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.
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.