Good Ways to Rent More Apartments
1. Provide lots of good local information to your prospective renters!
2. Make it easier to live in your community with lots of great information!
3. Put up a great Apartment Marketing Site (website)!
4. Have an Interactive online application!
5. Take advantage of online lead sources and recognize they are changing!
6. Respond quickly and in detail to prospects!
7. Ensure word of mouth referrals are set up to succeed!
8. Have great signage!
9. Use cable TV or Radio to create more sources!
10. Provide thorough accurate information!
11. Employ sources and services to increase traffic!
In life, there really are no secrets.So, rather than dwell on the impossible let’s focus on the possible by attending to what we can learn, can know, can change, can do, and therefore can accomplish through study, focus, determination, diligence, plans, and action.
The multifamily industry is complex and evolving. An important strategy is to stay informed. This means joining your local apartment association and interacting with many apartment related organizations.
Provide Great Tenant Information
There was a time not long ago in the apartment industry where the key sales was mainly a function of physical location and visibility. While these attributes are a great advantage even now, the Internet, changing demographics, and changes in consumer habits have altered this paradigm. Now, the internet creates a new “road sign” that can provide very high prospect visibility and convenience unrelated to physical location. A well positioned web presence allows owners, managers, and leasing agents to capture the attention of prospects who in the past might never have considered your location or specific property attributes.
Since 2004, leasing prospects beginning their search on the Internet has grown from under 40% to over 50% for all renters. For prospects moving in from out of town this jumps to over 70% as of 2008.
Accomplishing this is more complicated than throwing up a great web page. Achieving the maximum result requires a coordinated assault on the Internet. This implies a focused, methodical approach to a website, use of Internet Locater Services (ILS – like Apartment Finder), using services like Craigslist, Google Maps, Google Ads, etc.
An organized managed approach that addresses the necessary facets can be difficult for most apartment complexes and even portfolio owners as they don’t have the resources, skills on staff, or inclination to invest resources in the effort to institutionalize these items and efforts. If complexity wasn’t hurdle enough, the industry is plagued by high staff turnover that undermines the ability to train onsite staff and even corporate staff’s enough to successfully focus on the issue.
The good news is ours and other sources can provide all or part of the elements needed for you. Also, you can accomplish much of the same with a combination of other service providers and perhaps relatively minimal internal staff support. Nevertheless, understanding the tools and resources to accomplish the end is important.
So what are the steps / activities you need to put in place:
o Create a dynamite Apartment Marketing Site (AMS)
o Develop a structured plan for ads on Craigslist, Google ads, etc.
o Assure you are posted on all of the free info sites (tough because the list keeps changing) such as White Pages, Superpages, Google Ads, etc.
o Develop and train your staff to respond promptly to online contacts.
o Provide an ability to respond when you aren’t in the office.
o Create structured, detailed, and online friendly response packages.
o Maintain an online application to capture interested renters instantly 7X24.
o Customer Follow Up
o Develop training and staffing techniques to assure that all of the above are performed consistently regardless of attrition or staff turnover.
Now let’s discuss each of these tools and activities in more detail. AMS
Most apartment websites are little more than a brief brochure describing the apartment complex. For today’s Internet savvy leasing prospect this is inadequate.
Besides the basic features and amenities, the prospect is considering many needs when looking at your apartment complex including access to shopping and entertainment, nearby government and school facilities, transportation needs, employment alternatives.
Show prospects you will do a great job. Include testimonials. Spread testimonials throughout your website. Support this objective with tools allowing them to make inquiries, apply for leases, complete maintenance reports and other services. Reinforce through these actions to leads, tenants, and staff that the property staff is there to serve the residents.
Because of this, the DYNAMITE Apartment Marketing Site is a community resource that sells not only your apartment complex but also the area around it. The very best apartment sites work continually to improve the AMS as an asset that is well beyond a property brochure.
In the example below, you see some of the points we described. This site provides information about the community, easily accessible apartment features and rental information, has a tab specifically for community information, and much more. As a result, prospects often call having already made a purchase decision.
And this is just the start, having established an AMS that provides this kind of information, keeping the data fresh is critical. Staff reviewing property information and making updates on a weekly basis is a factor in the continued success of the property’s AMS.
When you build your website some things to consider are:
o Make it clear what you are selling – include bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage on the first page.
o Ensure that prospects can choose to complete a lease at all times. Have your online application front and center at all times.
o Label pages clearly.
o Place clear page titles on each page.
o Avoid flash imagery or videos (You don’t need to know what it is. Simply don’t allow it to be used on your site.)
o Include lots of keyword text that is related to what prospects are likely to use to find your apartments.
o Apartments are communities – include lots of community information including schools, entertainment venues, government centers, shopping, restaurants, employers, directions, and points of interest.
