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Inexpensive Marketing Essentials to Help Self-Storage Operators Weather Economic Storms

Inexpensive Marketing Essentials to Help Self-Storage Operators Weather Economic Storms
The U.S. economy is in flux, and some self-storage operators are beginning to see slower demand and lower rate ceilings. Preserving operating income during a downturn requires adjustments, particularly to your marketing approach. Here are a few inexpensive essentials to help you endure.

I’m not sure what the politicians in Washington, D.C., are calling our current economic predicament, but we’ve entered new territory. No longer are people lined up to rent self-storage units at a blistering pace, and rates now have a ceiling in many locations. On their own, these aren’t catastrophic problems, but every operator wants to make money. Adjusting to current circumstances is the best way to preserve income.

As someone who’s survived multiple recessions while in business, my first tendency is to look at expenditures. Our goal for 2023 is to identify a new cost-cutting measure each week. This might mean eliminating a position or cutting a software subscription. It’s really surprising how many expenses there are, even in a business as straightforward as self-storage.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll concentrate on marketing. It’s OK to cut back on spending, but not on marketing itself! Though you may be tempted, it’s a crucial component to survive a recession because it’s the key to new income. While it’s natural to focus on costs, revenue is just as important.

The thing is, though, marketing is multi-faceted. In recent years, it’s been easy but sloppy. At my company, our plan has been something like: “Let’s see … Gimme some more of that search engine optimization stuff, and throw in some pay-per-click advertising. I’m seeing a lot of kids on Insta-something. Can we do that?” Believe it or not, this approach has been effective (if lazy and expensive), but it isn’t a recipe for success in a downturn. So, let’s look at some affordable marketing fundamentals that can be effective when the economy turns south.

Email Existing and Past Tenants

What if I told you that you have a large pool of self-storage prospects with zero acquisition cost? Sounds great, right? Well, it’s true. Let’s use the insurance industry as an example. Say you have your car insurance with a major carrier, and during an annual policy review with your agent, they sell you a homeowner’s policy on top of your car coverage. How much did they spend to acquire that business? Nada.

Self-storage operators can use a similar strategy. Most of us collect email addresses when renting new units. We tend to use them to send receipts, late notices, etc., but what if we marketed to those contacts? For example, remind existing tenants that you also have some outdoor vehicle storage available, or that you sell moving and packing supplies. Perhaps you have some temperature-controlled units that just opened up or a multi-unit discount available for a limited time.

Your database of existing tenants is a free resource, and sending an email is a very low-cost activity. You’re also reaching someone who’s already a customer, so that’s a bonus. These are folks who already like your amenities and location. They’re highly desirable prospects, and it doesn’t cost you a fortune in AdWords to reach them.

What’s that, you ask? What about former tenants? Can’t we do the same thing with them? Well, yes! Brilliant idea.

Our management software stores their information, too, and this can amount to thousands of additional email addresses. Give them a reminder about your business. Update them about your new security system or a temperature-controlled building. These prospects are 10 times more valuable than someone who’s seeing your social media feed for the first time.

Keep in mind that self-storage managers who aren’t sales-oriented will create excuses to avoid this type of marketing. They’ll talk about how some of the emails may be outdated or how some past tenants weren’t such great customers. Don’t let that stop you. Those employees should be removed from a sales role. They’re looking for the perfect situation to close, which doesn’t exist. As the saying goes, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, which is 100% applicable to marketing.

Using existing labor to send nearly free emails to customers who already like self-storage is fiscally responsible and can yield high returns. No, it isn’t as easy as calling a marketing company and telling them to do the job for you, but it’s very bank-account-friendly.

Use Active Networking

I look at networking as being both passive and active. Passive networking is what many of us do at meetings, conferences, etc. We introduce ourselves to others, exchange business cards, chat briefly and then move on. It’s passive because many of the business cards we hand out wind up in the hotel-room trash can. Conversations are forgotten. Maybe we connect with someone, maybe not.

