Twitter! Facebook! Multifamily is buzzing over social media, yet few people can point to the hard economic value of content-based media as drivers of renter traffic. Until now. In this posting, we examine Apartments.com‘s purchase of Austin-based Internet Listing Site (ILS) Apartment Home Living (AHL) to help provide some answers about leveraging content and social sites. In a time of few mergers and acquisitions, this deal got done. But why? AHL is in the business of attracting renter traffic using social tools and extensive content, creating a consistent customer experience and monetizing that experience. We thought this case study would be useful for multifamily owners that want to know how to leverage new media.

Apartments.com President Kevin Doyle explained that the primary reason for the acquisition was that AHL was driving a large amount of traffic and leads. AHL states they received 525,000 monthly visitors in January, and AHL Managing Director Larry Cotter has stated that site traffic to has grown approximately 76% per year for the last two years. Measurements from website data provider Quantcast confirmed the significant growth in AHL traffic over the two years and estimated the number of monthly visitors to be 484,000, which puts AHL slightly ahead of HotPads.com but behind Rentals.com in terms of unique visitors.

Apartment Home Living at-a-glance

Founded In 2000 as Apartment Mail Direct.
Date Acquired February 2, 2009 (estimated).
Employees Twenty-four team members, including contractors. Nine are devoted full-time to content production.
Site traffic AHL: 525,000 unique visitors monthly. Quantcast: 484,000 unique monthly users.
Markets served AHL has online apartment guides and local hot-spot reviews for 1,595 cities and 2,017 neighborhoods across the US.
Purchase price Not disclosed.
Key customers

Archstone, Riverstone, United Apartment Group Pinnacle, Gables, Lincoln, Pacific West Management, Camden, Greystar, CWS Apartment Homes, UDR

A Social Media Strategy or a Content Strategy?

Recent media coverage on the acquisition of AHL has focused on the social networking elements of the site. While AHL has social networking features, they are fairly limited when compared to an apartment community’s page MySpace or Facebook group. Rather, AHL is an ILS that uses social media channels to syndicate and distribute its professionally created rental content efficiently. AHL’s true strength is the ability to professionally produce a large amount of content, both text and video, and to repeatedly make that content available across different media channels. This has allowed AHL to put their content on the sites where people search for general, non-rental content and thus generate a large number of leads at a low cost.

Local Content Creates Long-Tail Aggregation of Leads

AHL maintains and updates local content in the form of Apartment Living Guides for 1,595 cities and 2,017 neighborhoods, as well as local videos. This local content is optimized to many different local keywords that are relevant to searchers but are not the most commonly used search keywords. When grouped together, a large number of less-popular search terms can garner a significant amount of traffic. All of this aggregated traffic from small sources thus creates what is called the “Long Tail” approach to aggregating an audience.

AHL has created thousands of pages on popular restaurants, bars, museums, colleges, airports and other local attractions, and organized them into guides by metro area, city and neighborhood. Each local point of interest has its own page with contact information, a short description, and then a list of nearby apartments at the bottom of the page.  Competing ILS RentWiki is also taking the long tail approach with local content, but their content is written by local users on wiki pages that anyone can edit.

The end result is that each AHL local guide page is highly optimized for search. We’ve checked pages for several different metro areas, and nearly all have returned in the top few results in Google when the search query is [page title] + “apartment/s”. The end result of the long tail approach is to reduce the cost of leads. The result of having many pages optimized for different keywords means the pages rank high in many different organic (free) search results and can generate lots of free traffic. This approach can also result in less expensive pay-per-click search ad campaigns, because long tail keywords generally cost much less than commonly used keywords – whose prices are inflated by competing advertisers bidding for the same keyword.

Using Distributed Video to Drive Traffic

A major part of AHL’s organic search strategy is to keyword-optimize videos to drive traffic via YouTube. In the next few months, AHL will have a unique video on the local Apartment Living Guide for each of the top 300 US cities and metro areas. These market-specific videos are then keyword optimized and distributed on YouTube and other video-hosting websites. According to Larry Cotter, these local videos are the top search results in YouTube for “apartment/s” + [major metro area] in at least 80 major metro markets – a claim that our research confirmed. We also found that AHL videos rank in top Google results for most major markets when the search query is [major metro area] + “apartment/s” + “video”, giving AHL an additional leg up in terms of organic search.

Although we do not have numbers on the percentage of AHL traffic that comes from video-related searches, the area of video search on the web is experiencing heavy growth and is a significant starting point for web searches. According to a December 2008 ComScore report, video search on YouTube alone accounts for nearly a quarter of all search queries on Google-owned sites. Furthermore, if YouTube was considered to be a stand-alone site, it would be the second largest search engine overall, with more unique searches than Yahoo. Searches on YouTube are up 114% from November 2007, making video search a smart approach for AHL.

So What?

The success of AHL is instructive because it tells marketing executives four strategic points:

  • Social media can drive a lot of leads and garner prominent position on the search engines. Video search is staggeringly big. People search for videos on all facets of their lives – including apartments for rent;
  • A significant portion of renters are seeking apartment homes using locally-targeted keywords. Not all of them, just enough to make you sit up and take notice;
  • A big brand name isn’t a prerequisite to success. (Be honest, had you heard of Apartment Home Living before 2008? Or at all?);
  • Consistently producing content is a full-time job. AHL employs nine specialists to produce the content to drive those 500,000 monthly visitors to their door. It’s not free, just cheaper than some alternatives.

AHL’s success in aggregating traffic (presumably even cheaper than Apartments.com was doing) focuses the mind of the big-picture marketing executive. Some will wonder if they can learn from this success and improve what they already do at their own company. The answer is a cautious “perhaps”. AHL spent real money and time on content creation specialists, keyword research, listings, professionally produced video, and gigabytes of local information. But since the smart people at Apartments.com took notice, perhaps we all should too. This deal is about a lot more than “brand synergy” or any other buzzword. It points us to how to unlock the true value of social media, and the content that we’ve already created. It’s the type of thing we’ll be talking about at the Apartment Internet Marketing Conference April 29 – May 1, 2009 in Denver.

Follow this link for more information and to sign up for the AIM 2009 Conference.

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