250: Selling to the Multi-Family Market, with Erica Byrum | Highlights from Conquer Local 2019

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Imagine 50,000 properties, each having hundreds or thousands of tenants—and that’s your opportunity set. How do you successfully manage marketing, sales, and eventually fulfillment at that scale?

The answer lies in alignment. Erica is the Assistant VP of Social Media for Apartments.com, but she’s also an author, a serial award winner, and a phenomenal presenter. Today, she joins us on the Conquer Local podcast to share her expertise on social media, real estate, marketing/selling to the multi-family segment, and navigating business acquisition scenarios.



George: It’s the latest edition of the Conquer Local podcast special edition, coming to you from our annual conference in beautiful San Diego, California, Conquer Local 2019. Erica Byrum and I met about four years ago. At the time she was the Assistant Vice-President of Social Media for For Rent, which is part of the Dominion Organization, which was Autotrader at the time, Boattrader. And recently, they’ve been acquired by CoStar which is Apartments.com.

George: And over the years, Erica has proven to me over and over again that she’s one of the top people to deliver the social media message in a space that, you know, when you think about it, there are certain milestones in your life, and certain things that you spend a lot of time doing research on, an auto, or buying a home, or how about renting an apartment? It’s one of those magic moments in your life where you really do a lot of research. And that’s what Erica Byrum has been tasked with, is coming up with a social media, reputation-management, listing-presence solution, for, at the time, For Rent and then moving into Apartments.com.

George: So we’re going to have her on the podcast in a moment. We’re going to grill her about how she’s put together this machine which is now tasked with going out and serving the 50,000 potential customers that Apartments.com touches in North America. Erica Byrum, the Assistant Vice-President of Social Media for Apartments.com coming up next on the Conquer Local podcast.

George: It’s another edition of the Conquer Local podcast. I’m really excited to have my friend, Erica Byrum here in studio. We’re, again, at the beautiful Hotel del Coronado, in San Diego, for Conquer Local 2019. Erica, thanks for flying in. It’s really great that we could get you on the show.

George: First off, I’ll go through our background of working together over the last few years. But let’s talk about you and how you arrived at CoStar and Apartments.com.

Erica: So, I’ve been with our previous parent company for 15 years. I started right out of college. It was formerly known as Trader Publishing Company. We were primarily a print-only focused company and we transitioned over the years into digital. Popular brands, Autotrader, Boattrader, Cycletrader, Trucktrader, Equipmenttrader, the like.

Erica: So I started there, transitioned into the real estate brands, and I’ve been on the real estate side for ForRent.com, Homes.com and those guys for the last, I’d say, 13 years. And then, as of recently within the last year, our largest competitor purchased Forrent.com. With the acquisition, we swung over to CoStar group which has Apartments.com. So it’s been great to be in an even larger multi-family brand.

George: You know, the multi-family space is a really interesting animal, and when you and I met about four years ago, it was pretty apparent that you were on the cutting edge of deploying social media and reputation management and presence management into this space. So when we talk about multi-family we’re talking about apartments and you understand that space inside and out, you’ve been doing this for a long time. How many customers do you have under management right now with your social media tactics?

Erica: We’ve got a couple thousand right now and I think with the growth of coming into the CoStar group is going to be huge for us because we’ve got 50,000 total properties within that brand that we have to start taking a look at. So I think that this is a huge opportunity for us. And we recently within, I’d say 2016, 2017, transitioned from self-service to full-service. So we’ve seen a nice shift there trying to get some of those do-it-yourself clients into our full-service offering.


It’s All About Simplifying Life for Renters and Owners 

George: So we’re talking about an owner of a property or a manager of a property and the presence of that property is very important. Can you explain some of the problems that you’re trying to solve for those customers?

Erica: Yeah. What we do at Apartments.com is we simplify the process of renters finding a new place to live. And on the advertising side, we advertise those apartments on our website. With the reputation component, it’s so important because reviews are really a huge piece of the apartment-finding process. And as you’re navigating through the customer journey, it’s definitely impacting their business. And so I think reviews is probably one of the biggest challenges that our industry has as a whole.

Erica: You know, obviously we’ve got Apartmentratings.com, we’ve got Yelp, Facebook and leasing managers should be focused on selling apartments, leasing apartments. And so they really rely on partners like Apartments.com to come in and help eliminate some of that workload for them, to respond to them in a timely manner and also take the emotion out. Because a lot of these renters are disgruntled or they have very strong opinions. And so for us to come in and kind of alleviate that for them has been huge for them.

