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Brent Williams' Apartment Blog

Thoughts, comments, and ideas about the overall multifamily industry, as well as a property-specific focus on resident retention and apartment marketing.

ApartmentRatings.com Finally Creating a Positive Impression of Apartment Living?

Most people think about ApartmentRatings.com in a micro sort of way, analyzing their own community’s rating and that of their immediate competition.  But ApartmentRatings impacts the industry in a far greater way, by appearing to show what the prevailing opinion is on apartment living overall.  For example, if there was a rating site for almond butter and the average rating was 40% across the site for all brands, you would probably assume that almond butter as a whole isn’t very good, even if some of the brands had 90% ratings while others had 20%.  So in this way, ApartmentRatings on a macro level was shaping the debate on whether people really enjoyed apartment living in the first place.   

Not only is this consolidated effect important on dictating existing attitudes on apartment living, but it also works to perpetuate those very attitudes.  Going back to the almond butter analogy, if you already knew that almond butter overall had a 40% satisfaction rating going into a tasting, you would be more likely to have a negative predisposition before you even started.  Most people follow the herd with reviews, so if there are thousands of negative reviews already, they will likely not question that assessment.  So the negative reviews themselves breed a negative perception.  This is why ApartmentRatings has been the biggest negative PR campaign the multifamily industry has ever seen.

The winds appear to be changing, however, as big changes with ApartmentRatings.com, as well as apartment communities approach to reputation management has dramatically improved over the last year.  The website just released some very important stats:  The number of active properties that had a “Recommend” score above 50% grew an astounding 18% during 2013 to 68%.  In other words, since we are talking about industry averages, it’s as if the very idea of apartment living got an incredibly large perception boost.  Although the multifamily industry is constantly improving, it is safe to say that the industry as a whole didn’t suddenly have an operational epiphany leading to an 18% increase in customer satisfaction in just one year.  More likely, it always enjoyed that level of customer satisfaction, and ApartmentRatings simply didn’t accurately portray that level on their website.  The increase was due to a couple of factors, including more communities proactively encouraging residents to rate their communities, and the use of programs such as ApartmentRatings' Verified Resident Program™ (VRP) and SatisFacts' Insite™ touchpoint program.  This resulted in an increase in the total number of reviews by 16.5%, many of which were inspiring happy residents to post a review, which created a more balanced review pool.

If prospects continue to see ApartmentRatings as an unbiased source of reviews, this surge in ratings should have an overall positive impact on the entire industry and help it continue on its path to being a lifestyle choice for renters.  This could be an incredible PR move, and the industry could enjoy a nice facelift in public perception.

If that wasn’t big enough, it is possible that this could ultimately impact operations within industry players, as well.  If we start seeing ratings sites as true indicators of resident satisfaction, then we can much more easily compare operations against our comps.  Previously, if a competitor had a higher rating, most communities simply brushed it off due to the inaccurate aspect of apartment reviews overall.  But if reviews more accurately reflect resident opinions, then a community with a 70% rating will have to come to terms with its own operations relative to its peers with 90% ratings.  This potentially could lead to great self evaluation and improvements in operations across the industry.

There are still several issues with ApartmentRatings and other review sites, but this could be a big step in the right direction for the multifamily industry.  What do you think?

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  • Jay Koster

    One of the bigger problems I see with Apartment Ratings (disclosure: our community is currently sitting at 91% and was a Top Rated for 2012) is that the general population can write any review they want for free, while the property manager / owner must pay to write a response.

    This bias gives the renters freedom to post as they want, but limits the managers / owners to only responding if they believe it's worth the money. When you're already watching thousands of dollars per month vanishing into the marketing hole, is that few hundred dollars really worth it? For those who don't know, the answer should almost always be yes. Respond to your reviews, positive and negative, in a professional way and anyone reading can see you take your residents very seriously.

    I like the Verified Resident program, since that means you actually can ensure the people posting are (or were) residents. I just wish it was required.

  • I agree with you that managers should most definitely spend that money on AR. However, just so you know, managers don't have to pay to respond - they can still respond, but it just won't show up as coming from a certified manager.

