Tracking the Customer Path to Your Door

Magazine ,

By Diane Sears

 

“What brought you to us today?” That might seem like a simple question, but … it’s complicated. When prospective residents walk into an apartment community welcome center, they’re experiencing only part of the journey of looking for a new home. The details of that journey have stumped community managers for decades.

Traditionally, the answer to the question has been attributed to the first place the prospective resident heard of the community, such as on a website or phone app that publishes multiple listings. But that first touch tells only part of the story.

Why is that important? Because the missing information could be costing communities money.

Today, new ways of tracking how people reach a decision in the sales cycle are helping multifamily communities pinpoint how to spend their marketing dollars to reach prospective residents with the right message at the right time. Equally important, this tracking helps them avoid pulling out of marketing strategies that are working to bring people in the door.

The concept is called “multitouch attribution,” and the idea is to assign each marketing contact point along the customer’s journey a percentage of the credit for steering potential leads to the community. As the concept becomes more widely accepted in multifamily leasing, it’s expected to help sales teams convert more leads into occupied apartment homes.

“People are starting to think about apartment leads and the whole marketing funnel in a different way than we have in the industry in the past,” said Mia Wentworth, director of digital marketing for CWS Apartment Homes, which has properties in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington state. “I don’t think it’s new in general to marketers, but it’s new in our industry.”

 

UPDATING THEIR THINKING 

Wentworth said she first started to take notice of multitouch attribution in the fall of 2017, when marketing colleagues in the industry began talking about it. She realized apartment communities have been behind the times in the way they think about traffic and how people are finding them in today’s digital world.

“Way back in the day, we had to rely on our leasing consultants to ask the question, ‘Hey, how did you hear about us?’” Wentworth said. “Obviously there’s a lot of human error that goes into that because they’re writing it down or maybe selecting from a dropdown list on a computer, and maybe selecting the one at the top because it’s the easiest instead of scrolling through the whole list.” 

Lead-tracking in apartment leasing has been evolving over the years. Initially, it started with designating a phone line for people who called in after reading a yellow pages listing or a print advertisement, for example. Eventually communities started tracking emails coming in. The practices have been inexact.

“The way our industry has traditionally thought about a lead is the first point of contact,” Wentworth said. “So it goes into our property management system as, ‘Sally Smith found you on Apartments.com.’ She might contact you six months before her move and she might go on to look at you in myriad different places before she makes her decision, but we’re just going to track her as Sally Smith from Apartments.com forever.

“When you think about today’s digital landscape, and especially online reviews, there’s a huge opportunity to track the whole digital journey someone uses to get to your property.”

The resident’s journey is deeply rooted in psychology and the familiarity effect, Wentworth said. “The more they see something, the more familiar they are with it, and for some reason they trust it. Sometimes they don’t even realize why. The marketing ‘Rule of seven’ is not a new term. Film houses have used it track how many times somebody has to see a movie trailer or hear about a movie before they go buy a ticket.”

 

CHANGING THE CONSCIOUSNESS

In a blog post in September 2017 titled “Why the Multifamily Industry is Missing the Boat on Multisource Attribution,” industry speaker and session facilitator Holli Beckman, vice president of marketing at WC Smith, tackled the issue of why the current method of giving credit to leads isn’t working.

“For most multifamily marketers, our current method of attribution relies solely on the property management software to assign credit for a lease to an advertising source,” she wrote. “As it stands today, the property management software only reports a single source of attribution. In other words, only one source can receive credit for the lease.

“I heard an analogy that likens this to giving only one swimmer on the 1,800-meter relay team a medal. That doesn’t see reasonable.”

Beckman said 50 percent of renters visit five or more websites before they get to the point in their journey that takes them to the leasing office. She traced the steps prospective renters might take:

 

  • Conduct a web search for apartments in the city where they want to live.
  • See an ad for a multiple listing website and plug in the type of apartment they’re seeking. Five results come up.
  • Search a ratings site and eliminate three of those properties based on what other people have to say about living there.
  • Modify their web search to check for properties that accept pets, and your property pops up again.
  • Visit your website and see you have a special on the size of apartment they’re seeking.
  • Use your online contact page to set up a tour.
  • On the way to the property, use a map program to find driving directions.
  • Call you to confirm the appointment and the driving directions.

 

With a single-attribution systems, Beckman said, only the first or last contact would be counted. The others are invisible in the process. 

