While many digital native brands were well-positioned to profit from the digital accelerant that was this pandemic year, the next normal will be a greater challenge. The smarter marketers we have spoken with recently recognize how easy it is to get distracted by so much low-hanging fruit.
As Chester Bullock, director of technology at RentPath, explains this week, this is a a time for long-ball brand-building. A longtime email marketing maven, Bullock is a veteran of MediaPost’s Email Insider Summit, and will be returning to the virtual edition of EIS on December 7-8.
RentPath operates Rent.com and ApartmentGuide.com and generates leads for property owners and marketing partners targeting renters. In our interview, Bullock previews his EIS presentation that shows one of the ways RentPath is trying to build brand by reducing customer friction in the lead-gen process. You can listen to the entire podcast here.
MediaPost: So what's been the impact of the COVID crisis and the lockdowns on both your market and your customers?
Chester Bullock: I don't use this word lightly, but I think there was a little bit of panic in the entire industry. There was much concern and worry that a lot of people aren't going to be paying rent, and there were going be a lot of evictions and suing.
So in our world that means a lot of inventory becoming available, or not a lot of leads able to be generated because not many people are going to be working.
The reality is, the opposite is true for us. More families who are home -- you're confined to working at home. And everybody's needing more space.
At RentPath, we've been incredibly busy during this pandemic in bringing new products to market that make that rental experience a lot easier. We've gone to online applications and taking the human contact part out of the leasing process.
MP: What is the impact of that on email, then? Is it simply an increase in volume, or is it really a difference in kind?
Bullock: So we have not been traditionally a very content-driven company when it comes to our consumer-facing email. It's mostly just recommendation type of email.
Now we're getting very heavily involved with our content team. And building out a consumer journey to carry them past for, say, the first 30 days of being a RentPath consumer. We're carrying them out to a year so that when that lease is up and they're thinking about moving, they come back to us as the trusted source for anything to do with renting.
MP: This is an interesting theme that I've noticed among marketers lately. The smarter ones are thinking longer term beyond this digital rush. This is a time for brand-building.
Bullock: Absolutely. So as long as we're delivering content, delivering value, then we should be able to keep the consumer. And the same holds true everywhere else I've ever worked. There's no reason not to do that.
MP: So you're a longtime marketing tech geek. What impact has this had on the marketing technology market? Are people cutting back on tech or arming up?
Bullock: I see a lot less -- I don't want to call it gimmickry -- but some of the interactive elements that you can get within emails that are more fluff than substance. I'm not seeing as much of that in my inbox anymore, which makes me happy. If you've got a good product, you've got a good service that should sell itself. I don't need these other flashing gizmos to make that happen. That's not really relevant to our space anyway.
MP: What kind of tailoring and personalization have really paid off for you as you're starting to make this stuff more personalized?
Bullock: We are seeing really good responses when we are able to highlight the features about a property that just set it apart from everything else. As we started to do FaceTime tours and things like that, those kinds of properties got a lot of clicks.
So it was a combination of knowing people are after [certain features] and then knowing which properties are available, then we can match them up. Online applications were a big one as well. We're seeing a lot of traffic through those clicks for people to just get right to an online application, apply, and just move on with their life.
MP: Reducing friction overall is part of a larger project for you lately?
Bullock: Before I was in email, I was a ‘Webmaster.’ It's always about getting the consumer to engage in the CTA as quickly as possible -- and thereby reducing friction wherever you can.
Email has always been kind of a kludgy place for that. You don't have the opportunity for a lot of interactivity with different websites or things. If you want somebody to request more information, they generally click here, then go to fill out a form.
When I was at AAA and we were cross-promoting newsletters, we would take advantage of the ESP platform we had. If somebody clicked "Yes, I'm interested in that newsletter," then it was a one-click subscribe. They would automatically get added to that list and go on their merry way. And they wouldn't have to fill out another form.
So here at RentPath, we did a similar thing for property recommendations. We're currently in the middle of testing it for one of our brands. When you get that recommendation email from us on any given morning, instead of clicking to go on to our landing page and fill out a form again, we've gotten our product team to build out a web service that we can connect to via the URL. We append the information to every URL and emails.
When you click on that link, it just takes you to a landing page to say thank you for submitting information, and continue on your way. In the background, we're unpacking that secure information about that person, submitting that lead to the property. The property will then reach out generally within an hour or so to that consumer, and we foster that connection that way.
MP: What's been the impact of that process?
Bullock: For the campaigns enabled for that, we've seen about a 10% increase in the number of leads that were captured. So for us, that's huge.
And we are a lead-generation business. Any time you can get a 10% bump, I think people are going to be happy with that. We're currently in testing with it on Apartment Guide and we're not seeing the same kind of lift [as on Rent.com], so we're starting to do some tweaks with our testing, change the copy around the button that says this is what's going to happen, managing consumer expectations.
MP: What's been the key learning from this time? What do you know now about either the channel or your customers that you didn't know six to nine months ago?
Bullock: I knew this, but I think that the broader space of digital marketing didn't really realize this: Email is still extremely relevant. If nothing else, it has become even more so during these times of limited interactions with people. You can have a lot of Zoom calls, you can Slack people. But at the end of the day, email is still where business gets done. It's encouraging to me to see that people are starting to give email a little more credit than they used to. I haven't seen an "Email Is Going To Die" article for a couple years now, thank goodness. So I feel like we're on a good path right now.
MP: Actually, I want to draft off of a couple of those points. First, it seems as if email has solidified what its role is, relative to these other channels. What does "email is where business gets done" mean to you?
Bullock: They thought the telegraph was going to kill everything, and then direct mail was going to kill everything, and being able to call people. All these different things were going to kill the technology that came before it. That's why I always hate those email’s dead articles.
It's not that [the new thing] kills the other thing. It's just that over time, society figures out how to best use that channel to achieve whatever it needs to achieve. So at the end of the day, if it's something urgent, I still expect a phone call. That's why it has a ringer on it. But if it's text, I don't care.
If you're an introvert like me, then you can do a lot through email, not have to interact with people. Or if you just have things that you need to remember to do, but they don't have a huge urgency, email is a great place for that as well. I might get some recommendation emails from Amazon or somebody else, then I take the time to look at those when it's appropriate for me. So it's just finding its own spot within the consumer communication package, if you will.
MP: And we really underestimate the amount of control customers want to exert in communication. As you just described it, email is a place where we have that kind of control over the flow of communication. We can reserve it we can come at it at our leisure, and we can categorize it and segment at any way we like.
Bullock: That is a really important point, and I think about it, if we go back to this last election cycle. I think one of my biggest frustrations was out of nowhere I suddenly started getting text messages from random people, promoting their campaign or cause. I'm like A: I'm not even registered to vote here. B: how did you get my information? C: I gave you no permission to do this.
But in the inbox, we've got laws around that that are pretty protective. I'm not going to get campaign information via email unless I actually opt into it, whereas with all this political nonsense on the phones, it's a free-for-all. And yeah, I absolutely love having that control because I get more junk calls now than I ever got spam before. It’s just ridiculous.