Social Media for Development Projects

Summer 2016

Commercial real estate developers should recognize opportunities to use social media to raise awareness and build community support.

PROPERTY OWNERS and a community group have been successfully using social media to promote and inform residents and others about the redevelopment of the White Flint neighborhood in Montgomery County, Maryland, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., for almost a decade. Combined Properties Inc., Federal Realty Investment Trust, Gables Residential, the Holladay Corp., The JBG Companies and Lerner Enterprises teamed up in 2007 as the White Flint Partnership to coordinate some of their development outreach efforts.

Their plans included new grids of streets and the conversion of the district to a mixed-use walkable neighborhood, with new public infrastructure financed by a proposed special assessment tax on the developers themselves. (For more on these plans, see “Retail Streetscape Development.”) The owners then discovered that they and local residents had a common goal: to convince the county to tame and civilize a traffic-clogged and ugly arterial.

In 2009, the White Flint Partnership started a vigorous dialog with the community, using both traditional media — polling, focus groups, slide presentations, meetings and a mailing to 40,000 homes — and a social media platform that included a website, a Facebook page, e-mail blasts to a growing list of supporters, a listserv and a blog, for an extensive education and advocacy campaign.

Evan Goldman, then vice president of development at Federal Realty and now vice president of land acquisition and development at Bethesda, Maryland-based homebuilder EYA, was one of the leaders of this effort. Goldman says that each kind of media was crucial to the outcome: “The traditional approaches were essential to choosing the correct social media approach. Eventually, the most successful tool was email. Because it is a direct person-to-person link, it can deliver more (and more tailored) content than some other tools, and the content can be readily and flexibly reused. But you can’t use just one kind of media if you want to be successful.”

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The Partnership also joined with local residents and businesses in 2009 to form a nonprofit community organization, Friends of White Flint, to advocate for county adoption of a sector plan that would achieve both neighborhood redevelopment and an overhaul of the area’s major thoroughfare, Rockville Pike. The county approved the plan in 2010. Now that the Partnership and its members are focused on new construction and leasing completed space, Friends of White Flint is playing the lead role in advocating for implementation of the plan, which will take several decades to complete, and the White Flint Partnership is playing a lesser role in the social media effort.

Other developers that have adroitly used new media to promote their development plans include shopping center developer Edens, Goldman Properties and North American Properties. In the commercial real estate industry as a whole, however, social media is being used more often to sell or rent properties, rather than to pave the way for new development.

Friends of White Flint continues to employ social media to influence the ongoing public dialog on residents’ and businesses’ shared goals for the redevelopment of the White Flint district. According to Amy Ginsburg, the group’s executive director, “the White Flint sector plan approval was just the beginning.” As private redevelopment continues, as new tenants and residents move in, as the character of the neighborhood starts to change, new issues regularly arise. “The challenge is to keep all three groups — the property owners, the tenants and the residents — engaged,” counsels Ginsburg.

How It’s Done

The White Flint/Rockville Pike story — the neighborhood has since been rebranded as the “Pike District” — offers a step-by-step guide to the use of social media tools along with traditional communication methods throughout the development process. Friends of White Flint is currently using its website as well as a blog, a Facebook page, calendars, regular email blasts, and Twitter and Instagram accounts to keep area stakeholders informed.

Ginsburg explains that she tries to post items on the blog every morning: “We link to thought pieces and articles in other media. We report on Pike District news. We don’t focus on our own organization; instead, we talk about the Pike District, the news and other community organizations and activities.”

Social media amplifies the blog content, getting its message out to the widest audience possible. The group uses blog content in most of its social media postings and always cross-links to other social media. It often reposts content from the blog on Twitter and retweets content from other community groups and government officials. Ginsburg considers photographs key to an interesting Facebook feed; 90 percent of the group’s posts contain photos that are relevant to its audience.

The group also uses the website to build support for advocacy. “Right now [spring 2016], we’re running a campaign to renovate Wall Park, which is currently covered with surface parking. We want to turn the asphalt into a park; our theme is: ‘Unpave paradise and pull up a parking lot.’ We’re also running a campaign to try to convince Marriott International to locate its new headquarters in the Pike District,” notes Ginsburg.

“We now have 1,300 engaged people on our email list,” Ginsburg continues. “We send out weekly email blasts. Our email open rate is 40 percent.”

Finally, Ginsburg adds, “We’re starting an Instagram feed, which captures the vibrancy of people living, working and playing in the Pike District.” Instagram features photographs and videos that can include captions and geolocation tags. When someone clicks on a tag, Instagram brings up a map of the area and other photos and videos that people have posted from there, which should have significant potential for the real estate industry.

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Another reason for developers to inform themselves about social media is that opponents can use it effectively, too. After AvalonBay Communities proposed building a transit-oriented, mixed-income multifamily housing community on a largely vacant brownfield at the Huntington, New York, commuter railroad station in 2010, homeowners in the town organized a vigorous social media effort in opposition to the plan. The town council ultimately supported the development, however, and AvalonBay opened the completed project in January 2014.

Keep It Real

Sharon Panelo, a leading independent social media and business strategist based in New York, appraising the Friends of White Flint website, comments that “the copy and the branding look genuine, authentic; the business voice comes across as human. This is nontypical, and not easy to do.”

Friends of White Flint is not exclusively a developers’ organization; most of its members are local residents and local businesses. It speaks with a community voice because that’s what it is. Panelo recommends that commercial real estate developers also consider using video applications such as Periscope, YouTube or Facebook’s 360 video. These could feature architects, planners and executives presenting company and project visions and values; simulations of drive-throughs and walk-throughs, especially of walkable streetscapes and other public spaces, the retail scene and proposed hotel, office or residential products; demolition, construction and grand opening videos; and public and amateur videos posted to the developer’s website. Panelo assures developers that they can easily curate these.

Ginsburg notes that Friends of White Flint expects to use more video as new Pike District projects open for business. The group plans to keep people engaged. She advises, “Today, that means social media, using every tool. To be effective, it all comes down to good content.”

Panelo concludes that, more and more, developers’ target markets as well as neighbors and stakeholders will be getting their information from social media. “Reaching out and marketing to these diverse constituencies is a community-building, consensus-building process,” she notes. “It’s no longer just ‘push’ communication; to succeed, business will need to listen as well. This is what social media is made for.”

For more information:

Social Media and Commercial Real Estate: Strategies to Grow Your Business and Build Your Brand."

writer head shot

Sam Black