Digital Strategies Remain the Name of the Game for Successful Student Housing Leasing

While a move to digital leasing and marketing has long been underway, it’s relevance was cemented at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without the option of in-person tours or events, owners and operators were forced to create contingency plans for getting heads in beds while also showing enough of their community to prospective residents — and their parents — to make them feel safe and assured in their decision to live off-campus. 

Leasing activity rose back to historic levels this past fall, and with in-person classes returning en force, face-to-face property tours and events also began to come back into fashion. But that has not done away with digital methodology. In fact, it has become more important than ever to have both your digital and in-person efforts running at their highest levels in order to attract student renters. 

Leasing Levels Rise

“Last season started off with everyone taking a step into the unknown,” says Lindsay Brown, senior vice president of leasing at Campus Advantage. “There was an uneasiness about whether velocity would pick up as schools announced fall plans, and some worried there might not even be a fall 2021. By mid-spring, velocity picked up and things felt a bit more normal, and then by summer WE WERE BACK! From record enrollment to record occupancy and revenue growth in many markets, numbers settled in across portfolios at pre-pandemic levels and in many cases have outperformed previous years altogether.”

“We’ve had a solid rebound from the prior academic year,” agrees Laura Formica, president of Homestead Living. The company’s portfolio was at 95 percent as of early December compared to 90 percent in fall of 2020.

Cardinal Group Management Group Marketing Manager Tiffaney Alsup notes that the company has seen an increase in same-store pre-leasing of 6.6 percent and an increase across its overall portfolio of 6.2 percent so far this year. And over 65 communities are already 100 percent pre-leased. “We are excited to finish the year out strong and attribute our momentum to starting our renewal and new lease launch early and maintaining consistency by running large scale campaigns,” she says.

“Though some markets were slower than others to return to their pre-COVID pre-leasing numbers, we landed our portfolio near 97 percent occupancy while getting decent year-over-year rental growth,” says Rob Dinwiddie, executive vice president of marketing and management services at Landmark Properties. 

“The year started at a slower pace than we’d experienced in fall 2019, but as states like California announced a full return to fall classes, we saw solid spring and summer velocity pushing pre-leasing to high levels across the board,” he continues. “We also saw a return of international students in key markets which materialized late in the leasing season but at numbers more in-line with fall 2019.”

From a marketing standpoint, this fall was ‘business as usual’ according to Matt Pavlick, president of GRO Marketing, with digital tactics like search engine optimization (SEO), paid search, paid social and programmatic advertising reigning supreme. 

“Some of the hot emerging marketing tactics that were projected to explode in 2021 like TikTok advertising and student athlete partnerships utilizing the Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) legislation have been used sparingly by our student housing clients,” says Pavlick. “TikTok has made some improvements within its ad platform, but the targeting offered is still inferior to other social advertising platforms. We’re optimistic that TikTok will get everything straightened out and will be more student housing friendly by early 2022.”

“As far as student athlete partnerships go, both sides seem to be still figuring it out,” continues Pavlick. “Some of the communities that we work with have hit home runs in structuring athlete deals, but the majority of them have had trouble securing meaningful deals due to lack of education, poor communication and difficult ‘handlers’ on the athlete side.”

In terms of when ad dollars were spent, Pavlick saw similar spending patterns in 2021 to last fall, but increases in spend were nowhere near as aggressive as they were in 2020. “The majority of student housing communities increased their budgets for the spring and summer months this year, but the increases were tame compared to the two- to four-times increases that we saw in 2020 at the height of the pandemic,” he says. “Things are certainly stabilizing.”

Early Pandemic Strategies and Takeaways

The switch to a digital focus for leasing and marketing was one that had to be undertaken rapidly by many owners and operators last year. “Like so many other companies we had to quickly pivot to a virtual approach at the start of the pandemic,” says Formica. “Thankfully our student housing division was well-prepared for this as our leasing strategies were already digitally focused.”

“This time period provided us with a great opportunity to sharpen our virtual-tour skills,” she continues. “Our training of leasing agents became much more robust in how to successfully engage with prospects via Facetime and other digital tools. Virtual watch parties, Instagram bingo and door-to-door pizza deliveries were some of the activities we incorporated to replace in-person events, while maintaining connection with our residents during that time.”

“In a way COVID-19 pushed the housing industry out of its comfort zone and made us evolve our marketing strategies to fit any circumstance,” agrees Alsup. “In my opinion the industry has always been a little behind the curve when it comes to innovative marketing, so in a way we needed that push to explore avenues outside of on-campus marketing and events.”

Prior to the pandemic, many communities didn’t offer easily accessed contactless options for touring and leasing, instead relying heavily on the customer experience factor and vision selling to close leases, according to Alsup. 

“There was a learning curve for our onsite leasing teams who had been trained heavily on our platform, which was built around the typical leasing process we had grown accustomed to,” she says. “It involved video etiquette and how to handle being a videographer at the same time as a leasing agent. We were lucky that a lot of our team members and our target demographic of students were used to online shopping, Facetime, social media platforms and virtual classes so they adapted rather quickly to a fully online environment when it came to finding their housing.”

In-Person Set to Return?

For many, there is a yearning to return to ‘normal’ and a desire for in-person tours so that potential residents can touch and see their future home, according to Formica. “The same goes for our social programming,” she says. “People are ready for more in-person events and for the opportunity to connect with other humans.”

