For many apartment operators, the rapid shift in the way people work, shop, and live in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated technology adoption in the multifamily industry. Perhaps nowhere has that been clearer than in using technology to optimize the leasing process in 2020.
For Atlanta-based Cortland, an operator of more than 60,000 units, the quick switch to its staff needing to work remotely, combined with prospects no longer physically visiting its communities for tours, led to innovations, bred by necessity, in how it leases its units.
“Pivoting how we marketed and sold ourselves during the pandemic has actually resulted in some good lessons,” says Tim Hermeling, executive vice president of marketing at Cortland. “Finding new ways of interacting with our prospects is a positive that has emerged from it.”
For example, Cortland quickly picked up on consumers’ change in behavior from looking at apartments on their phones to researching them from desktop devices. Whereas two-thirds of Cortland’s searches previously came in from mobile devices, it noticed that number dropped to around 55% during the pandemic, with desktop searches increasing to 45% of its traffic.
“Because people are at home, they’re spending a lot more time on their desktops,” Hermeling says. “And so we shifted some of our lead generation and brand marketing efforts to more digital advertising platforms, so we can be where they are consuming their media.”
For instance, in addition to paid campaigns on apartment-specific sites such as Apartments.com or pay-per-click search campaigns, Cortland targeted broader reaching sites such as Pandora, to be front of mind with prospects when they were ready to look.
Beyond that, though, whereas physical traffic previously drove a lot of its prospect outreach, connecting with people on a broader array of websites helped Cortland reach potential residents in some cases before they even started an apartment search.
“Walk-ins and drive-bys have always been a key source of prospects for us, but now you can get their attention before they actually start their research process,” Hermeling says.
Then, as it simultaneously widened its marketing funnel to route more traffic to its website, it then focused on creating specific, robust content to serve up to prospects once they arrived.
That meant recording more than 550 video tours of its apartments, in just a matter of days, to make sure prospects could still get an immersive experience at its properties, even though they couldn’t visit in person.
“Our second step was to actually engage with those prospects once they indicated an interest in our communities, and that interaction has been overwhelming through the use of video,” Hermeling says. In some instances, that has allowed for a completely virtual leasing process, where prospects have researched, toured, and signed leases for units online.
But it has also resulted in prospects scheduling “live” tours with its agents via FaceTime, Google Duo, or other video conferencing apps to allow its sales team to walk the units physically, while interacting with those prospects and providing information about the community through the app.
The company has even begun experimenting with self-guided tours, allowing prospects to physically visit a unit, without a leasing agent being present. Key to that, however, has been interacting with prospects via phone, both before and after the self tour, to preserve the rapport and relationship building that’s so integral to the leasing process.
“So what we really want to do is provide self-service options and choice to the consumer so that we can meet them in the way that they want to interact with us,” Hermeling says.
While it has been doing business differently, and leveraging technology to optimize the leasing process during the era of social distancing, the company has also been working diligently to ensure it can integrate all of its new marketing and leasing tools into its property management system. It’s even invested in a new customer relationship management application to ensure that all the new touch points it has with prospects are tracked and recorded.
Together, the effort has led to a much more tech-focused aspect of the leasing process, one Hermeling expects will continue in the industry, long after the pandemic has passed.
“I think that will be one of real silver linings when we look back at this unfortunate pandemic,” Hermeling says. “It’s the ability to leverage technology, and people getting very comfortable with leasing virtually. I think virtual leasing is here to stay.”
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