So, our AMS is up and running. Our data is robust and the prospects like what they see IF THEY SEE IT.
How do we assure that they do?
Internet Locator Services – An Imperfect Requirement
The key first step is to subscribe to at least one locally preferred Internet Locator Service (ILS). We generally subscribe to the service that offers the best local apartment magazine as well as a strong online service. While the cost of these services can be more than annoying, by account of the National Multifamily Housing Council and our own experience they are one of the top three sources of leads.
On the subject of ILS, beyond expense is there a problem with these sources? Yes. However the problem is more with how the Internet works than the services themselves. According to Google and other well established sources, given a list of search items, consumers and business folks behave very consistently. The first item in a list gets 3X the result of the 2nd, and the 2nd gets about 2.5X the results of the third, and everyone else is after that. Which is to say, if your aren’t on the first page you have very little opportunity as over 91% of consumers make their choice on page 1.
ILS tends to display apartments with 4 or 5 of your favorite competitors unless you pay for top billing. Unfortunately, the wait lists for the top billing spot is pretty strong. So, as owners, managers, and leasing agents (unless we are one of the largest portfolio owners or managers) we have to consider strategies to gain the top spot more frequently and that generally means how does an AMS gain top billing outside of the ILS.
The graph above demonstrates clearly just how dramatic this effect is. 85% of searchers never go past the first three positions, and over 91% never go past the first page on a standard Google Search. So until ILS find a way to more equitably share searcher viewing behavior (not expected soon), the owner, manager, or leasing agent needs to be concerned about how to reach the top more often.
So given their short comings, our key steps are to take full advantage of the service formats providing high quality photos, clear leasing information, complete contact information taking advantage of the full suite of capabilities of your chose ILS to ensure that prospects have the best possible information about your complex.
Free Info Postings, 3rd Party Advertising, and In Market Efforts On the Internet
Our favorites in this area are:
o Whitepages or Superpages
Providing complete information through these sources is a very effective way to gain the presence you can’t achieve from an ILS. On these services, with the correct management you will receive strong billing and can attain a top position much of the time.
While much data suggests that the ILS community is the number one source of leads, the facts are strong that in some markets these sources can produce greater results for a well organized apartment owner. This may seem contradictory. However, the earlier provided graph on results by search position tells the entire story.
You see on the ILS sites you only come up some of the time and you aren’t listed first unless you have a “sponsored” position. Because of this, the ability to achieve a higher ranking view on Craigslist, through GoogleADs or some other source can result in a disproportionate level of attention for the property.
So the moral of the story is advertise and promote your property wherever you can whenever you can. That means use all of the free info postings and 3rd party postings you can while not ignoring paid options.
Create affiliate relationships in your market. Times have changed. The Internet is the leading source of leases. Nevertheless, we are still products of our community. Managers and leasing agents should:
o Creating referral programs with local employers, the military, and government.
o Seeking positive press opportunities with local news outlets.
o Placing flyers with local sources that may bring potential renters knocking like:
o Creating partnerships with schools, fitness centers, and other demographically favorable venues. Word of Mouth
Most communities offer referral programs. However, do you provide a referral card? Have you considered creating referral channels?
The clear first step if one isn’t in place is to offer tenants a small bonus of some sort if they bring a new tenant. However, this leaves you dependent solely on the referring individuals’ good memory and good will. Providing them a referral card to give to their acquaintances makes the process physical and therefore significantly improves results.
First the incentive, offer the referral card distributor a marketing fee for each successful lease you close from distributed cards or some similar method. This should cause no difficulty with real estate brokerage rules as this is paying for distributing marketing material on a success basis.
Having established an incentive program, what are candidate points of distribution:
o Local Parent Teacher Associations (PTA)
o Sporting Leagues
o Housing offices (perhaps they have a favorite charity) and so on
o Taxi cab drivers
o Fitness centers
Well placed attractive permanent and temporary signage remains one of the most effective forms of marketing.
However, as operators we frequently only think of our property for signage. Billboards, temporary area signs, paid signs on other properties can all have a strong impact on leasing results. The good news here is you can often find places to put signs for free or very little monthly cost.
The Small Business Administration states that signs are the least expensive yet most effective form of advertising. Depending on business, signage can account for up to 40% of traffic. Additionally, prominent signs can multiply sold business.
