In Clear Focus: Marketing for Multifamily, Student Housing, and Senior Living Developments

In this week’s episode of In Clear Focus, Bigeye account manager Matt Cummings shares his observations about the importance of marketing in the multifamily, student housing, and senior living development and management industry. Matt discusses hot topics in multifamily development and identifies trends that are reshaping the industry.

In Clear Focus: Marketing for Multifamily, Student Housing, and Senior Living Developments by In Clear Focus

In this week’s episode of In Clear Focus, Bigeye account manager Matt Cummings shares his observations about the importance of marketing in the multifamily, student housing, and senior living development and management industry. Matt discusses hot topics in multifamily development and identifies trends that are reshaping the industry.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant:     You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS: A unique perspective on the business of advertising. Produced by Bigeye. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of insights at Bigeye. For those of you who don’t know us, Bigeye is an audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency. We’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond, providing audience research, branding, creative, media and analytics services. Thank you for choosing to spend time with us today. For this episode, it’s my pleasure to be joined by Matt Cummings, Bigeye’s account manager dedicated to guiding engagements with the agency’s clients in multifamily, active adult, student living, and co-living community development and management. Matt is the newest member of the Bigeye team but was previously our client as regional marketing manager for Greystar Real Estate Partners, here in Orlando. At Greystar, Matt was responsible for business development, brand development, client relationship management, and acting as the project manager for all marketing-related efforts for regionally-managed assets. Welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Matt.

Matt Cummings:      Thank you.

Adrian Tennant:     So can you tell us something about what initially attracted you to Bigeye when you were a client?

Matt Cummings:      Absolutely. Well, when I worked with Bigeye as a client in my previous role, I was always incredibly impressed with their team and the level of work that they had produced for my projects. I saw that passion and collaboration among team members and those are just two qualities that I would strive for internally with my teams. I really enjoyed my conversations with Justin and hearing of his vision for Bigeye’s expansion in the property development industry. And I always felt that I had to be right there with him to assist and make it happen. But aside from that, I’m also honored just to work with such a creative and fresh group of professionals. The team here is definitely full of talent and I just can’t wait to learn from everyone as we take this journey together.

Adrian Tennant:     That’s great. Well, now you’ve been on the Bigeye team for a little while, what’s been the most surprising thing about working on the agency side as opposed to being the client?

Matt Cummings:      Well, I can tell you that I have a newfound appreciation for agencies and the level of detail and work that goes into every project and decision making, the amount of collaboration that I’ve been a part of has been refreshing. And just being able to listen to different perspectives and also weigh in on decisions has been really exciting for me. I guess I just never really fully understood or appreciated the work that goes on behind the scenes when I was a client. But being here it truly opens my eyes to what we do here.

Adrian Tennant:     So what does your role as account manager at Bigeye look like? Describe a day in the life, if you will.

Matt Cummings:      Well, my role is pretty unique here. It does allow for increased ability to focus on bringing in new business and introducing my multifamily and student living colleagues to an agency that speaks their language. But I also get to work on our active projects that are in progress and just shadow the different teams within the agency to understand what they do to help me get the deliverables that we’re working towards for our clients. I can honestly say that I haven’t had a routine day just yet. But a constant has been starting my day with our full team production meeting, which is really fun to see everyone and hear what they’re working on and then immediately filling up my coffee mug to get my day started.

Adrian Tennant:     So what do you think are some of the most common challenges facing clients in the multifamily development and management space right now?

Matt Cummings:      Well with marketing, I would say that developers and management companies have different expectations and requests when working with agencies like Bigeye but there is a bit of an overlap. So usually with developers, they tend to work on their projects years in advance and they have a wealth of knowledge of their communities long before they even come to fruition. But finding a true creative partner to help bring this information to a brand identity and then tell the story of the community is a challenge simply because there aren’t a lot of agencies in my experience that understand what this type of work truly is. And with management companies, they’re just looking for someone who understands how to take a brand identity, make it tangible, and usually cost-effective so that they can effectively lease up their communities. And usually, it’s as quick as possible. But for both groups, there is a layer of thinking outside of the box that everyone strives for. Since the rental industry tends to be highly competitive with many options for prospects to choose from, they just want to know how to differentiate their product and honestly just be the most profitable in the process.

