Two years ago, Michael Newton watched with intrigue as local businesses tried and failed to capture the attention of his classmates. Their buying decisions were rooted in an area that seemed just out of reach. The previous “tried and true” methods of fliers and loud in-your-face advertising was met with a glossy eyed inattention.
Like him, his fellow students had been raised with a constant flow of information and advertisements pushed on them at every turn of their lives and every corner of the internet. What he knew – and what he wanted to figure out how to tap into, was the level of authenticity and trusted peer opinion that it would take to sway the decision-making skills of those on campus.
Where he ended up finding it was within the confines of social media and the “micro-influencers” on Instagram. Here, students were sharing information in stories and in turn, decisions were being made by those that followed and watched.
Michael realized that this was where advertisers could quietly gain direct access to their market and finally garner an attentive audience and response.
From that concept, Swarm was born. Today, the company drives influencer marketing programs to help student housing community managers lease-up faster.
Michael Newton sat down (virtually, via video) for more than an hour with Dora Cheng and David Li of uForis to discuss social media trends, how to create effective social marketing for student housing lease-ups, and how Swarm works with micro-influencers in each student housing market to spread their clients’ message.
Dora: Walk us through a little bit of your process, please. How do you work with property managers?
Michael: When someone opts in to work with us, we do a few things for them. We sit down and learn a lot about your property, who you’re trying to reach, what kind of students you’re after, what kind of students you already have, and what those students love about your property. We get a deep understanding of your brand and what you’re trying to accomplish with your marketing dollars.
Then, we identify influencers on campus who would be a perfect fit for your marketing agenda. From there, we recruit those influencers, which can be a tedious process. Once we have a network of influencers catered to what the client is trying to do, we put together a content plan with the messaging, content, videos, and we start to push the promotions out from there.
Dora: Can Swarm drive how the influencers talk about the student housing client? Or do the influencers have free reign as to how they want to get the message out?
Michael: That’s a really good question. There’s a fine line between doing what the property wants but also remaining authentic and organic so the content doesn’t look like ads. It’s different for every property we work with.
We make sure the overall theme and feel of the messaging stays the same, but we make sure the influencers can be authentic and organic and basically re-word it in their own voices. If it’s not authentic to how they talk, it’s going to be a waste of time and money for everybody. It’s a balance.
Dora: Projecting out, do you imagine this will be the dominant way you will help properties with their marketing dollars – or do you feel there will be other tactics in the future?
Michael: Inevitably, there will be new ways of marketing that will come up but it’s hard to know right now what those will be.
I do believe influencer marketing will always be the dominant force, because at the end of the day people buy from people. Some of the best paid ads on PPC platforms, Facebook, or Google AdWords all come from a personal voice.
The fundamentals of marketing are the same: People buy from people they like and trust. Influencer marketing is the most accessible way to make that happen, so I think it will continue to be the dominant force.
But at the same time, I think the way properties are going to be using social media is going to change a lot. One thing I’ve seen a lot more of recently is properties putting emphasis on entertainment through their social platforms. And a lot of companies are getting on TikTok now and making funny dance videos. The idea that we need to stop telling and we need to start entertaining is going to grow.
Dora: Do you see a dominant platform?
Michael: I think as a baseline across every market Instagram is number one and will continue to be for a long time.
TikTok is growing at an accelerated rate. I’m sure TikTok will be up there with Instagram within the next two or three years. It’s an entirely different platform, but I think it will be up there in terms of the number of students using it.
Dora: How do you think a property should plan their social media presence to appeal to students?
Michael: I think a lot of people approach Instagram with the wrong mindset. A property will start an Instagram with the intent of being a property on Instagram: They have a page for their property, they have content for their property.
But what they don’t understand is no one’s downloading Instagram to look at apartments. People are downloading Instagram to be social. It’s social media. It’s not apartment media.
Instagram is all about interactions with other people. Companies need to understand that. They don’t need to always post about the apartment. They need to post about the people who work there, who live there. What’s the story behind the people who live on the property?
If your Instagram is about how fun and inclusive and inviting and exciting your property is, that’s going to sell people on your property. It’s not your floorplan.
Dora: What is the most common mistake people make on social media?
Michael: In the majority of cases, the social media is bland. There’s no personality. It’s just sales material and promotions. They’re not taking any risks.
On Instagram, people want to see memes or they want to see people they know. That’s it. If it isn’t one or the other, it’s not going to stick.
Having someone who understands the trends that are hot right now, and is actually able to implement them at the speed of culture, is the biggest thing. A lot of properties have good intentions about this. They’re on the right track. They’re just too slow. Everything they try to post to be relevant is just a little too late.
Dora: What actionable advice would you have for people managing social?
Michael: My advice would be to find someone who is very active on Instagram and Reddit. Those are the frontlines of culture, along with Twitter. Twitter is a good place to get stuff done, too.
Just have someone who is on those platforms and knows what’s funny and entertaining and relevant right now. Then give them the ability to implement that content into your stream at the same pace as everyone else – not two or three weeks behind.
Dora: Is that what you mean by taking risks?
Michael: I think “taking risks” is how upper management perceives it. There’s not actually anything risky about posting a meme that somebody might not like. You just don’t get a lot of likes on that picture. That’s not a risk. You aren’t losing anything.
I think there is definitely a group of people in upper management who are suppressing the creativity of the people who are in charge of these accounts.
We’ve got all sorts of crazy, unbelievable stuff happening every day. All these memes that are going up are popular one day and the next day they’re no longer relevant or no longer funny.
For you to be able to ride these waves and bring students into your ecosystem, you have to be at the same speed as your audience. You have to be staying up to date and acting on the trends as they’re coming and going. Otherwise, no one’s going to care.
Dora: Speaking of right now: Any advice on how to navigate marketing during the pandemic?
Michael: I see some properties doing it really well and I see some properties doing it really poorly.
The ones that are doing it poorly are not changing anything from what they were doing a few weeks ago. They are continuing to be promotional and post sales material on social media.
It’s important to be tactful and understand what students are going through. Everybody’s stressed out. Everybody’s fearful right now. The people who are managing it best are stepping up and being lighthearted and personal. That’s what everybody needs right now.