Josh Grillo, co-founder and president of Resident360, joins Todd Anderton, Trademark’s VP of Marketing, and Chad Colley, Trademark’s SVP Multifamily Partner, to share his multifamily marketing industry expertise, including best-practice examples and major multifamily marketing pitfalls. Josh also shares current marketing trends that would’ve surprised him a decade ago. The three discuss how Josh’s book, The Definitive Guide to Apartment Marketing, shaped the industry and the importance of immersive, integrated and experiential marketing for multifamily products.
Leaning In is published every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Be sure to follow the show on your preferred podcast app to hear Part 2 of Josh, Todd and Chad’s discussion.
Todd Anderton: This is Anderton, Trademark’s Vice President of Marketing, and Colley, Trademark’s multifamily partner. And we’re here with Grillo. Josh is co-founder and president of Resident360, a marketing agency delivering branding and digital strategies for world-class multifamily properties. We’re here to learn how Josh’s book revolutionized multifamily marketing and about the services his company provides. He also shares the biggest marketing mistakes multifamily companies are making and what trends have shocked him the most in his 11 years shaping the industry.
So, Josh, share your background and your journey to becoming a marketing expert in the multifamily space and how Resident360 came to be.
Josh Grillo: Yeah, sure thing. So, kind of interesting thing, I started in television. Back in 2003, I started a television advertising agency, and I was creating commercials for direct response, let’s say companies’ products nationwide. And part of that was creating an online platform for a lot of these different entities. And after doing that for, heck, I think it was about 13 years or so, I eventually moved to local marketing or marketing for local businesses. And what happened is my business partner and I, we had a potential client who was an owner-managed multifamily company. And at that time, we didn’t know all that much about multifamily. We just knew that, okay, this guy, he had 10,000 units, 46 properties, and we were offering him SEO services. So back then, it’s getting your website ranked on the top of Google for when somebody is searching apartments in Dallas, Texas, or apartments in San Diego, California, so to speak. And this guy, the managing director there, he actually said, “You know what, guys, this sounds great. Let’s start with four properties.” And a lot of times that’s what happens in multifamily. You will have management companies’ owners say, well, let’s start off with three properties or let’s start off with six properties or let’s start off with ten properties. And that was the case with him. So, we started off with I believe it was like six properties doing SEO which eventually morphed into 26 properties. And then that 26 properties morphed into doing all of his websites as well, morphed into doing all of his paid traffic, keeping his buildings actually leased up, and then also all of his branding, all of his collateral, all of his Craigslist ads back when Craigslist was really, really popular, we were handling. And so, what you’ll find, Todd and Chad, is that a lot of multifamily companies out there, they’re fairly large ones, they may only have one marketing person and maybe an assistant, and that’s it. Now this company with 10,000 units, they had zero marketing people. So, we assumed the marketing department, my business partner and I, so we got a really good education on all things multifamily, especially in terms of how to drive leads, how to keep properties leased up, how to know what to look for with leasing staff in terms of what they’re saying on the phone, how they’re answering the phone, and really how to really move the needle in that space. So essentially, we were the marketing department for this entire 10,000-unit portfolio. And from that, we basically built up into Resident360.
Anderton: Wow. So, it almost sounds like a lot of us, you just sort of stumbled into it, right? This wasn’t a category that you were pursuing, but as the opportunities arose, you just saw more and more opportunity to grow the business and move the needle on what you were able to do.
Grillo: That’s exactly right. I mean, you hit the hammer on the nail. It’s like we saw this opportunity, and multifamily, I think, is just an incredible, incredible industry. I never thought I would be in it, but once I stumbled upon it and working with a lot of different marketing managers and regional managers and managing directors, and everybody is- most of them are smart, they’ve got a good group of people. And what we’ve been able to do is really from that one initial portfolio of 26 properties, 10,000 units, we’ve been able to grow a pretty sizeable marketing agency in terms of what we have now with Resident360.
Chad Colley: Hey Josh, this is Chad here. You kind of hit some of my pain points during the lease sub, the typical things – what is our leasing staff? What do they sound like when they pick up that phone? How are we optimizing our SEO across the board on our properties? But share more about Resident360 and the services you provide.