Adrian Tennant:     How do you think a multifamily marketing agency such as Bigeye can be of most help?

Matt Cummings:      While the fact that Bigeye already has an extensive portfolio of property-related projects and experience working with management companies and developers in the past – that allows for more of a productive collaboration from the get-go. As a client, it’s certainly made my job easier when we were able to skip the educational part of the apartment industry for each project and just move right into deliverables and discovery. They just got it. And, I think with my addition to the team and the experience that I bring, I can help our current and new clients get it even more.

Adrian Tennant:     That’s great. So how does your approach to marketing student housing developments differ from apartment marketing?

Matt Cummings:      Well, with student housing it’s a bit of a different trick. Usually, they’re focused on events. I’m really focused on what we can do with the university, what we can do with a college, honestly tying in that school spirit to show that we’re one of them, or at least we try to be. And focusing on the organizations they are part of, and it’s really just being relatable. I think with newer renters and college, universities, and off-campus housing, they don’t want to be sold to. So you have to truly just help them understand what type of lifestyle you’re selling to them, without it coming across as selling.

Adrian Tennant:     You said reflecting the college spirit. Are we talking branding that reflects the sports teams and colors and all of that?

Matt Cummings:      All the above. Yeah. We have to show them that we’re a part of every team that they have, whether it’s football or chess.

Adrian Tennant:     Nice – nice one. How do you approach marketing for a senior living community?

Matt Cummings:      That one, it’s a bit trickier. It’s a lot of similar approaches, but just different execution. We’re not going to focus on school spirit here, but we are going to focus on their care and showing that we’re not here to just lease them an apartment but here to show them what the lifestyle would be living here and that we’re here to take care of them. I’m really just selling the convenience of living in an apartment community and all that we offer them. Typically with active adults, they tend to previously have owned homes and they’re looking to downsize or maybe save some money and just find somewhere that is convenient, comfortable and it gives them an opportunity to live their life now. A lot of times, we see that they’re retired, so they just want to be able to relax and enjoy everything that they have to offer. But they also look for a lot of guidance. They want to understand what the process is for renting from an apartment community. Typically they haven’t had to do it before or they haven’t had to do it for a long time. So the lifespan of someone renting an apartment community in active adult is typically a lot longer than someone in multifamily. So it’s just showing that we’re there to help them, we’re there to show you what the lifestyle would be and that we’re going to take care of them when they move in.

Adrian Tennant:     Right. So what kind of assets are we talking about, to communicate that message?

Matt Cummings:      A very easy-to-use website. Very convenient office hours. So finding the time to come to the office and explain everything in person with them. And marketing materials do help with that. We do find that they like to have paper in front of them and like to make notes. So being able to provide them with those, those assets to do so. And a lot of resident event inspired collateral. So showing them that we do have, you know, a night where they can come and meet their neighbors or something, some sort of craft activity, anything holiday-inspired. They do love that, so just developing materials that speak to that.

Adrian Tennant:     The way you described it, it’s not sounding so different from the student housing! I like that. Alright. So tell me a little bit about your process for assessing the marketing requirements for a new property development. And for the sake of this conversation, let’s talk about apartments.

Matt Cummings:      Well, every development, they have a similar structure. But typically what I would want to know is the story behind the decision of how they even decided to develop there, why they decided to develop the asset they are and just what their short and long-term goals are. Every developer has a different strategy for their investment or the community they’re building, so it’s really important to know that from the get-go. But typically they’ve already done extensive research, so being able to discuss their findings and understand audience and marketing opportunities is usually very beneficial. From there, everything else just comes into play. We’d like to understand who the management company is and develop a strong rapport with them to ensure that we’re not only providing them with everything they need, but helping them execute on those deliverables, and make sure that their team has everything they need to effectively lease the community up.

