Chances are that anyone seeking a place to live in and around the trendy Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Mich., eventually will come across property investment and management company Urbane Apartments. In fact, type "apartments Royal Oak" into the Google search toolbar, and the first result that pops up is the Urbane website --a destination highlighted by photos of the firm's modern, inviting rental units and the young urban professionals who occupy them.
With 16 apartment communities spanning across Royal Oak, Urbane has emerged as one of the region's fastest-growing property management companies. But the virtual prominence of its brand has little to do with its real-world scope. Credit instead founder Eric Brown's decision to extend the firm's message into the social media realm--a move that not only slashed spending on paid property listings, but also afforded Urbane the tools to more accurately communicate the contemporary lifestyle experience so integral to its business.
"When I first announced to our staff that we were going to have a MySpace account, they looked at me like I was crazy," Brown recalls. "They said, 'We can't do that. Whenever we drop the ball, our tenants are going to write bad things about us.' I said, 'They may, and we will work to make those things right.' By reaching out and addressing those complaints, those residents became Urbane evangelists and started writing positive things about us. There's no way we could have the reach we have without hooking into the customer base we have."
Urbane Apartments now boasts a resident-penned blog touting favorite Royal Oak destinations, a social networking site exclusive to tenants (dubbed the Urbane Lobby) and active YouTube, Facebook and Twitter profiles. With each new post, photo, video and tweet, the company builds and nurtures its brand at no cost while fostering the hip, forward-thinking image its target demographic finds irresistible. According to Brown, in October 2008 about 100 people were visiting the Urbane blog each month. By the following spring, traffic grew to 4,500 visitors per month, and the number now tops 16,000 per month. Those metrics are even more impressive given that Urbane offers only about 300 rental units in all.
Urbane Apartments is the quintessential example of a small business that has maximized the possibilities of social media to champion its brand online, eschewing conventional advertising and search engine optimization solutions in favor of word-of-mouth buzz. Thanks to social networking, do-it-yourself website creation software and related tools, it's never been easier or cheaper to establish a beachhead online. Of course, the same alternatives are available to your competitors, meaning it's also tougher than ever to earn virtual visibility. That's where small businesses must get creative.
"The average small business doesn't need to worry so much about SEO or spending money on a web consultant. If they're out there and relevant to their audience, that's as much search engine optimization as they need," says Mike Whaling, president of 30 Lines, an online branding consultancy in Columbus, Ohio. "There are plenty of opportunities to build a strong brand on a small budget."
Regardless of how the message is articulated and distributed, the core mission of branding remains the same: communicating to customers who you are, what you do and how you do it. The web is the simplest, most direct channel to convey that information.
"Every company should have an online presence, and the cost of developing a site has come down to relative pennies," says Craig Reiss, founder of retail web developer Reiss Media in Cos Cob, Conn. "Organic search can still drive traffic. People go online looking for [a firm's service or product], and all you have to do is get found. It doesn't matter if you're a single retailer and can't afford the time or have the expertise to drive traffic. Most people are just looking for directions to your store anyway."
Websites serve different purposes for different companies, says Nicholas Chilenko, principal of web design and Internet marketing firm Nicholas Creative in East Lansing, Mich. Sometimes the goal is generating new business, sometimes it's about relaying messages to clients and other times it's defining or even redefining the firm's image. "If someone wants to find out more information about you, they go to your website. It's the convergence of all your marketing messages," Chilenko says. "It's easy to create an identity because it's virtual."
The challenge is getting that identity across in quick, broad strokes, says Mary van de Wiel, CEO of branding and communication design consultancy Zing Your Brand in Brooklyn. N.Y. According to her, businesses have just moments to succinctly communicate their purpose and value to consumers before they click away for good.
"You've got to be bold, you've got to be provocative, and you've got to be daring. Create a language and vocabulary that allows people to get that," Van de Wiel says. "Branding is what sets you apart--it's a natural magnet. If people come to your site, they need to say, 'Yes--this is who can answer my problem.' If you make a bad impression in the first five seconds, you're toast."
The most essential component of successful online branding is the human element, she says. "People are craving a story. They want to know something about who they're buying from, and they feel like they need to like and trust you," she explains. "You've got to shout what it is that makes you special and makes you different. Our personalities are what drive our brands. Look at Richard Branson--his personality is embedded in all of the Virgin brands. You need to put a face on your business."
