Saturday, April 07, 2007

Swarming the Planet

David Whitworth says that it's a small planet--at least the local apartment scene is. David is founder and CEO of Small Planet Guide, a site that helps out-of-towners find apartments in the greater Austin area. The site answers David's root question: "How can I help someone moving to Austin to learn more about it?"

The minds of this month's Bootstrap Marketing Swarm asked the question "How can I help Small Planet Guide make more money and grow?"

Small Planet's differentiator is information: articles, neighborhood profiles and information on schools, entertainment and more. Most apartment search sites, such as,,, and (to name a few) simply allow you to search based on the price range, area, and floor plan. Small Planet gives you a taste of the neighborhoods in the area. Where are the hip and young parts of town? Where would a retired person look?

The nice thing about this is that search engines also love all of the content on David's site. They like it so much so, that he's outranking his larger national competitors across the board. The search engines are driving some 26,000 unique visitors to his site each month where they can view detailed specs on some 115 complexes and can lookup a total of 600 properties.

His unique selling proposition is "Focused, Flexible, and Affordable." This means that he provides lots of local detail, offers several kinds of plans to listing apartments, and undercuts his competition. This is one area that our swarmers focused on later in the discussion.

According to David there are some 800 apartment complexes in Austin and his assumption is that they MUST be eager to find new renters.

As it turns out, apartment managers aren't eager to do anything with someone they don't know. David has tried emailing, calling, and visiting. Even free listings on his site have been turned down. "They didn't know who I was."

So far, only a small percentage of his listing properties are paid.

Business Model

Small Planet makes money on two ends of the pipeline. Apartments can choose to pay a flat monthly fee for a listing on his site OR they can pay for signed renters delivered by Small Planet.

David's challenges are at both ends: getting apartment managers to understand his offering of qualified traffic as well as getting potential renters to mention Small Planet when they sign.

He's implementing some new features that will help, including an email feature that allows renters to contact apartments through a Small Planet branded email.

His other challenge is that he is beholden to the apartment complexes to provide their detailed information, including floor plans and prices.

A look at the site

A look at David's site revealed a great content source. Articles are written by a professional travel author. He does a lot of cross-linking within the site. Someone can move easily between the apartment listing and articles on the neighborhood and back. It's clear that a great deal of work was put into this.

Tell them where they are

The swarmers thought that it was aggressive to make the home page one big search form. However, they felt that the lack of descriptive text would leave many visitors unsure of why thy would fill out the form. It was recommended that there be some brief descriptive text just before the search form.

Maximize Key "Real Estate"

The group pointed out that eye-tracking studies show that the key areas of the page, or key "real estate" are the upper left and upper right. Then the eye should follow a Z pattern down the main content. Content "above the fold" or in the top 600 pixels of the screen is most likely to be seen.

The swarmers felt he could remove unnecessary words in the upper left such as "Menu." Most of us know what a menu is. It was also recommended that color and bold text be used in this area to communicate the purpose of the site. Instead of simply "Search" it was recommended that stronger calls to action be used like "Find your Apartment."

It was also suggested that there was too much unused space in the header portion of the page. This caused the content to be pushed below the "fold" where it was unlikely to be seen.

Email is the New Sales Call

The swarmer reiterated that Small Planet could be using email in a more strategic way. Keeping the brand in front of apartment managers was key to building trust. "They're classic Relaters" was a clear conclusion from Bijoy. "Look for every opportunity to email them." David's strategy of emailing them every time a visitor inquired was definitely seen as a step in the right direction.

Big Strategies

Our swarmers aren't afraid of going for the big idea. The group noted that David's value proposition was "we're better than the other guys." Better is a vitamin, and he needed to find a pain pill in order to get reluctant managers interested. Some strategies discussed included:

  1. Be the premier of Quality tenants. Informed tenants are happier tenants who rent for longer terms. No site informs better than Small Planet.
  2. Be the most expensive. This implies all kinds of things to buyers and can provide more cash flow to this bootstrapped firm in the early days.
  3. Get users to comment on properties. Dave had looked at this and the apartment managers aren't ready for this kind of transparency. In fact one apartment was suing one of his competitors over this very thing.


David was a great host and took our critiques with an open mind. I think he'll be doing very well in a few months.

--Brian Massey

Want a crash course in online marketing? Join us on the first Wednesday of each month for a Marketing Swarm where great minds dissect the online strategies of one entrepreneur.

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