Impending Craigslist Changes and Apartment Marketing

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Changes are coming to the popular classifieds service Craigslist. But these changes don't have to hurt your marketing strategy, even if they probably will change parts of it.

Update 11/11/2013: We are seeing outbound links from Craigslist posts re-enabled, but ONLY for URLs (see the explanation below). Please post in the comments if you see something different.
Update 11/7/2013: As some commenters to this post pointed out, Craigslist has now begun to strip out all outbound links from posts completely. We are working on an update to this post.
Update 11/5/2013: This morning, we have seen these changes move to multiple sites. It appears that these changes are universal.
Update 11/4/2013: Originally, we saw these changes only in Texas. We have now seen these changes roll out on some Craigslist sites in California (specifically, Orange County) and Florida (specifically, Jacksonville).

Recently Craigslist made some changes to their policy regarding what HTML tags will be allowed in their sales categories. You can see the policy here.

What the Change Means for Your Community

The main takeaway is that, in all likelihood, you will no longer be able to post images or most links in your Craigslist ad using HTML code in the not too distant future. This also means that you won't be able to use images to link to external pages.

Officially, Craigslist's policy reads like this:

Please note IMG, FONT, TABLE, DIV, and SPAN tags are no longer supported in the for sale categories. Please use CL image upload for images.

But even though this prohibition is technically only in the "for sale" categories, we have begun to see images and links disallowed on Craigslist posts in Texas, and this change will likely be rolled out to other areas soon. So if you are using a free posting template to post to Craigslist, you will no longer be able to do so once these changes hit your area.
So far the main area we've seen affected by the change is Texas, which we noticed when some of our Texas clients were not able to post our customized HTML ads to Craigslist. However, the change has been announced on their website and some users have been seeing warning notes from Craigslist for several months, so this is going to eventually become a site-wide policy which will affect all of Craigslist's users.

Why did Craigslist make the change?

At first glance, this might seem like a strange move by Craigslist. Given how many people use customized HTML templates to post to Craigslist, this move is going to inconvenience lots of Craigslist users. But viewed from Craigslist's perspective, the move makes more sense.

Craigslist has always been about offering ordinary people an easy, convenient way to buy and sell goods. One look at the site's design should tell you that the folks behind Craigslist aren't interested in wooing huge corporations with their services. They want to keep their site as simple as possible so that ordinary people can use it.

But most people aren't going to have the skill to create a custom HTML code that includes images. The people able to do that will be mostly larger businesses with an innate advantage over the smaller sellers. By removing the image tag from sales category posts, Craigslist is leveling the playing field so that a normal person manually uploading photos with the Craigslist image tool doesn't have a huge competitive disadvantage when their ads are running alongside those of a larger company.

So what should communities do with their Craigslist apartment marketing strategy going forward?

The response here breaks down into several different parts:

  • Superior photography is more important than ever.
  • A community website is now even more essential.
  • Beware the danger of digital sharecropping.

Once these changes have been fully implemented, every Craigslist apartment post is going to either be plain text or it will include images with a single image displaying and a carousel of additional images underneath the ad. You can see an example below:

Craigslist1

With these ads, photos are going to become even more important. If you have lousy photos, you can no longer use fancy backgrounds to make up for that. Your ad's quality will, for the most part, rise and fall on the basis of your images. So if you haven't had a professional shoot images of your community and you plan to advertise on Craigslist, that may be a worthwhile investment.

Community websites are also more essential than ever. The important thing to keep in mind going forward is that links are still OK in Craigslist. So, for example, you could do something like this:

Craigslist2

Based on our own testing, it looks like hyperlinks made by highlighting certain text and turning it into a link may not work in the future. But you can still include links in your ads--you just need to include the full URL rather than turning text into a hyperlink. So in the two examples below, A will not work but B will.

A. Click here to see our community!
B. Visit our community site here: http://www.ourcommunity.com

The main reason for this rule is almost certainly to prevent deceptive linking in which a person sets up a link that they say is going to one site but is in reality going somewhere else.

Finally--and this is the biggest takeaway--if you have built a marketing strategy that is overly dependent on Craigslist, this update could be really hard on you. One of the principles you should keep in mind with your online marketing is that it's important to diversify your marketing and advertising sources. You don't want to be completely dependent on an ad source that is completely outside your control.

This isn't even the first time that Craigslist has tightened control over their service in a way that threatens apartment marketers. About a year ago, Craigslist tried to add a provision claiming exclusive copyright over anything posted to its site, and forbidding apartment marketers from posting that same content anywhere else.

If you rely exclusively on Craigslist, and Craigslist changes the rules, you're in trouble. If you rely exclusively on organic search, and the rules change, you're in trouble. You want to diversify your marketing and advertising sources in order to give you a greater degree of control over your marketing strategy. If you're extremely dependent on a single source, then you're at the owner of that source's mercy. They say "jump" and your only response can be "how high?"

You want to diversify your traffic sources across several different platforms and you want the hub of your strategy to be your community website--not Craigslist listings, not Google My Business, not an ILS listing. It all hangs on your own website.

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