Apartment List deploys a fleet of photogs to let you 3D tour America's rentals

By Michael Carney , written on July 1, 2014

From The News Desk

As the well-worn saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. But that cliched calculus may be a bit outdated, stemming from an era long before high-powered, connected micro-computers were in nearly every pocket in the developed world. Today, a picture goes far beyond being merely a more efficient way to convey a message -- it’s table stakes for even participating in any conversation.

With this cultural backdrop, it's no surprise that the number one complaint among apartment seekers is the limited number and/or poor quality of owner-submitted photos on most listings, according to internal research by rental marketplace startup, Apartment List. Right on cue, the high-growth, San Francisco-based startup today debuted a new, immersive 3D photo tour feature called LOOK aimed at ending this problem.

“Some 20 percent of renters visit seven or more properties in person before finding one that they like,” says Apartment List CEO John Kobs. “That’s a lot of wasted energy that we think we can save simply by giving our users a clearer picture of each property before they ever choose to make an in-person visit. What we’ve created is a lot like Google Street View for the insides of apartments.”

Taking a page out of on-demand rental pioneer Airbnb’s playbook, Apartment List is sending its own photographers into buildings listed on its marketplace – starting with large, multi-unit buildings in New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Denver, and Chicago – to capture the content needed to power its LOOK tours. These photos are stitched together into a proprietary file container the company created to allow users to step into a 360-degree tour of the various spaces within each rental.

All LOOK content is available via Apartment List’s mobile-optimized website and its iOS and Android apps. This is critical, given that more than two-thirds of the company’s total traffic comes from mobile devices. Kobs describes a future vision where Apartment List users will be able to tour prospective rentals, contact landlords, sign contracts, and pay rent all directly through their mobile app.

At launch, LOOK will allow consumers to tour some 30,000 units across its five initial markets, a number that Kobs aims to increase to 100,000 by year’s end. Ultimately, Apartment List hopes to document the bulk of the nation’s commercial real estate rentals before moving on to individual and privately-owned units.

Believe it or not, LOOK is being rolled out not with professional or even hobbyist photographers. Rather, the company has developed what Kobs calls a dummy-proof system allowing novice photographers – typically college students, hired by the hour – to document the insides of these buildings in an efficient, and high quality manner. “This is really our secret sauce and where we think competitors will have trouble duplicating us," he says. The company provides all necessary equipment to these amateur photogs and then conducts quality assurance on all resulting photographs.

Kobs won't say it, but the competitors he's speaking of are Craigslist, Trulia, and Zillow, the three-headed hydra of Web 1.0 housing and classifieds marketplaces. None has shown Apartment List's ability to innovate in today's mobile-first Web 2.0 world. And yet each has far more resources and enough legacy brand recognition to remain a major threat. Today's LOOK announcement is as much about putting distance between Apartment List and these competitors, as it is about delivering an experience that the consumer wants and needs.

The biggest challenge in rolling out LOOK was not creating this system or even recruiting a fleet of photographers, according to Kobs. “The biggest friction has been around coordinating the availability of property managers,” he says. “As anyone who’s tried to rent an apartment the old way can tell you, these people are generally overwhelmed and not terribly responsive. So when we get into these buildings, we photograph as many units as possible and we, of course, capture the exterior, the lobby, the fitness center, the pool, and any other amenities. Then we try to go back monthly to see if we can capture any units additional that have come on the market.”

The nearly-four-year-old company, which has been profitable for much of its life, recently raised $21 million in its first and second-ever round of external funding. Kobs has since used those funds to accelerate growth and on experience-enhancing initiatives like LOOK – and its acquisition of Roommates – which may have been nice-to-haves previously, but are now deemed non-essential without the additional resources. This comes after Apartment List was named a Forbes’ 500 Fastest Growing Company in 2013 and a Top 25 Most Promising Company in 2014.

It may seem capital intensive to send out flesh-and-blood photographers (regardless of their skill level) to photograph tens of thousands of rental units on the company’s dime. But this is hardly the case, according to Kobs, who says that the more visual content has led to a threefold increase in engagement in early testing. In a business that is predicated on converting intent (the desire to find an apartment to rent) into action (property visits and then signed leases), this increase in engagement is ROI gold.

In addition to offering a richer, and more enjoyable user experience to its customers, Apartment List is at the same time building up a catalog of photo assets the likes of which the industry has never seen before. This has led some property owners asking to use the LOOK content on their own websites, a practice that Apartment List gladly supports. But as word gets out it will likely be property managers that contact Apartment List requesting to participate, rather than the inverse which is currently true.

We are living in an era where design and user experience trumps all. And in such an environment, blurry, dimly lit photographs that fail to capture a rental property are no longer acceptable. Rather than relying on property managers to get wise to this issue, Kobs and Apartment List are tackling this problem head-on. It’s a bold move that could prove brilliant if it ultimately results in anything near the three-times lift in engagement over a larger sample. In a world where the status quo is user generated images, Apartment List's LOOK images stand a cut above.

[Image via loicdupasquier, Flickr]