The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of daily life, forcing us all to take a serious look at our respective business sectors and the economy as a whole. As one of America’s most significant and critical industries, the real estate market, and in turn PropTech, is working around-the-clock to determine the socioeconomic impact of the virus. Industry and corporate leaders are wrestling with short and long-term decisions, including the various negotiations between owners, investors, lenders, and tenants.
Under normal circumstances we would be discussing specific strategies on how to navigate the ultra-competitive world public relations in the property industry, but what was true even three months ago does not directly translate today. The harsh reality is that real estate is struggling. tenants in every sector are struggling to pay their rent, with many fearful their businesses may collapse unless the economy restarts more broadly. Real estate lending is at an all time low, and funding for PropTech dropped by almost 45-percent year-over-year since this time last year.
The pre-crisis crumbling of WeWork had already initiated a significant pause among PropTech investors, motivated to perform more thorough and detailed due diligence on innovators’ business models, assessing whether or not they are likely to be sustainable. The funding slowdown, however, is primarily related to the multitudinous socio-economic effects of COVID-19, although the venture capital (VC) market for PropTech will likely return with a vengeance as the pandemic is sorted out. Yet make no mistake—there is a remarkable window of opportunity right now for innovative property companies and technology startups in the property space to make a notable media impact.
The marketplace has thinned out dramatically compared with how the year began, which should task all PropTech companies to consider: How can you maximize positive media presence in a smart, strategic, sophisticated manner while there is limited competition and a voracious media appetite to report on any good news?
As with all successful communications plans, I suggest you start at the beginning, in particular asking, and then answering, these key questions:
Who are you as a firm? Who is on your executive team, why did you enter this space, and what is the depth of your engineering team that created and continues to upgrade your platform as it responds to changes in the market?
What products or services do you provide? You are a problem solver. Have you clearly identified your target market’s specific problem—in text and data—and clearly described your solution?
What is your value proposition to clients? You are asking prospective clients to invest in your products or services. Have you laid out the financial commitment to acquire your services and their anticipated savings and/or boost in NOI? In what ways will your product or services elevate the quality of and/or simplify your client’s operations?
What distinguishes your product(s) or service(s) from the competition? In what specific ways do you solve a problem that others do not? Have you ‘built a better mousetrap,’ or a mousetrap no one else has built?
On the surface these may seem like basic, even obvious questions, but as a public relations executive who over the last fifteen years has worked with hundreds of real estate professionals—including some of the world’s leading PropTech innovators and entrepreneurs—I can report that very few companies, at least at the outset, articulated these answers in a manner that was consistent, concise, and, most important, clear.
There are various reasons for this lack of articulation, the simplest being that, as innovators, most PropTech companies are, at heart, software engineers. And as much as I respect their abilities and creativity, messaging is not typically their strong suit. They’re so accustomed to communicating with each other in a shared, intense, jargon-filled language they often overlook that non-technicians need messaging about their firm and value proposition to be simplified and translated into layman’s terms.
In addition, there’s so much anxiety wrapped up in appealing to VC investors that PropTech executive teams often remain hyper-focused on VC-speak that they, again—albeit unintentionally—fail to clearly articulate who they are, what problem they solve, and why their platform is distinct and better than that of their competition.
One of the trickiest hurdles to overcome can be in convincing PropTech executives that their messaging isn’t nearly as clear and succinct as they believe it to be—the classic ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ syndrome. Engaging with PR professionals and writers is often a useful step, as that outside pair of eyes will likely identify messaging gaps or wonky language you overlook simply because you’re so close to it.
These professionals will also help you clarify the tone of your messaging, a nuanced but important element of how you brand yourself. Focus too much on jargon, and you risk losing your prospective clients simply because they don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them at a time when they most need your help. Undersell your sophistication, and you might lose your audience because they think your services are already out of date.
Also of importance is the timing and cadence of your market outreach. Ideally, you want to make a splash, but that’s not enough for sustained market presence. The longer-term goal is to establish a steady drumbeat of media interactions, with a combination of announcements, reporter meetings, events, webinars, and thought leadership.
Assuming that you have accepted what will be required of you in terms of content, tone, and timing to effectively engage with the media, how exactly do you create and execute a strategic communications program designed to garner maximum positive media exposure for your PropTech firm?
As I discussed at the outset, under normal circumstances, the competition for media coverage among PropTech companies is intense. But likely, for the remainder of 2020 (although the duration is a moving target and impossible to say for sure), the lack of competition in the space right now allows for a greater spotlight for PropTech companies that are either already in the market and for the few that are just coming online.
In the age of COVID-19, the real estate market (like the rest of the world) is experiencing a unique level of system-wide disruption, and thus looking for technological solutions to a degree we’ve never seen before. Which means your PropTech firm has a tremendous opportunity both from a business and media standpoint.
For existing, more established PropTech companies, the media will be looking to you to supply data, update them on trends, and help guide their reporting. This can come in the form of white papers, reports, or other useful and interesting analysis you are able to glean from the data and feedback you collect through your platform and your conversations with clients and other industry professionals. Establishing and/or enhancing your media relationships today will not only further brand your firm and executives as legitimate thought leaders in a critical, sophisticated space, but will entrench you as a media ‘go-to’ long after the COVID-19 crisis abates.
The COVID-19 crisis will come to an end, and when that happens, the real estate market may not look or operate quite the same as it did even just a few short months ago. PropTech companies have a tremendous opportunity to be difference makers. My best advice is that when you’re talking to real estate prospects and customers or engaging with the media, ask yourself if you’re communicating clearly, or if perhaps you’ve spent a little too much time talking amongst yourselves.