Grillo: Sure thing. So we are, first and foremost, a creative marketing agency and we’re nationwide. So, we work with owners, developers, property management companies in everything from as small as an owner that may have one property to a management company that may have 100 and 150 properties, and we’ll do everything. So, brand development, we do a lot of visualization, which is stuff like 3D floor plans, renderings, videos, walkthrough tours, and then we handle all the digital marketing as well, which is from your websites to paid traffic such as Google ads, Facebook, social. So, it’s really, I say Resident360, but it’s really a 360 approach. So, you can take your company, for example, Trademark, and you partner with, say, a company like mine, Resident360, we’re able to take you from inception from when you’re first putting shovels in the ground to build that new development to getting that building completely leased up and ready to go. And on top of that, we act as, I don’t want to say consultancy, but in a way a consultancy because we’ve all been around for so long, we’ve dealt with a lot of the different CRM systems that are out there, the property management software systems that are out there, a lot of the different prop tech pieces and tools and widgets that are out there. We know what works and what doesn’t, so we can lend our hand, lend our experience, lend our advice to anybody that’s in that scenario in terms of what they might be looking at for a particular product that’s out of our skillset.
Anderton: So Josh, one of the ways that you and I actually originally crossed paths, although you did not know it at the time, was that at the point at which Trademark decided we wanted to learn more about multifamily, and this is going back a few years, I actually decided I wanted to learn more about multi-family marketing, and lo and behold, somebody had written a book about it. And of course, that somebody was you. And as I read the book, and it was a great read and we’ll let you plug it here in a bit, I certainly got the sense that maybe you wrote this book because perhaps you felt like multifamily marketing, from an asset class, maybe that’s misunderstood by the people who develop those assets. So, I’m curious, why did you write the book? And if you had to give a quick little plug on the takeaways from the book, what would that be?
Grillo: Well, why did I write the book, this is a quick story. So, I’m in a mastermind group I’ve been in for I guess 15 years now, and it’s a group of guys of all different businesses. We meet once a month, and everybody kind of goes over what’s going on, what’s working, what’s not working with them. And just about everybody in that group was an author or had written a book at one point in time except for me and a mortgage broker. And the mortgage guy comes in one day and throws this book on the table says, “Look, I’ve done it. I’m done. I wrote the book.” And I looked at him and I thought to myself this must be the one guy that I never, ever would think would finish a book, but he did it. So, I was the last man standing. So, it was kind of like my driving force for writing this book. But then I’m kind of an educator at heart, and that’s one thing you’ll find out if you look at our company and research our company, I just put out a lot of content. And I first went to Amazon. I said, well, somebody’s had to of written a book in this space. So, I got on Amazon. I start searching around apartment marketing, multifamily marketing, and I just wasn’t finding anything. You’ll find plenty of books on the investing side, but you’re not going to find anything on the marketing side. So being a fairly young company in the space, I said, wow, this is an opportunity right here. Nobody has a book on Amazon in the space. I have an opportunity to really take my company and make us the expert and do it through a book. So, I said why not? Let’s go for it. And the beautiful thing about that is, what I did is I really just looked back and said, okay, what are common questions that we get asked all the time? What are people asking us? And I tried to capsulate that into my actual chapter titles. For example, if you took any property management company out there, maybe a fee managed company, and they wanted to cement themselves as the expert in the space, they could literally write a book on how to choose a management company for your apartment community. And that book can be given out to every single potential client that they meet with, giving them advice. Well, it’s the same thing with my book, The Definitive Guide to Apartment Marketing. Nobody had written it. I said why don’t I write it? Why don’t I do that? And since then, that book, I was able to get that into a number one bestseller on Amazon in the direct marketing category. It was number 11 at one point in time in the real estate category. And we actually went on to sell a lot of books on Amazon, but more so, Todd, what we would do is we would go to all the trade shows in the multifamily space. We would be at the National Apartment Association, the apartment marketing event, we do a lot of the regional events, Texas Apartment Association. And what we would do is we would come in with three to four hundred copies of these books, and we’d literally set it on our table, on our booth, and people across the trade show floor, they would see it because the cover was so bright, it was like an orange and yellow color, people would come over to see what we’re giving out, and it was a copy of the book obviously. And that book really helped us land probably our first four to five clients that – this has been years now – that we have as clients today, the same people are still clients today. And still, we have a lot of management companies that order this book, and they give it out to their staff, they’ll give it out to their leasing teams. But to answer your question, the book is really, I think, a good primer on marketing. If you’re new to a marketing role, you’re new to a leasing role, you could get this book and read through it pretty quickly and figure out, okay, I understand what’s what now. How to close more leases? What are some tactics that I can use to close more leases? What are some tactics that I can use to generate more leads? What are some tips that I need to be aware of if I’m getting a new property, a property website or apartment website? What do I need to be thinking about when it comes to managing online reputation? So, these are all things that basically I put in the book. Todd, I didn’t go super deep on any one specific topic because I wanted to keep the book fairly green, meaning not outdate itself. So, you pick it up and a lot of the stuff that’s in the book still holds true today. So, there you go.
