As websites have become the new storefronts, many apartment firms are casting a critical eye on their own corporate and community sites to determine whether they are truly delivering the right customer experience.
“Ninety-one percent of consumers have walked into a business based on their online experience,” said Janet Hazen, a tenured marketing executive and consultant, during a session at the 2014 NMHC OpTech Conference & Exposition.
In her experience, the most effective websites perform well in three major areas: aesthetics, heuristics and haptics. Confused? Hazen explained that in terms of aesthetics, she would ask questions like is it pretty? Do people like it? Is it on brand? Heuristics had more to do with does the site function well? Can people easily get from point A to B? Haptics was more focused on whether the site is engaging and whether people are compelled to interact with it.
Hazen also encouraged marketing executives to look outside the apartment industry for website inspiration. The hospitality industry is an obvious leap, but Hazen also suggested digging into the food and beverage (e.g., Chipolte), technology (e.g., Apple); and automotive (e.g., CarMax) industries, as well blogs (e.g., Apartment Therapy).
Peggy Hale, vice president of sales, marketing and training for Morgan Properties, agreed, telling audience members that they need to “think like a consumer.” She strongly suggested every industry marketing executive hold a focus group to get honest feedback about their websites. In recently going through the process herself, she discovered that her company’s websites needed significantly less text, better photography (no stock photos of cheesy models, please); more videos and stronger calls to action (call us, lease online, pay your rent now, etc.).
As a case study, Christi Samuelian, Internet marketing manager for Windsor Property Management/GID, detailed the extreme makeover her team gave www.windsorcommunities.com, taking it from what she called a “glossy magazine to leasing machine.”
old website had a five-year-old design that lacked a degree of sophistication
design and content management system and limited transactional functionality.
“Today's user wants clean, easy to use, transparent and the ability to conduct
business on their own time,” she said.
To address some of these issues, the company made a number of key changes, including making the phone number more prominent, investing in better imagery, creating messaging tiles to reinforce key brand tenants and stronger calls to action, where visitors could easily check rental availability or log in to the resident portal.
The end result was a stronger sales funnel. After the launch of the new site, total site visits improved 59 percent and leads increased 39 percent. Moreover, because the site was allowing visitors to navigate more efficiently, pages per visit decreased roughly 60 percent, from eight to three pages and visit durations decreased by half, from an average of five minutes to 2.5 minutes.
Stephanie Fuhrman, executive vice president at Greystar Real Estate Partners, also stressed that website efficiency is paramount. Eight seconds is the average attention span of an American adult, so apartment firms have extremely limited time to make a good first impression. Because of this small window, Fuhrman also said that marketing executives need to be very aware of their site load times. On average, it takes seven seconds for a website to load, leaving most companies but one second to grab consumers’ attention.
In looking at the year ahead, the group identified six major website design trends. First, given the ever increasing use of mobile technologies, new websites will incorporate responsive design into their architecture. Moreover, flat design and scrolling sites are likely to become more common not only because they render well on mobile technologies but also because they lead to clean design that feels both modern and sophisticated.
Along the same lines, creative and well executed typography will also be big in the year ahead, with one marketing executive proclaiming, “If you are still using Times New Roman, it’s time to get up to date.”
New websites will also be much more visual, with large imagery and an increasing use of infographics to display data and other information in a more engaging format.