Remaking Your Self-Storage Marketing With Artificial Intelligence

The artificial intelligence (AI) revolution is here and it’s having an impact on marketing in every industry, including self-storage. Learn why you should embrace it and how to leverage its capabilities to make your marketing better, faster and more profitable.

Ron Matejko

July 7, 2024

11 Min Read

One of Gabriel Luna’s responsibilities as the marketing coordinator for Trojan Storage is creating and executing marketing campaigns for the company’s 44 self-storage facilities. So, when he was informed about two underperforming properties in Portland, Oregon, he was tasked with figuring out why, then devising a plan to fix it.

While this seems like a daunting mission that requires countless hours of swimming through a sea of data, Luna eagerly accepted the challenge. He knew he was armed with a relatively new weapon that would provide the answers he was looking for and quickly. Artificial intelligence (AI) would be key.

An admitted aficionado, Luna had already committed more than a year to researching AI’s  capabilities and stashing a collection of tools in his virtual toolbox that would help him improve as a marketer. Now, it was time to put them to work. (Read on to learn how it went.)

Making Big Moves in Marketing

There’s no denying that AI can be overwhelming. Its reach is vast and its impact massive. However, it’s also a technological advance that’s here to stay and will change the world forever.

The rollout of ChatGPT in November 2022 is frequently identified as the date AI went mainstream, but its use has silently permeated our society for quite some time. While the self-storage industry has been somewhat slow to adopt AI, the technology has already been used by many other types of businesses. In fact, one of the areas most impacted is marketing, where brands have used it for automating many tasks such as:

  • Predictive trends and customer behavior

  • Personalized recommendations

  • Targeted advertising

  • Content creation

  • Dynamic pricing

  • Data analysis

  • Customer service

“There’s so many places in marketing where AI is being used between what’s coming and what’s already here, and very few people are even aware of it,” says Brennan Palmer, owner of CoreMarketing.io, which helps companies leverage the power of AI through conversational chatbots.

After some initial resistance, similar AI marketing practices are being implemented in self-storage, with facility operators adopting the blueprint laid out by other sectors to boost their own bottom line.

Solving the Portland Puzzle

Luna’s strategy to solve the Portland revenue puzzle began by inputting the each facility’s customer list into ChatGPT, which then identified the neighborhoods where most of existing tenants lived. He then crafted four carefully worded and detailed instructions, known as prompts. The first three had their own purpose: to define the ideal tenant profile for Trojan Storage, to determine the key selling points for those residents, and to list the unique pain points. Within just a few minutes, ChatGPT presented all the output in the format requested.

From that data, Luna learned there was a crime surge in those neighborhoods and security was important to customers. There was also a strong sentiment toward supporting local businesses instead of big companies. The tenant profile also revealed that Trojan’s primary customer lived in apartments 5 or more miles away.

With this insight, Luna crafted a fourth prompt to combine all of the output and used AI to create an email marketing strategy that enhanced the relatability of Trojan Storage to its target demographic. The message featured new language that emphasized a sense of community and emphasized the measures taken to ensure a renter’s items are safe at their facilities.

“Initially we were just blanketing the area and marketing in a 3- to 5-mile radius, but we noticed those were suburban homes, which we learned weren’t our customers,” Luna says. “We created a flier with special promo codes and tracking numbers to measure the impact, and we saw a huge lift in occupancy rate at both Portland facilities.”

Applications

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how self-storage operators can include AI as an integral part of their business-marketing strategy. Many are discovering an array of applications that automate tasks like creating content, crafting personalized customer experiences, refining targeted advertising strategies and generating marketing materials, to name a few.

One of the most common AI tools being used by self-storage operators is the chatbot, which automatically initiates a conversation with a website visitor via their chosen device. Chatbots have made a huge impact by responding to customer needs at a time when they would otherwise get overlooked, such as after hours or on holidays.

“A chatbot is essentially like having another employee who works 24/7 and never takes time off,” says Palmer, who also owns two self-storage facilities.

AI is also commonly used for content marketing. You can ask it to write an article or blog, produce a podcast, create an original non-trademarked photo, compose and schedule social media posts, or produce and edit video.

The real trick lies in tasks in which multiple AI tools work in symphony. For example, Trojan Storage produces a music podcast that includes commercials for its brand. ChatGPT writes scripts based on the company’s promotions. Synthesis.io then takes the script copy and converts it into audio.

AI can also serve as your own personal analyst. You can scrape competitor data from other self-storage websites to compare occupancy rates, unit prices, promotions and more. All of this can be accomplished in the time it took you to read this paragraph.

The tech can also help you analyze historical data for your facility and combine it with current market trends to predict future customer behavior and demand. This output will arm you with the information to optimize inventory and implement dynamic pricing strategies in real time.

You can also create eye-catching slide presentations and marketing materials, optimize your search engine optimization (SEO) or improve your email interactions by using AI as a writing assistant. This still only scratches the surface of the marketing tasks and operational efficiencies AI can unlock and automate.

Skills

The information provided by an AI tool is only as good as what you put into it. The act of writing out your instructions is called prompt engineering. This is likely the most important skill required to be effective at using the technology for marketing. The art is in providing as accurate and detailed of a prompt as possible. Simply changing one adjective can completely alter the output from the AI tool.

Here's an example of the prompt Luna used to produce the AI-generated email campaign for his company’s underperforming Portland locations:

Given the information at hand, develop an email marketing strategy that enhances the relatability of Trojan Storage to our target tenant demographic. Address their unique requirements and aspirations, weaving our product offerings into the broader narrative of shared human experiences and values. Incorporate key discussion topics including our unique selling propositions and local challenges they might be facing. Ensure the inclusion of a compelling call to action that motivates engagement.