Colley: When you wrote the book was Tik TOK a thing?
Grillo: No, it was not at all. The interesting thing with TikTok, because there’s a lot happening with that right now, you can have an apartment community, and really nobody’s doing this, there are a few, if you think about the 80/20 rule or in this case, talking about TikTok, it’s five where 5% of communities are actually utilizing TikTok and they’re actually putting out video shorts, but those videos are getting an insane amount of views. They’re getting 10, 12, 20,000 views in some cases, which that would never happen with anything else in the history of an apartment community putting something out. So just the amount of eyeballs that stuff garners is insane.
Colley: It is crazy. Once we figured out Instagram, Facebook, I mean, it used to cost us about a quarter, I guess, more than a quarter if you have to mail it, a piece of collateral, to several different prospective tenants and residents in a community, and you can pay a hundred bucks on Facebook and on Instagram and touch – you know the numbers better than me – but 20,000 people in an area and put a geo-fence up and touch the right people. But in the last 11 years you’ve worked in multifamily marketing, what are the biggest industry changes you’ve seen? What marketing trends do you see today that would have shocked the Josh back from 2010?
Grillo: Well, the TikTok was a big one that would have shocked me. I would’ve had no idea. At least this whole video short thing is, to me, just mind boggling, and a lot more people are talking about LinkedIn now, especially for multifamily. You just don’t have a lot of people in multifamily adopting it yet because they’re still trying to figure it out. How do I create a short video? How do I get my staff to create this content? What do I do? But the ones that are doing it, just the amount of eyeballs they’re getting, it’s enormous. It’s shocking for me, for the Josh in 2010, totally shocked. But some of the things that I’ve seen as big industry changes over the last 11 years or so is really how easy it is to get traffic. It’s so easy. Back then, you’re still kind of figuring out you can do a little bit of this, you can pay some Google Ad works, but now it’s basically like you go to the traffic store. You literally go to the traffic store, which is Google, Facebook, Instagram, plus any new platform, you’ll pay them, and you get your traffic. You need more traffic? Well, pay more money. It really has become so easy. So, when we have properties that come to us, and it depends if they’re stabilized or not, what scenario they’re in with their occupancy, it’s very easy to sit down and say, okay, well, if you’re at 70% occupancy and you’re a, whatever, 350-unit building, and you’ve got to fill this many units, you really need to go heavy on your budget. Let’s go buy Google traffic now. And the reason for stuff like Google is people actively searching for something. Facebook now is becoming a platform where people are somewhat searching for something. Facebook used to be somewhat more of a coffee house platform is what I used to call it, meaning stuff was very passive on there when you’re running ad – not anymore. You can run ads for cheap on Facebook and you can get an absolute ton of leads. Big changes I’ve seen, how easy it is to get traffic, for sure. Another thing I think is automation and integration has really played a big role, more so over the last five years. So, everything is how does it integrate? How does it integrate? Does your website integrate with your property management software? Does your chatbot provider integrate with your property management software? Whatever tool, whatever prop tech widget you want to use, how does it talk with this other platform that you’re using? How’s everything talking together? So that is something that has really came up strong over the last three, four, five years. And then also the adoption of chatbots. I would say two years ago, there would be a few properties that had chatbots. Now I would say probably 80% of properties out there have a chatbot on their website, which again is another form of automation, automating the communication between when a visitor comes to your website and what they’re asking for, and even a resident coming to your website and if they need to do a maintenance request or pay rent, that chatbot that is sitting right in that website corner is there to help them do that. Email marketing is another big thing that has really come up the last four to five years, it’s come up strong. I mean, a lot of people are using email marketing. Although it’s very old, it’s been around forever, multifamily is slow to adopt and a lot of companies are using full email marketing strategies now finally. Visualization is a big one. So, I would say if you went back to 2010, everybody was still using 2D floor plans, black and white, stick figure looking floor plans, but I mean, the adoption over the last three years has been 3D floor plans. We sell thousands of 3D floor plans every single year and have people saying, oh, I still got these 2D floor plans; I’d like to make them 3D so that the person, the prospect can have like a bird’s eye view. Walking tours have become huge, especially with the pandemic. Maps, more interactive maps, more interactive Google maps, that’s really come on strong over the last three to four years. A couple of other little things is Google My Business, which they just renamed now to Google Business Profiles. Are you familiar with Google My Business?