The keys are:
o Relevance, and
o Aesthetic Appeal
To achieve these ends, a complex should ensure that signs:
o Do not blend in with surroundings
o Should offer a simple design
o Have large enough type to be easily read
o Should be tasteful and consistent with the property
Apartment operators in general place far too little emphasis on signage. Your sign should include:
o Your business name,
o Phone number,
o Website, and
o Key buying factors – bedrooms, pool, etc.
For the foreseeable future, signage remains and should always remain one of the most important methods of advertising. The best way to consider signage with your Internet marketing and other marketing approaches is a complimentary and reinforcing aspect for those and a standalone lease prospect generator specifically.
Email and Phone Follow Up
For time on end, rental housing has focused on prospect management. However, the advent of the Internet has made this more important still. Now prospects contact properties via email and for the well positioned property owner with online applications.
Increasingly, consumers don’t want to spend their time discussing their new home with a leasing agent. Instead, they would like to be able to fully vet or very nearly completely check out the apartment of their choice without a visit or a phone call.
During 2009, our properties closed dozens of leases without ever speaking to the prospect in person or on the phone. The entire process was handled online except for signing their lease and picking up their keys. We expect even better results once we are able to complete the lease online too.
At the same time, the immediate response and access of electronic media has made tenants even more impatient. A recent presentation given by the Apartment Association claimed that if an online contact was answered within an hour a successful conclusion was greater than 90%. At the same time, responses in the 2nd hour were expected to fail for more than 80% of calls. The answer is clear. Be available and responsive to electronic contacts. Protecting our investment, our commissions, and our jobs depends on quick response to these prospects. Now, the need for responsiveness is greater than ever.
Some good methods to handle this are:
o Assign a specific responsible individual,
o For a portfolio, have the main office handle the online contact,
o Route emails to a cell phone,
o Engage a call center to respond,
o Train the staff to check these areas hourly.
Unfortunately, most companies are ineffective responding even though all have good intentions. This is true for voice mail and even more true with email and online applications. Further, even call centers are poorly armed to deal with the issue as they are unable to offer an integrated response with the necessary online applications, online screening, and other integrated information and response preparation consumers require. Only a combination of companies ILS and managed response can truly meet the need. The responsiveness issue is so great that some large portfolio holders actually engage call centers to improve their responsiveness.
In my opinion the only effective way to handle this is through a more globally responsive approach I describe as managed lead development and processing.
The Convenience Factor
Tenants have jobs too! Tenants have lives too! Tenants have obligations too! Too often, the attitude of apartment operators is that the tenant will adjust. A great way to improve marketing success is to abandon this attitude and get into the details of how our tenants live. The obvious factors to note are:
o Tenants and tenant prospects appreciate office hours that allow for their jobs. Coincidentally, tenants don’t need us in the office badly when they aren’t there.
o Tenants appreciate being able to handle issues like payments, maintenance requests, lease inquiries, and lease applications without having to come to your office.
o Small amenities can make a big difference in tenant quality of living.
o Good information on the Apartment Marketing Site (website) can make navigating a new community much easier.
o Providing out of hours phone support and email access can significantly improve quality of living when bad things happen.
As operators, managers, leasing agents, and maintenance staff on multifamily properties, considering how we can improve the tenant’s life can make a big difference.
Focus on improving convenience and a happy event will occur. Your tenants will begin making enthusiastic referrals to their friends, associates, and neighbors. Rents will rise, and cost of renting will fall.
We’ve discussed how critical responding is. This is just a beginning. The property or portfolio staff have to be armed and intent on providing sharp business like responses. The goal is both surprisingly difficult and surprisingly easy. Emails are not simply a matter of a polite response. Each email is an opportunity to:
o Provide detailed unit information,
o Provide details on staff and services,
o Deliver interesting facts about the area,
o Answer questions about schools, entertainment, shopping and infrastructure,
o Offer advantages of your property,
o Point out issues with other alternatives and frame the positive factors supporting your own property. o Add directions from multiple points,
o Provide a courteous call to action,
o Develop a relationship with the prospect; even make them feel a part of the community,
o Describe upcoming events, local social opportunities, and on property activities that may interest the prospect.
Also, structure includes initial response, follow up, closing, and post closing responses. Once your property has email capture in place, the complexity of a structured response rises as you must have a plan in place to regularly communicate activities at the property and in the community while you continue to service these individuals attempting to convert them to real leads and closing opportunities.
The Key – an Online Application
Many companies offer a copy of their application in Adobe file format (pdf) on their Internet site. The sad fact is few if any prospective renters will go to the trouble to print, fill out and fax this form of application in to the leasing staff.
