If you’ve been studying social media, or even half paying attention to it, for the last few years, you’ve heard some truisms proffered that are scary to most business people. One of the most recited is that in order to be successful in social media you must face the fact you no longer have control. But it’s hard to find good examples of companies that have accepted that fact, embraced it and starting winning customers like gang busters.

Enter Eric Brown.

Eric Brown, Urbane Apartments
Eric Brown. Image by urbaneapts via Flickr

In 2004, Brown decided to stop spending money on traditional media to advertise Urbane Apartments, a small network of apartment properties in Southeast Michigan, which happens to sport the highest unemployment rate in the nation. He stopped spending money on paid Internet advertising a year later. As the economy began sagging seriously low, Brown started looking for something new to jump start his small business.

In January of 2008, he started a blog. He actually started a brilliant blog, but didn’t know it at the time.

“The blog was not and has not ever been about our apartment business,” Brown said. “It’s about everything local, hip and cool businesses, cool bars and such.”

The brilliance was the fortuitous decision to make the content about everything but the business. In a sense, Brown relinquished control of the content. It wasn’t a big, fat ad for his apartments.

But wait, there’s more.

“It just puttered along with only a handful of readers and followers through the fall of that year … maybe 30 visitors a month,” Brown told me. “I was basically ready to scrape it.”

But he didn’t. He had an idea he wanted to try first. He wanted to turn control of the blog over to the apartment residents.

After an internal battle with his marketing director, one that would even lead to her leaving the job, Brown’s Urbane Apartments experiment took hold. The business relinquished control.

“Once we handed things over to our Urbane Evangelists, the blog took off like a rocket,” he said. “We still stayed pretty involved, but more on the fringes and from a leadership angle. By March of 2009 our monthly following had grown to 4,000 visitors per month and has grown consistently each month thereafter.”

What does this lack of control get Urbane Apartments? No. 1 rankings in Google searches for several important keywords in the local apartment market. Website traffic to the now three company websites (UrbaneApts.com, UrbaneLobby.com and UrbaneBlog.com) has increased 108 percent from September of 2008 to September of 2009. Their continued out-of-the-box thinking resulted in a fun Sharpie art promotion that got the pen company’s attention (and valuable link love).

Nice, but not enough, Brown says.

“Great news, right? Web traffic soars from the effective use of social media, but who really cares?” he asked me, rhetorically. “Did we rent more apartments? Because if we didn’t, the practice of social media marketing is just a hobby.

(I love that line.)

“Our physical traffic did increase,” Brown said, proudly. “We did 54 percent more tours and showings (from 2008 to 2009).”

Then he gets worked up.

“But the real metric, which is renting apartments? It increased by 69 percent!

Brown admits he didn’t really have a strategic plan to relinquish control. He did have good instincts, though. Urbane Apartments embraced the notion than they are just caretakers of the brand. The people control it. And it has increased their business in a time when Southeast Michigan is mired in a devastating economic vacuum.

An isolated example? I’d think not. Tell your story, or one you know, in the comments. I’ll happily give you control.


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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://xeesm.com/carlosrhernandez CarlosHernandez

    Jason,

    This is an awesome example of innovative thinking. Thank you for drawing our attention to this.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thank you, Carlos. I certainly agree!

      • http://xeesm.com/carlosrhernandez CarlosHernandez

        How do you do it? I am amazed at your response time! You must have a bevy of elves scurrying about the keyboards. :-)

        • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

          Happen to be sitting in my inbox where Disqus notifies me of comments.
          I respond out of email more often than on the blog.

    • http://oldmedianewtricks.com Daniel_Honigman

      Agreed. And the metrics really help tell the story here. Nice case study, Jason.

      • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

        Thanks Dan! Metrics always make it more convincing!

  • http://www.socialtality.com dmattcarter

    This is a fantastic example of the type of cultural shift needed to for companies to succeed leveraging Social Media both internally (Enterprise 2.0) and externally. Eric Brown didn't say “Wait, what's the ROI?”, he also didn't seem to ask, “Wait, what if one of the tenants says something misaligned with our messaging hierarchy?” He ceded control and gave his brand stewards (his existing customers) the chance to formalize their stewardship. The result: a newly empowered group of current customers became avid and vocal brand advocates.

    • UrbaneWay

      @dmattcarter, Thanks for the kind words, I wanted to add a couple of notes specific to your comment.
      When we first started to practice Social Media, our first real entry was with a MySpace page back in 2004. Our staff freaked out, claiming that folks would “Say bad things about us”

      We were a start up, and we did drop the ball a lot, however that was an epiphany moment, and I said to the staff, You know what, they might say bad things, but that will be what we work on the next day, and so we set out on our Social Media journey.

