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Social Media: The Secret Sauce Behind One Of Atlanta's Most Successful Developers

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North American Properties has an enviable track record among developers for successfully positioning major projects. The firm — which had long been a neighborhood, grocery-anchored shopping center developer — began to push heavily into the mixed-use world at the turn of the 21st century, turning once-struggling pieces of land or older developments into hubs of activity.

North American Properties
North American Properties Vice President Liz Gillespie

In each of its big projects, North American Properties deployed a secret weapon — a robust social media campaign.

“It's about engaging the community,” North American Properties Vice President Liz Gillespie said.

Gillespie will be a panelist at Bisnow's Future of Development & UrbanTech in Atlanta event Oct. 24, where tech and property experts will discuss how and what technologies play integral roles in the metro area's commercial real estate community.

Gillespie said the firm's marketing strategies may change slightly between projects, but the principle remains the same: create a sense of ownership within the community, giving customers and nearby residents a feeling that they have input in how a project is shaped. Social media is the platform the firm uses: from Facebook and Instagram to email newsletters and even partnering with influential bloggers.

“The way I approached marketing my entire career is always been about community building,” Gillespie said. “What has changed is just the method of delivery in how we connect.”

Atlantic Station

In Atlanta, North American's first early push using social media on a project was when it purchased Atlantic Station in 2010. North American bought the retail portion of the property for $78.5M. It then went about engaging with employees among the office buildings and retailers as well as local residents to discuss on Facebook and Twitter what exactly was hurting the property.

“The response we got back was painful. Overall, there were issues with perception,” Gillespie said. People viewed it as crime-ridden, or just another Atlanta shopping center. But while the responses were negative, Gillespie said people were passionate and engaged on what needed to change.

“There's a real fine line between love and hate,” she said. "We recognized that people really did care about Atlantic Station."

Gillespie asked social media followers what programs they wanted to see and what retailers should replace shuttered storefronts.

“It just really made people [feel] like they were part of the process. And it created an army of brand activists,” she said.

The firm pushed improvement in nine areas, from security and public relations outreach to sparking a better tenant mix and improving the common areas and creating a string of programs, from festivals to yoga lessons on its greens, to re-engage people coming to Atlantic Station.

The public relations effort worked in spades.

During its ownership, North American Properties increased average retail sales to $142/SF and increased occupancy from 70% to more than 90%, North American partner Mark Toro told National Real Estate Investor in 2015. That year, North American sold the retail district in Atlantic Station to Hines for some $200M.

Those strategies were in the forefront on its next big project in transforming a defunct piece of property in Alpharetta, an affluent community some 25 miles north of Atlantic Station, into an upscale mixed-use destination called Avalon.

Again, the firm engaged the local community about what it wanted in the project. North American's marketing efforts emphasized its walkability, entertainment and experience, while getting feedback on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even YouTube on what people wanted in terms of tenants, in terms of architectural design and events programming. North American engaged a prominent Instagrammer, paying her to live a full year at Avalon and do everything from working and shopping and dining in the project.

"She sort of became our in-the-community ambassador,” Gillespie said.

Like with Atlantic Station, the efforts worked when it came time for the firm to part with the project. North American sold the 1.1M SF mixed-use project in 2016 to PGIM Real Estate for an estimated $500M.

Midtown sign selfies
A group of visitors to Colony Square taking a selfie in front of the Midtown sign on the grounds of the redevelopment

This community outreach and social media blitz continues for North American at its latest projects, like the turnaround of Colony Square in Midtown, and the development of Revel, a planned mixed-use district connected to the Infinite Energy Center arena in Gwinnett County, and Riverton, a planned $2.5B, 400-acre riverfront mixed-use development in New Jersey.

Gillespie said her firm is pushing to transform retail centers into what they were originally envisioned by Victor Gruen, a famed architect who pioneered the American shopping mall in the 1950s and 1960s.

“If you went back and looked at the beginnings when Victor Gruen imagined the first shopping center, his vision was a community center,” she said.

But over time, public spaces became viewed as advertising venues, and developers saw event and common spaces as lost revenue.

“[Shopping centers] became a ripe stomping ground for Amazon,” Gillespie said. “A lot of developers stripped the experience out … and now everybody's trying to bring it back.”

Hear more from Gillespie, along with Georgia Power Executive Vice President Pedro Cherry, Cortland Partners Chief Experience Officer Mike Gomes and BuiltTech Labs founder K.P. Reddy at Bisnow's The Future of Development & Urbantech in Atlanta event, 7:30 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta.