Hashtag open house: Real estate industry rethinking how it markets luxury housing

Adam Amengual / The New York Times

Guests sample marijuana vape pens from Bloom, a sponsor, at a home on the market in Los Angeles, Feb. 15, 2018. Developers and real estate agents are experimenting with social media influence partnerships to sell properties.

LOS ANGELES — The black-lit pillow fight room was perfect. “Anything with movement, it’s an instant boomerang!” said Ayla Woodruff. “That’s just a given.”

She quickly jumped into the milieu, picked up a few white feathers and asked her mother to start shooting. Half a dozen models in form-fitting pajamas theatrically swung pillows at each other, jumped on the bed and hammed it up as party guests snapped pictures with their phones.

Woodruff is a 25-year-old professional social media influencer. She gets paid as much as $22,000 for a post.

This was at a real estate open house on a recent evening in Los Angeles. There were a few stacks of flyers with the usual twilight photos and bullet-point highlights of the home on offer (a $15.9 million hillside contemporary-style mansion with an infinity pool and 360-degree views of Los Angeles).

With well-planned selfie backdrops at every turn, the house had been staged to catch fire on social media. There was a gold-painted room with a gold bathtub filled with plastic bitcoins for a Scrooge McDuck-style submersion.

Downstairs sat a marijuana throne surrounded by pot plants sprouting from white shopping bags. Nearby was a lounge where visitors could smoke vaguely pineapple-flavored weed with sleek white vape pens — theirs to take home if they posted a photo from the event on social media with the evening’s recommended hashtag: #EnchantedWoodsLA.

We’ve grown accustomed to seeing all sorts of products promoted with sponsored Instagram posts or on Snapchat stories, but, so far, homes are rarely marketed this way. Some developers and real estate agents are trying to change that, experimenting with social media influencer partnerships, Instagram backdrops and Snapchat-friendly house tours to sell properties including blocks of apartments in big rental buildings and single-family luxury homes.

“The standard real estate open house is a yawner,” said Ernie Carswell, a Douglas Elliman agent with the listing for the Los Angeles house. “There’s only so much appetite for wine and cheese.” So some in the business are rethinking the scene, throwing out genre hallmarks like attractively arranged bottles of Pellegrino, crudité platters and rules about jumping on neatly made beds.

Others are taking it a step further, spending money to move influencers into the building. Tavi Gevinson, the 21-year-old actress and founder of Rookie, lives in 300 Ashland, a 379-unit luxury apartment tower across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where studios start at $2,365 per month.

From time to time her Instagram feed includes images from the building. In one, she plays dominoes on the roof deck. In another, she shares a picture of her bulletin board. Both include the hashtag #300ashlandpartner.

The New York-based developer Two Trees hired Gevinson and other influential locals to move in, mention the buildings in social media posts and host a few live events. Gevinson hosted a clothing tag sale on the public plaza of her building to benefit Housing Works.

“We thought it would be a great way to give a voice to a building,” said Brian Upbin, the head of asset management for Two Trees. “There’s a lot of great product out there. Anyone can go to StreetEasy to see highly stylized photos or renderings.”

Gevinson, who is entering her second year of a two-year partnership, said sharing her building’s address and glimpses into her home life with her Instagram followers didn’t feel as “Truman Show"-esque as it might sound.

“I already share a lot of my home and my surroundings. It didn’t feel like a stretch,” she said. “I’ve been making free content for half my life, so to be able to be literally supported by Two Trees and give people glimpses into how I’m able to do what I do has been really nice.”

Though she and Two Trees declined to disclose the specific financial terms of the arrangement, Gevinson said she pays rent and the developer pays her for the promotional partnership.

Alexander Ali, the publicist who planned the Los Angeles party for Carswell and the home’s developer, ANR Signature Collection, said the idea was to create an event that would feel like less like a staid broker’s open house and more like the Museum of Ice Cream, the popular Instagram-bait pop-up galleries in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami where guests can take pictures of each other jumping into a swimming-pool-size vat of rainbow-colored sprinkles.

Earlier that evening, Ali had scrapped a plan for a giant clamshell from which a model was going to emerge to serve champagne (“it just wasn’t on brand”), but otherwise everything was coming together as planned.

“The goal is to get 100,000 impressions with 100 visitors,” said Ali, who described the event as a series of “moments” for guests to photograph, post and hashtag. “Everything is about, ‘You have to take a picture with this!'” Invitations had been sent to real estate agents as well as assorted Instagram influencers, artists and minor celebrities (including the singer Dannii Minogue, Kylie Minogue’s lesser-known sister).