Our clients who have implemented the online application have seen a 30X increase in applications using a secure interactive online application. Simply by allowing prospects to complete and electronically sign an application the level of results jumps dramatically.
Better yet, offer your online application in English and Spanish (more than 70% of renters for the next 10 years will come from minority groups). Have access to the web application address so that you can attach it to response emails, Craigslist ads, and other correspondence. The online application can be the stalwart of your lead and closing drive!
The real message here is that the further you can move the prospect to a decision with less interaction the greater your opportunity to grab their interest and hold them through closing before a competitor has a chance to respond.
Finally, as owners, managers, and leasing agents, we should seek to make the apartment identification, qualification, and sales process continually simpler and easier for our prospective tenants.
Staff Training and Standards
Staff training is a key to driving leasing activity. Key areas are:
o Call Management
o Your staff needs to be well trained and drilled in answering the call, getting to know the prospect, creating a relationship with the prospect, and promoting characteristics of the property.
o Remember the call is about what the prospect wants from the property and not what you like about the property.
o At the same time, enthusiasm about the property builds confidence that they are making the right rental decision.
o Visit Management
o The little things count:
o Offer a soda,
o Provide a coupon to a local restaurant,
o Ensure the office has the home feeling that is so appealing. The smell of fresh baked cookies is a winner.
o A clean office and a well groomed property is a must.
o Online and Email Management
o Remember our notes from before. You have to respond quickly or online leads become deadend efforts.
o Structured responses increase profits.
o Have an interactive secure online application for your clients.
o Automate as much of the process as possible.
o Respond via phone, email, and in person courteously, quickly, in detail, and a manner fixed on the needs the resident prospect expresses.
o Respond… Respond… Respond…
o Resident Management
o Providing top notch service,
o Creating meaningful activities and social groups,
o Know the sites, shopping, government facilities and services, and activities available locally,
o Providing responsible and sincere service for all facets of the operation,
o Collecting testimonials and using in your marketing material, and
o Developing strong referral services
Exposure… Exposure… Exposure
Unless a property is blessed with a location that simply sells itself, marketing is not a matter of using one or two of the right ideas. An effective plan to drive “over the top” traffic is, as you’ve probably concluded, a matter of a coordinated and comprehensive program of numerous initiatives in the company. And those initiatives are not likely to be wholly marketing focused.
The key items that I recommend at a minimum be included are:
o A terrific AMS (website) that includes lots of community, property, staff, and service info o At least one and very possibly two ILS services
o An interactive online application
o Signage on the property and in other key traffic areas surrounding the property
o A strong corporate and government outreach program
o A simple and robust referral program
o Managed response to all online activities
Pay Per Click Advertising
Many in our industry play down or even strongly oppose Pay Per Click as an effective marketing tool. The idea to keep in mind is that Pay Per Click captures a high percentage of the traffic / rental prospect opportunities available. In fact, Pay Per Click is about 45% as effective as organic search. This makes the service about twice effective as newspaper advertising at this point in time. Additionally, most of the apartment complexes don’t have the expertise and won’t use their budget to take advantage of this venue. This places Pay Per Click smack in the middle of your most cost effective alternatives.
From my perspective, the cost compared to vacant units is quite low. However, accomplishing this for most complexes requires managed Internet marketing and service support that generally internal staff is trained or capable of doing. Employing this solution will require experienced staff.
Comparing Sources of Traffic
The chart below provides a good overview from which you can make a solid analytical decision about how to market your apartment complex.
To give a brief review of our analysis of this data we generally believe that the larger the property owner the more of these items that should be in use. From a cost perspective, we feel at minimum the chart and facts support employing:
o The Internet – Pay Per Click, ILS, AMS, Craigslist and Whitepages are a few key items.
o Newspaper – May make sense depending on costs and demographics.
o Apartment Listing Circulars – In our experience these are critical if somewhat lower down the list from a starting point perspective.
o Referrals are not normally a starting point, but can close a relatively high percentage of leases for a property as reputation of the staff and Company strengthen in a market.
o Others are often a function specific to the dynamics of the property.
As operators, comparing and contrasting results through quantified metrics is an opportunity and a responsibility.
To give some examples based on our own experience:
o Craigslist will produce a lead or two per day in markets with of 200,000 to 400,000.
o An ILS, can deliver 12 to 25 leads per month.
o Referrals close almost 100% of the time if they can meet credit and background requirements.
o Newspapers yield less qualified traffic and are often relatively ineffective generating high volumes of lease traffic.
o Cable ads are often cost effective in markets under 300,000 and generate 3 to 5 leads per month.
o Radio tied to events is effective, but radio ads in general are ineffective.
o All sources are more effective if developed as a coordinated marketing approach.