Adrian Tennant:     Okay. How do you keep up with trends in multifamily marketing?

Matt Cummings:     Well, everyone says that the multifamily industry is essentially one giant family. And I’m here to tell you it’s true and that’s the best way to keep up. Honestly, I just, I keep in touch with all the friends I’ve made, all the colleagues, the mentors that I’ve had since I’ve started in this industry and just understanding what they’re doing, what they’re working on, what they’re hearing is the hottest trend. There’s always a story to share and there’s always a topic to talk about, but I would say if you put us in a room together, we can probably go on for hours and hours. And from there you just learn. But aside from that, I do try to stay active with our local apartment association. So here in Orlando, it’s the AAGO, the Apartment Association of Greater Orlando. I do try to attend any industry-related conferences across the country just to hear from different experts, leadership executives in this space and what they’re working on. And then I usually do try to meet with the local reps. There’s local account reps with ILSs, just to hear what they’re seeing for rent growth, occupancy shifts, new development pipelines, and it’s really crazy what information you can get from those reports and understand what type of marketing strategies you need for communities, knowing what the market looks like.

Adrian Tennant:     Now a little bit of industry jargon just crept into that explanation. Help me understand, Matt – an I-L-S?

Matt Cummings:      Internet Listing Service. So basically, when a prospect is looking for an apartment or when someone’s looking for an apartment, they start their search usually on Google and that will lead them to usually paid advertisements, websites, and apartment locators. So, think of like apartments.com or apartmentguide.com, Zillow. Those are some common ILS’s that prospects would look to, to find information. It basically just streamlines all the apartments that are in their query or in their search results and it gives them options to choose from. And it basically helps them just develop a short list that they can go and work off of when they’re touring properties. When you know there’s 50 to 100 properties per market. So usually the account reps that work for those ILS’s, have a lot of really good information and good data that we can look at and understand and just develop good conversation from.

Adrian Tennant:     That’s interesting. So, they are a source of information, potentially referrals for you. Do you see any differences generationally in the ways that people navigate the search process online? Are there any differences or do we all pretty much use the internet in the same way at this point?

Matt Cummings:      No, I think there’s definitely a strong differential between how people use the internet and what they prefer. A lot of folks that are maybe in an older generation, they will prefer to call or set up an appointment and have more of an in person meeting to understand what you’re providing them, go through all their questions they have and see things in person. We find that a lot of newer renters don’t like that. It’s actually the complete opposite. So there are folks out there that are trying to find the easiest ways for a prospect to tour their property without even talking to somebody. So really it comes down to what you think your audience will look like or what the audience will be. And then tailoring every decision making around that. So it could be a more enhanced website or 3D tours on your website or just having more Q&A information for folks that typically would have more questions when they’re searching for an apartment and just tailoring it to make it as easy as possible for them.

Adrian Tennant:     That’s so interesting. Research we’ve done into Generation Z and their habits regarding banking, we found that the majority of Gen Z actually don’t want to have a phone call with anybody; they’re much more interested in using a chat or a chat bot, to get their questions answered. So it seems like it’s the same in your world.

Matt Cummings:      Oh yeah, for sure. I mean a lot of websites now, especially in student living, have chat features integrated with their website so they can ask all the questions they want. Typically it’s either a very responsive bot feature or it’s someone on the other side that’s actually answering the questions. Texting is really big as well. Being able to text the property to set up an appointment or just text the property and ask them what their availability is for one-bedroom is a huge feature as well. Actually, it’s interesting because a lot of questions typically get asked through social media as well. They know there’s a website, but they want to hear from individuals or from people on-site what their questions are and they want to be able to have that conversation through Facebook, Instagram, whatever they use.