Colley: I am. And I’ve learned you need to get that on Google immediately, whenever you start construction. You don’t want to be late there.
Grillo: It’s crazy because Google My Business, and a lot of people probably don’t realize this, but when you Google a property name and the city, more than likely, the Google My Business listing is going to pull up first. It won’t even be the website for the property. It’ll be the Google My Business listing first. And then it may be ads that people are running against that property name showing up above that. So, Google is basically, they’re the gatekeeper. On mobile, they are 100% the gatekeeper for anybody that’s using that search engine for a property. So, I tell everybody if you are not adopting Google My Business and setting up and optimizing that profile, you’re doing yourself such a big injustice. And Google is constantly releasing new features on that all the time. And every time they release a new feature on it, they want you to use it. If you do use it, you’re going to benefit by it. So that’s always a big thing, and especially you guys going heavily into multifamily, and this is for anybody that’s listening right now, you’ve got a new development, an existing development, pay attention to that Google My Business listing. And if you’re not sure what it is, just Google your property name, and usually your website should pull up one, two, or three on the Google search results. But then to the right-hand side of that, you’ll see a panel and probably a photo on there and it’ll have your property name on there with other information. That’s basically your Google business profile. So, you’ve got to make sure that that thing is completely filled out properly, lots of photos, posts on there, and that’s going to help you drive an enormous amount of traffic.
Anderton: Excellent. Well, Josh, it’s been interesting hearing from you the various things that are working right now in this space and the types of things that we’re seeing on the technology front to drive acquisition, to get more clients, to get more people to come and live in multifamily developments. But on the flip side of that, as far as we’ve talked about things that have been working, I’d be curious to talk about maybe things that don’t work as well. So, what are some of the bigger let’s just say mistakes maybe that you see some of these multifamily players making, when it comes to marketing properties, maybe some things that they’re doing that they shouldn’t be?
Grillo: Probably the first thing that comes to mind just because we do so many websites at Residentt360 is photography. You would think it’s very simple and it’s not like it’s something that’s a huge investment, but poor photography, oh man, it’s the Achilles heel of a property. You guys could have the nicest property in the world, and then you supply a partner with just really, really poor photos and it just kills everything.
Colley: Josh, real quick on that, what is the statistic for the amount of people that find your property initially online?
Grillo: Oh, I have no idea, but it’s got to be huge. And I think that the process for anybody searching for an apartment is typically they’ll either go and they may start their search at say an apartments.com or apartment finder. They see a couple of properties they are interested in, then they start Googling the property name. They start looking at the reviews. Typically Google My Business, they’re going to be looking at reviews. Then they’ll go over to the website, look at the website, see if they get the warm and fuzzy there. Then they may call the property. They may even be on social media and hear about a property and then research it that way. Or they may be driving by a property that looks cool, it’s a brand new development, which then they pick up their phone, they Google it and see what they can find on it, and hopefully they do find something, and they go down that funnel. So, I would say it’s got to be massive the amount of people that are starting online first. But when you think about mistakes, it’s a lot of the same old stuff. And photography’s probably one of the biggest. Service is just astronomically huge. If your onsite teams are just not very service-oriented or let’s just call it poor service, it’s going to kill you. It really, really is. And the amount of developments, especially new lease ups, that we’ve seen that have gotten crushed by having a bad leasing agent or just having the phone not be answered when people call or the person answering the phone not sure what to say, if the building’s fully occupied, still not knowing what to say, it’s a killer, it’s a marketing killer. A few other things are not spending enough money or not budgeting enough money for traffic. That’s a big one. You could have a property that’s 400 units that needs a ton of traffic year-round to stay fully occupied, but yet they may only want a budget $500 a month, which is barely going to move the needle for them. So having the understanding that, okay, I have a big property, we have a constant need of traffic, we know our move-out trend is X, we need to be spending this amount for people coming over to our website and converting on the website. And then probably one of the last things, and this is a big one, is not having a proper tracking in place. With marketing, you can spend all the money in the world – you can have the great website, you can have the great photos, you could have the great teams, you’re going to do all these things, all the ads running – but if you don’t have proper tracking in place, it can really hurt you over the long haul. You want to be able to track and know what’s performing and what’s not. What’s giving you the leads? And also, what are the quality of those leads? What’s really producing the leases for you? What’s moving the needle? Being able to sit there and pull a report and say, oh wow, here are my top five lead the least resources. This is what’s producing for us. We need to put all our efforts into these baskets. Everything else that’s 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 down the road, they’re an afterthought. But being able to have that data is so, so important, but we still see so many companies that don’t track anything.