      Here is the hidden benefit, Those times when we did drop the ball, and we did, and we responded and worked through the issue, those folks became our best Urbane Evangelists.

      Marketing Takeaway; Your best customers will help you become better at your business.

  • http://jeffhora.wordpress.com Jeff Hora

    One comment that Eric (UrbaneWay) makes below really stands out for me: “we did drop the ball a lot”. He and his company found their way, replete with successes and fumbles. The saying goes that you learn more from failure than success (which makes many of us brilliant…). Setting the content of the blog on NOT the apartments, but the cool-factor allowed the residents to opt into a positive environment and contribute without feeling like they had gone to work for sales.
    Nice work, man!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Amen to that, Jeff. It's great to see a business that not only
      understands the control issues, but also that it's okay to screw up
      now and then. It's not that you make mistakes, but what you do with
      them. Eric and his folks have done great things with those ball drops.
      And I suspect they always will.

    • UrbaneWay

      Hey Jeff,
      Thanks for the comment. One thing to share relative to Ball Dropping, having come from Corporate America prior to launching Urbane Apts, and from a company that was mostly fear based, meaning Ball Dropping wasn't an option it took me a while to “Get It”

      Watching Evangelism unfold is pretty exciting, and I am not sure it would have ever happened if we weren't in the game, picking up the balls. I am pretty sure folks don't expect perfection, but they do expect to be heard. Having said that, they DO expect improvement, you don't get to stay a rookie very long.

      • http://jeffhora.wordpress.com Jeff Hora

        True…if you don't learn here, you may end up having to learn someplace else…..

  • Courtney

    This is a great example of how social media can work for you when you let it. It is great to note that here and there you can “drop the ball” but that give the authenticity we all crave. We at White Horse have been talking a lot about social media lately. We are doing a webinar on how PR can use social media monitoring to enhance campaigns. It may not be turning over control completely but it is a step in the right direction.
    Register here: https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/596160673

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  • http://www.iwritemarketing.com CarlPhelps

    This is an awesome story. My girlfriend lives in an apartment in East Lansing, MI and that company seems to be the complete opposite of Urbane. Let's just say they have dropped the ball in some major ways, but, what's worse, is that they don't own up to it. They are difficult to contact and they don't seem to care about the customers and the community. The result is that they are going to get a seriously bad reputation, as my girlfriend and her roommates are already telling people not to live there, both on Facebook and in person.

    I'm guessing that the increase in rentals isn't just because of the community blog Urbane hosts. I sense that the blog has given the company a whole new customer and community focus, that is becoming ingrained in their culture. Trust drives new business!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the feedback, Carl. Maybe Urbane can buy a property in East
      Lansing and help your girl out. Heh.

  • http://twitter.com/TerraFirmaMedia TerraFirmaMediaGroup

    Thanks for this great success story, that provides great encouragement for those looking to engage blogging or other social media outlets in their business.

    I do think that SM often feels like we are relinquishing control, but I believe that probably only happens to some extent. Where did Eric really relinquish control? He definitely participated in the blogging exchange…online and off. It seems more like he provided a platform for his tenants to share their experiences at Urbane Apts and surrounding neighborhoods…whether he did it via serendipity or not.

    What Eric really setup was a expedient outlet for his tenants to express their likes and dislikes about their apartment/community experience. The credit goes to Urbane for their willingness to accept their tenants feedback, and their humility in admitting they could do better.

    Kudos to Urbane for understanding that there are no absolutes (good or bad) AND for letting their tenants prove it to them…with their blogs and wallets!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the comment. The control issue is really based on a broad
      corporate assumption that you control the conversation, the messaging
      and the interactions around your brand. Certainly, by allowing your
      customers to interact on your website without filtering, you're
      relinquishing editorial control. But it's more the notion that a
      company dictates its marketing and branding. That's probably never
      been the case. Yes, the company has a great deal of influence and
      input, but your customers can take that and flip it on its head. If
      you're willing to let them and roll with that wave, you form a sort of
      informal partnership with them where control is shared. That's a nice
      place to be.

      • http://twitter.com/TerraFirmaMedia TerraFirmaMediaGroup

        Absolutely Jason! I call it “Un-managing” your message! One of my points in a series of blogs I'm authoring entitled “Social (Networking) Dis-ease.” What I love most about this is how the push-and-pull of marketing/advertising now is swinging over to the buyers.