“For those who are not comfortable with being in-person, we will continue our hybrid approach and make sure virtual options are still available,” she continues. “At Homestead U, I know we’re most excited about returning to our grassroots marketing strategy by resuming outreach on-campus. In fall 2020 most campuses were ghost-towns; it’s great to see people physically back, walking around, going to restaurants and living life again.”

Cardinal Group is also shifting back to the utilization of in-person marketing with the alternative of digital leasing options for those who prefer that methodology. “We have no plans of removing many of the tactics we adopted during the pandemic, they now just act as a large menu of resources we are able to utilize in our marketing and leasing journey,” says Alsup. 

“As we started this leasing season, the majority of our offices were fully open and we saw an increase in foot traffic, but many of the marketing techniques we pivoted to use in 2020 are part of this year’s marketing strategy also,” agrees Julie Bonnin, principal and chief operating officer at Asset Living. 

“As we are moving through the pandemic, we are returning to more in-person marketing and leasing tactics which enhance the leasing experience, but digital marketing strategies are going to be the cornerstone to any successful marketing strategy,” she says. Asset Living is also exploring after-hours and weekend self-guided leasing tours to accommodate the timeframes in which potential residents want to tour a unit.

Lauren Dalia, a regional manager with The Preiss Co., notes that it’s not just about offering digital leasing alternatives, it’s also important to make sure your offerings are top notch. “We are still very much focused online,” she says. “I tell my managers that curb appeal used to be literally your curb and now it is what your website looks like and how are you performing online. Even when prospective residents visit in person, they’re going online first.”

Atish Doshi, founder of collegiate media and marketing company The Black Sheep, agrees. “As a property, ensuring your digital experience is as good as the in-person experience is critical,” he says. “Students are more comfortable now than ever before with vetting properties online first — from virtual tours to your social media feeds to online chats — before deciding to schedule a tour to learn more,” he says. “If that online experience is lackluster, students assume the in-person experience will be just the same.”

“In-person leasing will never fully go away,” says Chris Vasilakis, founder and CEO of The VR Marketing Group. “But the pandemic showed us that with the right digital strategy, properties can lease up without the need for in-person tours. We’ve seen a huge increase in leasing online and think this will be the new behavior for leasing. Requiring students to tour in-person has become an outdated strategy and is a failing formula.”

“Digital strategies will play a larger part than they did pre-COVID, but overall we’ll move to a 50/50 split between digital marketing and in-person marketing,” Doshi counters. “The main reason is that all properties are fighting for the same set of eyeballs on social media and digital platforms, which makes it really tough to stand out if that’s your sole strategy.”

“By leveraging both in-person and digital marketing strategies you’re able to reach students from a 360-degree approach and create a better experience for all potential residents,” he continues. “From the student perspective, the more interactions they have with a property — both online and in-person — the more top of mind that property will be when it comes time to think about signing a lease.”

Fall 2022 Outlook

The consensus outlook is optimistic when it comes to fall 2022 leasing. “So far we are seeing solid performance across the board with all regions outside of the West Coast — which normally starts a little bit later — with most regions outperforming last years numbers by more than 5 percent,” says Charlie Matthews, co-founder and CEO of CollegeHouse. “There are many markets that are upwards of 40 percent pre-leased already for the upcoming academic year, which shows students are making decisions earlier than before.”

“We have seen a flight to quality where well-located and newer properties are filling up much more quickly than a lot of the vintage inventory that is further from campus, which held true as we looked back on last year,” continues Matthews. “One thing that is encouraging is that the larger units (four-, five and six-bedroom) are leasing up pretty quickly, unlike this time last year.”

Homestead U’s pre-leasing for the 2022/2023 academic year has started off incredibly strong, according to Formica. “We’re trending 5 percent ahead of this time in 2020, and 1 percent ahead of this time in 2019, which meets our pre-COVID benchmark,” she says.

“What we’re already seeing in this current leasing year is a swing back to leasing velocity trends more in-line with fall 2019,” agrees Dinwiddie. “With this earlier leasing activity taking place, we are focused on maximizing our per-bed rental rates. That contrasts with our experience last year, where in so many markets we were waiting for velocity to materialize later in the academic year, limiting our ability to push rates with confidence.”

The industry as a whole is extremely strong right now and there are no signs of a slowdown for fall 2022, according to Brown. “Demand is back up and supply is flat — that puts us all in a great position to outperform last year in every aspect,” she says. “In fact, many of our residents only know a leasing season like the one we just had and that means increased rates as we progress, limited choices if you wait, and full communities turning people away.”

“This gives us a great opportunity to finally retrain some of our typically later markets to lease earlier and to capture renewals earlier,” she continues. “We are already seeing about a 3 percent to 5 percent increase in pre-leasing averages versus this time last year and I anticipate this increased velocity will continue throughout the season, along with rate increases and a reduced need for incentives. Unless some unforeseen occurrence happens (hello, 2020!), we are sitting in a pretty sweet spot in 2022 for our industry.”

From the marketing perspective, Pavlick of GRO predicts that as more ways to consume video content emerge and improve, the industry will see more ad dollars shift towards TikTok, Connected TV and YouTube advertising. 

“On the flipside, people are starting to crave those in-person moments again, so onsite events will need to play a significant role in a community’s marketing strategy as well,” he says. “I’m seeing 2022 being the year of the tag team — traditional tactics will link back up with digital to produce a powerful winning combination for communities.” 

Katie Sloan

This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. To subscribe, please click here