Etched in my memory is the day in the early 1980s when the first Apple computer arrived at my office. I was just a few years into my career in real estate, having followed my grandfather and father into the profession, and I was mystified: What were we to do with … this?
As it turns out, everything.
The digital age has ushered out some time-honored marketing practices — print and cold-calling campaigns, direct mail, etc. — and galvanized the entire industry. The transition was admittedly slow in many cases, as more than a few of us clung to the old ways.
Inertia played a part, certainly: We had done things a certain way for so long, so why change? It’s just the way things have always been.
But beginning at least a decade ago, the switchover commenced. And even before the pandemic forced everyone, once and for all, to digitally transform, we as an industry had committed to a marketing strategy that was customer- and content-centered. There was, finally, an understanding that it was time to move on, time to evolve.
So, here we are, leveraging technology in a way that will be most beneficial to potential tenants. That means making it easy for them to find our properties through search-engine optimization (SEO) techniques. That means drawing them in via inbound-marketing strategies — featuring on our websites compelling photos, videos and other details that familiarize potential residents with the literal lay of the land.
Central to that is the virtual tour, which took on particular importance during the pandemic, when social-distancing protocols became the norm, but in reality, it had already been a fixture on real estate websites.
As Gigi Giannoni, senior vice president for customer experience at Atlanta’s Gables Residential, mentioned in this post: “We have one chance to make a first impression, and more often than not, that impression is online.”
So true. It is here that an owner can reveal the full scope of what a property has to offer, and of course, technology has become very much a part of that picture, too. Online portals make it possible to pay the rent and arrange service calls. Smart technology is often used in units’ lights, locks, thermostats and other devices.
It’s of the utmost importance that the information is up to date and compelling — and not just visually, either. Written content, including blogs and the like, is another way to maximize your messaging.
Somebody once said that “facts tell, but stories sell,” and that has been proven again and again. Stories stir emotions. There is biological evidence of this, and decisions are more often emotional than logical. So, stories, whether of an organization’s origins, evolution or hopes for the future, should always be part of the mix.
There are also those who believe that in the current economic climate, it’s essential to include a call to action in any piece of written content. Maybe that means offering to waive application fees or discount deposits. But the idea, again, is to fully engage potential customers — to draw them into your digital world and in time, your actual property.
Another way to do that is by being responsive to them. A Zillow study concluded that 71 percent of website visitors expect to hear back from property managers within 24 hours of asking about a place, but only 51 percent receive such a timely response.
So, this too gets back to technology, in the cases of some forward-thinking organizations — to implementing artificial intelligence and machine learning solutions for repetitive tasks so that staffers can serve in a client-facing role.
Technology also plays a role in measuring just how much impact your website might be having on visitors. Google Analytics is one method of doing that, though there are those who point out that the platform does not offer a complete picture, that it shows the number of visitors but not the journey that brought them to a given site. There are various platforms and software that provide such context, however.
Of course, most data is stored in the cloud these days, where it’s accessible to everyone in the organization at a moment’s notice, no matter how far apart they might be, geographically. That makes it easier to collaborate and easier to make decisions in real time.
Goodness knows other advances are inevitable. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), already a factor on companies’ websites, will make further inroads. Tenants will continue to benefit from things like keyless entry, fingerprint scans and retinal scans.
The caveat is that privacy and cybersecurity concerns will be that much greater, but as a whole, the customer experience will continue to take center stage, continue to be a focal point for property owners and managers.
In short, we have come a long way as an industry since that first Apple computer appeared atop my desk. This journey was one that needed to be made, however, and one that has left us in a good place, with more promising developments likely ahead.
Michael H. Zaransky is the founder and managing principal of MZ Capital Partners. Founded in 2005, MZ Capital Partners, based in Northbrook, Ill., deals in multifamily properties.