?
This brings us to the second point: Your website isn't primarily for your leasing staff or even for your residents; it's for your prospects. (Obviously you can add "pay my rent" and "submit maintenance request" pages to serve your current residents. But the main people you want to be helped by your website are potential residents.)
So as you ask yourself "what should the home page say?" or "what should the main navigation bar at the top of the page say?" you need to be thinking about what your prospective resident needs to know, not what is most helpful to your employees.
For example, menu bar items and page names should be based on what is helpful to your prospects. Don't call your amenities page "living." Prospects don't know what that means when they see the navigation bar at the top of the page. Use page titles that someone who knows nothing about our industry will understand. "Amenities," "Floorplans," "About," these kind of names communicate something to someone who knows nothing about our industry. So build a navigation that is intuitive for non-industry people.
Search engines should be able to crawl your website easily.
Third, a good website is going to be easy for human users to use and easy for search engines to crawl and evaluate. There are a few general principles you should keep in mind as you build out your site:
- Keep the number of pages as low as is reasonably possible. Tons of pages will make the site a labyrinth for users and hurt your visibility in Google.
- Make text scannable. People will read relevant, engaging copy, but often they will scan it first. So use bolded text, bulleted lists, and header tags to break up your page, highlight key information, and make it easier for website users to process and understand your page.
- Use features that make your website accessible. If you use alt-text on your images, that not only helps blind people understand the content on your site, it also gives search engines another piece of information to use when evaluating your site.
Step Four: Put relevant content in appropriate places on your website.
You've built your website. You already have photos and videos. It's time to put the content you already have on the website you just built. Where does it go?
If you're the typical community, you stick the photos and videos on a page called "Photos" and a page called "Videos." Or you put all your photos and videos on the same page, often called "Photos."
Then, you have a single page called "Floorplans" that is just a long page that shows 2D diagrams of every floorplan along with basic leasing information about the floorplan.
From a user-experience perspective, this is terrible.
What apartment am I looking at anyway?
First, often the photos on the photo page are not labeled by floorplan. So the prospect has no clue what floorplan they're looking at.
Worst-case scenario, they won't realize this, they'll see an apartment they love, set up a tour, and then be disappointed when they arrive and realize they aren't seeing the apartment they wanted to see.
This is awful because it makes for a very frustrated prospect, wastes your leasing staff's time, and makes it very difficult for the leasing agent to say "OK, well, maybe this other floorplan is more what you're looking for?" because the prospect is already unhappy.
Is this video even valuable?
Second, often the video tours are simply edited together image slideshows that use the exact same images you can find on the photos page. So what's the point of the video? You just wasted your prospect's time.
Your website should promote your actual products.
Third, good business websites use product pages to promote the specific things they sell. Think about Amazon. How does Amazon organize their books that they sell? Do they have a single page with a gigantic table that shows book titles, prices, review data, and a little button to click if you want to purchase? Of course not.
They create individual product pages for each product they sell. So you can go to a single page that is designed to sell a single book. You'll find the price, other purchasing options, publisher data, review data, related books, and a bunch of other content that Amazon thinks is relevant to someone using that page.
Apartment shopping doesn't need to be frustrating and painful.
So why do we in multifamily keep doing the first thing?
We create these "Floorplan" pages that tell people the price, the square footage, number of bedrooms, and maybe some amenities information.
We don't show them photos of the apartment.
We don't show them videos.
We don't give them extensive information about the unit.
It's an awful experience.
And despite all those failures, we still expect them to lease and wonder why our website isn't converting. It's not converting because you make it too dang hard for your prospects to learn about your community.
Here's what you should do instead: Create a specific page for each floorplan you offer. Put your floorplan-specific photos and video on the page. (You can include community photos as well, just put them after the floorplan photos and don't put so many photos in there that it becomes unnavigable for users.)
If you have 20+ floorplans or something unusual like that, then chunk your floorplans into groups of similar floorplans. Create 5-7 pages, show the photos and video tours for each floorplan. If the difference between floorplans in the same groups is still quite large, include a note to the effect of "A limited number of our two bedroom floorplans have a slightly different layout," or something to that effect.
The key in this situation is to balance the need to give prospects relevant, accurate information online with the very real constraints you have when it comes to producing this kind of content.
The big picture goal, of course, is that as prospects use your website and view your content, they will qualify or disqualify themselves before they even call your leasing office. This means your leasing team has better leads and can be more efficient.
Step Five: Verify your Google My Business listing, set up Google Ads and post to Craigslist
Of course, good content and a strong website don't do much for you if no one ever sees them.
You also need a strategy for getting people to your website.
"If you build it, they will come," doesn't count.
There are three main ways prospects will find your site:
- They will use a search engine and navigate to your site after finding it in the local or organic search results.
- They will use a search engine and find your site after seeing an ad.
- They will find you on Craigslist.
