Lessons Learned From 2020: Must-Have Tech in 2021

by Morgan Porter

If we learned one thing from 2020, it is that technology is a vital piece to an apartment company’s business strategy. Prior to 2020, technology adoption and buy-in were slow for most multifamily firms. We know that nothing can replace a person-to-person experience, but when this wasn’t an option, operators were forced to accelerate their adoption timelines. Companies needed to find ways to replicate that personal touch through digital connections.  

If your company was one that had the foresight to build a tech stack that had dynamic solutions to operate efficiently both on and offline, then 2020 was a walk in the park. For those that hadn’t adopted a full online/offline strategy, then every day probably felt like a human pinball trying to roll out tech solutions to fill in the gaps. We were living in a reactionary world where all traditional processes of onboarding tech were thrown out the window. It was the precipice of a technology revolution.    

We wanted to get information to the users as quickly as possible. Some solutions executed seamlessly while the industry was forced to innovate on the fly in other instances. All were game changers in a fully digital world.   

What did we learn? We learned that consumers need and expect information to be easily accessible and available multiple ways online. As consumers, we learned that it’s a frustrating user experience when websites have multiple pop-ups on the homepage. As operators, we learned that we need technology more than ever before, that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and that we need to be intentional with how we stack the technology to ensure a seamless and linear user experience.  

Which tech platforms made the biggest impact? Which solutions do we anticipate becoming a standard offering moving forward? Here’s a look: 

3D virtual tours—for more than your standard set of floor plans 

Prior to the pandemic, many operators utilized a 3D tour of spaces that allowed residents to walk through available floor plans in virtual fashion. However, the investment for these digital scans were usually limited to one or two floor plans, or companies leveraged complimentary scans from third-party advertising sources.   When the era of social distancing arrived, it became paramount for operators not only to have virtual tours available for all floor plans, amenity spaces and the clubhouse, but they needed to own these digital assets so they could share them across multiple mediums.  

Chatbot + live agent combo 

Chatbots had already been in the multifamily ecosystem prior to 2020. The early iterations left us needing more. During 2020, we saw chat widgets become smarter through AI-powered natural language processing, as well as cross-channel flexibility so marketers could leverage the technology in other advertising environments like social media, Google Business appointment schedulers, text messaging bots and more.  

Forward-thinking operators added a hybrid dynamic—a live agent. A computer-powered chatbot only knows what we train/program, which is generally based on a popular FAQ list. But what if a renter has a unique question, or there is a language or spelling barrier resulting in an unfinished conversation leaving the prospect still needing more information? Once the prospect maxes out with the instant-message style chatbot, they are transferred to an onsite team member who can pick up where the chat left off, filling in the blanks and continuing the prospect journey.  

There is a fine balance when leveraging chatbots technology. The one thing to remember is that this tech is a supportive integration. Nothing can replace a brand’s website. The website should cater the information first then offer the chat pop-up when the user would most likely have a question. Engaging the pop-up on the homepage diminishes the brand value and the initial first impression you worked so hard to create on your website. No one has questions after less than one second on the website. Be thoughtful about the placement and consider the user experience as they navigate. When executed well, the chat can become the MVP, otherwise it becomes a frustrating deterrent.    

Omnichannel experience vs. multichannel experience 

The more technology advances, the lines between what we do online and in real life become blurred. Omnichannel experience is a multi-channel approach to marketing and serving customers in a way that creates an integrated and cohesive experience no matter how or where a customer reaches out. The channels are connected so the customer can move seamlessly between them. For operators, it’s paramount that all channels provide users with information continuity and an advancement strategy to continue the journey until the customer is ready to move forward.   

The omnichannel experience for renting an apartment occurs when prospects engage with a brand in a series of individual touch points on multiple non-property website channels. For instance, a prospect might engage with a social media ad that prompts a chatbot and contact form. The user exhausts all the capabilities of the chatbot but is still needing information about floor plan availability, but isn’t ready to submit a contact form. The user can then click a link inside the chatbot redirecting them to the property website, but instead of sending them to the homepage to start over, the link sends them to the floor plan availability page. This creates an intentional linear journey that feels personalized. 

Interactive sitemaps  

Sophisticated prospects need to see the entire picture when they are searching for their next home. Spotlighting general interior features and a few amenity photos isn’t enough anymore. Renters want to see geospatial details about the home, within the context of the property. They don’t want to be sold something—they want to shop for it. Interactive site maps allow unlimited flexibility for an operator to add more searchable attributes that are relevant to their audience. Prospects can filter their search to view availability by building, floor level, view, proximity to community amenities, parking needs, interior finishes or any other attribute that is pertinent to your community or prospective resident. 

This functionality was pushed a step farther during 2020 by several companies that built out capabilities to add photos and virtual tours directly linked at the unit level. This enables the prospect to not only view their options in 2D, but also to see photos of their actual view from the patio or interior layout, as well as an interactive virtual tour of the floor plan. This provides the prospect with visibility of the granular information during the discovery process. This results in a shortened leasing cycle that allows the onsite teams to be more intentional with their lead nurturing and focus on creating an exceptional moving experience for the prospect.   

The overall lesson gleaned from 2020 is that the prospect journey can be even more streamlined. The homepage isn’t a billboard for flashing disclaimers, chat popups and move-in specials. The 40 seconds it takes to navigate through the initial barrage lowers the brand value at first impression. We need to assess our technology and placement to define where they offer the most value to a prospect and finetune the delivery of valuable information.    

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