Multifamily Search Engine Marketing Basics

If you’ve been a multifamily property manager for more than 10 minutes, then you know how important the web is to attract new renters. Chances are, you know Google factors into that equation, and you’ve read a blog or two about SEO. But piping in organic traffic isn’t all Google can do for you. In this post, we’re going to look at the basics of search engine marketing and how it can significantly increase the number of qualified visitors who find their way to your site.


First things first, we need to get straight on a fundamental distinction. Search engine marketing (SEM) ≠ search engine optimization (SEO).

SEO brings together elements of web development, content creation, and relationship-building to help sites succeed with popular search engines like Google. For more, check out our post on SEO for multifamily property managers.

SEM, on the other hand, is the practice of using paid ads to make your website appear on search engine results pages (SERPs). While SEO and SEM can (and should) go together, they’re each their own animal. The rest of this post will focus on the latter.

Why Bother with SEM?

There are three reasons to execute on a multifamily SEM campaign:

1. Targeting – Paid ads allow you to target specific audiences with tailored messages, allowing you to increase your community’s exposure to ideal renters.

2. Competition – If you can’t outrank your competition organically, then you can pay to leapfrog them on results pages.

3. Conversion – Paid ads offer a great way to identify and target renters in the late stages of their hunt for a new place to live — allowing you to close leases fast.

SEO is a staple of online marketing, but its time horizon is mostly long-term. SEM, on the other hand, aims for quick results. If you crank up the volume (i.e., the budget) on your well-designed SEM campaign, you should see a spike in unique traffic. And, according to Google, 89% of those new visitors would not have found the site otherwise.

The Shape of a Multifamily SEM Campaign

No two campaigns are identical, and the particulars of your approach will depend on a range of factors—not least of which include your chosen search platform. Assuming you go with Google, here are the essential features of any effective multifamily SEM campaign:

1. Targeting – If you’re advertising a particular community, then it’s crucial that you optimize your campaign to target the local market. Once you’ve got the locale dialed in, you can expand to target adjacent markets that feed into your community.

2. Intent – We’ll get into this more deeply below, but different searchers want different things. You’ll need to craft your ad and landing page copy to speak to the specific intent behind the user’s search.

3. Action – The whole purpose of SEM is to get people to do things after reading your ad words—click through, schedule a tour, fill out a lease, etc. Below, we’ll talk more about how to write in a way that gets them to do just that.

4. Landing – Getting a visitor to click your ad is only the first step. If you’ve paid good money for that click, then you better land that prospect on a page that converts. Again, we’ll talk more about writing landing pages that convert below.

5. ExtensionsGoogle offers a variety of extension options which can enhance your ad performance and offer relevant information to prospects. If you want to allow prospects to skip a few steps altogether, you can include “contact” extensions which offer both call and text options. This simple add-on can drastically increase your conversion rate on mobile ads — all the while, importing prospect data, communications, and attributions directly into your Knock dashboard with your unique tracking numbers and texting codes.

The Foundation: Keyword Research

The foundation of any search campaign (SEO or SEM) is keyword research. To find your keyword phrases, start by brainstorming a list of all the combinations of keywords you think prospects would use when searching for an apartment:

  • “apartments for rent in Seattle”
  • “apartments in Seattle”
  • “apartment communities in Seattle”

Once you’ve got your initial list, enter your keywords into a tool like Google’s Keyword Planner, KWFinder, or Ahrefs’ Keyword Planner. Most tools will suggest an additional list of keywords that relate to the list you provide. Look for keywords that are high on search volume and low on competition. That’ll be your sweet spot. For an in-depth guide to keyword research, click here.

An important caveat: don’t neglect long-tail searches! Long-tail searches generally include 5 or more keywords and are low on volume and competition.

Here are a few examples:

  • “studio apartments for rent near me”
  • “Lake communities that allow big dogs”
  • “Cheap apartments in Chicago under 500”

While you don’t want a phrase so specific that only 10 people search for it every month, long-tail keyword phrases indicate a higher level of knowledge and intent on the part of the searcher. In most cases, that means these searchers are farther along in the process than general searchers and, consequently, are much closer to conversion.

