For as long as there have been websites, apartment marketers have visualized this interactive marketing channel as the virtual front door to their apartment communities. Before COVID-19, prospects relied on websites as the place where they could go for information 24/7. It was where they started their search, but the actual leasing activity happened later on, in person at the property. Social distancing has changed these habits.
One year into the pandemic, prospects have warmed up to self-guided tours, and in some cases have returned to guided tours, but they aren’t eager to visit four or five apartment communities in person. Instead, they’re using an array of convenient features that are being rolled out to make property websites more useful than ever before. Prospects can narrow their choices by touring properties online before selecting one or two to visit in person.
“There has been a fundamental shift from the website as a marketing channel to the website as part of the tour,” said Esther Bonardi, vice president of corporate & multifamily marketing at RentCafé and Yardi Systems. “Today, leasing activity starts earlier and it starts on the website. I don’t think this is a passing fad just related to the pandemic,” Bonardi added. “I think these behaviors will stick, especially as we see new Gen Z renters coming into the renter marketplace. Their shopping behaviors were shaped right now at this moment in time. But even for the rest of us, I think the pandemic has gone on long enough that it has reshaped customer behavior.”
Visuals Drive Conversions
“Typically, websites have had a photo gallery, but now we’ve started seeing people add photos to every one of their listed amenities and also showing more of the amenity spaces,” Bonardi said. Vacant units are also being displayed online. The RentCafé platform lets an apartment property add up to five photos for every vacant unit and post a video to every floor plan.
Most RentCafé clients have their leasing agents record a walk-through tour right on their iPhone. Renters value this feature that lets them see the differences in two apartments that are close in size. Many leasing professionals are also offering live video tours on FaceTime or other video conferencing platforms.
“The leasing agent will take their phone over and actually walk the customer through the model or the vacant apartments,” Bonardi said. Having a live conversation in real time allows the potential renters to ask specific questions about the walk-in closet or see the inside of the refrigerator. Just as popular are convenient 3D virtual tours that let the prospect navigate around an apartment with their mouse or trackpad.
RentCafé did a study of features that were most prominent in leading to a lease conversion. “We can see the leads that are coming through. We see which ones convert and we can look at the features that are enabled on each listing and the features that most impacted the conversion,” Bonardi explained.
The 360 virtual tours and video tours, ratings and reviews and the ability to schedule a tour online are three things that increase the conversion rate. “Your web presence really is part of the leasing journey. We did a survey and virtual tours were one of the top features that renters valued and appreciated,” she added.
Some clients had close to a 50 percent conversion rate on self-guided tours, the study found. “These were the properties that had done all the good work on their website to start with,” Bonardi noted. “So the prospects scheduling a tour had already vetted the property to figure out it could work for them.” The conversion rate was quite high because they began their tour online. They had already walked through the virtual front door.
Part of the leasing team
Before the pandemic, The Management Group LLC encouraged people to come in for an in-person tour of its properties. But that strategy has changed dramatically since the onset of the pandemic. Now the websites are an information hub where prospects spend 5 to 7 minutes gathering details, narrowing their choices and learning how they can take a virtual tour or how to schedule a self-guided tour.
“The role of our websites now is to serve as an extension of the leasing team,” said Brooke Atsalis, marketing & training manager for The Management Group LLC. “My website is able to give just as much information as a leasing consultant would. You can see videos of the community amenities, videos of each floor plan type and even photos of each available apartment. When our physical door is closed, our website is our digital door to our community.”
Atsalis suggests having virtual tours that are embedded right on the website and easy to access, as well as clear and easy directions on how to take a self-guided tour of the apartment community. “We had a video and infographic made that walks the prospect through step by step,” Atsalis said. “For a lease-up, I have found great success in Virtual Hard Hat Tours. Even if (the units) aren’t completed, people love to at least get an idea of the apartment.”
Creating virtual tours doesn’t require a whole production team. Use a smartphone camera to film with, then edit with an app such as Splice, add music and titles and upload to YouTube to get the embedded link to add to the website. “Also make sure your team members are familiar with your website and are aware of all its capabilities to ensure they’re able to guide the prospect through all the functions it offers,” Atsalis noted.
Keeping track of every lead
Even before the pandemic, Bozzuto was training site teams to think of their websites as the virtual front door. “We want our site teams to take the same care with their websites as they do with their front doors,” said Kelley Shannon, senior vice president of marketing & customer engagement at Bozzuto.
A monthly audit enables property site teams to communicate any needed updates to their websites, such as swapping out old photography, updating pricing, availability or if a retailer has moved out. “They are the most intimately familiar with what’s going on at that site. We want everything to be accurate and clean for the best user experience,” Shannon said.
Since COVID-19, further enhancements have been rolled out with prospects in mind. Now, Bozzuto websites usually feature a little welcome message across the top that tells you what kind of touring is happening. According to Shannon, an internal process keeps up with the local jurisdictional changes. “The teams on-site alert us through a form whether they’re offering in-person, self-guided or just doing the virtual tours.”
Once the prospect selects the tour, the site team can start to nurture that prospect based on the kind of tour that they’re expecting to receive. “We have always had the ability to book a tour online, but now we are more granular in allowing prospects to book the kind of tour they want versus having the agent have to get back in touch with them on how and when they’d like to tour,” Shannon said.
One of the challenges that has been exacerbated by the pandemic is managing a high volume of leads. Marketing teams are drumming up a lot of leads and it’s always hard for site teams to manage that volume. “We’ve turned our attention lately to: ‘What kind of tools do we need to put in place to help nurture those leads immediately?’” Shannon explained.
Bozzuto has started testing AI platforms that are intended to do that. “We are pretty excited. I think these are going to be game changers for the industry,” Shannon said. As part of a pilot program, Bozzuto’s AI leasing agent, named Ivy, can respond immediately to every single lead that comes in. “It’s not replacing human interaction. It’s just moving that person along and keeping them really warm until it’s time to do something more significant like a tour.”
Ivy has been successful at getting prospects to commit to tours. “It’s been interesting to see the number of conversations that Ivy has been able to have on our behalf, how that translates into tours scheduled and how it assists with converting to a lease,” Shannon said. One thing remains clear in these unprecedented times: Whether prospects are entering the apartment community through the physical front door or the virtual front door, excellent customer service is still key to leasing success.