Student Accommodation in Cape Town and other South African cities is scarce. So, how does attending an Search and Social Media Marketing (SSMM) course in Salford lead to starting up a company to find student accommodation in Cape Town? And, more importantly, finding a solution to the student accommodation crisis in South Africa? What is the best way to use search and social media when starting an internet business?
If TheRoomLink was conceived on the SSMM course, it was born on a late winter’s day in a cosy hotel bar in Ilkley. We’d had a few ideas for internet businesses based around the sharing economy. The idea we liked best was flexible renting. The idea was simple. Some people have spare space; they need income and other people need accommodation.
People have spare space – so why not use them as rooms for rent? There are a number of obstacles: people are reluctant to open their homes up to strangers; they may not want to use the spare rooms at weekends; they may not want to tie up their spare room for a long period of time. But, in the current economic climate many people are looking for ways to earn a bit of extra cash – and an easy way is to use that spare room for rent.
On the flip side there are many people looking for rooms to rent. They are looking for rooms in the short, medium and long term. There are commuters who work away from home who only want a room Monday to Friday. They would rather have a place where they didn’t need to pack and unpack every week.
However, if you ask people whether they’d take in a lodger who has similar interests they are far more amenable to the idea. Likewise, a renter would far prefer to share a house where they have something in common with the landlord. So TheRoomLink provides flexible renting options and matches landlords and renters. By giving as much information a landlord can find a suitable renter. And a renter can find suitable accommodation for the time period they require. The platform allows both landlords and renters to put in a rich amount of information is easy-to-view formats.
We had the idea. Now it was time to put it into practice.
The key to the company was having a successful website. Research was made into other types of collaborative consumption such as parkatmyhouse, lovehomeswap and see what they did well and what not so well. We also checked out the opposition. A set of requirements was drawn up for the web development. A significant part of this was to include functionality to enable search engines to use the website well including:
Two South African suppliers were selected – SI Works to develop the software and Robot Dwarf to optimise Search and social media.
There a serious student accommodation issue in South Africa. Simply, there isn’t enough accommodation available for students. Plenty of people have outhouses that could be converted into flats. And, just like in the UK, there are plenty of people looking for ways to make extra money. An opportunity arose. As a startup you have to be flexible and be prepared to change your approach.
In order to communicate with our customers we had to come up with a social media plan. Twitter is an emerging market, but Facebook is still very popular amongst students in South Africa. To help drive customers towards the website and Facebook we set up a simple landing page to register users. We ran a competition to win an iPod to increase interest. This was a way to start driving traffic towards the website before it was built, create some interest and gather some email addresses of future customers.
Whereas the students looking for accommodation were using social media, the people providing rooms were not, so we had to look at a range of different marketing campaigns:
We planned our marketing towards our go-live date. Street pole ads were booked in prime student locations. We had some radio adverts ready. Posters were put up. With just a few days before the big day Nelson Mandela died. His funeral was scheduled the day before go live! The world was looking at South Africa, but not at us.
We needed people with rooms for rent – in particular student accommodation providers. Without having the online history we couldn’t get organic searches in Google. So, we had pay for click adverts. We tried various phrases. The obvious ones such as Student Accommodation in Cape Town and Student Accommodation in Pretoria. These were both very expensive and very competitive. So, we used phrases such as Rooms to Rent, Rooms for Rent in Cape Town. It has been a long haul but our organic traffic has improved and overtaken inorganic traffic. Comparing April 2014 with April 2015 traffic has increased from a range of 166-405 to 468-1176 sessions per day. The mix has gone from 56% paid search to 1.8% and 11.7% organic to 35.9%. Our social has increased from 8% to 20%
One of the reasons for the increase in acquisitions in social is because we have moved from spending on Google AdWords to Facebook. By advertising a Cape Town property on Facebook we achieved a reach of 24,250 with an engagement of 2,165.
Twitter has been used to engage with university and student organisations. We have engaged with stakeholders who manage student accommodation without having to cold call. We started a student hour alongside companies offering services to students to engage with students using the hashtag #StudentSA.
We are the leading online advertiser of domestic and international student accommodation in South Africa. But there are competitors. We need to keep ahead of the game. In order to do this we need to carry on but look at some other areas. In particular:
The last two years has been quite a journey. It’s a long way from a classroom in Salford!