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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.

My Depressing Look Into Apartment Community Listings

Marketing can hit you in all sorts of different ways, from making you fearful, anxious, excited, or even empowered.  Great marketing fills the audience with a powerful emotion that leads to ultimately craving that product or service.  Today I would like to take you on a journey, starting with some unbelievable marketing and leading to a graveyard of uninspiring apartment listings.

My journey started off by seeing an absolutely wonderful example of marketing.  (There is debate on whether this is actual marketing or just a neat picture, but for now, we are going to assume this was actually marketing.)  First of all, let me state what this pictures is not.  It isn’t a picture of a bag on a table.  It isn’t a picture that shows off all the pockets, or somehow showcases how durable the material is.  There is nothing wrong with marketing that showcases features, but this picture is vastly more powerful, as it shows an aspirational vision of what it is like to live an outdoor, active, hiking lifestyle with your best friend.  It speaks to its audience in a way that doesn’t just pique interest, but actually makes the audience yearn for the experience.  It’s a glimpse of their best self, with the bag being a prominent part of that vision.  A bag sitting on a table can’t provide that type of emotional response.


Similarly, one of the key things we teach in leasing is to help the prospect imagine living at the property.  For example, we start talking about their furniture so they begin mentally placing it in the apartment.  During the tour, we create a picture of them lounging by the pool on a warm day, the sun beating down on them as their cares and concerns drip off their fingertips.  We show them a future where they finally make time to hit the gym and forge that body they always want.  All the time, we are showing them the ideal version of themselves, and our apartment community is a key piece of that vision.

After seeing that hiking picture, my marketing passion was exploding, and I wondered whether apartment communities in my area were translating those leasing lessons into their marketing.  When I look through apartment listings, do I see visions of my best self? 

The quick answer is no, I do not.

What I did was go to ForRent.com and look at listings in my area, the top 100.  And I want to clarify that just because I was disappointed in the results does not mean that quality marketing does not exist in our space!  In fact, I tend to hang out with unbelievably talented marketing pros all the time in the multifamily world.  So this is not an indictment of the skills we have in our industry!  I'm just noting what I saw when acting like a normal apartment hunter visiting an ILS.

I scrolled through the top 100 listings and categorized the primary picture for each listing:


The first thing I want to point out is that only one (ONE!) listing showcased a lifestyle view, highlighting residents lounging in the pool.  Not only did it attempt to show me a vision of a life I might want, but it absolutely leapt off the page, both from a dynamic color perspective and as a comparison against all the other uninspiring images it was surrounded by. 

UPDATE:  As Donje noted in the comments below, some ILSs won't allow people in the pictures, so in that situation, lifestyle would need to be implied.  To understand the rules a bit more, I have had several discussions regarding whether pictures of people and/or animals are allowed on the different ILSs.  What I've found is a lot of confusion in the marketplace regarding what is and what is not actually allowed.  RentPath has indicated pictures including people are not allowed.  I have heard from a representative at Apartments.com that pictures of individuals are allowed, but are discouraged due to potential Fair Housing violations if the pictures do not show a diverse group of residents.  This discussion is ongoing, however, so I will update this blog as I find out more.  You can find one discussion on the subject here.


Another picture that really caught my eye was a drone picture.  Not only did it have a property that really could take advantage of that type of imagery, but it was also the only picture out of the 100 that had a drone shot, which set it apart.


One other picture that I found interesting was actually of a closet!  It was staged in a way that worked to showcase they had large closets, which I’m assuming is a feature that really sets them apart from their competition.  So it did a good job of not only highlighting something that will drive interest, but it also stood out because it didn’t fit the formula of the rest of the listings.


Unfortunately, my good impressions end just about there.  Of 100 apartment listings, only 3 left me with a memorable positive experience.  That’s not to say all the pictures were ugly.  There were some pictures of perfectly nice buildings or outdoor spaces, but none of them evoked even the slightest bit of an emotional response.  None of them tried to make me a part of the story, and they clearly weren’t trying to express a lifestyle that would help me see the perfect version of myself.  Instead, they were trying to sell a pretty building.  For example, compare the hiking picture above and the emotions that it evokes, compared to this:


A few other listings also caught my attention, but not for the right reasons.  I guess they would be dishonorable mentions?  The first example thinks that somehow a floorplan is going to drive leases:


The second picture that really made me stop scrolling down the page featured these two beauties:

In the end, I want to stress that I’m not saying that all ILS marketing is bad across the country.  Maybe the sample size around where I live happens to just be uncharacteristically depressing.  But I think this issue is probably fairly widespread because of how we often choose our marketing pieces.  This is just a theory, but my guess is that when people decide to choose the primary picture for their property, they are doing it in a vacuum.  They are looking through the pictures they have of the property and try to find the prettiest one.  And frankly, they may be right, but it does not account for the context of where they are posting.  They are right alongside dozens of other properties doing the exact same thing, and if that relationship isn’t taken into account, a community runs the risk of selecting a picture that blends into the background, that doesn’t inspire, and just checks off a box.  And in competition among your rival comps, the last thing you want to do is camouflage yourself with uninspiring marketing.