Active networking is more difficult but also more rewarding. It’s an act of marketing that’s been tossed aside in favor of sexy ad clicks and SEO, but it’s a useful and cost-effective practice. Some examples include:

  • Taking donuts to every apartment-leasing office in your immediate market on a quarterly basis
  • Sending referral fliers to local realtors
  • Leaving a stack of business cards at mobile-home park offices, along with a Starbucks gift card
  • Visiting boat and RV dealerships to make friends with salespeople and offering them a referral fee

Many self-storage operations allow tenants to make payments or rent units online, or through a kiosk call center. Some have payment drop boxes or a phone-payment system. Yet we tend to tether our managers to the office as if all business will cease if they’re away from their desks for 90 minutes. Instead of worrying about what might happen, focus on what can happen! Send your team out every week to call on two or three businesses. Your property won’t disintegrate, and you might just earn some new business!

Focus on Features and Benefits

Self-storage has been an easy sell in recent years, which has made our marketing efforts sloppy. We market “storage,” but what is it? There are plenty of instances in which we leave it to the consumer’s imagination or simply assume the public knows what we do.

As a comparison, let’s consider the hotel industry. Hotel operators don’t market their room accommodations. Instead, they emphasize features they believe guests will find beneficial, such as free breakfast, late checkout, free parking, a pool and fitness room, free Wi-Fi, meeting rooms, and so on. You’ve likely never seen an ad for a hotel that discussed the furniture in the room or what fixtures are in the bathroom because it doesn’t speak to the customer.

As another example, think about two restaurants side by side. Each has a big sign with changeable letters. One advertises “Dessert” while the other promotes “Homemade Pie.” Given a choice, I know which one I’m going to!

The best marketing strategies connect with prospects. A car dealership rarely advertises in a general sense; it showcases a shiny, late-model sports car or tall pick-up truck. It promotes a low monthly payment. Does the same dealership sell 10-year-old, high-mileage cars? Yes. But it doesn’t highlight those models. It’s about connecting with the public through something visual and appealing.

How do we do something similar when we market self-storage? Well, play up your facility features and benefits. What do you offer that’ll appeal to customers? Similarly, what pain points do you solve? Here are three impactful examples:

  • Do you know anybody who scrapes their car windows every winter because their garage is too full to fit their vehicle? That’s a visual many customers can understand.
  • Do you know what a walk-in closet is? What about a walk-in, back-out closet (too full)? Lots of people have the latter and will laugh to see it represented.
  • Imagine a 3-year-old standing next to a beautiful Christmas tree asking, “Grandma, what’s that smell?” Grandma replies, “That’s what our decorations smell like because they’re stored in a damp, musty basement.” That’s a scene to which many prospects can relate.

We have to be in the business of selling solutions and benefits, not some nondescript “storage.” Our managers should never lean on price or divulge the rental rate too soon during their sales presentation. They should instead be focusing on our new access-control system and state-of-the-art cameras, or our convenient new payment portal, or our handy mobile app. By the way, these are precisely the kinds of things you can put in an email to your former tenants. How can they benefit by coming back into the fold?

Maximize Every Lead

Of course, no self-storage marketing will be effective if we aren’t doing the right things when prospects call or walk in the door, so refresh your team training to meet the times. Make sure your scripts and points of emphasis are accurate and being used, and that your property’s features and benefits are being discussed. Drive the point home by doing some role-playing. It’s getting harder and more expensive to earn leads, so we can’t waste even one.

We don’t know how long this downturn in the U.S. economy will last. But if you get back to marketing basics, watch the effectiveness of your spending and improve your sales process, you’ll be well-positioned to weather the storm ahead.

Gary Edmonds is owner of Pike Co. Storage, which operates 17 facilities in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. In 2020, he launched The Storage Manager, a third-party management company specializing in remote operations. With nearly 20 years of industry experience, he has extensive knowledge related to running unmanned properties. To reach him, email [email protected].

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