        Congrats on a great blog. I will consider it a prime resource for how I conduct my business. Thanks!

        • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

          Thanks for that. I appreciate the compliment!

      • http://twitter.com/JGoldsborough JGoldsborough

        @UrbaneWay You are absolutely right about complainers being less likely to “bash the company” when they know someone from the company will respond. I like to call it the pile on effect. Step away from the technology for a second…If I don't know you and I hear something negative about you, easy for me to say, “Why that's a bunch of BS, lousy company.” But if I do know you or see you are trying to help, much harder to pile on. In fact, there's a good chance I'll stand up for you.

        @Jason You said “But it's more the notion that a company dictates its marketing and branding. That's probably never been the case.” That right there is the essence of the “controlling the conversation” argument. First time I saw Shel Holtz (@shel) present, he showed a slide that was just the word CONTROL with a big red X through it. Point being…companies have never controlled the conversation. Social media just accentuates that fact.

        One of the biggest side benefits in handling customer relationships the way @UrbaneWay has done is you give people a specific place to come and talk about your brand. Because they ARE going to talk about your brand. And if there's no home base where the company is joining those conversations, then customers will sprinkle posts and comments about your brand all over the Web. This way it's much easier for @UrbaneWay to monitor the conversation, join it and create those brand ambassadors.

        Kudos, Eric. Great story, Jason.

        • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

          Kudos to you, too. Thanks for the thoughts and continued conversation!

    • UrbaneWay

      @TerraFirmaMediaGroup, Thanks for the comment. I wanted to add something about the control piece, I think that complainers tend to not “Bash the Company” as bad when they know that someone is going to respond.

      I will also tell you, that we have never prescribed to the theory the “The Customer is Always Right”, (we don't go out of our way to point that out, and we try to practice not being defensive) but they do have a right to voice whats on their mind.

      We have on occasion responded with a thank you, but we don't agree, or that doesn't seem fair or whatever the situation may lend itself too, my point being, when you have open dialog that other prospects can see how you actually responded, and they can contact the complainer direct if they so desire adds a huge benefit to your Product Offering

  • http://jasonkeath.com jakrose

    He should survey his residents to see how many found them through the blog or how many remember knowing about the blog prior to renting/touring.

    Great little story Falls. Thanks for sharing.

    PS. Did they just not do ANY marketing from 04 to 08?

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Good question, J. Eric can clarify. I know they experimented with
      MySpace but I'm not sure what else they did. Nice pick up.

    • UrbaneWay

      jakrose, Hello
      Prospects rarely seem to accurately know where they found you. The ILS (Internet Listing Services) in the apt industry have said for years that the surveys are at best 35% accurate, we have actually changed our question to “What did you type into Google to find us”, and we have started to work on those keywords and strings.

      Yes, We have always marketed our product and brand, we just didn't use traditional print, or paid internet listings. Some of the marketing tactics have been worked, some not so much, but we have always worked hard to Enhance the Residents Experience,

  • http://calebgalaraga.com calebgalaraga

    Hi Jason, Awesome posts. I want to learn more from this experience of yours. The company am working for have some HORRENDOUS word of mouth out there and I figure if those former stakeholders and clients we had will just be a bit net saavy, our branding is doomed. How can I garner the inputs you have? Did you choose to solicit feedback from the through the blog? How exactly did you give them the blog?

    I'm working on our social media budget (the first for us), it'll be the first time the company will actually do MARKETING online and I'm figuring out a way on how to engage those people who both have negative and positive comments about our company.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks Caleb. Eric can answer those questions specific to his blog.
      I'm sure he will soon. What I cam tell you is that you already have a
      leg up on being successful at engaging with your audience, detractors
      and all. You have the willingness to even try. Sometimes that's enough.

      The road ahead isn't always smooth, but being open, honest and willing
      to help/serve, you can't really get too far off course.

      Thanks for sharing and asking.

    • UrbaneWay

      Hi Caleb, Thanks for commenting,
      We actually had several venues where our customer/resident could express themselves, the blog, our Ning site, facebook and we also set up a site specific site for comments, Urbane Talk, that aggregates comments from Yelp, Get Satisfaction and Apartment Ratings.com all into one place, which is one of our most popular pages of our web site. Point is, you have to Fish Where the Fish Are, meaning your customers sort of leave scattered messages all over the place.