George: One of the lines that I’ve used over the years is what I call review lunatics. And that is a consumer that has crazy ideas as to what would be a great experience. I’m sure that you’ve solved a lot of those problems in this space.

Erica: Oh, we’ve seen it all. I mean, the reviews that come in. We just pulled the metrics the other day. I can’t remember them off the top of my head, but we’re responding to hundreds of reviews a day. So, our industry in particular, I would think just like, maybe, the restaurant space is getting a heavy volume of reviews. And think about it, each of these apartment communities can host anywhere from a couple hundred to thousands of residents at any given time, so there’s a huge volume there.

George: You know, the interesting thing over the years that we’ve known each other, I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of your customer base, and it’s like there are two revenue tracts that are at risk. The first is, we’ve got the renters and we want to keep the property rented. But the vacancy rate affects the overall valuation of the property. So there are two pieces that the owner is very concerned with.

Erica: Yes, absolutely. And, alongside reviews, I think the other big challenge that we see in this space is business-listing information being inaccurate. So, claiming has been huge for us because property names are changing ownership all the time. So their name is changing, their address might be changing, phone number, website. So having the capability to partner with you guys to correct all of that has been huge. Because a lot of property managers and owners might not even know where to start for that.


Getting the Salesforce Ready

George: So in multi-family, it’s a very fascinating space and it’s a massive industry with a 50,000-total addressable market. But let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about your work as the Assistant VP of Social Media and the teams that you’re responsible for.

George: I know that you’re managing fulfillment teams and it’s your product that you’ve built and molded over the years, but really when it comes right down to it, you’re one of the best salespeople of that product. I’ve heard you on calls, we’ve been on cold presentations together. Let’s talk a little bit about how you are getting that salesforce at Apartments.com, which is a massive engine, ready to sell this solution.

Erica: Yeah. I think one of the things that we did a couple of years back was create an arm that is basically a sales-biz dev arm. And there are a couple of folks where we go in and we partner up with the salesforce. The salesforce owns the relationships. They’ve got really strong relationships, they tee us up, we come in, we deliver the demonstration, they close the sale. So you’re really partnering up with a subject-matter expert. And I think that has allowed us to really go out and take advantage of the strength of the information that the subject-matter experts have so that takes less pressure off the sales reps. They’re really focused on building the relationship, getting us in the door and we can deliver the demo.

George: My colleague and friend, Paul Plant, has a term for this, he calls it digital ninjas. So you’ve got the salesperson who has got a longstanding relationship with the property owners. And then they bring in the digital expert which positions the product and stays on top of the advancements and the technology.

George: Now when it comes to the fulfillment side, I know that that’s always a challenge. How have you overcome some of the challenges in having a fulfillment team that now has to deliver on this promise?

Erica: I think the improvement that you guys have made with Task Manager has been huge for us. So, going in creating more efficiencies, really partnering with you guys, taking a look at our overall workflow, cleaning up outstanding tasks, but I think if we didn’t have Task Manager we wouldn’t be able to scale as fast as we’ve done today. It really gives us more transparency into our work, we’re setting goals for our team. So we’re doing fulfillment everywhere from responding to reviews, setting up social media accounts, building different pages. We outsource the creating of the listings and the claiming through your group. So that helps scale for us, as well. And then we’re taking a look at doing social media contests and things like that. So we’ve got a lot on our plate. So having Task Manager enables us to stay focused.

George: When you have that team, I’ve met some of your folks, so I’m going to lead into this. You’ve got some great team leads there, and then they have a group. How hard is it to find that talent in the fulfillment team to be able to deliver on that?

Erica: You know, we’ve been recruiting locally from some of the universities within Norfolk, so that’s been helpful. And really trying to find people that understand social media and maybe use it for personal use, but may not have had experience in the business space, I think that’s been a huge win for us. And just understanding social in general, we can teach them real estate, we can teach them how to use it for business. But I appreciate the kids coming out of school, they’re just on it, they understand it. And I think we’ve recently in the last year, transitioned into a pod model.

Erica: So we’ve got pods. We’ve got a full group that just does review response. We’ve got a group with your company helping us with the claiming, business listing, all of that, listing distribution. We’ve got another pod for social media set up, content, all of that. We’ve got content writers, graphic design. So I think the pod structure has also enabled us to be more efficient and effective because we’ve got people that are focused in on their specific skill set.