Perhaps no tool is more effective at putting a human face on a firm than social media--and no tool is less expensive, either. In addition to utilizing social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, 30 Lines' Whaling recommends that small businesses introduce their own blogs as a means to pass along content that underscores the company's knowledge and expertise, with an emphasis on local information that directly affects customers. For example, an accountant might post about changes to city or state taxes that are likely to affect his clients, positively or negatively.
"Make sure you're regularly adding fresh content," Whaling advises. "Not only are you providing value, you're also adding pages to your website--that's more pages for search engines to index, and more opportunities for customers to find you."
All businesses have information to share, regardless of vertical, he adds. "Not enough companies take advantage of the opportunity to tell a story that's bigger than the company itself. There's always a story you can tell. Maybe your merchandise is made from local products or from sustainable materials. You've got to find that unique angle."
For Urbane Apartments' Brown, the bigger story is the world that surrounds his properties. "At the end of the day, I'm not sure folks really care about apartment features. What they really want to know is what's going on nearby, like where is the best corner bar and the best place for sushi," he says. "Our blog focuses on everything about the local neighborhood--it's all about new bars and restaurants. And our website traffic is off the charts."
Social media outreach also lets businesses keep tabs on their online reputations and interact directly with fans and foes alike. According to Brown, Urbane Apartments closely monitors tenant reviews and feedback across multiple websites and is quick to respond to any criticism.
"A lot of folks want to ignore the ratings and review sites, which is a huge mistake. There's no hiding from that," Brown says. "If you're getting a bad review, you need to fix it and think about how to encourage good reviews. No longer does the general public believe in ads--they believe in what is said on Facebook."
Brown is applying to his own consulting business the lessons he's learned from building Urbane Apartments' online brand. Under the Urbane Way umbrella, he works with small businesses looking to pursue digital marketing opportunities. In late 2009, Brown also joined real estate information content provider Network Communications as a social media strategist. He practices what he preaches: Urbane Apartments dropped all print advertising and premium online promotions years ago, and Brown isn't looking back.
"Internet marketing is what enabled us to compete on a level playing field," Brown maintains. "I'm not suggesting print advertising is dead, but sometimes there's no money for that. There are certainly lots of pay-per-click programs, but how many times do you click on ads on Google? Most people never do that. But you can still build your brand organically. Wherever we can expand our digital footprint, we will do it."
Branded for life: Boosting your online image
Although experts agree that an engaging online presence is a must for any business, a user-friendly website and compelling products and services aren't enough to distinguish your brand from the rest of the pack. "Getting your brand out there and setting yourself apart should be easy, but it's not," says Mary van de Wiel, CEO of branding and communication design consultancy Zing Your Brand. "You've got to be fearless, and you've got to live out loud--make yourself unmistakably unforgettable."
Here are some suggestions for making it happen:
Establish an identity. "If you can't work out what the unforgettable, differentiating spark is, you're a dead brand walking," Van de Wiel says. "It's a matter of working out what you want to do and working out the attitude of your brand. Your brand has a behavior and a tone. Brands like to show off and have fun. It wants to come out."
Be easy to find. "You want to make sure you're not invisible to search engines--that's why some people avoid all-Flash websites," says Mike Whaling, president of online branding consultancy 30 Lines. "Make sure you're represented in all the local directories. Go to GetListed.org, type in your business name and see where you come up on searches."
Steal good ideas and make them your own. "It's important to create a look and feel that represents your business in the best way, but not everyone has a design aesthetic, so you might need a little bit of help along the way," Van de Wiel says. "I recommend that people look around and see what speaks to them. If you can identify that, then track down the person who worked on that website. But be accountable, give the designer some benchmarks, and be clear about how you want to express your business."
Watch for opportunities. "Lots of people miss the boat in terms of call-to-action. Once you get people to your website, it's not always clear what you want them to do," says Nicholas Chilenko, principal of web design firm Nicholas Creative. "Make sure there's a clear path of motion through the site. The goal is to get customers to convert. Insert subtle cues throughout the copy, and give them some incentive to make that initial contact."
Remember other marketing channels. "Don't forget about basic digital tools--e-mail marketing still works," Whaling says. "E-mail can feature posts from your blog; repurpose content you're using elsewhere. Also, leverage your offline promotions to complement what you're doing online. For example, list your Yelp page on your business card and encourage customers to go there to let you know how you're doing."
Lighten up. "Some people are so intense about their brand, but it shouldn't be a struggle," Van de Wiel says. "We like people who are friendly and relaxed. So have fun." --J.A.