      We have openly accepted feedback in any manor we can get it, that is the Gem of Social Media, “Open Feedback and Dialog”

  • http://www.btbtraining.com/blog Niall Devitt

    This is an inspiring and wonderful example of using social media for biz well. Great Post!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks, Niall. Appreciate the feedback.

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  • http://www.planetwebfoot.com PlanetWebfoot

    Thanks for this story. Now, I would love to find out how many of the new tenants read the blog, and if that's how they learned about the unit. Some metrics would be great!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      I'd bet Eric will swing by with something! Thanks for the question.

    • UrbaneWay

      PlantWeb, I do not have a metric to measure who reads the blog, verses who rented an apartment, but I believe that folks don't really care that much about the product, in our case the apartment features, they care about where they are going to live, where is the best Sushi, where is the cool corner bar, the best dry cleaner, as those things all affect their lives.

      So, Our Urbane Life Blog answers some of those questions, and therefore creates some sort of smooth entry to our sales pitch,

  • http://www.thehockeyzen.com chrisnadeau

    Great story and I love the fact that Eric decided to “let go” Probably the most important step in embracing social media. Love to see how passionate the residents are to making their community a better place, via the blog.

    Is there any compensation involved with the bloggers? Can anyone add to the blog or did the company only select certain folks? The reason I am asking is we recently started doing something similar over at The Hip Check (sound familiar) :-) and we are trying to engage hockey folks to contribute http://thehipcheck.thehockeyzen.com/this-is-you

    Just wondering if Urbane Apartments has any tips for those just starting.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Great questions, Chris. I'll leave it to Eric to answer. Appreciate
      the discussion, eh. Heh.

      • http://www.thehockeyzen.com chrisnadeau

        Great blog post, eh? How y'all doin' down there in Louisville? :-)

        • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

          Good. It's Canada cold to us … veritable Fredericton heat wave …
          30s today. Heh

    • UrbaneWay

      Hey Chris, Great questions, First, and likely a pretty important piece, and I am glad you brought this up, We DID Pay our bloggers at The Urbane Life blog. Here was our goal;

      Our Goal; “To provide our residents with an experience and value with a high enough return to create enough Customer Evangelists within our core resident base that they self rent our apartments.”

      We felt we needed great content for The Urbane Life Blog, meaning great writers, and great writers don't work for free, which is an overall myth that Social Media is Free, Far From It, Great Copy, Great Photography, Great Video all costs money.

      But here is the deal, IF you are brave enough to drop other sources of traditional marketing (not all at once, that would be irresponsible) then you have the available marketing funds to actually try some other marketing venues. And for us, One by One, we began replacing Traditional Marketing with Social Media Marketing because we were getting favorable results, meaning MORE RENTALS

      So where should you start, Just Start, but don't look at Social Media as another something, We feel the first question is if you are going to ADD something, what are you goini to take away, It is a balance

      • http://www.thehockeyzen.com chrisnadeau

        Eric, thanks for the response and thank you for your honesty. Totally makes sense and I appreciate the explanation.

        • UrbaneWay

          Sure thing Chris, Some folks in the Apt Marketing space freaked out when they heard we paid our bloggers, I actually never thought about too much, as we were purchasing Relevant Content, I never really understood why folks would think that is free

  • http://www.switchblade-studios.com/ jolegarda

    The blog takes a wonderfully authentic position by allowing its residents to speak on their behalf. In true social networking spirit, these brand evangelists tell of their 15 minutes of fame and the networking web grows from there. Interesting thoughts on compensating the bloggers – it gives a heightened sense of responsibility and you're right, not everyone is good at it and those who are should be rewarded. You're not asking them to write about the apartment buildings themselves but to help create a window into a desirable community.

  • alexandraspirer

    I think this article is truly inspiring and it's nice to know that thinking “outside-of-the box” has worked so well for Urbane Apartments. Are you looking to expand to other cities? Would love to hear more about what you are doing.

    • UrbaneWay

      Good Evening, Thanks for the comment, while we have thought about expanding to different cities, under the current economic environment, there are few to no “Dance Partners” meaning lenders. A significant piece of teh development puzzle is the bank, most of which just aren't ready to start lending again, and when thye are I suspect that there will be a new set of rules.

      • alexandraspirer

        Good afternoon, thank you for your response. With the current economic situation, I can understand why you have held off on expanding to different cities, especially with the lenders such as banks cutting back on what they lend to businesses. Hopefully soon the economy will start to turn around and there will be more lenders willing to give money to companies and you will be able to expand to more cities.

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