Trump has made his billions with strong focus on Curb Appeal. Well maintained lawn or beds of flowers can entirely change a property. Power washing can make an aged building appear decades younger.
To really get ahead in this area:
o Inspect your competition and take notes on their curb appeal successes.
o Make a wish list of all the changes needed at the property.
o Ask 2 or 3 vendors needed for each change to offer bids.
o Develop a plan and schedule that works within your existing cash flow.
o Ensure that the plan follows the rent trends in your area. For example, there is little point in opening a pool in October.
Putting together a coherent plan can yield big increases in traffic and in rents.
Understand the Demographics and Economic Factors
Owners, operators, and managers are well served to understand the demographics of their local market and how national demographic trends are effecting or may affect their business. This has never been more true than it is today. Let’s consider some current trends that may prove impactful:
o Unemployment is approaching 10%
o Weaker collections, o Potential downward pressure on rents,
o More concern over rent as a function of total income
o Savings rate has jumped dramatically even as consumer credit has dried up
o Prospective residents are looking for better deals,
o Downsizing is in vogue,
o Sharing apartments is popular,
o Luxury units are suffering greater vacancy.
o Economists and banking expect rates to continue to rise
o Tenants are looking for ways to stabilize costs.
o According to the census bureau 73% of renters for the next decade will be minorities
o Renters will tend to have larger families and
o Renters are likely to have lower average income
o About half of renters for the decade will be Hispanic / Latino
o Owners and managers need bilingual staff
o Preparing and distributing Spanish marketing material will provide an outsized marketing advantage as other properties fail to respond.
o 2009 is the peak high school graduation year for Echo Boomers creating an additional bubble in renting demand.
o Baby Boomers are downsizing their home at the highest rate yet:
o Because their children have graduated and are moving out providing the opportunity for a downsized lifestyle.
o The Great Recession has wiped away trillions in market value creating a wealth gap that will accentuate the long established trend of seniors as renters.
o Emerging economies will put pressure on new construction costs creating a value advantage for older structures.
These facts point to an issue that is often overlooked in the industry. Renting apartments is not about having a fancy office. Renting apartments is about understanding prospective resident needs, concerns and way of thinking.
As the chart shows below, the period of time between choosing to move out and a new lease can be extremely short or very drawn out. As a leasing agent, it is important to understand trends and their impact on the prospects way of processing and deciding to close a new lease.
As owners, managers, and leasing agents to the extent that we can tap into these trends, we can create new demand and lower vacancy at our properties. Examples of approaches to achieve different results are:
o Tighten tenant qualification in the face of weakening demand can protect high quality revenue.
o Offering multiple leases per unit or including utilities to provide a fixed income solution.
o Hiring Spanish speaking staff and providing Spanish marketing collateral.
o Developing amenities that appeal to both a younger crowd and the older crowd.
o Establishing partnerships with assisted living and nursing homes.
o Buying older properties may result in captured value through low cost acquisition of otherwise impossible to afford structural hardware.
Managed Internet Marketing and Online Services
Multifamily operations are challenging at all times, and the task has not become easier with the advent of the Internet. Labor scales prevent or make practically impossible the idea of having the skills and experience on staff needed to mount and maintain a coordinated Internet marketing and customer service effort. As operators, we are faced with:
o Special pay per click and organic marketing needs,
o Special ILS management demands,
o Special website needs,
o Community information needs,
o The need to create and deliver fresh and up to date content for prospective tenants,
o Increasing demands for better prepared information on our websites,
o Identifying, establishing accounts with, creating advertisements for and posting ads on the various social networks, advertising sites, and other areas needed to assure and drive traffic,
o Managing an online applications solution,
o And much more
Does this chart raise any issues / errors your operation may be making.
The complexity and demands of these systems appear to be increasing and not decreasing. Given the public’s increasing demands for better organized and more complete information, managers are being driven to rely on sources that can provide and manage these demands for them at a reasonable cost while they focus on the day-to-day demands of making units ready, maintaining their facilities, completing leases, and performing the business tasks an apartment community demands.
We’ve spent quite a bit of time together picking up some good hints about where to go from here. Develop a great website. Keep the content accurate and fresh. Invest in services and support to generate the leads you need. Finally, perhaps you’ve caught on. This work is difficult. To do a good job is tough. Employee turnover, training, and the breadth of the task can be overwhelming.