Before we move on, it’s important you pay attention to negative keywords. Negative keywords are terms you don’t want your ad to show up for.

Example: If you manage a luxury community, you’ll want to enter in negative keywords like “cheap,” “inexpensive,” and so on. That way, you don’t end up paying $5 for a bargain shopper to click through to a premium pad and immediately bounce elsewhere.

Bidding: How it Works

Before we get to the specific steps, here are a few terms you need to know:

Cost Per Click (CPC) – The average amount you pay for each click.

Click Through Rate (CTR) – The ratio of ad appearances to clicks.

Conversion Rate (CVR) – The percentage of visitors who take action (submit a contact form, schedule a tour, etc.) after clicking through to your site.

Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) – The total cost of all the clicks it takes to get one signed lease.

Maximum CPC Bid – The most you’re willing to pay for a click.

Manual vs. Automatic Bidding — Manual bidding lets you set different bid amounts for each keyword in an ad group. Automatic bidding lets you set a daily budget so that the platform can automatically adjust your maximum bids.

Quality Score (QS) – Based on a number of factors, this score reflects how well your ad matches up with search intent. In other words, poorly worded ads and junky landing pages lead to a poor quality score.

Ad Position — Your ad can show up in several places on a search engine results page (SERP). That position depends on your maximum bid and quality score.

With those terms defined, here are 7 steps to take to set up your Google Ads campaign:

1. Start a New Campaign – Log into Google Ads and click the blue plus sign to create a new campaign. Select ‘Web Traffic’ and ‘Search.’ Enter your web address and then move on to the next page to name your campaign.

2. Specify Your Target Audience – Under locations, add your targets and exclusions. Under audiences, Google offers you the opportunity to target specific demo- and psychographics. Remember to abide by all local, state, and FHA guidelines when defining your target audiences.

Pro Tip: By utilizing State-to-State Census Migration Data you can further refine your geo-fence aggregation on the presumption that X number of prospects will likely be migrating to your city from out of state. This can be particularly effective in that out-of-state prospects may know less about a city’s specific neighborhoods and will be casting a wider net in their search inquiries. Advanced location options via AdWords gives you the ability to target prospects who are soon likely to be physically located, have had recently visited, or have shown interest in your city based on their search history.

3. Set Your Bidding Strategy and Budget – Under bidding strategy, you’ll find a number of options. For now, optimize your campaign for clicks. Be sure to set your daily budget so that you can limit how much gets spent each day. Otherwise, Google can and will empty your bank account fast.

Pro Tip: Google offers four ‘Smart Bidding’ strategies (Target CPA, Target ROAS, Maximize Conversions, Enhanced CPC.) These strategies are good if you know what a lead is worth to you and you’re willing to let Google figure out the rest. Strategies like Maximize Clicks and Manual CPC Bidding allow you to get your feet wet with Google Ads while building solid traffic to your site. Finally, impression-based strategies (Target Search Page location, Target Outranking Share, Cost-per-thousand impressions, Cost-per-thousand viewable impressions) focus on visibility—where your ad shows up on search pages. These are good options if you’re interested in community awareness but not if you’re looking to convert web leads directly. For more, click here.

4. Create and Name Your Ad Group – Ad groups allow you to focus on one or more keyword phrases related to a single property or community.

Pro Tip: Groups allows you to gather sets of keywords (pet deposits, monthly pet rent) under a common theme (pet-friendly apartments). Each of these ad groups can be used to target the specific questions renters in your market are asking. Whenever you run a promotion targeted at a specific segment of renters (young professionals, for example), you can create a separate group to target their unique interests (easy access to public transportation, etc.).

5. Enter Your Keywords – Enter in the list of keywords you developed above, along with negative keywords you’d like to exclude.

6. Write Your Ad – The ad creation page on Google is deceptively simple. In the next section, we’ll get into the copywriting elements of writing an effective ad.

7. Check Your Work – Once you’ve entered your ad, click Done and then Save. On the final confirmation page, review all your selections to ensure you haven’t made any mistakes along the way.

