Apps. Blogs. Feeds. Hashtags. In this era of, “there’s an app for that,” what’s the right balance of technology and human interaction for developers and home builders who want to use technology to connect with home buyers?
Just because you can, does it mean you should? And what about scalability in the case of smaller communities, or those nearing close-out? I talked with two of the best in the business, who are known for leveraging technology and using digital communications to bring their community’s DNA to life. Both have had their share of growing pains and lessons learned as they’ve navigated implementing technology.
Perhaps the best example of an app built to connect residents with their community and with each other launched last October for the residents of Rancho Mission Viejo, in South Orange County, Calif. The RanchLife App, which was developed in partnership with Montana-based Lead Insight, enjoys more than 90 percent home owner adoption and is actively used by more than 70 percent. The same team was behind other very successful planned communities in the day of community intranets, but those never reached near the adoption levels that the RanchLife App has already achieved.
Amaya Genero, Director of Community Services for Rancho Mission Viejo says, “Right when people close escrow, we give them the chance to sign up for the app, and that was huge. Now we have 90 – 95 percent opt-in, versus 30 – 40 percent in Ladera Ranch.” And why it works, is because of the information it offers. She continues, “There is so much in life that is technologically making people crazy. Sending out info to them they don’t want is noise. This isn’t noise. They can choose to go to this whenever they want to.”
What does it do?
The RanchLife App has four main areas of content:
- Community Calendar — browse upcoming events and activities across all locations and amenities.
- Parks and Amenities — allows home owners to find community places, hours and reservable spaces, provides directions and information on what’s going on for upcoming weeks.
- Follow — Allows people to follow a neighbor or RanchLife team member, push events, and easily invite and inform them without the need to text or call.
- My RanchLife — learns about one’s likes and interests the more they use it, suggesting “For You” events and apps, special offers and alerts.
Developing an app can be costly, and for most community developers and builders, it is not a business they want to be in. Tasha Jones, director of marketing at Stapleton, in Denver, Colo., says, “We explored the idea of a community-wide app, and from a sustainability standpoint we decided against it. We think it could be convenient for residents to have access to something like this, now that it has evolved. But, we rely on our community website, blog, social channels and our monthly events and activities announcement newsletter to reach home shoppers.” Many of those shoppers also take up the invite to attend signature events, getting a taste of what it would be like to live in the community. With nearly 25,000 residents, and 33 – 38 percent of residents who are repeat buyers, Stapleton is also nearing completion.
Without a dedicated app, Stapleton communicates primarily on using social media where it has the most impact. Recently they’ve seen a decline in the use of Facebook, which Jones puts down to users tiring of the political tirades from all sides and simply disengaging from the platform. But Instagram, that’s another story. Here, the community sees 4 – 7 percent month-over-month increases in active engagement. “Residents love this,” Jones says, “we will regram what they post; some of our most popular content is ‘Then and Now’ posts showing the community’s growth.”
Technology aside, Jones advises that the key to successful home owner engagement is to, “be mindful of the human element of connection. It’s at the core of what disarms people and helps them relax with others.”
For ten years, Stapleton has used what some might say are their most popular residents, the Dogs of Stapleton, to do just that, and tell the story of life in the 80238 (Stapleton’s zip code). An annual photo contest, culminating in a published calendar and a red carpet walk for the winning dogs, made stars out of the dogs and fast friends of neighbors. Both the dogs and the calendar literally became the talk of the town.
Another series of community stories, Love Thy Neighbor features stories of people from various backgrounds, color, same sex couples, multigenerational families, residents who have beaten the odds, all telling the stories of why they live in Stapleton. Inspired by the Humans of New York series, each person featured is beautifully photographed in their favorite area of the community.
Technology is the great enabler, and whether via a dedicated app, or via sharing deeper stories of life in a community, lessons learned include:
- Emotional connection is more important than ever. Use technology to share this, and create more ways to discover and celebrate community pride.
- Make it easy, convenient and on their own terms. Says Genero, “We need to go with what they have in their hands all day—their phones.”
- People make a community: create opportunities for future and current homeowners to engage. “Follow” opportunities for neighbors and stories like “Dogs of Stapleton,” which bring the physical nature of community to life.
—Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki, principal of tst ink, brings a customer-focused “how might we?” approach to creating communities and brands that connect and engage with how people want to live their lives