retools digital strategy for pandemic rentals and beyond
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New campaign puts virtual tours first, positions more ads down-funnel to prospects and landlords. is bringing back their Jeff Goldblum-led ads in a new campaign that engages renters on digital channels and through the company’s 3D tour experience.

You might recall when first introduced Goldblum’s starring role as Brad Bellflower, inventor of the “Apartminternet” and an amusing dig at smug tech moguls. Back then, in 2019,’s percentage of marketing spend across all digital channels (including display, social, PPC, video on-demand, streaming audio and so forth) was 55%. This year, it’s up to 70%.

“This is a big shift in our budget,” said Patrick Dodson, vice president of marketing for “We quickly increased investments in online and streaming areas during the pandemic. And yes, we’re moving into lower-funnel engagement, tactics and messaging. We’re advertising our 3D tours directly. We need to educate renters, and the virtual experience is pretty much the real thing online.”

Changes to the rental journey

Work-from-home and other pandemic-related factors has created a surge in people looking for a new place to live. Residential real estate markets are on fire, prices are up, and time buyers have to make offers is much tighter. But a similar frenzy has extended to the rental market as well.

“The stay-at-home mandate made people reevaluate their living situations, think about if they wanted to downsize, if they liked their roommate,” Dodson said. “They were considering new job opportunities. There was a huge spike in search activity and moving and relocating, starting in mid-summer 2020. That carried over to the back half of the year. Typically, the rental season dips in 3Q and 4Q. We’ve seen a big change in timing and volume.”

If renters were looking to move for a better deal last year, the most recent numbers indicate that even more renters are looking now as the rental market rebounds. Rents in 38 of the 50 largest metro areas hit new peak prices last month, growing 9.1% year-over-year, according to Some smaller markets see even higher gains of 15% or more.

As more renters get in on the action, they will be searching for new places in a different way, too.

“There was a forced transformation of renters moving online, going further, lower down the funnel when making a decision,” said Dodson. “Typically (prior to the pandemic) they would search online and look at pictures, then go for an in-person tour. With leasing offices shut down, there was greater adoption of 3D video. Virtual tours became the new normal for the category.”

He added that video chat and tours online moved up to 60% of rentals on their platform, when previously it was in the mid-teens.

Virtual tours launched 3D tours in 2015. When renters are searching for apartments, they can sort for properties with 3D tours enabled. They can also set up a time when they can live chat with a realtor while taking a virtual tour. Some spaces can be inspected by navigating the space on your screen, while others can be explored using a VR headset like Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve made accessing the tours much easier and more prominent on the site,” Dodson said. “We’ve dramatically increased the number of properties that have tours, and we’ve also added tours of more amenities and areas around the community.”

Users who take a 3D tour have greater intent, so has changed by bringing the realtor into the experience. The buyer journey for renters has shortened.

“Two years ago, we passed the renter off to the property with a phone call or email lead,” Dodson said. “Then our work was done. Now, we are connecting with an agent on our site.”

Overall, activity is higher on, up 40% last year, and visitors are showing higher intent by taking more virtual tours. This was due to pandemic safety protocols, but it also followed the trend of increased digital usage.

Digital expansion

“We saw the pandemic’s impact on media consumption with the rise of video-on-demand, also on Twitch with live streaming,” said Dodson.

The goal of the new $200 million campaign is to generate 1 billion visits and 20 billion impressions. This means breaking ground with younger renters, including gamers and students.

“With students, we’ve done a great job on the digital targeting with our paid performance marketing side using Amazon and Google and Facebook so we can reach the right audience and hit them with the type of inventory they’re looking at, through retargeting and dynamic ads, whether on a social media feed or even when Googling,” Dodson said.

“With the use of on-demand and streaming platforms, people will be watching live events, but tuning in and customizing their experience,” he added.

This year, probably the biggest example of a live event that viewers will be customizing for their own consumption is the Tokyo Olympics. entered into a partnership with NBCUniversal’s coverage as part of this year’s campaign. They are also in a second year of integrated content through NBCU’s Peacock streaming app.

Landlord CX and outreach

As we’ve seen in the travel industry, when customer demand skyrockets, it becomes a challenge to keep up with inventory.

In the case of, digital channels have streamlined the rental process, making it more attractive to use the platform to screen renters, for instance.

“We provide a screening report from TransUnion, the lease can be signed online, and maintenance can be managed with our new suite of rental tools,” Dodson explained. “The beauty of that is that it allows for all transactional steps to be completed online.”

The company is taking a targeted approach to engage the market of individuals who own one or multiple rental properties, a market Dodson estimates at 12 to 14 million.

“Now that we’ve launched the new rental tools, we’ll take the message to that audience with entirely different media,” he said.

This will be the first year that ads with Jeff Goldblum speak directly to landlords, through social video and streaming audio, in content categories like real estate and investing. The age demo skews higher, and RPA, the agency spearheading the consumer campaign, has a dedicated media plan for renters that kicked off last month.