Adrian Tennant:     And I’m guessing a lot of this interaction takes place outside of regular office hours.

Matt Cummings:      Oh yeah. Nine, 10 o’clock at night. They’re getting messages on Facebook and they expect a response pretty quickly.

Adrian Tennant:     Okay – always on call. Alright, so you mentioned attending conferences, conventions, keeping up to date with the latest trends. What’s like a super hot topic in the world of apartment marketing right now?

Matt Cummings:      Well, I would say that all multifamily related topics are hot and I’m sure a lot of people would agree with that as well. But joking aside, I would say biggest focus topics within the industry are centered around the discovery journey for prospects, so going from their search journey all the way up until the day they move in, understanding what folks look for, how to make that as easy as possible and just focusing on the user experience. Another big topic is anything tech-inspired. Again, focusing on that, that journey, but also tech-inspired features and amenities in the apartments, at the community -anything they can use while living there to make it more interactive, more of an interactive experience for living there. And then finally I would say identifying resident preferences, but then taking it a step further, leveraging that information to ensure that each of our communities has a high retention rate. A big focus is not only getting residents to decide they want to live in an apartment community but keeping them there, engaging them and making them feel like this is a home they want for a long period of time rather than thinking of it as a short-term rental option. That’s always been a hot topic for any management company, I think.

Adrian Tennant:     So what companies in the industry do you most admire, and why?

Matt Cummings:      Well, you’d be surprised with how many companies actually work in the multifamily student industries. There are a lot, but, I do find all of them to be incredibly beneficial for all of the different resources they provide. And I would say a management company also finds it vital that they use their company options as well. But there’s a few that I’ve really enjoyed working with in the past. Engrain is a hot company out there right now. They’re actually based in Denver. They develop a lot of interactive sitemap tools for the website and for the online leasing and in-office displays. I’ve worked with them in the past, on the management side, and they’ve always been incredibly beneficial to work with and they’re always looking for how they can take their services and, and go one step beyond and working with managing companies to develop that partnership. So I really enjoy working with them. And then honestly I’d like to mention Benson Integrated Marketing. They have been really an incredible partner for a lot of the signage side of marketing- print needs, promo items. They’re pretty popular in the multifamily space and student living space. So, they know what they’re doing and they really truly focused on multifamily, so that helps them build better conversations with the multifamily management folks. And they also just, I think get it.

Adrian Tennant:     So there’s something else I want to explore: this was new to me, the idea of co-living spaces. Is this like co-working spaces?

Matt Cummings:      It’s a little different. Think of adult student dorms where oftentimes the spaces might be a little smaller. They are a little bit less expensive and then you’re sharing some common space. So there could be larger living rooms that everyone kind of gathers in or does work in, shared kitchen sometimes. And oftentimes they’ll be fully-furnished so that all they have to do is get their keys and move in. So that’s really, really cool. It’s a new concept. I think it’s still pretty new to a lot of markets, but it’s coming and it’s a great option for more urban cities that are just losing real estate. They have to go vertical or figure out a new way to use the space. And, co-living apartments is definitely a way of the future, I think.

Adrian Tennant:     Right. You heard it here first.

Matt Cummings:      Yeah, that’s right – here at Bigeye!

Adrian Tennant:     Marvelous. So let’s change gears a bit. Tell us about your background, Matt. How did you get to where you are today?

Matt Cummings:      Well I started as an unpaid marketing intern as a college student. I had to go through the process of finding an apartment for myself and I was touring student living communities and I thought, “Man, this is a pretty cool job. Like they get to sit here and tour students and make friends and hopefully they get a discount on rent too.” So that’s kind of where I started my journey. I actually went to USF in Tampa. So, “Go Bulls,” for anyone that’s listening. But then from there I just, I found a real interest in it, I graduated from USF with my marketing degree and I worked my way up as a leasing manager. I was a property manager for a very short time, realized that I wasn’t a big fan of that. And then I eventually grew and started traveling with different companies, more of a regional marketing sales trainer type of role. And then landed at Greystar and multifamily, working on a lot of new developments, business proposals for marketing, marketing strategies, budgets. And here I am today, eight years later.