Anderton: Wow. I’m going to go back to that service point because I think, man, you hit such a great point. We have been, as part of our due diligence, we spend a lot of time looking at successful multifamily developments, and I don’t live in an apartment, I don’t frequent them. But let me tell you something, the service now at a nice multifamily development, it’s like being at a resort. It’s unbelievable and so impressive. How that bar has raised, there is no doubt your service better be top-notch if you expect to get top-notch rent and keep your occupancy at a high-level.
Colley: We were joking about this the other day. It’s funny how the luxury multifamily guys like ourselves, we dabble in the hospitality space. We want to bring the hospitality into our multifamily developments. However, the hospitality groups, they want to bring the multifamily aspect into their developments because they want that warm, comfort feel. So, it’s funny to see kind of the blurred lines now in the industry. But Josh, how has the pandemic impacted or changed marketing in multifamily for you? Are your core marketing strategies tried and true, or did you have to make unexpected pivots on how you’ve guided clients over the last two years?
Grillo: I think it sped everything up to be honest with you. It was crazy. The biggest thing is when everything shut down, it was a little scary because when everything shut down, people are like how do we tour? Like literally, what do we do for tours? How do we show people our units? So, you have these companies that already had videos and all that, but I mean, that was such a small smidgen of the industry, and then you’ve got everybody else. So, what I mean by that sped everything up is visualization became so huge. It’s like how many different ways can you view a vacant apartment?
Colley: Well, I’ll give you one. We started with our leasing agents doing Facetime. And so, you’ll laugh, but you’re resilient. And so, walking around with Facetime and then we find out about a product like yours and continue, but I knew you would laugh at that.
Grillo: Well, no, but that was it. I mean, back then, that’s what you’re doing. So, I had this idea. This is like you’ve got to be creative. You’ve got to pivot. When all tours and everything is shut down, as an owner as well, you’re thinking like, okay, well what’s going to go on? We had a lot of clients that said pause all advertising, pause all advertising. And we have a lot of clients that we run traffic for. It’s scary when everyone says let’s pause advertising. I went on the offensive quite a bit in saying, guys, do not pause, now’s the time to gain market share, rates are so cheap right now for online advertising. And it was. A lot of people pulled out or pulled back, so it was so cheap to run ads on Google and Facebook. So, so, so cheap. Most people don’t recognize it, but the cost per click rate went way down. So, you could easily grab massive market share online. That’s if you continued your typical ad spend. Now we also pivoted for a short period of time in the sense that, just like you said, doing Facetime tours. I reached out to a big client and said hey, what if you could have your leasing agents take their iPhone, go and just do a quick video walkthrough of a vacant apartment that you have available, and just take that footage and upload it to Dropbox or a Google Drive folder, and then we’ll take it from there. That’s all they’ve got to do. Just give them the phone, let them walk through it. Here’s kind of like a walkthrough little script if you want, they don’t even have to say anything, just upload it. And then what we’ll do is we’ll make it real pretty. We’ll put your logo on it, we’ll put some information about that specific floor plan, and then put music to it, so it’ll be a perfectly nice video, and then we’ll upload it to Wistia, which is a video hosting platform. And then we’ll just give you a link, and then you can take that link and you can email it out to every single prospect you want. So, what happened is it just went through the roof. It was insane. And we do a lot of video but not like a ton of video. And for a period of I think it was three months, we had thousands of videos all of a sudden that we’re working on from these different multifamily companies, literally just sending in videos left and right. It got really, really, really chaotic, but that was like one pivot we made. And I mean, the beautiful thing is that introduced us to a lot of new clients that we never would have had otherwise. But that’s kind of how we pivoted. Now as far as tried and true, we already had a lot of things in place. So, all the visualization stuff from floor plans to renderings and walkthroughs, we had that stuff in place. We were already doing that. So, for us, it allowed us to literally just get more of that business. We marketed heavily through that, all our visualization services, and we got more of those businesses. So that worked for us, but it was an interesting time, a real interesting time.
Terry Montesi: Thank you for tuning into today’s episode. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast so you can hear the rest of the conversation. To learn more about Trademark, visit trademarkproperty.com.