  • Jay Koster

    Brent Williams

    You are correct, and I should have considered that. I suppose I am just considering the "official" response, because when I am looking at nearby communities (and everyone should!), seeing a certified manager's response makes for a better sense of official response.

  • <p>Great points guys. Manager Center is also great as you get notifications of postings, a basic reporting package. FYI, AR.com is working on a sharp new user interface, and then later will start planning improvements to the back office/Manager Center - we've connected them with some of our clients who have provided input on improvements. You should check out the AR.com Reputation Management dashboard...pretty cool! And VRP does help address "true residents." I hear all sides of the anonymous issue, but am not sure how seeing a post from "yankeesfan87" helps. <img alt=":-)" class="kmt-emoticon" src="/http://www.multifamilyinsiders.com/components/com_komento/classes/markitup/sets/bbcode/images/emoticon-happy.png" /> The topic does have the attention of Internet Brands and AR.com's leadership however. (IB are the same folks who came up with VRP, and also saw the value of acquiring us so as to gain more and more knowledge of multifamily, so they could better support it). I trust they are trying to come up with a win-win for the consumer and PM company. They are smart, principled, good folks who I trust to always try to make the site better and better. I of course speak from very personal experience having sold the business to Internet Brands!</p>

  • Jay Koster

    Doug Miller

    Hi Doug! From a consumer perspective, I can respect the concept of an anonymous review. We have several reviews on our listing that are from anonymous posters or using pseudonyms. But we also are fairly good at sorting out who posted based on the comments made. Having a non-anonymous post allows a reader, who might be looking for a new place, to see that someone believes so strongly they're willing to put their name behind their words and not just be an internet cowboy (like the armchair quarterbacks of old).

  • An increase in positive reviews does not mean AR is getting better. In fact I would say they've done nothing to improve the quality of ratings. The increase in positive reviews are coming from AR partnerships with 3rd parties that harvest free user-generated content from our operators. Which, in my opinion is unethical. Prospects are looking for objective reviews, and if we are soliciting positive reviews through reward, we are just as bad as AR who has a website that cultivates extreme emotion reviews through anonymity.

    See, the strategy set by AR is actually pretty genius if not down right diabolical - create a problem of negative reviews then offer a solution to add positive reviews. The net effect is just more free content for AR to sell more Adwords (that we pay for) and get higher rankings on google.

    The fact is AR ie Internet Brands cares little about our reputations. They care about the content, good or bad or fake. As it stands, users can still sign up without so much as a email verification or CAPTCHA and write a review. Meaning, someone like me, with minimal programming experience, can write a script to post hundreds of reviews in a matter of minutes. To think this is not happening is foolish and irresponsible on the part of our industry leaders

    Real change: remove the anominity, reward users with social status, and keep bots off the site to prevent fake reviews. See - Yelp.

    And last but not least, stop supporting our industry tech consultants that have been pushing AR from the beginning for their own personal benefits.

  • I really respect your opinion, Jason, but I don't think I agree with your assessment. I wasn't really asserting that ApartmentRatings is "better", although I do think it is under Internet Brands. What I was asserting was that no matter the cause, if the ratings are higher, and if prospects continue to trust those ratings, it will positively impact the reputation of the industry as a whole.

    I do see your point about having a paid solution to improve ratings while not doing more to clamp down on fake reviews can send a message about their priorities. They will need to address that, although I personally don't know if they have done work in that direction - can't say one way or the other. It isn't as easy as Yelp, though, because often Yelp dismisses first reviews if they are 1 or 5 star, but AR doesn't have that luxury because I'm guessing that an extremely high percentage of their reviews are first time reviews simply because of the nature of the site. I've talked to a few of the guys over there over the past couple of years, and although I don't know them extremely well, my gut doesn't tell me that they are evil like you believe. And I do know Doug Miller very well, and he is incredibly ethical and works with them daily - and he has told me several times that they are good guys. I trust his opinion, so I'm more inclined to trust the guys at AR that they are working to become industry partners rather than outsiders like they were before IB's purchase... But I can see your point that their approach has sent the wrong message.