A collection of online apartment guides for six markets across Florida has been tracking this phenomenon and putting figures to it. “On average, only 4 percent of visitors who view an apartment’s listing on one of our ILS services choose to submit their name and number in the online form or call via the tracking phone number,” said Sydney Jamieson, vice president of operations for the iLS network. “At the same time, the average time on page is two minutes and 21 seconds for those same listings.

“During an average week, an online listing could be viewed by 100 unique, individual renters who spend more than two minutes looking at the online listing, and that exposure would result in just four tracked leads,” Jamieson said. “As an ILS, we won’t receive credit for the other 96 renters who used our website for research.” 

Multifamily marketing tools are getting more advanced, and the industry has seen an increase in the use of lead tracking systems for lead management and statistics reporting. “The trouble is, when renters do not submit an online lead via the source or call into a tracked line, they do not show up on the marketing reporting, and multifamily managers are missing this valuable data on exposure.”

 

ATTRIBUTION MODELS

Beckman started studying the attribution concept out of frustration. She and a niece, who both work in property management, co-founded Apartminty, a web-based service that helps people find apartments in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. One feature allows users to search by when they want to move in, the way people search for available hotel rooms based on travel dates.  

“What was happening in our property management software, and across the whole industry, is we were never being credited with contributing to the leases because we were so far down the funnel,” Beckman said. “In our industry, what’s reported right now is only the first touch – that very top-of-funnel interaction, which is valuable but not the end-all, be-all.

“That’s what got me thinking and talking to other marketing folks and going, ‘What are we doing here?’”

“What I heard a lot from other marketing directors and vice presidents was the same frustration I was feeling, that you just couldn’t get the data out of our system.”

Beckman began researching the sales funnel and the different ways leads might be attributed. She turned to business-to-business marketing concepts and molded them to fit the apartment leasing industry. They include:

The Linear Model — This is the one most people can relate to and wrap their heads around the quickest, Beckman said. It gives every source equal credit for the sale. If the prospect visited four sources, every source gets 25 percent credit. “This is a simple way to grasp the customer journey,” she said. “These are all the touchpoints the customer is making to reach the decision. This concept is easy to present to your boss.”

The Time Decay Model — This one gives the most credit to the source closest to the decision. If there were four sources leading up to final decision, the last source would get the most credit, with less and less credit given as you get further away from the sale. You want to see what source is driving the final decision or pushing someone over the edge to buy from you. This model is useful if you’re running a promotion on your Facebook page, for instance, and want to give prospective renters the right message at the right time.

The Reverse Time Decay Model — This still spreads out the attribution over multiple sources, but the first touch gets the most credit for promoting your property’s brand awareness.

The U-Shaped Model — Combining the previous two schools of thought, this one gives 30 percent each to brand awareness and the final conversion. All of the other contacts in the middle share the remainder of the credit. This allows different property managers to decide how much weight to attribute to each of their marketing strategies.

The W-Shaped Model — This is the model that allows property managers to consider all of the different pieces that fall into the customer journey. It assigns 30 percent each to initial awareness, first contact, and something Beckwith calls “opportunity,” or the tour of the apartment community. The remaining 10 percent split the rest of the attribution because they were important in leading the prospect to the property but not in driving the action of signing a lease.

The Full-Path Model — This follows the prospective resident through the whole journey, assigning 22.5 percent for four steps: initial awareness, first contact, opportunity, and the application process. This last step might include follow-up emails or marketing after the tour and before move-in. All of the other touch points split the remaining 10 percent.

 

CHANGING THE INDUSTRY

Global property management software firm Yardi introduced a new product this spring that uses multitouch attribution modeling. As more property management companies start using it, and other companies introduce similar software solutions, the industry will start to adjust, said Esther Bonardi, vice president of marketing.

She emphasizes the importance of tracking the numbers from the various touch points along the customer’s journey. If marketing executives can’t see what’s happening, they might decide to cut out all but two sources where they’ve apparently had success in attracting people to consider their communities.

That means sales figures will fluctuate because suddenly, say, five of seven touch points are no longer there. The community sees a dip in leads and isn’t sure why, and then it has to make up for lost revenue.

“We need to make decisions to help customers proceed through their journey,” Bonardi said. “If you only have the first touch, you don’t’ know how and where to help the customers continue through their search.”

Ultimately, this trend could change the way companies price advertising and marketing channels, Bonardi said. Right now, some that are effective are not getting enough credit, and others are getting too much. 

“We’re on the edge of great opportunity because we have more information than we’ve had before,” Bonardi said. “This can lead to positive game-changers.”