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Seeking simpler syndication: ILSs share communities' pricing and availability across hundreds of partner websites. Owners are working with ILSs to streamline the process and ensure content is accurate.

Five years ago, there were six major Internet Listing Services (ILSs) that could be easily monitored for pricing, availability, and floor plan accuracy. Today, these original ILSs are syndicating content to hundreds of partner websites such as Yahoo Real Estate and Rent Jungle.

Advertising, in turn, has become a lot more complicated for many.

While most agree that mass syndication has the potential to reach millions of previously untapped prospective residents, exponentially increasing an apartment management company's exposure, some marketing executives say it also presents a unique set of challenges.

Largely, the growing web of syndication has made it difficult for some companies to track and monitor their listings for up-to-date information. Real-time pricing software pushes out updated feeds to an apartment management company's first-tier ILS partners, but if those ILSs neglect to send the feed to their syndication partners--or, more likely, their partners receive the information but do not update their listings right away--a prospective resident could find the same unit advertised on several different sites for varying prices. Even the best-trained leasing agents will have difficulty justifying such a discrepancy.

Although many apartment executives believe third-tier partner sites only generate a handful of additional leads per month, they also say it's important to put forth the effort to make sure every listing is accurate, regardless of the ILS's size and web traffic. Doing so could be the difference between a frustrated prospect and a new resident.

Lag Time

When an update on unit pricing or availability is passed down through a chain of ILSs, from a tier-one syndicator such as a major, national listing service to a third-tier site of local advertisements, it has the potential for error or delay.

Apartment management company Carmel Partners has contracts with nine major ILSs, many of which syndicate to partner websites. Adriana Perez, Director of Interactive Marketing for the Denver-based company, which manages 20,000 apartments, says she generally receives one to two e-mails every other month from her associates regarding inaccurate information on third-tier syndicator sites.

"Whenever we receive these e-mails, we have to determine where the inaccurate information is displayed, where it originally came from and how we can update or delete that listing," she says. "It is very time-consuming and requires additional internal resources."

When inaccurate pricing or availability is discovered, it's typically due to a lag between when an ILS first receives a data feed and when a syndication partner updates its listings. Kevin Doyle, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Apartments.com, one of the industry's largest ILSs, says some of that downtime is unavoidable.

Most apartment management companies now have software that pushes out real-time pricing updates up to six times per day through data feeds. The first-tier ILSs immediately update their listings to reflect availability and pricing changes as they come in, but only send one feed to their syndication partners each evening with the day's updates. Once the syndication partners receive the information, they might not update their listings until the following morning.

Although there can be a 24-hour turnaround time before a third-tier site updates a listing, many marketing executives say it is relatively minimal compared to the schedule of some print publications.

"By default, print advertisements are out-of-date long before they are printed," says Todd Katler, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for BRE Properties. "The only saving grace is that so long as you are advertising a price range, the high and low ends of that range may change but the majority of the units will remain in the middle. The range will still be loosely accurate."

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The Bozzuto Group, a Greenbelt, Md.-based apartment management company, advertises primarily online. When the company does place an ad in a print guide, it lists the "starting" price of an apartment.

Arlington, Va.-based company Avalom Bay Communities follows the same print model, and includes a disclaimer such as, "Prices are subject to change, please inquire at the community."

Advertising on Your Terms

The turnaround process for third-tier websites to update their apartment listings can be frustrating. However, many marketing executives say these partnerships with major ILSs are an improvement from the days when some smaller ILSs would scrape apartment community websites for information.

"In the past, smaller sites would take information off of our site, post it and never update it, and many times it became outdated and incorrect," says Jamie Gorski, Senior Vice President of Corporate Marketing for The Bozzuto Group. "Today, these third-tier ILSs receive daily data feeds from our major ILS partners. They have an incentive to keep their listings up-to-date, because if they don't, those major ILSs are going to stop doing business with them."

Michael Manfred, Senior Manager of Interactive Marketing for AvalonBay Communities, says working with an ILS that has a list of over 100 syndication partners enables AvalonBay to more closely monitor listings that would otherwise end up on third-tier websites without their knowledge or permission.

"We have a specific partnership with one major ILS, and 90 percent of the time that I send a listing error to that ILS, they have that syndication partner fix it right away," Manfred says. "Giving smaller ILS websites access to our files through a major ILS is always better than them scraping our site once a month."

Brand Exposure

Lor some, increased exposure is another benefit of syndication. Apartment management companies do not pay ILSs based on their list of syndication partners; in essence, they receive free advertising on hundreds of websites, many of which are customized for specific sub-markets.

