Portal Protocols

Christopher Hosford, Contributing Editor
Multi-Housing News
October 5 2009



Resident portals are mini sites where tenants can pay their rent, check out activity calendars and request maintenance service. Owners and managers are finding that these portals are must-have amenities today, impacting both resident retention and leasing efforts.

"Resident portals offer a strong value proposition, especially if there is a payment engine, which encourages residents to really use them," says Ben Zimmer, president of Property Solutions, which builds resident portals as well as stand-alone Websites and online payment solutions.

Resident portals' typically maintained as "software-as-a-service," with no need to install software in the leasing office -- can be part of a marketing continuum that begins with the usual online guest card request, leasing applications, virtual tours and credit screening. But when prospects see that their possible new community has a full-featured resident portal, it can seal the deal.

"This is particularly [important] now that the "Echo Boomers" are expecting to make all their transactions online," says Laura Trussell, general manager with Resite Online, a provider of property management solutions that includes resident portals. "You want to advertise that you have a resident portal as an amenity, but the prospect needs to know he doesn't gain access to the portal until he's a resident."

To peek or not to peek?

Ellipse Communications, a Dallas-based resident portal developer, stresses the prospecting nature of its portals by sharing most of a community's site with whomever is online. Having prospects take a peek at such resident-life features as photo galleries, pool party announcements, fundraiser initiatives and softball schedules -- things usually walled away in many portals -- can have a big impact on their sense of community, says Susan Wilson, business development manager with Ellipse.

"Our portals have a public side that anybody can view, a look at resident life," says Wilson. That supplements the main Website, which offers the usual array of floorplans, elevations, and clubhouse and pool photos, she says.

Portals also can function as small social networks tailored to one apartment community. Full-featured portals can include resident satisfaction surveys, message blasting to all residents for upcoming events or deadlines, and e-mail messages to specific tenants that range from happy birthday greetings to late-rent notices.

They may also include categories such as a community "flea market" for selling or swapping personal goods, direct connection to online services companies for comparison shopping and setup for gas, electricity, cable and TV.

One of the greatest goals in retention is to get residents to know their neighbors, Trussell says. Once they feel part of a community, current residents are much less likely to want to move, experts say.

Streamlining operations

While a resident portal can aid marketing efforts, it can do a lot for operations as well. Resite has calculated the value of portals by considering savings of staff time and supplies.

"We found that our clients eliminated more than 500,000 pieces of paper and 100,000 phone calls in one year," savings realized by having questions, payments, newsletters and other tasks handled online, Trussell notes.

And encouraging the use of credit-card payments via a portal can improve collections, she adds.

A major time-saver can be a portal's online maintenance request. The request can be automatically logged in, triggering a fax to the maintenance office for action. Completion of maintenance tasks are also logged in and available for staff and residents.

"This makes it very easy to submit service requests, without the residents having to keep calling the office during business hours," Wilson says

On this score, tracking online activities is a key function for all parties. For example, there need be no dispute over rent payments or the completion of a work order.

As for the near future, look for full portal-like experiences available on smart phones, giving residents the ability to submit payments and maintenance requests on the go. And the new Facebook Connect service will allow residents to sync information from their Facebook profiles to their community portals.

"We just turned Facebook Connect on this spring, and it's very exciting," says Zimmer. While engaging for residents, it could be a hoot for prospects as well, he says. "So now we can say to prospects, "You've done a property tour, but have you done a social tour yet?"

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