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Why 'space as a service' will necessitate a new approach to commercial property PR.

Andrew Barber

“Social media is already impacting a number of major property brands and the way in which they interact with their customers.”
If you have not already read it, I urge you to visit Antony Slumbers’ article “10 ‘Signals Of Fundamental Change In Real Estate”.

Antony talks more sense about technology and its impact on real estate and the built environment than anyone I know and this article really hits the nail on the head. It discusses not only the changes that technologies such as speech recognition, image recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) will bring to the sector in the next few years, but also the impact that they already having upon our industry.
The article includes a look at branding, contrasting the “brand” of the iPhone with those in real estate. Antony argues that the success of the iPhone is attributable to that fact that Apple controls the whole product - the hardware and the software - giving complete control of the user experience (UX). He suggests that in the future, to be successful, real estate businesses will need to take the same approach. Property assets will provide ‘space as a service’ administered by a new type of Property Manager “whose purpose and role is to make the user experience of each and every person who enters a property as enjoyable and friction free as possible.”

He concludes that: “This #SpaceAsAService mindset will be what will create great Brands (the expression of the user experience) and in turn determine the value of an asset. UX is the Brand and Brand is the Value.”

Let’s just think about that for a moment.

The user experience is the brand and the brand is the value.

If Antony’s expectations are correct, it has widespread implications for real estate businesses who, over the next few years, must give more time and consideration to the branding of property assets, real estate services and how users perceive the brand. As property professionals we must ask how potential occupiers feel about a particular brand or service provider? Does the brand’s reputation attract loyal customers that bring repeat business, or does it have a poor standing in the eyes of potential occupiers that makes its proposition hard to sell?

This is more than considering occupiers’ opinions about the design of a logo or corporate identity - this is about the public image of the business. The messages that businesses convey about their brand and its values will need to be consistent through all the elements of a communications strategy; from websites and corporate brochures through to news releases and advertising.

However, in my opinion, even this will not be enough.

The future is small

My reasoning is that, as highlighted by ‘Signal 8’ in Antony’s article, there is a proliferation of freelancers and individuals working for themselves or within businesses that employ only a few people. For many people, business is becoming something we do in isolation or in small groups - often remotely. Sitting in shared workspaces or working from a cafe, public library, hotel lounge or even in a bar can be quite lonely. Where there is no “water cooler” many such workers turn to social media for a dose of human interaction. This is where they go for news updates, chitchat with friends, gossip and the occasional moan about life in general. Sometimes the moans are more specific. Sometimes the topic is real estate related and any brands offering space as a service will have to be prepared to respond.

Social media is already impacting a number of major property brands and the way in which they interact with their customers.

You can take it from me, or try it for yourself, but if you type the name of any volume house builder into your social media platform of choice, the chances are that you will find (very rapidly) a number of complaints about them. In the space of five minutes I have just found images of shoddy workmanship and serious building defects, complaints about poor customer service and various horror stories of problems with new homes that can only be damaging to the reputation of some of the best known brands in the housing sector.

In the past you might have heard someone at a dinner party or down the pub regale a story about how they would “never buy another house built by XYZ plc.” These days such tales of woe are broadcast online for the world to see. Some housebuilding brands even have to suffer external Twitter accounts and Facebook pages that are simply dedicated to badmouthing the brand and telling everyone how shoddy their products and services are. #PropertyTrolls

It’s a PR nightmare that is made worse by the fact that this is often at a hyper-local level, wrecking the brand image with the very communities and audiences that expensive marketing campaigns seek to target.

Social business

It’s easy to imagine the problems that the volume housebuilders have on social media being replicated for “space as a service” providers if they don’t get things right. I think it's fair to say that not all real estate businesses understand the important link between social media and brand management and the fact that there are many property service companies which have no, or very limited, presence on social media is not a major surprise. In some cases this is because they do not want to expose themselves to negative comments about themselves.

The truth is though that people will make complaints about brands even if there is no official account or page to target them at. These comments will be visible to the world and will still be potentially damaging to a brand. I think that, when well handled, complaints and gripes provide brands with an opportunity to publicly address the problem and make things right.

That’s how good public relations is done!

Surely it is better to be aware of, and address, complaints rather that bury your corporate head in the sand and not know what people are saying about you? If the brand is the value and user experience is the brand - then businesses really need to be aware of any potential damage as soon as possible. Ignoring complaints and not reacting swiftly can only harm a brand.

Going back to Antony’s Apple analogy above, two examples spring to mind. Firstly, think of the damage done to the Apple brand by stories on social media about “bending iPhones” in 2014. The problem was addressed and most consumers will have forgotten about it by now. Then there was an even worse social media storm surrounding exploding batteries in Samsung’s Galaxy Note in 2016, and I’m not sure the Galaxy brand has recovered yet.

The real estate market can learn a lot from brands like Apple and Samsung because, as the real estate market moves towards space as a service, so we will need to adapt our communications strategies from a traditional business-to-business (B2B) model targeting corporate occupiers to a more personal business-to-consumer (B2C) approach, more suitable for communicating with individuals. Observing how big consumer brands deal successfully with the concerns of their customers will prove valuable as our industry will need to adapt its approach to interact and communicate with small groups of occupiers, and single users, in a positive and helpful way that will benefit their customer experience, reinforce a business’ reputation and bring value to its brand.

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