The 5 Innocent Evils of Digital Marketing

Magazine ,

By Paul Bergeron

Authenticity has never been more critical for apartment marketers as they portray and promote their communities and on-site staff during these highly competitive leasing times.

Online ratings and feedback and comments from customers (78.3%) as well as input from friends, family members, and co-workers (61.7%) are dominant when residents are asked who they tend to trust as it relates to deciding to do business with an apartment community or property management company, according to Lia Nichole Smith, senior vice president of education and performance for Satisfacts Apartment Ratings.

Faith in social networking pages such as Facebook have improved each year since 2015, but in 2021 they score just 26.5% when it comes to trust. Company websites fare worse, at 10.1% in 2021, down from 35.8% in 2017, according to Satisfacts Apartment Ratings.

Smith spoke at the 2021 FAA Annual Conference & Trade Show in October and shared these and more perspectives about property management and the resident experience in the session, “The 5 Innocent Evils of Digital Marketing.”

Consumers’ Online Dissatisfaction Is Soaring

The National Retail Federation found that the number of returns of online purchases is skyrocketing, indicative of consumers feeling that they did not receive what they purchased online based on how it was portrayed online, Smith said.

“Consumers feel that they are getting duped by reviews that the company is posting on its own behalf, or by seeing product photos that were photoshopped,” Smith said.

Having become more suspicious, consumers instead have begun looking harder for comments posted by consumers who used the product, she said. “The ‘ask a question’ and ‘FAQ’ options on online business sites such as Amazon became very popular, and consumers more than ever are seeking video testimonies where real consumers are holding the product in their hands while talking about what went right and what went wrong so you can see the real deal live and in action,” she said.

Imagery and videos also play a key role in how an apartment community is depicted online. 

What can apartment marketers do? Must they emphasize the same ol’ standby photos of perfect blue skies in their exterior shots and swimming pools without leaves floating in them?

Marketers are realizing that by showing these types of images, they were potentially sabotaging themselves, Smith said, because when prospects arrived, the images are not a perfect match.

Resident reviews, such as critical feedback posted by renters about customer service, and how the on-site staff members respond are highly impactful for prospects looking to make decisions about where they want to live. 

Smith said some apartment companies are committing five innocent sins:

  1. Offering incentives for online reviews

“You can offer incentives or rewards points to entice residents to leave online reviews of your community and about your service, but if you are, the reviewer must convey that in the review,” Smith said. “For example, they should write, ‘I really loved the amenity options at 101 Main. And I received a gift card from the community in exchange for me posting this.’”

If the resident doesn’t mention this, the onus is on the apartment community to point out that the reviewer received an incentive, Smith said. “Not doing so is a Federal Trade Commission violation and the community can be sued or have to pay a heavy fine.”

Company employees who live on-site may post positive reviews about their rental experience, but they must disclose that they live on-site as employees of the community.

“By all means, your staff can ask residents or prospects to leave reviews, but it’s safer and much more authentic if you do so and do not offer them incentives,” Smith said.

  1. Websites still looking like February 2020

If your website hasn’t had a thorough content refresh since before the pandemic, it is doing a disservice to apartment shoppers.

“Your site today must reflect your safety and health measures, such as mask-wearing by residents, prospects, or on-site staff,” Smith said. “Some apartment companies are now requiring that all of their employees are vaccinated. If that’s the case, it’s something that should be highlighted.”

Pre-pandemic, video tours and self-guided tours were only promoted modestly by some operators. Today, prospects expect this type of marketing and availability. “If you don’t, they will go elsewhere,” she said.

Owners “spend all this money on perfecting their digital front door, but if your site does not live up to the online hype, then ratings will suffer and those who do tour your property will tell their friends,” Smith said.

  1. Social media that’s less than social

There’s been an uptick in apartment communities that are posting move-in specials on their social media channels, but that is not ideal. 

A community’s residents should be the “Star of the Show” on these channels, Smith said.

“By highlighting them and their experience at the property, they are made to feel important, which can lead to better retention and online reviews and word-of-mouth advertising,” she said. “It also shows prospects who visit those channels that the community cares about its residents, and those prospects who are looking will want to live at a place where they will be cared about, too.”

Smith said that when communities post move-in specials on social media, it has the opposite effect. “The residents who live there will see them, wonder why they didn’t get the same rate, and then feel ‘not so special.’ ”

  1. Not recognizing the differences that make a difference

Communities that go above and beyond when serving their residents will often see that reflected in those residents’ attitudes about where they live, Smith said. 

A best practice for property managers is to respond to online reviews posted by residents -- even those that are negative. 

“By addressing concerns, explaining how the on-site team will ‘make it right,’ and then showing that the situation was remedied, it creates a positive moment,” she said. “Do not simply post cut-and-paste responses that sound liked canned speak from the corporate office. Prospective residents will immediately recognize that level of insincerity reply and not take it seriously, especially if the same reply is posted to multiple reviews about a variety of customer service concerns.

“Responses to reviews should be written as if an on-site staff member is actually speaking in-person in response to the resident, addressing the specifics of the situation. Pat responses don’t cut it. Renters today are picking up on these kinds of nuances more than ever.”

For residents who do experience sincere, specific replies, their top-ranked responses about how that made them feel were: “They have great customer service” and “They really care about their residents.”

When residents don’t experience this, their top responses were: “They don’t really care about their residents” and “They do not have great customer service.”

  1. Not living up to the online hype

Getting back to what type of content community websites and social media channels should post, communities should not take it personally if their community’s images are gorgeous, Smith said.

“There’s a place for those, too, and it’s not that communities should only be posting boring or unflattering images of their property, even if they are authentic and not photoshopped,” Smith said. 

“Better would be to host theme-based photo contests for residents where the images are truly authentic, beautiful, and fun, and then market them. For example, have them highlight their pets. People with pets always want to see other peoples’ pets. Or host “Decorate Your Door” contests. Those can be shared through the community’s social media channels.

Key Points

Online CONTENT should be informative, transparent, and a true depiction of the on-site experience.

Online MESSAGING should reflect care and a commitment to offering a high-quality resident experience.

Online REVIEWS should tell a story so those people considering your community can see how residents are treated offline.