A few other vital AI skills include adaptability to learn and use these unfamiliar tools, problem-solving if a prompt doesn’t net the desired result, editing for quality control over the content generated, and staying knowledgeable about updates to policies and operating procedures, as the world of AI is constantly evolving.

Benefits

AI ultimately benefits your self-storage business and positively impacts your revenue by making your marketing faster, more affordable and more profitable. You’ll also enhance the customer experience by making the rental journey convenient and personalized.

“Generally, AI is about meeting customers where and how they want to be met and at the time they choose,” says Melissa Cameron, chief marketing officer for National Storage Affiliates Trust, a Greenwood, Colorado-based real estate investment trust that owns and operates self-storage facilities nationwide. “It’s also about gaining efficiency, not only in your marketing but improving marketing processes and utilizing intelligence to automate repetitive tasks.”

Those efficiencies have a positive impact on your bottom line, both by increasing income and reducing expenses. Chatbots capture revenue your business would’ve lost by not immediately following up with a sales prospect. They also cater to the changing consumer habits for Millennials and Gen Z, who prefer texts to phone calls.

You can create more content while keeping your labor expenses the same, reduce or eliminate the need for graphic designers and photographers, and almost instantly produce real-time business data at any time with the click of a computer key. Every aspect of your marketing strategy and operations can be impacted and improved with AI.

“We used to joke about how AI would impact our bottom line, but it’s 100% starting to make us better at what we do and make us more efficient,” says Robert Madsen, president of U-Lock Mini-Storage Group, which operates self-storage facilities in Western Canada. “AI has taken us far beyond what we could’ve done on our own.”

Drawbacks

Not all is sunshine and rainbows in the world of AI. As a technology that only recently went mainstream, there are still kinks to work out:

  • AI-generated photos can occasionally feature a person with extra or missing fingers.

  • Truth, accuracy and bias issues can creep into content, as the sources used to create it can be flawed and produce errors called hallucinations.

  • Marketing campaigns may not be in line with your goals or on brand.

  • Math can occasionally be calculated incorrectly.

  • Chatbots lack human emotional intelligence, which can lead to an unpleasant experience for a customer.

Despite these imperfections, AI is rapidly becoming more intelligent as this technology matures. The more you use it, the quicker it’ll learn about your business. Its output will improve and it will become more trustworthy.

Concerns

AI also presents its own set of unique ethical and security concerns. Some surround content creation. With the speed at which these tools can create content, there could be a temptation to emphasize quantity over quality. However, search-engine companies have caught on to content farming and adjusted their algorithms to reward originality.

“Recently, Google began penalizing AI-generated content as spam unless their crawlers decide the AI content adds value you can’t see elsewhere,” says David Austin, SEO content manager/marketing for StoragePug, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based company that offers self-storage software, website development and marketing.

Deep faking (misrepresented content) and plagiarism are other content issues to watch, and they reinforce the importance of auditing your AI content output. Chatbots, especially conversational ones, have become so good that some customers think they’re dealing with an actual human instead of automated responses, and that quality comes with risks.

“You shouldn’t try to trick your customer,” Austin says. “In a situation where someone thinks they’re talking to a person, and then the chatbot can’t answer their question or it starts hallucinating [giving false information], you could do damage to your brand.”

There are also security concerns, as self-storage operators possess sensitive customer information that’s valuable and may require compliance for data and market analysis. If your tenants can’t trust you, you’ll likely lose their business forever while damaging your brand’s reputation.

Fortunately, these risks can be mitigated, if not eliminated. Sensitive information can be encrypted and stored on private, in-house servers. Chatbot transcriptions can be monitored with a human intervening in the conversation when needed. The widget can also include in fine print that the chatbot is powered by AI. You should also educate yourself on regulations that protect consumer information. Preserve tenant trust by asking for their consent to use their collected data for AI purposes.

Generative-AI tools are becoming more intelligent and creating accurate content, while auditing output adds another layer of oversight. Storage companies can also take steps in-house to address potential risk.

“We are putting together an AI committee to build best practices and make sure we’re ahead of the curve for policies that may need to be put in place as well as testing the best use of AI within our business,” says Melissa Stiles, chief marketing officer for Storage Asset Management, a third-party management company that oversees more than 580 self-storage facilities.

DIY vs. Outsourcing

Once your self-storage business chooses to adopt AI, the next decision is whether the tasks you’ve identified as candidates for support will be executed and managed by an in-house team or a third-party company. Some aspects of the technology are simple and easy, while others are quite technical.

The size and skills of your team, along with budget constraints, can influence your decision to retain AI work in-house. If your staff is already operating at full capacity or lacks the expertise to delve into AI and you have the financial means to outsource, then the potential return on investment may be significant.

“We’re not only in content creation but in the storage business, so we must ensure that our time is utilized to the best of our abilities,” Madsen says. “There are times when you must recognize that hiring professionals would be a better fit for the task, aligning with their skills. We've tried to handle things ourselves, but we're not experts and ended up wasting time and money that we weren't aware of until afterward.”

Most people have heard of AI and ChatGPT, but how many self-storage marketers are using it daily? Some are, but most aren’t. Many people are still using AI for entertainment, so there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to make your job as a marketer more efficient.

The benefits can also bleed into the entire organization because AI is so efficient and pushes the envelope on the productivity limits of your team. Incorporating it into marketing strategies marks a pivotal step toward improving efficiency and customer satisfaction while positively impacting revenue. As AI evolves, its role in marketing promises to reshape the landscape, propelling self-storage businesses into a new era of innovation.

“AI isn’t just a fad,” Madsen says. “It’s making a tangible impact on our revenue and efficiencies. We’re just getting started, and I think the best is yet to come.”

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