"Whether people actually look at all of these third-tier websites, I don't know-- we certainly don't see much traffic from them--but it can't hurt to have your listings in so many different places if your pricing is being updated by their partner sites," says Laurel Howell, Senior Vice President of Marketing for Kettler Management, a McLean, Va.-based company. "Many prospective residents have the mindset that there is always another website out there that has a better deal than what is advertised on a company website or a big name site, so they might be more inclined to stop on the small sites and view the content."

Other marketing executives are more skeptical. BRE Properties' Katler understands that he doesn't have to pay for syndication separately, but doesn't find the third-tier sites to be of any real value. He says the vast majority of prospective residents look no further than a major ILS site when searching for an apartment.

"Excluding Craigslist, we maybe get a lead or two per month, and less than one lease per year on these syndication partner sites," Katler says. "The conversion rates are very low, so those leads translate to perhaps half a lease per year."

Doing the Dirty Work

To minimize the challenges that come with syndication and maximize the potential perks, it is essential that apartment management companies partner with major ILSs that have a transparent system in place to deal with syndication partner sites.

In addition to requesting a full list of distribution partners, Carmel Partners' Perez says it's important to ask a major ILS how often it sends updated feeds to its syndication partners, if it audits for content accuracy and how it responds to errors on the third-tier sites.

Apartments.com's Doyle says first-tier ILSs have a responsibility to work with their network of syndication sites to ensure each is updating its database daily. "Most major ILSs do the best they can to make sure their partners are keeping the content fresh," Doyle says, "and if the third-tier sites aren't holding up their end of the bargain, the major ILSs are going to reevaluate that partnership."

Manfred says apartment management companies should also take the initiative to do their own auditing. "A staff member in our IT department runs a report each day looking for errors, whereas most companies wait for prospective residents to find a discrepancy with pricing or availability," Manfred says. "Some ILSs aren't troubleshooting and they leave it up to the apartment company to fix the problem."

Kettler Management uses an Internet checklist for each of its websites that helps to confirm that its ads are where they should be. Its onsite teams check monthly to ensure that content is accurate. Staff at the Kettler headquarters perform weekly spot checks for pricing information.

Carmel Partners associates perform bi-weekly audits on the major ILSs, and Perez says they quickly fix any discrepancies the company finds.

Bozzuto monitors its major ILS websites for content, but does not have the time to hone in on all of the smaller syndication sites, Gorski says. "We look at the main sources and trust that the partnership they have with the syndication partners is a responsive one," she says.

The Future of Syndication

As ILSs and apartment management communities alike become more vigilant about monitoring syndicated listings for quality and accuracy, the focus is shifting to improving lead tracking capabilities.

Most major ILSs provide their clients with a basic lead-tracking report that includes the number of phone calls and e-mails they received for each property. The report does not, however, indicate whether or not the lead came from the original, first-tier site or one of their third-tier syndication partners.

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Bozzuto attributes all of its ILS leads to the first-tier syndicator, but if one of the syndication partners became a big source of lead generation down the road, Gorski says it would be helpful to know so Bozzuto could respond accordingly.

"ILSs need to provide the apartment industry with better reporting so that we can see where these leads are coming from, because right now we have no idea," Gorski says. "I haven't seen a good report yet, and I don't think we will until this industry starts pressing ILSs to do the bench work."

Lead tracking has always been a massive issue for the industry and has been further complicated by syndication, Doyle says.

"For example, Apartments.com has a network of newspapers we work with. If apartment hunters go on the chicagotri-bune.com website and click on 'apartment search,' they are on the apartments.com website," he says.

"We could have a prospective resident tell a leasing agent that they saw an ad on the Chicago Tribune website, but does that employee know that that prospective resident was actually on apartments.com, they just got there through the newspaper website? It's complicated."

He says his company is currently considering providing a more detailed lead-tracking report that shows leads divided based on syndication partner, but reporting at that level does not yet provide the insights that aggregate reporting can provide.

"At that granular level, the data becomes hard to trend and the scope of the reports are unwieldy," Doyle says. "With hundreds of partners and varying degrees of traffic to each given site, specific properties see relatively small numbers of leads per site, but in aggregate the partnerships drive tremendous value."

Lauren Boston is NAA's Staff Writer. She can be reached at 703/797-0678 or lauren@naahq.org.
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Author:Boston, Lauren
Publication:Units
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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