Forty-nine-year-old Eric Brown is no expert in
. In fact, he doesn't believe such a thing exists. For Brown, social media is a question of trying new forms of communication, from blogs to
, and seeing what works and what bombs. What he has learned, among many lessons, is that reaching out to the unhappiest customers can sometimes not only make them happy, but even turn them into evangelists for Urbane Apartments
, his 500 units scattered through Royal Oak, Mich. "When I explain these things to corporate people, they look at me like I have a horn coming out of my head," he says.
Brown, who had worked in housing for 25 years, launched his own
business in 2003, and started to buy up midsize apartment buildings in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb. He was reading a lot about marketing and social media, and one day in 2005 he announced plans to open a company page on
. His colleagues worried that residents would trash the company on the social network. But Brown bet that they'd point to things that needed fixing.
Problems, he noticed, turned into discussions—and opportunities to improve things. "The more I saw this," he says, "the more I became a believer."
Brown now tries all kinds of things. Some of them work. He enticed six residents of his apartments to keep up a
. It's not about the apartments, but instead about the life, food, and culture around Royal Oak. It's a lively blog
, and he says that some of its cultural aura has rubbed off on his apartment brand.
Solo Apartment Hunting
One benefit of social media is that Brown can understand the problems his tenants (and potential tenants) face—and what drives them crazy. Case in point: For people juggling jobs and family, "looking for an apartment is a pain in the neck," Brown says. The last thing they want is to stand outside an apartment unit and make an appointment to see it later. So Brown fixed up a cell-phone service powered by text messages. When apartment hunters want to see a unit, they text a number. The floor plan of the unit pops up on their phone. And if they want to look around, they get the lockbox code on their phone. Perhaps the best part? They can do it alone. "A lot of times the salesperson just gets in the way," he says.
A few of his social media experiments have flopped. He wanted photos of the apartments with people in them. So he asked residents to take pictures of themselves and upload them to Flickr
, Yahoo's ( (YHOO)
) popular photo site. The results, he says, were bad. "You never know how things are going to work out." So just before Christmas he tweaked it. On Twitter and Facebook, he offered residents a rent discount if they agreed to pose in Urbane units. By New Year's he had a dozen models ready to pose for a professional photographer. The bonus: Some of them started posting their promotional photos on social networks and e-mailing them to friends.
Despite his energetic outreach, Brown doesn't subscribe to all the traditional lines about customer management. "I don't think the customer's always right," he says. "But most of them are reasonable, so you can come to some kind of compromise." He also refuses to try to quantify the benefits of social media. "I have no idea how you'd calculate the return on investment," he says. But in the worst economic storm to hit the
area in decades, his units are fairly full. And if there's a problem, he'll be among the first to hear about it.