What do you think?  Am I being too harsh?  Is there a hidden brilliance in using a picture of a washer and dryer that I’m not seeing?


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  • Did you know that most ILS take down pictures with people in them? Also L2L won't let you use pics with people in your email templates? I know, I've tried. I'm a sad marketer. :( . So part of the battle is trying to get your lifestyle pictures not to be censored. I do have a dog on my listings. It's the second picture, so it shows behind some information about pricing, but you can see it! Periodically ILS do studies of what people click on most (kitchen, pool, building) and they provide us with that info, so I try to put my photos in that order. W/D is a top tier amenity after A/C and pets. Maybe that's what they were thinking? Bottom line is most of us aren't marketers. As an industry are way behind, we are not innovative but part of that is because our market comes to us.

  • Great comment, Donje. I'd love to hear the rationale behind removing people. Do you know how far that policy goes - in other words, if there is an arm in the picture, does that count, or are they only concerned with faces? I'd love to hear the rationale behind it because restricting imagery of people actually using the product is incredible.

    That said, it doesn't necessarily change the overall issue - it just makes it more challenging. For example, there are ways to imply a person is present without having them actually be present. And even without going the "lifestyle" route, there still didn't seem to be much diversity in the primary shots - 89% used 4 staging concepts. There weren't any communities, outside of the three mentioned, that really took a risk - really tried to draw my attention. 97% of the listings were very ho-hum.

    Thank you so much for sharing, Donje!

  • Sondrah Laden

    Brent Williams

    Fair Housing laws regarding advertising are incredibly strict and unless you show a balance of all races, you can get in trouble. Next issue is that you pretty much need to hire models and a pro photographer. Go try and find several people from different races and get some high quality lifestyle pics, it is not easy. My suggestion would be to find someone with ambiguous ethnicity and put them in the background of a forced perspective picture, e.g. get a photo of a towel and sunblock in focus with the blurred image of a giant pool and hour subject mid jump over the water.

  • Great suggestions, Sondrah.

  • Hi Donje! I have attempted to get more details on ILS restrictions on people in pictures, and it may not be as dire as thought. Although RentPath restricts images with people, apparently Apartments.com does not, although they discourage it because of potential Fair Housing issues. My research is ongoing, but you can see some of the conversation here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/180278535903815/permalink/188306265101042/

  • Reason number 157 as to why ILSs are on the way out.

  • I'd be curious to find out if after clicking through those listings (given the apparent ILS restrictions on people), if there are any lifestyle pictures on the property websites. Did you explore any further on any properties, Brent?

    Our mantra is that your property's website should be the center of your online marketing since you have the most control over it - so lifestyle photography is absolutely a part of making a strong, great first impression!

    Thanks for the write up!

  • Hi John,
    That was not part of my initial research. I wanted to see things purely from an ILS-users perspective for now.

  • Kristi Dingess

    Often our renters search through multiple listings to find their new home. I think you will find many more creative posts on Craigslist (that really has the least restrictions) if you can make it through all of the spam. I also think this is why so many management and property specific websites have such a different look and feel than a traditional ILS. People visit the ILS's to figure out basics; Pricing, general photos, etc. The property site is really the opportunity to sell once we've gotten someone that far.

    All that being said; I like lifestyle photos. I hate stock photos. A lot of the restrictions in place help to level the playing field. Imagine you live at Community A and it's been a terrible experience. A cornerstone of that community's marketing is a stock photo of a dog in a backpack. When you are looking to move, Community D, F & G also are using that photo. How appealing will that be to you given your experience at Community A? Is it setting Community D, F & G apart?

    Using a a vivid, clean, detailed photo can really move mountains, even if it's the 500th apartment kitchen that you've seen. One of the ways we've been testing this as a company is with color. So many apartments are using dark cabinetry and neutral tones. I have red cabinets, grey cabinets, white cabinets, teal walls, lime green walls ... Why? Because it's eye catching and memorable. The 'OMG I LOVE HOW DIFFERENT THIS IS' goes much further than the norm. Not every apartment we have is this way, but these are the lead photos I like to use in marketing - because they meet the standard but are different. Always find a way to bend, not break, the rules. Just my two cents.

  • I think you are definitely right that other mediums are being used better than the ILS, especially the community's own website. But I guess I still think that communities can still create a better connection - I love your comment about color. There was actually one other listing that I distinctly remember from my research, and that was of a playground. The reason it caught my eye was because the colors on the playground were so vivid that it just jumped off the page relative to it's "neighbors". Similarly, there were plenty of pool pictures, but the way that the lifestyle picture was shot, the blue just absolutely popped!

  • Pattie

    Great article!! My opinion - IF the washer and dryer are INSIDE THE UNIT - then yes, it is a selling point. No lugging clothes to a shared laundry room and/or waiting for your neighbor to pick up their clothes in the dryer that have been there for 45 minutes!

  • Brittany Lozano Stasko

    Well I feel pretty good about myself! I just recently bought a drone to take pics and video of our properties- just need to register my little guy and watch You Tube videos to see how to use it! LOL Thanks for your research with this Brent!

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