Sales and Fulfillment: A Collaboration for Optimization

George: So, because you wear two hats, and what I mean by that is you have that fulfillment team that reports to you, but you also really are leading the sales efforts as well, what advice would you give our listeners that are salespeople as to how they could play a little bit better with the fulfillment teams and make everybody’s life a little bit easier?

Erica: I love being a part of fulfillment. I think having marketing, sales, fulfillment all tied under one group has been helpful because you can really understand how to leverage each other. And you understand the pipeline and what’s being fulfilled, so I think that works. I think having a strong manager of that fulfillment pod is key so that it allows us to go on and be effective in sales presentations and help integrate more with customer service, finance, sales, technology. So there’s a lot of moving parts but I think having strong leads within each group is really the most effective way. And we just recently transitioned to that model in the last year.

George: How do you get over what I call the “it’s-more-work effect?” So, the salespeople go out and they make a sale to a big customer, and we’ve got 5,000 locations, it’s going to be fantastic. Now they’ve got to come back to the fulfillment team and say, “Oh, I just put a whole bunch more work on your plate.” How do you handle that dynamic?

Erica: We create a lot of processes, fulfillment procedures. Your team’s been excellent at helping us expedite some of these larger management companies that we’ve been onboarding. We have a pretty solid onboarding process and we’ve been fine-tuning it. Every month we take a look at it. We work with your group. We understand the infrastructure. We work with you guys even on creating diagrams to understand every piece of the model, and when the order comes through where does it go from there.

Erica: So I think having that visual diagram has been helpful for my team as well so they can understand how they impact each component throughout its entire life cycle.

George: So your retention rate is quite high?

Erica: Yeah. I think in multi-family, too, they shift their spend around, too. But I think for the most part, we’ve been able to keep a lot of our long-standing customers on the program. And I think retention is always something that we’re going to continue to work on as well. I’m actually thinking about hiring a Customer Success Manager, too. I’ve heard some people talk about it and how it’s been helpful in their organization. I think that’s something that we need to look at as well.

George: You know, one of the big takeaways is the fact that this is a never-ending, refinement process. So let’s talk about the book because it’s not often that we get authors on our podcast. You co-authored this book a few years back. Could we talk a little bit about it?

Erica: Yes. I had the privilege and the honor to work with Jay Baer. He’s the New York Times Bestselling Author of the book, Youtility. We did a spinoff of that called, Youtility for Real Estate. And it was an incredible opportunity. We were able to interview peers in the real estate space and really bring the knowledge into the book, and how these consumers and customers and businesses are practicing the concept of Youtility in their marketing.


Never Stop Learning

George: So, when people are listening to the podcast, obviously you’re a subject-matter expert in this space, do you have any advice for salespeople when they’re out talking to multi-family type customers?

Erica: I think, never stop learning. Keep digging in. Especially our salesforce, we’ve made a huge transition from selling print for many years into selling digital products. So I think partnering up with subject-matter experts is huge. Continue to learn, listen to podcasts. We constantly are pumping out new information to them in this space.

Erica: And I think overall, just helping our apartment renters and our customers understand that there are solutions out there, and we can take off and eliminate a lot of the workloads and they can focus on selling apartments, which is what they’re great at. And then some of us can come in and help them with review response, social media, business listing claiming, to really increase their presence online.

George: One more hard question. Maybe it’s not hard, maybe it is. Massive transition when CoStar bought from Dominion, For Rent, any advice to people that are experiencing that sort of a consolidation move? Because it was the acquisition of the company, it got rolled into the larger organization and there was a lot of transition that happened there. Any advice that you’d give people because you’ve been through it?

Erica: Yeah. Preparation is key. I think I’ve done multiple keynotes to multiple stakeholders within the company. And I think that was important for me to understand what their role was in the company so that they can understand also what we do. So I think positioning the product to the C-Suite, and integrating across multiple departments.

Erica: So it was important for me to introduce myself to Finance, Training, Customer Service, Sales, Marketing and show them the product. We did a full pitch for them. We showed them the software so that they really understood the inner workings of it and how we were supporting multi-family clients. And it was a whole new space for them. This was brand new to them.

Erica: So, for me, I think the biggest piece of advice was to integrate with as many departments as possible so that we could get the message out about product across the entire organization.