    But in the end, I don't really think their intentions impact my assessment. IF prospects continue to see AR as a source of quality reviews, then that's all that matters, at least in my assertion. If they respect the reviews and the reviews are higher on an aggregate basis, it will help the reputation of the industry as a whole.

  • Fair enough. And to be clear, I was not implying that you or this site in particular as biased or spreading false information. Your views are overall object, I just do not always agree with them. :) . Reading back I can see how that implication can be made. I apologize.

    You're correct in the assessment that it is difficult to tie down intent. I am sure that there are many people at Internet Brands that are great people and Doug always seemed to be genuine (not to group them together) about his willingness to help. But that doesn't mean, at the heart of the issue, there are decision makers at AR that know exactly what they are doing in regards to keeping their site vulnerable to massive bot generated content. The multifamily industry is simply not informed on this issue, in my opinion, and I believe AR has taken advantage of that. And when AR approaches our industry with a "solution" to the overly-negative review problem that they themselves have created it seems disingenuous. Especially when that solution is nothing more than posting more review on their site without fixing such an obvious issue.

    Placing a CAPTCHA on their sign up page along with an email verification is day-one stuff (and costs almost nothing to implement). The fact that this is still absent on their site makes their intentions very obvious.

    I call on the industry to understand what it means when a site (that is dependent on content) designs their site in a way that not only allows but encourages (through apathy) spam bots to create accounts and post fake reviews. The verified resident program, their increase of positive reviews, its all smoke and mirrors to distract from the issue at hand.

    We, as industry leaders (CEOs, Presidents, VPs) have an obligation to educate ourselves on how fake reviews are actually created and the effect anonymity has on a review site.

    I do, however, stop short of a call to make anonymity illegal. I respect that right. We need to put pressure on AR to fix the spam bot thing and create a community that encourages social rewards while still preserving the right for anonymity if the user so chooses to exercise it. To date, I have not seen such a call to action.

  • Very interesting comments by everyone. Thanks for you candor...I really is helpful to hear all sides. Being in the feedback business, you better believe i mean that. :-)

    I do want to clarify. While there are review services and ILSs that let clients cherry pick what reviews to post, VRP and Insite are quite different.

    When VRP is blended in with our Insite product, we reach out at critical moments in the resident life cycle (after they move in, after a work order is entered as being completed) - right after they have experienced service. If ever there was a moment in time when a property is at risk of a less than desirable review, it is at these moments (vs. the random blast emails other service send to residents throughout the year). Residents are given the choice at the end of these surveys to take an extra 60 second survey to post these scores and any other comments on AR.com (as a "verified resident").

    Neither AR.com nor SatisFacts let clients cherry pick as some other programs permit (those should be a much greater concern on your part I think - as there is a difference between testimonials and reviews of course)...the VRP and Insite program is 100% transparent.

    Again, our program, despite asking for input at those moments in time that a property is at greatest risk of a resident not being happy, shows that the majority of the reviews are positive. Why? Companies that invest in transparent feedback programs like Insite are extremely committed to service delivery. While nobody is perfect, these companies strive to be. So asking for input at these critical moments is a crap shoot they are willing to take all day long as they know the vast majority of residents will be satisfied, and they have the confidence in their staffs to turn around those cases where a resident isn't happy.

    I can assure you Insite and VRP are, as Donald Davidoff says, the most accurate, transparent reviews out there. You have to decide if you can say the same thing about services that let a property pick what reviews to show, and which to not show, to the renting public.

  • So just to clarify, Doug, are you saying that it is essentially the same if a community independently asked their residents to rate the property on ApartmentRatings, but you all just push that option out there after their survey, correct?

  • I think there might be some misunderstandings about Manager Center and VRP.

    You don’t need VRP to have get your residents to post reviews. A property can email their residents to share their thoughts and give them the page link. You can add a link to your Facebook page or portal. Likewise a property can print up cards with your AR.com page link on it and hand it to residents when they stop by to compliment you.

