How to Use Social Media to Create Awareness and Build Relations
Social networking is growing at an exponential rate. According to a report by technology and market research firm Forrester Research, 55.6 million U.S. adults visited social networking sites in 2009, double the number of users reported in 2007.
As more adults become engaged with social networking sites, government agencies, state housing agencies, and property management firms are increasing their presence in an effort to be where their prospects and residents are. What types of opportunities can today's social media tools and platforms provide for low-income housing sites? We spoke to a few industry professionals who are adding value for their organizations, residents, and prospects through Facebook and Twitter.
State Agencies Reaching Out with Facebook and Twitter
In March 2009, the City of Houston launched a Facebook page and Twitter account to broaden awareness of its Houston HOPE Homes initiative, a downpayment assistance program aimed at revitalizing some of Houston's historic neighborhoods. The agency uses its Houston HOPE Homes Facebook page to post stories about people who have bought homes through the program, photos, open houses, and videos of speeches and events.
“In a tight economy, we didn't have a very large advertising budget, so we wanted to spend it as judiciously as possible,” says Houston HOPE Homes Marketing Director Valerie Watson. “Taking advantage of free social marketing helped us to promote awareness of the program for little to no money.”
The Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA) also has been using social media to build a more approachable image, as well as awareness of its programs. The agency uses Twitter and Facebook to reach out to realtors, lenders, developers, and media outlets to inform them of its programs and the people it helps. “Media outlets around the Columbus area are very active on Twitter. It was very helpful to us to be able to pitch stories to them to raise our public image,” says Kelly Taylor, director of Communications and Marketing for OHFA. It has been successful, she adds: “We've had significantly more media placements this year than we've had in the past, and many more lenders and realtors are telling their clients or customers about us because we have garnered those relationships through social networking.”
How Property Managers Use Social Tools
In addition to state agencies, property management firms are finding that social media provides a useful tool for monitoring conversations about their sites. Property Counselors Management Group (PCMG) manages 24 multifamily, tax credit, and conventional properties throughout Florida. Each site has a fan page on Facebook, and each property manager has been set up with a Facebook profile, says Ryan VanDenabeele, PCMG's online marketing manager. Site managers use their profile pages to network and communicate with other industry professionals, while the information on each site's Facebook fan page is targeted toward prospects and residents.
Facebook can be a highly effective tool for attracting leads and retaining residents, says social media consultant Charity Hisle, operations manager for Community Sherpa, an Internet marketing service for the multifamily industry from Network Communications Inc., the parent company of Apartment Finder.
“I've seen companies that have garnered more than 20 leases using Facebook,” she says. “You can also use it for retention by solving customer problems.” For instance, let's say a resident posts a message on a site's Facebook page saying that his neighbors are constantly leaving trash outside their door. “That gives the property manager an opportunity to respond to that comment publicly,” she says.
Practical Pointer: Social networking sites like Twitter are also great for networking with industry peers, says VanDenabeele. Every Friday at 4 p.m., EST, industry professionals hold an online event on Twitter to discuss challenges, best practices, and offer advice. To view the discussion, perform a Twitter search on #aptchat. To join the conversation, simply include the hash tag in your tweets.
Which Platform Is Right for Your Site?
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, blogs, YouTube, Flickr… what is the best platform to start with? “The best tool to use is the one where your audience is,” says Hisle. “When you're building your social media strategy to market your property, you first have to figure out who you want to talk to. If you want to talk to prospects and residents, that's great, but now you have to find out where they're talking. Nine times out of 10, it's Facebook. But it's important to poll your residents frequently—otherwise you're shooting in the dark.”
Once you determine which platform the majority of your residents use, don't just jump in; be a spectator for a while. “Watch how they use those spaces to learn how you can fit into their culture,” Hisle says.
You can also learn from watching other sites that are similar to yours, says Watson. “I like to see what the most common comments are, and what attracts the most activity,” she says. Watson also uses Facebook tracking tools to monitor activity on her fan page, such as which articles or photos get the most hits, which videos are viewed most often, and how many fans are gained or lost.
If you decide that Facebook is the best social platform for your needs, Watson recommends that you first research the process for setting up your page and using the proper Facebook tools. For instance, a common mistake is creating a personal profile page for a company or organization. “That is the wrong Facebook tool to use. Be sure to create pages that are designed for organizations and businesses—it will offer you many more functions and research capabilities than a personal profile or group,” she says.
Also, Watson advises choosing your username carefully because once you set it up, you can't change it. “Make sure you start with the right vehicle to begin with,” she says. “Look at other similar pages for inspiration.”
Blogs are another vehicle that's phenomenal for search engine optimization, says Hisle, especially if there are comments and engaging blog posts. “Having multiple contributors to the blog is ideal,” she says. “Think of it as your online newsletter—you can use it to share local events, dates, calendars, and news. If it's built correctly, it will benefit your site. On many occasions, blogs rank higher on search engines than Web sites because they have more activity and they are organically friendly.”
Remember: Social Media Is a Conversation
No matter which platform you use, keep in mind that social media requires interaction. “We view social media as a community,” says Taylor. “When you're trying to promote community within a community, social media are great tools. You can generate excitement about events at your site and make it personal by posting photos. People get excited about living there.”
If you get negative comments on your fan page, you can turn them around by responding in a positive manner. However, you can't turn an obscene or profane post into a positive one, says Hisle. She recommends including a disclaimer in the information section that states that the fan page administrator has the right to remove posts that are obscene, include profanity, or attack or harass other fans. “If someone posts an obscene comment, we take a screen shot of it, remove it, block the fan, and then post an apology and a reminder that we want to keep the page PG,” she explains.
When using social media as a promotional tool, be very careful in your approach, says Hisle. “Try not to use hard-sell, push-marketing strategies on social media platforms. It turns the audience away. If you send out too many push-marketing messages, you're going to be ignored—and I'd rather be unknown than ignored.” To prevent being ignored, “try to have conversations. Actually care about the other person who is talking to you. Social media is a human, word-of-mouth marketing tool.”
Charity Hisle: Operations Manager, Community Sherpa; (770) 962-7220, ext. 24678; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @CharityHisle.
Kelly Taylor: Director of Communications and Marketing, Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA); (614) 728-4270; KTaylor@ohiohome.org; Twitter: @OhioHousing.
Ryan VanDenabeele: Online Marketing, Property Counselors Management Group (PCMG); (239) 275-8320; email@example.com; Twitter: @PCMGtwit.
Valerie Watson: Marketing Director, Houston HOPE Homes, City of Houston; (713) 837-0831; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @HoustonHope.