George: I had the privilege of traveling to Dallas with our Chief Strategy Officer, Jackie Cook, and Erica hosted us with all of your Vice Presidents from around the country at that time. I was very impressed by the amount of preparation that you did to get ready for that. So you got 200 people in an auditorium. You were running the entire event. You’ve got your President there. You’ve got the CEO of the company in the crowd.

George: Let’s just talk a little bit about the lessons that you’ve learned around preparation for that. You know, it’s a whole-day presentation that you were owning. You put a lot of time into that ahead of time.

Erica: Yeah. I think the biggest thing was the pitch deck, the sales message. And we were so fortunate to have you and Jackie come in and deliver that message in understanding the customer journey. And that really teed up our entire salesforce moving forward, get them fired up, get them to understand the core message. But I think building the keynote was the most time-consuming thing. What was the message? How were they going to deliver it? What were the channels? And then we created a toolkit for them, too, which was a really great takeaway, which gave them selling and best practices and tips, since moving into digital was quite new for them at the time.

Erica: Yeah, for me, I think keynotes was important because it was a visual way for us to demonstrate the product and how it can work for them and how they can use it in their sales cycle. So that, I think, was very effective for us.



George: I noticed that during this, and I want to leave our listeners with one piece, you are quite meticulous when it comes to analyzing all of that material to make sure that it really hits home with a message. Was that something that you’ve learnt over time through trial and error, or was there some sort of a resource that taught you that by being meticulous and making sure that you have every I dotted and every T crossed, you get a much better result?

Erica: You know, I started in marketing, so maybe it stems from that and just understanding collateral and it’s only going to be effective if the messaging is right. And I also think it’s important to get it right across every piece that you’re touching. Because you’ve got 300-something salespeople. You want them to sing the same song and if there are any inconsistencies anywhere, all it takes is one sales rep to go off path and that can really create some challenges with retention or setting expectations with clients. So I think consistency is key.

George: So what you’re touching on is a really significant issue. And that is that the minute that you lose the trust of that salesperson, then it could spread throughout the organization. So, maybe not doing a whole bunch of things, but the things that you’re doing you do really, really well so it’s buttoned-down, is very effective.

Erica: Yeah. And that’s exactly why we brought in the biz dev team to do those four-legged calls so that we can help control that message and make sure that client expectations are set.

George: I really appreciate you taking some time and joining us here. Thanks for coming to San Diego, to Conquer Local. And I’ve been looking forward to having you on the podcast for quite some time.

George: Make sure that you read the book. It’s a fantastic book if you’re working in the real estate space, Youtility for Real Estate.

George: And where would I get a copy, if a listener-?

Erica: You can download it on Amazon and any of the other digital outlets.

George: Excellent. Thank you, Erica Byrum, for joining us today.

Erica: Thank you so much.

George: Well, I really enjoy having guests that I have a longstanding relationship with. I’ve had the privilege of working with Erica over the last few years. And we’ve really grown the relationship with her and watched her grow throughout her career.

George: One really interesting piece that she said and it’s a great takeaway from this. She’s responsible for the sales efforts in a revenue line. She’s also responsible for making sure that the marketing message is correct. And she’s then tasked with making sure that it comes true through the fulfillment. And I find that a big disconnect inside organizations is those are really three different parts of the company that need to be working very closely together. They can’t be at odds. They need to be all singing from the same hymnal.

George: And Erica has done a great job of bringing together a group of people that lead each one of those functions, but they all work together and they trust each other. And I’m sure that there’s some violent agreement in some meetings, but they come up with a plan that’s cohesive and helps the salespeople that are out talking to those customers deliver the message.

George: The other piece is, the constant learning theme. If you’re not picking up on this in the Conquer Local podcast, for over 70 episodes over the last two years, Erica has constantly been learning. I will get text messages from her late in the afternoon, weekends, things like that, saying, “Hey, I was just thinking about X. Do you have any material that you’ve been digging around for?” And I’m sure that there are other resources that she reaches out to, but she’s constantly trying to tweak that message to improve the efficiency and to continue to drive the growth.

George: So a couple of really great takeaways inside that edition and we thank Erica Byrum for joining us for the special editions here at the beautiful Hotel del Coronado for Conquer Local 2019. LinkedIn, great place to reach out to us with feedback on our episodes, and I thank all the people that have been reaching out with their comments. And we look forward to seeing you next time on the Conquer Local podcast. My name is George Leith, and I’ll see you when I see you.

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