With work from home making tiny apartments hard to sell and a luxury market drowning in condos, New York City real estate agents have been resorting to Instagram influencers to lure both young, first-time buyers and wealthier prospects amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Sealing the deal with newbie homeowners is requiring even more effort these days—a smile and some hustle are no longer enough. Charles Mazalatis, founder of Maz Group NY, said that when the coronavirus arrived, and New York State shut down showings, people were reluctant to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an apartment they couldn’t go see in person.
Enter Instagram. “It’s all about creating a vibe,” said Christine Blackburn, a New York-based sales director with Compass, of the growing use of social media to move properties. A Covid-19 era sale requires more than traditional staging (fresh flowers and even a bowl of fruit) or even photo-shopping furniture into online ads: Young buyers want to envision a dual work-life space, she said, one that comes with a veneer of cool already in place.
Getting them in the door, in other words, requires some web-based finesse. “They trust these influencers, that’s what it comes down to,” Blackburn said.
While the rich flee to the northern suburbs, some renters leaving Manhattan fueled a buying frenzy across the East River in Brooklyn. Pending sales increased by more than 38% compared with last year, according to data from real estate website StreetEasy. But New York City real estate market in general is in serious trouble: residential sales transactions are down 41% year-over-year, according to data provider PropertyShark.
In the absence of open houses during the height of Covid-19, real estate agents relied on 3D walk-throughs or augmented reality to display and stage homes. Now, as virus cases surge again, the risk of restrictions on in-person showings looms large, underscoring the need to make remote viewings pop for eager young buyers.
Through an Instagram post or a YouTube channel, buyers can picture a typical day in their aspirational space: working from home in a chic living room, doing yoga on their new terrace, or enjoying skyline views while eating dinner. Beyond the dull look of ads with an existing tenant’s shambolic bedroom, or the sterility of a staged, Ikea-filled studio, using influencers can make the usually painful endeavor feel more like being in your own magazine ad.
Blackburn, who represents a building in the fast-gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, partnered with three Instagram influencers to curate model homes with their unique styles.
One of them—Summer Rayne Oakes—is known for her houseplant tips. She transformed one of the building’s 447-square-foot studios into a “boho-chic” pad, using her green thumb for inspiration. The listing, going for $499,000, was geared to a younger crowd that is still cost-conscious. With this in mind and a $5,000 budget, Oakes said she sourced furniture, plants and other accents from stylish chain Anthropologie and second-hand stores.
“I didn’t stray from the aesthetic my followers know me for,” Oakes explained.
Millennials represent the largest share of home buyers in the U.S. A March survey by the National Association of Realtors found that, even with a galaxy of online resources, the youngest members of that generation (22 to 29 years old) were more likely to seek advice from a close friend or relative about homebuying—and that means word-of-mouth, which in turn means social media.
The pandemic has allowed social media influencers to forge even stronger relationships with millennial and Gen Z followers through cooking recipes, exercise routines and do-it-yourself home project tutorials. By recruiting content creators, real estate developers are engaging young people in their digital hangout.
“We’re seeing that social media has played quite a big role in home-shopping,” StreetEasy economist Nancy Wu said, adding that the company has recently launched a TikTok account with home tours.
Blackburn said Compass’s collaboration with Oakes was “super effective,” adding that creating a space that feels relatable is more important as the shift to work from home puts offices and living spaces under the same roof. From a bedside journal, to the yoga mat tucked in a basket, “I wanted to really make the space feel lived in, not like it came out of a catalog,” Oakes said. She shared Instagram posts with her 213,000 followers and filmed a YouTube video that racked up over 474,000 views.
The building’s development companies, CIM Group and LIVWRK, declined to disclose how much it paid for its influencer partnerships, or how many units have been sold since Oakes posted her work.
The coronavirus has amplified the importance of appealing to younger generations as developers grapple with weaker demand and skittish first-time buyers. With the fear of contracting Covid-19 ever-present through face-to-face interactions, social media influencers are another tool developers and real estate agents can draw on.
For other developers, however, it’s about broadening their audience. In Manhattan, the Park Loggia partnered with lifestyle influencers Hunter Vought and Adam Gonon to feature its Upper West Side condos that start at $1.3 million. Vought and Gonon run the Instagram account Gentleman’s Creative, which the pair said garners a following among young men interested in suits and swanky hotels.
“We create content that can inspire people to lead what we would call an aspirational life,” Vought said. Rather than curating decor, they were given free rein to set the scene of upscale living by incorporating their signature fashion touches—watches, cashmere sweaters, and tailored suits—into vignettes of pandemic luxuries like Columbus Circle views or a common recreation room with a pool table.
“Not only is it on brand for us, we were able to highlight outdoor space which people can take advantage of especially during the pandemic. We kept true to ourselves and made it our own—our followers care about that,” Vought said.
But not every urban metropolis is seeing the need to pivot to such unorthodox sales strategies. Ari Shafar, a luxury real estate agent in Los Angeles, said buyers continue to use traditional methods to search for homes. A reason for this is because buyers skew older, according to Shafar, adding that “the audience is not the same.” New York City has a far higher share of first-time home buyers (61%) than other major U.S. cities, according to 2019 StreetEasy survey.
In addition, while trustworthiness in a real estate agent was the most important factor pre-pandemic, even more respondents cited this as a primary determinant in purchasing a home after Covid-19 paralyzed the real estate market in April.
For an influencer marketing strategy to work—authenticity is key, said Thomas Fialo, vice president at Douglas Elliman Development Marketing. Fialo collaborated with fashion, beauty & wellness influencer Sai De Silva to promote condominium building Quay Tower in Brooklyn Bridge Park. De Silva posted various Instagram stories and created video content of a “a day in the life” in the luxury condo with her two children enjoying breakfast overlooking Pier 6.
“It was unscripted and natural. She’s a young mom showing what a regular morning or picnic in the park could look like,” he said. The collaboration resulted in an increase of 600-700% in visits to Quay Tower’s Instagram page and a 500% uptick in clicks to its website link after De Silva’s posts, he said.
While traditional approaches to selling a home will not be replaced with influencers on Instagram, leveraging content creators will become more mainstream over time, Fialo said. “People can identify with them,” he said. “It’s about thinking outside the box and bringing a home to life.”
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