    That said, VRP was created because of the findings from our groundbreaking “Getting Inside the Head of Today’s Online Renter Study.”

    One question asked residents if they would post a positive review of the property on a site like ApartmentRatings.com (FYI, we did the survey about a year before Internet Brands acquired us). 63% responded “yes.” The next question asked if their property has ever asked them to post a review on a site like ApartmentRatings.com. Only 8% responded “yes.”

    So you certainly can roll out your own internal program – you don’t need to contract for VRP. However VRP was developed because of the recognition that properties are busy enough without one more task added to their plate - and also the advantage of taking the human element out of who gets asked to post. We all accept that if handled by a PM, there would be a natural instinct to not ask an upset resident to post a review; Insite and VRP, on the other hand, asks everyone at that critical point in time after they have just received service and are most likely to have feedback...good or bad.

    With the Insite / VRP package, say you contract for the Work Order Follow Up module. Your PM system automatically pushes all of your completed work orders over the past week to us. Our system then sends an email to every resident in that push, not just those who are happy :-), asking them for feedback on the service provided and if any problems still exist – it’s a CRM product intended to help properties easily uncover service and satisfaction issues (BTW, Insite results are then immediately emailed to the PM so they can follow up). If a client chooses to contract for VRP, which only costs $150/property/year, at the end of the survey residents are asked if they’d like to take another 60 seconds to provide ratings and comments to be posted on the community page on AR.com; it also notes they will be displayed as a “verified resident.” So, you can be asking all of your residents without contracting for VRP, or for a small add-on fee to your Insite program you can let our system do all of the work and you can focus on service delivery.

    Also, you don’t need to contract for Manager Center to be able to respond to reviews. The difference is that for less than what a typical property pays for pizza for residents each year ($230/property/year) you: are notified every time a review is posted; can respond as the official PM; you get a reporting package; you can add photos, descriptive text, rents and the like to your property page.

    You have both no-cost or low cost options. The choice is yours regarding if you want to request residents to post reviews or for you to reply to reviews - or you can contract for these services. The vision of Internet Brands’ leadership was to come up with ways to have AR.com provide a better cross section of reviews, and give PMs a better way to monitor and manage reviews, so that consumers can make educated rental decisions.

  • Sally Royal

    After many, many years in the apartment industry I have come to the conclusion that most really negative reviews are written by people (typically those in the 20 to 30 year old demographic) who didn't want to follow basic rules of common courtesy, didn't read the terms of the lease or chose to ignore the terms, or they simply felt "entitled" to something. The majority of renters are busy living their lives responsibly and don't put much stock in these negative reviews and in fact view them as vindictive or over the top rants by a few spoiled 20 somethings.

  • Hi Sally,
    Thanks for commenting. The big question is not whether you put much stock in those reviews, but rather whether your prospects do. And if they see them as being valuable, then it will impact leases and the reputation of the industry, don't you think?

  • <p>Great conversation. Sally hit the nail on the head. I think this is where a good cross section of reviews come into play. Apartment shoppers are no different than any of us - we all read multiple reviews and draw our own sensible conclusions. If they see someone ranting along with several nice reviews...they discount that one was from someone who was not happy (especially if the PM professionally responds and shares the desire to help rectify the situation). They look for what's the overall sense of satisfaction - not letting any one single review sway the bigger picture. When a shopper only sees positive reviews - that is more of a red flag than an occasional upset resident. I read hundreds of reviews (oh I'm a feedback geek!), and I've seen residents complain that all of the reviews seem bogus as all positive. I've even viewed one where the resident thinks the reviews, all positive, were written by an ad agency (or an overzealous staff member...lol). Review sites are here to stay, so we need to manage them just as we manage everything else impacting the performance of our business. Great comments guys!!!</p>

  • Jay Koster

    Doug Miller

    I'm a fan of cultivating such a relationship with my residents that they come to our defense before we can even formulate a response of our own against a complaint!

    It's that reason, though, that manager responses are important. A prospect that can see how you handle a bad review / problem resident gets to learn more about you than if you're always smiling and happy.

  • Jay, you rock!!! I adore your comments!!!

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