Organic Search Traffic
Here's the good news:
The bar you have to clear to rank first for your most valuable keywords is pretty low.
The keywords you should care about most are your branded keywords, keywords that refer to your community by name. Since yours is the official website of the business named in the search query, it's not hard to rank first on that search term. Unless your website is well below-average in quality or there is a significant Google penalty attached to that domain, your website should rank first on branded keywords in the vast majority of cases.
If your website does not rank first on branded keywords, that almost always means something is not right.
That said, you also need to check your Google My Business listing (to help send local search traffic your way), set up Ads campaigns (to supplement and strengthen your overall search presence in Google), and post to Craigslist.
(Above you can see examples of how Google pulls local data into the search result page in those areas marked by red boxes.)
Because Google wants comprehensive local business data in their system, it is likely that your community has a Google My Business page, even if you've never claimed it. To find out if you have a listing and how to set one up, use this free tutorial provided by Google.
The long-term goal is to have a listing that looks like what you see directly above:
- The community name is accurate (and matches what is on your website).
- The address is listed with the listing (which Google will use in Maps to offer directions to the community).
- Leasing office hours are displayed.
- Finally, prospects can also see a phone number for the community.
You can also see that the Google My Business listing includes a reviews section that allows Google users to see what other people are saying about your community. Don't ignore these reviews.
Your Paid Search Presence
Google Ads is almost certainly one of the most difficult things for apartment marketers to manage. On the one hand, it provides something like 90% of Google's revenue so Google has every incentive to make it easy for you to waste tons of money on Ads. On the other, if Ads didn't work (if used correctly), Google wouldn't have a business. So Ads does work when you use it right, but it also will mercilessly bleed you if you don't.
Due to the complexity of this task, it's not unusual for multifamily communities to outsource Ads management. (NOTE: RentVision provides this service for all of our clients.) That said, there are resources out there to help you learn how to set up and improve Ads campaigns. Google has created a number of resources you can review.
In addition, there are other guides out there provided by different companies. WordStream is one of the best companies out there for this stuff so their guides are absolutely worth your time. (We have published some guest blogs with WordStream in the past and are very happy WordStream clients.)
Finally, because apartment marketing is weird due to the quirks of our industry, you might also want to use the industry-specific guide we have created to help you identify ways that the multifamily industry creates unique challenges and demands for pay-per-click marketers.
The most important thing to do with Google Ads is to set up defensive advertising. "Defensive advertising" refers to campaigns that will display ads to user who search for your community by name.
Defensive advertising offers several significant benefits:
- It helps you control an even larger portion of the search result page with content that points people directly to your community website—which is a big deal since people searching for you by name are likely some of your best leads.
- It significantly increases clicks on the organic listing as well as driving clicks via the ad itself.
- It communicates to prospects that you're a conscientious business owner who has taken the time to market your community effectively.
- It protects your branded search terms from competitor advertisements—after all, there is nothing stopping the rival community down the street from setting up Ads on your community name. And if that is the only ad set up for that keyword, it's the ad Google will display.
Should you use Craigslist?
Finally, if your city or region includes lots of Craigslist users, you should also post your apartment listings on there. That being said, the general trend in multifamily is away from Craigslist so this is further down the priority list in most cases.
The most important work to get the word out about your community is done through your website, your local listing, and ads on Google. Increasingly, there is even a case to be made that most communities would be better off investing in Facebook before they become active on Craigslist.
That being said, these things differ fairly dramatically from region to region so you'll need to evaluate your own situation and make decisions about what additional marketing makes the most sense, whether it is Facebook advertising, Craigslist, or something else.
Step Six: Set up Google Analytics and tracking phone numbers.
OK, we're almost done. Are you still with us? If you're tired, here's a funny GIF to amuse you:
Now that that's done, let's talk about the final two steps to your marketing strategy. To do that, let's begin by briefly noting the classic problem with advertising and marketing.
The issue has been summed up most famously by a CEO who once said that he knows half his advertising budget is wasted; the problem is he doesn't know which half.
This is the classic marketing problem, isn't it?
We put all this work into promoting our business, trying to help people find it, learn about it, become customers and after all that work we have no way of knowing for sure if it is working and, if it is, which parts are working.
Sure, sales can give you some clues as to how things are going.
If you have no sales, you probably have a marketing problem.
If you have tons of sales, your marketing is probably doing its job.
But even here we're dealing with a pretty loose, unaccountable system that leaves a ton of questions unanswered.
Here are just a few examples:
- If your leasing numbers are down, is that marketing's fault or is your leasing team bad?
- If your occupancy is really high, do you know which marketing channels are responsible for that success?
- If occupancy is high, do you know how efficient your marketing and leasing teams are? If you're spending huge sums of money on marketing and leasing, you may still be missing out on revenue you could be getting.
Digital marketing is accountable marketing.
This is where digital marketing, in contrast to older types of marketing from the pre-internet world, can really shine.