Adrian Tennant:     As you know, at Bigeye, we have a great internship program. We’re actually joined by a couple of interns in the studio today. So, thinking about them, what advice would you like to give to our interns if they are interested in a career in agency account management?

Matt Cummings:      I would say if you’re focused on what I’m focused on and that’s multifamily and student living, just working in the apartment industry, I guess, or any business really, this kind of works both ways is thinking like an owner. That was advice that was given to me, well into my career of working in the apartment industry. And it really changes your perception of how you make decisions. It’s really easy just to give away the farm or to make things as affordable as possible. But when you start to understand that from a business perspective and understand how that can affect your bottom line or your decision making or the brand of whatever you’re trying to sell or what you’re trying to lease, it certainly makes your brain think a different way. Um, so that’d be my first advice. Honestly, just getting involved in any type of project management, uh, related jobs that you can get in is really helpful. This is a very, very busy agency to work in or I guess an industry to work in. So being able to effectively communicate, being able to effectively keep organized all of your projects. Um, and then just asking a lot of questions even though it may not pertain to you, ask why, ask how, and, understand what makes things work. I think that’s, that’s definitely very helpful to understand.

Adrian Tennant:     Now you mentioned that we are a very busy agency – yes, we are! What is one common myth about working in advertising – now that you’ve been here for a while – that you think needs to be debunked?

Matt Cummings:      Well I would say before I worked at Bigeye or before I worked in the apartment industry, whenever I would hear the words, “advertising agency,” I would automatically think of one of those classified ads you’d see in a newspaper or think of a billboard. Those are true, but it goes way beyond that. And it’s funny because when people ask me now, “What do you do?” or “What does Bigeye do”, it’s like, well, how much time do you have? Because our capabilities deck is just incredible. It’s hard to really focus on everything that we provide and just call it an advertising agency, creative agency, whatever you want to call it. But I would say that beyond what everyone thinks or beyond any myth that might be out there, we work as true partners. And I think from day one, we’re already acting as, kind of an investment into your brand or to your company or whatever it is you’re trying to work on. And that we go beyond, I think hopefully we go beyond any expectations they have.

Adrian Tennant:     Now, are you a listener to podcasts or music?

Matt Cummings:      I’m definitely more of a music listener. It calms me. I have a very active brain – there’s always something going on up there. So music helps me focus for sure. In the morning, during work, and the evening before I go to bed, I’m always listening to something.

Adrian Tennant:     Okay. What’s on your playlist?

Matt Cummings:      Right now it’s a lot of Dave Matthews band. I really like Lizzo as well. It gets me ready in the morning. And every so often I’ll listen to Ellie Goulding just to calm me down.

Adrian Tennant:     Great. Okay. So I saved the best question to last: what does having a CLEAR FOCUS mean to you?

Matt Cummings:      Well, that is a great question. For me personally, I have a clear focus when I understand goals and objectives from the get-go. Like at Bigeye, I would like to think of myself as audience-focused. So I really enjoy having a common goal to work towards and then having the ability to refer to it throughout the progress of a project just to keep everything and everyone aligned. I think when you refer back to that goal and you refer back to why we’re here in the first place, it makes it a lot easier to get through a project and it makes it, it keeps everyone in the same flow I would say. So if they see it and I see it, then to me that’s having a clear focus.

Adrian Tennant:     Great answer, Matt. It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you. Thank you to our guest, Matt Cummings, account manager at Bigeye. You’ve been listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, a unique perspective on the business advertising, produced by Bigeye. If you have questions about the content of today’s show, please contact us at info@bigeyeagency.com. You’ll also find a transcript of today’s show on our website at bigeyeagency.com. I’m Adrian Tennant. Thank you for listening. Until next time, goodbye.

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