Let Residents Tell Your Story

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By Dan Tracy

Renting apartments and keeping them filled can be easy, as long as you are willing to work really hard and do stuff nobody else in your area is trying — at least that’s the advice of a trio of marketing experts who spoke at the 2017 FAA Annual Conference & Trade Show at Disney’s Contemporary Resort in October.

“It’s all about the execution,” said Kate Good, who has been in the apartment business for 30 years and is a principal with Hunington, which owns a $60 million, 274-unit community in Houston.

Good, who got her start renting apartments in a Fort Lauderdale community, is a big proponent of using the internet to get the word out about your property. Post lots of photos and positive video testimonials from residents on your website, she said.

“Customers can say things we can’t,” she said. “They’re saying it; they’re putting it out there.”

Potential residents, authorities like Good say, value the word of people like themselves rather than those spoken by actors or paid celebrities. The tactic also is much easier on the bottom line.

Videos are becoming increasingly popular online as people gravitate away from the written word, she said. “Make it look great,” Good said. “Now is the time to start if you haven’t done it.”

Offering similar advice was Genna Gold, manager of local business outreach for the Yelp online rating service in New York City, and Curtis Cardoza, regional marketing director for Pinnacle, which owns 42,000 apartments in the Southeast United States, including 25,000 in Florida.


Internet Evens the Playing Field

The internet, Gold said, has become the great equalizer, allowing small operations and apartment communities to battle big conglomerates with numerous units. Before people starting going to Yelp and other sites to offer their own, unvarnished reviews of products, services, and places, she said, a massive company such as McDonald’s could use its immense marketing budget to overwhelm the competition.

But now, boutique or gourmet hamburger restaurants can gain equal footing, at least locally, with the right online presence and campaign, Gold said. The same, she said, goes for apartments.

“Do you remember what life was like before review websites or, even cell phones?” she asked.

Cardoza said Pinnacle has a program that alerts staffers whenever one of its units or holdings is mentioned online. That, he said, triggers a four-step process: Alert, draft a response, get approval from higher-ups, and publish.

Whether the write-up is good or bad, Cardoza said, the company being reviewed needs to take ownership of the comment and respond, preferably in a positive, honest way. An apology, if warranted, should be included, he said.

He also recommended having review cards available at your on-site office to encourage residents to write about what is right or wrong with the property. The idea, he said, is to use the information to get better and improve service and the community.

Like Good, Cardoza advocates online testimonials from residents and photos of smiling staffers and the community, both inside apartments and on the grounds. Done correctly, that type of real-life promotion can result in a dozen new leads per month from potential residents viewing the website, he said.

But Gold warned that resident comments must be sincere and real and not the result of excessive prodding or fake accounts. Never, she said, pressure anyone to remove a negative comment. Such actions can cause even more bad blood, tarnishing or ruining a company’s reputation, leading to reduced occupancy rates.

And personal and professional online reputations, Cardoza said, soon could be more important than a credit score.


See It Coming

For Kate Good, peering into the future is pretty consequential, too. In fact, “see it coming” is her No. 1 rule for staying competitive and getting ahead in the apartment world.

“Every smart marketing person knows things will change,” she said. “We change. We evolve. We’ve got to see those changes coming.”

Keep a close watch on the local economy when it comes to forecasting the future, she said. Strong job creation without a similar rise in wages — a hallmark of the national recovery from the 2007-08 Great Recession — typically translates into a robust rental market because people do not have the additional funds for a down payment on a house.

But sign-spinners on sidewalks along heavily traveled roads promoting apartment communities is a bad omen, Good said. It means there are too many empty apartments and not enough people willing to lease them.

“That’s a last resort,” she said of sign spinning. It’s like you’re “looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Another of her maxims is “don’t give them a reason to move.” In other words, learn from your departing or threatening-to-leave residents about the weaknesses of your property, and then fix those weaknesses or find a way around them, she said.

“Your customers have something to tell you,” she said. “You should listen.”

She said a property in Dallas she was acquainted with had apartments that opened onto a picturesque courtyard. Management charged a premium for those units because of the view, but the apartments often were empty. Turns out, she said, that people in the courtyard were making too much noise at night, running off sleep-deprived residents. The solution: posting and enforcing signs calling for a quiet zone.

Her third suggestion is “rekindling the desire to win” among the staff. The idea, she said, is to motivate the people who lease to the residents. The problem, she said, is that staff can become complacent.  

Cultivating a fun environment, she said, can snap people out of their dull routines. Also important is listening to what staffers have to say during regularly scheduled chats, either in person or through Skype or other technology.

“Keeping people engaged is key,” she said.


Changing the Game

Staying open late can is one way to bring in more residents, tooGood said. She extended the office closing at her community until 8 p.m. — a full two hours after most of her competitors — and promoted it as “Happy Hour Leasing,” complete with wine. The results: 77 percent of the people who came in after 6 p.m. signed a lease and 62 percent signed after 7 p.m. An average 4.5 people visited the office between 6 and 8 p.m.

“Do something others are not doing,” she said.

Tailoring your marketing to your target audience sounds simple, but can be hard to pull off, particularly in a memorable way, Good said. One community owner had a property in an area where members of the LGBTQ community typically resided. The community came up with an ad showing a picture of a spacious, well-appointed closet accompanied by the words “Closets You’ll Never Come Out Of.” The campaign was a success, Good said.

All of her marketing contains what she refers to as “a call to action.” On her website are prompts such as “Play the next video,” “Click to find your new home,” or “Check out your new neighborhood.”

Do not be afraid, she added, to contact people again and again and again — or until they have signed your lease or one at another community. “Persistence wins out,” she said.

One way to stay in touch with a prospect, she said, is to send a short video to their phone or email address. She provided a potential tag line: “I know we just met, but I think you should move in.”

If the final answer is no, Good said, ask why. The feedback can help you change your pitch or repair something that is awry.

“Stand out,” she said. “Don’t hide out.”