Why Developers Need Online Outreach

Why is information about real estate development projects so hard to find? The answer – although frustrating – is simple: few developments have a meaningful, useful online presence. The challenge of shepherding a real estate project through the approvals process makes many developers think that the less information they put out there, the better. But the more difficult it is for neighbors to find out the facts about planned development, the easier it is for misconceptions and misinformation to spread.

Bringing community engagement and feedback online can help developers build trust, boost community support and shorten the approvals timeline. Here’s why.

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You’re most likely to reach your target audience online.

The heart of the approvals process is the old-fashioned community meeting. Think back to your last one. How many people in the audience were under 65? How many were likely to occupy your new residences or shop in your cutting-edge retail space? How many were advocates of change? The answer is almost certainly few to none.

People who appreciate new construction, car-free living, affordable housing, and increased density are too busy to attend community meetings. So where are they? These people — call them your target audience — are online during the morning commute and their afternoon coffee break. Or maybe they’re walking by the physical site and might text in a positive message if given the opportunity. They’re your potential supporters, but they won’t be able to voice that support unless you provide them with an online forum.

Online feedback is more positive in a controlled forum.

Online feedback is more positive. Yes, really. You’re probably recalling in horror the comments section on the local news website, where people can post anonymously and compete to say the most offensive things. But when you set up a forum where people have to provide their real names and abide by closely monitored community guidelines, you get more positive feedback (more than 50% positive and neutral on over 250 projects, in our case).

The key here is using low-bar engagement tools. Remember that target audience? They want to answer a couple of multiple choice questions and perhaps post a short narrative comment. They don’t want to take a 40-question survey or post a nasty diatribe publicly under their own name. When you ask people to help shape elements of a real estate project that they can change (e.g. the amenities or retail mix in a public space) they want to participate. Asking the right questions generates community buy-in.

Having an online presence mitigates risk.

If people are talking about your project in person, they are talking about it online. Whether it makes the local new website or just pervades the chatter of neighborhood Facebook groups and private email lists, there’s an online conversation happening about your development project, and you’re not included.

The best way to manage the chatter and mitigate the risk it entails is to host your own online conversation. When you get out there first and open a controlled forum for comments, you gain a few advantages:

  • You get to broadcast the facts of the project and dissipate misinformation.
  • By asking for online feedback, you get a preview of community challenges.
  • You give yourself the chance to evolve the conversation by responding thoughtfully to supporters and people with rational concerns.
  • You can rally support and chip away at opposition in between community meetings, anytime, from your desk or your couch.