With online marketing (we'll use that term interchangeably with "digital marketing") you can know how many visits your website is getting, how many phone calls your leasing office receives, how many visits a specific marketing channel (ForRent, Apartment Guide, organic search, social media, paid search) is sending you and, if you're doing it right, even how many leads those channels are sending you.
Once when we were telling a property owner about exactly how much data he can access about his marketing and leasing his eyes lit up and he said, "my marketing is finally going to be accountable."
That's the beauty of online marketing. You don't need to leave things to guess work anymore. You can know what is producing and what isn't.
Of course, collecting and sharing this data requires software tools.
You need analytics software for your website and tracking numbers for each marketing channel.
You need tools that can analyze lead generation over time, see how different changes impact your lead count (will we generate the same number of leads if we bump rent up $15/month on our most popular floorplan?), and assess how your leasing staff is performing.
Some of these tools exist and are easy enough to set up.
Google Analytics is one of them. If you want to do the by-hand install of Google Analytics, we have a post that will help you do that. That said, if your website is built with WordPress, you can find far easier ways to install Analytics. We'd recommend using Yoast's Analytics plugin.
If you're a larger company, talk to your dev team and find out how your system is set up because you should already have some sort of analytics solution installed.
Tracking numbers are the other big thing you need to use. If you have different tracking numbers for each listing service you use, for Craigslist, for AdWords, and for your community website, you can learn a lot about how people are finding your website.
In an ideal scenario, you'll learn enough that you will feel confident cutting some of your marketing sources because you'll know exactly how many leads those sources are generating and feel comfortable dropping them because you know you don't need them. When you can do that, you can start saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars in marketing spend every month.
Depending on your situation, those savings can either be re-routed to other priorities for your community or you can invest that money in other more successful marketing channels.
Step Seven: Analyze results and make modifications.
This is the final step.
It's also the step that creates something of a marketing loop as it will force you to revisit previous steps and have another go at them as you discover where the holes in your particular marketing and leasing process are.
Sometimes identifying the problem will be easy:
We've spoken with communities who were generating plenty of leads online but couldn't seem to turn those leads into leases. When we did a bit of digging, we found that many of the phone calls they were getting were not being answered in the leasing office.
In another case we had a community with a leasing staff that was fine, but they weren't getting enough leads from their website. After a little digging we discovered that Google had rolled out an update to their ranking algorithm and that it appeared to affect sites like theirs.
In this case, they were a new domain and the update was placing a greater emphasis on domain authority. One of the main factors in determining domain authority is simply the age of the domain. Having a new domain, in this case, meant having lower search visibility. So in the interim we pushed more aggressively on AdWords, leaned a bit more on Craigslist, and waited things out on search and the problem eventually resolved itself as the domain became more established and familiar to search engines.
The key thing is that you can't make these kind of adjustments if you don't have the data. So step six has to happen if you're going to be able to make these changes.
Marketing is constantly changing.
One more thing: Craigslist and Google are both constantly changing. Craigslist seems to always be finding new ways to antagonize large businesses and act like the annoying superego of an angry Bay Area hippie. Google is constantly looking for new ways to monetize their search result pages, make Google Ads more subtle, and pull more of the web's information into their own databases.
What this means is that this is not a process you do a single time: "OK, we made our marketing content and our website and we're tracking data. Now let's make our changes based on the data and call it good."
No, that's not how it works.
You need to be keeping a constant eye on your own data and, as best you can, you also need to be watching Google and Craigslist to see what they're doing. If it's possible, you should also follow broad online marketing trends in order to stay ahead of the game.
That being said, we're talking about a lot of work at this point, so realistically you need to focus on marketing your property, staying up on Google and Craigslist, and doing everything you can to make sure your community's strategy is providing the results you want.
Obviously this is a huge task. You can't just outsource your marketing to print guides and the newspaper anymore. You need to build content and a website. You need to have a plan for setting up and maintaining various marketing channels to promote your website. You need to monitor marketing performance and make careful, small improvements.
It's all a lot to take on. However, the benefits of this strategy can be enormous:
- This strategy gives you tons of data which can, if used correctly, make your marketing extremely efficient.
- Thanks to more comprehensive photo and video content, bad leads can disqualify themselves before calling your leasing office and good leads can get even more excited about your community before calling the leasing office. In both cases, online marketing is making your leasing team's job much easier.
- When so much of the strategy is built around AdWords and Craigslist, it is very easy to modify tactics on those platforms based on need. If it's peak leasing season, spending more with AdWords is probably a good idea. If it's early December, you can probably slow down a bit and cut that ad budget pretty dramatically. An online strategy is easy to modify as appropriate. It gives you a much greater level of control.
If you are looking for a partner to help you do all these things, we'd also be delighted to talk with you about that. So get in touch via our contact page and we'll get back to you promptly.