Competition for student renters grew heated in 2023, fueled by softening college enrollment and an influx of newly constructed student housing across Tier II cities. The slowed pace of leasing caught many owners by surprise, triggering an 11th-hour scramble to ramp up marketing.
“A lot of student housing providers were not as full as they thought they would be this fall, with performance weighed down in the Tier II markets,” says Kat Callender, a student housing marketing expert at Conversion Logix. “Some properties were only 90 percent leased in July when they had expected to be getting close to 100 percent, and that was tough on those providers. Then in August, we saw them pulling together funds from wherever they could find them to expand marketing, trying to close the gap on that last 10 to 12 percent of occupancy.”
With many complexes entering the fall semester with vexing vacancies, operators are now asking what they can do differently in the months ahead to maximize their leasing potential.
And Callender has an answer: Adopt a smarter marketing strategy.
“Struggling student housing owners need to be more strategic in budget allocations,” Callender says. “They must give their teams flexibility to spend funds where and when they will be most effective, based on who is actually looking for housing at different times throughout the year.”
In Callender’s experience, student housing properties with dynamic marketing programs have been better able to stay ahead of the competition and achieve full occupancy, even within challenging second-tier markets. In addition to leveraging widely used tools like paid-search advertising, which pushes an advertiser to the top of internet search results, her clients have been connecting with potential renters through an array of social media, live website chat and location-based (or out-of-home) marketing, such as mobile banners.
“The strategies that worked best combined a variety of different mediums to reach the largest target audience possible,” she says. “Adding TikTok was a huge success point for multiple properties this year, and YouTube worked really well, along with adding budget to paid search as we got closer to school start times.”
Marketing by Season
Choosing effective marketing channels for student housing depends on the target audience and can change at seasonal stages in the housing selection process, Callender says.
Conversion Logix advises student housing clients to target decision-makers — students and their parents — when each group is most likely to peruse housing options. Parents tend to search earliest, from October to March, while their Gen Z students prefer searching in spring and summer.
It follows that marketing in the winter months should focus on parents. Facebook and Instagram are good advertising choices for this predominantly Gen X group. Once parents begin to investigate specific properties in spring or summer, a paid search service can increase visibility on Gen X’s preferred engine, Google Search.
Winter is also an important time to connect with overseas and out-of-state students and parents seeking housing for the fall semester. Live chat functions on a property’s website can be highly effective in converting these students to renters, Callender says, particularly if the chat operator has multilingual capabilities.
Live chat is one of the best ways to collect leasing leads from online visitors. Few Gen Z students will take time to fill out contact request forms, Callender says, and they tend to abandon chatbots.
“They really engage better if they find out they’re chatting with a real person,” she says. “And that live chat contact info can be passed on to the leasing team. It’s an extension of their team at a fraction of the cost.”
Conversion Logix offers a managed chat service for clients’ websites that collects online visitors’ contact information while responding to questions, and the company offers a separate app that schedules property tours. For a client’s property near the University of Illinois, the live chat and tour scheduling services generated 365 unique leads, leading to 85 signed leases.
By the end of March, marketing teams should be shifting focus to students and the social media channels they turn to when making purchases. Landlords can build strong brand awareness with short, fast-paced advertisements on TikTok, Instagram Stories and YouTube, Callender says.
As the summer months create urgency among parents and students, timely paid-search spending can showcase a student housing provider’s brand during decision-makers’ final research before a housing choice.
“In spring or early summer, make sure you’re allocating a good portion of your budget to paid search,” Callender advises. “Then you’re able to pull all those people in that you warmed up earlier on in the year with push-type ads on TikTok, Instagram Stories, Facebook and YouTube.”
Better, Faster Leasing
Marketing to parents’ and students’ common preferences and buying patterns can propel a leasing team to full occupancy with surprising speed. As an example, Callender relates the experience of a client management company that operates five student housing properties, chiefly in second-tier markets. Last fall, the firm allocated much of its marketing budget to a new channel, TikTok.
“TikTok really works for the whole year because it’s just a popular platform for the students,” Callender observes. “What changes through the year are the other social media that we use.”
Leasing in the portfolio was nearing the 70 percent mark by the end of February. In early spring, the management company added local paid search promotion while maintaining the TikTok campaign and a mix of its usual advertising.
“This set of five communities ended up fully leased for the fall semester by the end of May, or about two months earlier than the previous year,” Callender says. “It was great to see, and one of the only changes they had made to what they were using was that they tried TikTok.”
— By Matt Hudgins. This article was written in conjunction with Conversion Logix, a content partner of Student Housing Business.
To learn more about Conversion Logix, click here.