Write to Sell: Crafting Ad & Landing Page Copy

Ideally, each ad group you create should point to its own dedicated landing page. This allows you to speak to your target market as clearly and directly as possible.

Not only is this good marketing, but it’s crucial for placement as well. We have covered basic UX Design Principles for multifamily websites in the past, and high performing landing pages share many of the same principles.

All the technological wizardry behind Google is meant to ensure that Ads and search results satisfy search intent. If they don’t, the Ad’s Quality Score suffers, and the site’s search ranking plummets. In sum, if there’s a disconnect between your ad and your landing page (usually due to bad writing), Google will know, and they’ll peg you for it.

According to Google, Here are the Four Qualities of a Good Landing Page:

1. Relevance, Usefulness, and Originality — Users who click through your ad should find exactly what they’re looking for. Negative example: a user clicks an ad for ‘premium Chicago apartment’ and finds an economy unit 2 hours away.

2. Transparency and Trustworthiness — Include your basic geographical data, contact information and provide clear information.

3. Ease-of-use —Design your page with mobile and desktop users in mind. Poor design translates to a lower quality score and disadvantageous ad positioning.

4. Speed — Like everyone else, Google hates slow-loading websites. You can learn more about AMP best practices and guidelines here.

Items 3-4 are a simple matter of basic design. #1, on the other hand, takes a bit more finesse. How do you write copy that impresses Google by satisfying search intent? Well, that starts with keywords (see above). But it ends with copywriting. If you’re not comfortable writing your own web content, then a couple hundred bucks spent on a freelancer from Upwork is money very well spent.

If you know your way around a keyboard—or if you’re willing to learn— the following is a simple framework for getting inside your target renter’s head, speaking to their needs, and guiding them along a path from search to lease. Think of the following list as both a research and a writing process. Run through it once to gather your data—renter profiles, amenities lists, market analyses, promotional information, etc. Then, starting with the landing page, use the framework as an outline for your writing.

1. Guide – Empathize with your renter. What do you have to offer—both in terms of the property and the people who manage it—that’ll help solve their problem?

2. Solution – Here’s where you present your property as the solution to the renter’s problem.

3. Action – If you’ve presented your community as the solution, then the next logical step is to convince them to take action by signing up for a tour. Make this call to action simple, clear, and visually appealing.

Simplicity is best here; a couple hundred words will be more than enough.

In fact, rich media will do more to convey your “solution” than words ever could so be sure to keep your writing as concise as possible and your landing pages chock full of visuals that compel visitors to explore your property further. For more check out our recent post on multifamily site design.

Once you’ve written the landing page, write your ad as an ultra-condensed version of that very same page. Use your headlines to speak directly to search intent. Use your descriptions to frame the problem and solution in a single thought. Offer a clear incentive (promotions) with an even more explicit call to action: “Contact us today.”

Here are a Few Good Examples:

In these examples, each ad is simply crafted to address search intent and compel action. The call extension on the 3rd ad is smart, making it easy for searchers (especially on mobile) to reach someone in the leasing office.

In the first 3 ads, link extensions (Amenities, Neighborhood, Contact, etc.) invite searchers to click straight through to the elements that interest them most. This is a great way to drive traffic. Address extensions allow prospects to visualize where in the city your property is located, and can potentially drive leads who are farther along in their journey.

Pro Tip: If you are a current Knock user, we suggest testing ad timing and tweaking your extensions relative to your office hours. You can create campaigns that run during the day, with the intent of streamlining communications directly to your leasing teams — alternately when your office is closed, you can run separate campaigns highlighting your automated 24/7 Self-Scheduling, Knockbot chat, and Text-To-Tour features. This can supercharge your ads and move prospects down the funnel while you sleep!

Conclusion: We’ve Only Just Begun

SEM is both an art and a science. On the art side, good SEM requires careful thinking about your ideal renter—who they are and what they’re looking for. This post has focused more on that aspect of things, though with some attention to some data-driven details.

Setting up a campaign, however, is only just the beginning. In our next post, we’re going to focus more intently on the scientific aspect of SEM as we show you how to dial in your campaign for maximum return on your investment.

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