Finding the most effective channel to communicate with your homeowners, especially as millennials join the ranks, takes a bit of research and experimentation.
By Katie Anderson, CMCA, AMS, PCAM
"I KNOW THAT you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
That's what famed American writer Robert McCloskey once said. It's a pretty common sentiment in common-interest communities too. How many times do board members and community managers receive an email or phone call that was rooted in misunderstandings?
Very often, those misunderstandings start at, well, the start. New homeowners frequently don't realize the expectations and requirements of community association living or were never shared the community's documents before they purchased. When the association sends a letter to a new homeowner asking him or her to put away a trashcan, for example, the owner gets upset because he or she didn't know there were rules on trashcans. Now, expectations are out of alignment on both sides of the conversation, and the association-homeowner relationship isn't off to the best start.
Getting a community's documents in potential homebuyers' hands before they purchase and following up with welcome packets when they do buy are important first steps to communicating expectations. But the job doesn't end there.
Successful association leadership and effective community management is rooted in communication, but homeowners have different preferences for how they'd like to be reached. Who sets the standards for communication? And how can you be sure your communications are effective?
These are important questions all board members and managers should be asking, especially as the generational makeup of community associations begins to shift. Within the next five years, the industry will employ and service five generations. Each of these generations has distinct and specific needs. You should understand the demographics of your current homeowners and those who are looking to buy in your community before determining how to connect with them.
TRENDS AND STYLES
According to a 2017 National Association of Realtors report on generational trends, first-time buyers made up 35 percent of home sales in 2017, and 66 percent of the first-time homebuyers were millennials—born between 1981 and 1996. Generation X buyers, born between 1965 and 1980, represent 26 percent of the first-time homebuying market.
Generational trends are beginning to impact the homebuying process. While real estate agents are still an important part of the practice, websites like Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com, and Redfin are dominating the consumers' connection to real estate.
These sites are doing even more than allowing potential purchasers to browse. Zillow is beginning to leverage its audience and turn them into buyers. In April, the company announced a pilot program called Instant Offers, offering sellers a matchmaking service with cash investors. This service, as well as sites like Opendoor, is giving future generations the opportunity to have an online buying option.
According to PitchBook, venture capital investors also are betting on millennials and Gen Xers turning to online buying for what will possibly be the largest investment of their lifetime. Investors poured $1.2 billion in 2017 in real estate technology companies, up from just $31 million in 2012. Couple these investments with the announcement that startups will start buying homes and flipping them online, it appears that buyers will be able to do more than just window shop sooner rather than later.
Association leaders would be naive to believe that the way we do business in communities will not be disrupted too. With communities already home to Gen Xers, baby boomers, and the silent generation, how can board members and managers communicate across five generations, solve the disconnect with homebuyers, and enhance our communities? We need to innovate and connect with our new homeowners in unique ways.
As we work to do that, the conversations about generations should be more about their strengths than differences, says Jason Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics. “Rather than cover stereotypes that help to further separate generations, it would be better to approach communication as an opportunity to be innovative and lead into the future of this industry," shares Dorsey, during his TED Talk “What do we know about the generation after millennials?"
Though each generation has preferred communication styles, there may be opportunities to pair generational resources to help solve problems.
Millennials, for example, typically don't initiate in face-to-face communication, but there might be an opportunity within communities for baby boomers to invite younger owners to meet and start a conversation. In-person communication tends to be effective across all generations but also can be time-consuming and inefficient.
But associations shouldn't discount the impact of face-to-face meetings. It's important to get to know homeowners and engage them in social interactions—think happy hours and conversations over coffee—before you lay out what can seem like a daunting task of how to live in a community association.
While electronic communication is fast and cheap, many baby boomers and millennials have a love-hate relationship with email. If you're trying to engage on a personal level, your email might get lost amid the high volume of emails they receive at work. If you're trying to use email to engage new homeowners, you might see a low return rate.
If you're not already sending texts, it may be time to give it a try. Multiple generations cite that they now spend more time texting on their phones than talking on their phones. Some platforms can help associations consolidate messages and expand resources. Telegram and WhatsApp, for example, have business features that can be implemented with owners.
Websites, social media, and video also are channels associations could use to connect with new homeowners. Sharing videos can be helpful for those who prefer electronic communication but don't love email. Having trouble with lawn maintenance in a particular community? Create a short video explaining the expectation and post it to the community's website or share it on Facebook.
Meanwhile, hard mailings can be helpful to communicate important and more formal communication, but that can be costly.
A single approach might not reach your end goal. Sometimes, a combination of all of the above gets the job done.
With multiple channels, your messages should support each other. Use links in email, text messaging, and social media to send homeowners to your website. While every homeowner should get the entire rule book before or when they move in, you don't need to send it every time you communicate. Share timely reminders when you know certain issues seem to pop up. Tease specific sections when appropriate. For example, when the holidays come around, maybe you can find some fun facts about lights and decorations, then share the community's rules.
Don't be afraid to be creative and experiment with communication. Be willing to innovate and keep looking for new ways to shore up your communication tools and engage homeowners, especially if millennials and Gen Xers are moving in.
These new homeowners are critical to the culture of a community and getting them involved early is important. You also should remember that any of your homeowners could become board members. If you get off on the wrong foot with new homeowners, you might find it hard to recover.
Every community is different, and the communication channels you choose to connect with new homeowners should be tailored to that community's specific wants and needs.
Remember this piece of wisdom from Nat Turner: “Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity."
Katie Anderson, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, is CEO and founder of Aperion Management Group, AAMC, in central Oregon. firstname.lastname@example.org