In the end, about 150 guests spent the evening meandering their way through the 6,700-square-foot house, collecting Jo Malone gift bags in the marble-clad master bathroom and snapping “drug kingpin moment” pictures of each other on the pot throne. (Were there potential buyers in the mix? No one seemed too concerned either way.)

“All the food is photogenic food,” Ali said as he pointed to the sushi rolls from Nobu in the kitchen and an elaborate display of macarons from Ladurée spread across the dining room table. The evening’s “crescendo moment,” as he described it, was a dance party with a colorful 20-foot-long LED dance floor on the roof deck.

Real estate agents have never been ones to shy away from trying something attention grabbing to stand out from the pack — think goofy bus stop bench ads or embarrassing-photo billboards. Social media influence is the next logical step.

Evan Asano, the founder of Mediakix, an influencer marketing agency, estimates that advertisers — ranging from small mobile gaming apps to American Express — will spend $1.6 billion this year on paid Instagram influencer posts, up from an estimated $1 billion in 2017. (Celebrities like Ariana Grande or a Kardashian/Jenner sister, who are top influencers, can make $500,000 to $1 million for a single post. Smaller so-called microinfluencers often post about products in exchange for free stuff.)

But can you sell your house this way? That’s not yet been proven. The real estate industry has been somewhat slow to embrace technology, particularly social media. “Consumers don’t sell their houses often and don’t want to be a guinea pig,” said Glenn Kelman, CEO of Redfin, an online brokerage with more than 1,000 agents.

Some think an influencer’s wide reach may be a disadvantage. Widecasting about a house for sale “will be seen by a lot of people who can’t afford or don’t want to live in that neighborhood,” said Gil Eyal, CEO of Hypr, a company that does social media influencer analytics.

Lately, he has been getting more inquiries from developers asking how they can harness the various platforms to brand and sell real estate. “I still don’t know if it’s going to get an enormously positive return on investment,” he said.

Microcelebrities with small but highly localized followings — a popular neighborhood chef, for example — may be more effective at selling homes than influencers with wider followings.

Kelman said Redfin’s research has shown the best tactic is using data analysis to track potential buyer searches online. “What works is making sure everybody who is a serious buyer knows about the open house, and using much more targeted marketing techniques,” he said. (Other agencies and developers do this as well, using targeted Facebook or Instagram ads.)

Social media, however, could be a good way for real estate agents to stand out from one another in a competitive market and turn themselves into influencers. Andrew Jevin, a Santa Monica-based real estate agent who attended the #EnchantedWoodsLA party, uses Snapchat and Instagram stories to show off new listings and open houses to his 8,000 followers and said that it has helped him connect with new clients.

“I think social media has been untapped,” said Jevin, whose Snapchat handle is @thesnappingrealtor. “You’re going out cold-calling people and knocking on doors, why aren’t you on Instagram?”

Another real estate agent, Brittney Hinds, agreed. “Our clients are on Instagram showcasing their lifestyle so you have to meet them where they’re at,” she said. (Her posts from the evening included a shot of her sipping champagne in the pillow-fight room with the caption “the after party is at your house if you live at #EnchantedWoods LA … contact me for details.”)

The low barrier to entry for social media campaigns can help agents and developers build buzz basically for free. Justin Barth, a Los Angeles-based developer, hired five local artists to create a selfie-friendly mural that included an Instagram handle for a new building for Vica, a new 31-condo development in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, scheduled to be completed in 2019.

The building is next to the frequently Instagrammed Micheltorena Staircase. “It’s a subtle way to promote the project that’s not so in your face,” Barth said.

George Jordan and Agustin Rodriguez, of ANR Signature Collection, the sellers of the $15.895 million Los Angeles property, declined to say what they spent on the social media open house but said the cost was offset by several sponsors, including the weed purveyor (Bloom) and Vesta, the staging company that furnished the home.

The listing agent also paid a portion. “I wasn’t sure about the pillow fight at first, but it’s amazing,” said Rodriguez, standing near the home’s infinity pool as the party picked up momentum behind him. “It’s different, it’s young, it’s fun.”

Woodruff, the professional influencer who attended, said she has been making a full-time living off Instagram posts for about six months but that she hadn’t been paid to attend the open house. She was there with other influencers that the developer had invited and thought the intrigue of the evening would be worth it. Her parents, Diana and Brian Woodruff, happened to be in town so they tagged along, dutifully snapping and saving photos to her iPhone that she would later post in her Instagram stories.

Toward the end of the evening she made her way up to the roof deck dance floor but had lost track of her parents. They emerged from around a corner near the master suite. “We’re very impressed with the laundry room,” Diana Woodruff shouted to her daughter. “There are two washers! Two dryers!”

“Mom! Jeez, come on!” Ayla Woodruff said, corralling them upstairs to take more photos.

Real Estate