Brian Stauffer

It will be a year before Vicki and David McCuistion close on their new home to be built by WCI Communities in Fort Myers, Fla., and even longer before they move from Washington state. But between now and then the couple can easily fantasize about their new life in Florida thanks to the Apple iPad WCI gave them as a housewarming gift when they signed a contract to buy a home in Pelican Preserve.

A couple of clicks on the custom-designed MyWCi software, and they can see what movies are playing at the community center, reserve tee times on the golf course, even check out the day’s menu at the community’s restaurant. The app also offers quick access to their sales documents, and, soon, they’ll be able to make interior selections from the device. “We have been using it,” says David McCuistion. “I think it’s pretty cool. [WCI] can communicate with us, and I can communicate with my Realtor or the WCI management people.”

The software, developed internally by WCI with the help of a consultant, enhances communications with buyers by sending alerts when they have a new document in their file or when it’s time to do a foundation walk. During construction, buyers receive photos of the home that WCI hopes they will share with friends and family. “We have several places throughout the application where there is a link, ‘Send to Friend,’” says Connie Boyd, WCI’s vice president for communication and public relations.

WCI executives harbor hopes that those friends will be snowbound and freezing when the photos from Florida arrive, making them envious enough to consider buying their own place in the sun from WCI. In addition, the MyWCi application pushes out special offers to those friends and family tempting them to buy a WCI home. “MyWCi helps us build a relationship with our new customers and reach out to prospective customers in an innovative and compelling way, since users can easily share information and photos ... with their friends and family,” says WCI’s CEO David Fry.

Referrals are a big part of WCI’s business. Sixteen percent of sales center shoppers are there because of referrals, and referred buyers are 30 percent more likely to buy a home, WCI says. WCI spent about six months developing the MyWCi’s iPad application, with the help of a consultant as well as in-house experts, Boyd says. Then, as a trial, it gave a few out to 55-plus buyers with varying degrees of technical expertise, from one who already had an iPad to someone who had no computer experience. The test subjects were asked to use the computers for a few weeks and then to provide feedback. It was positive.

“My wife, who is not computer literate, adapted to the iPad very easily and quickly,” says McCuistion. “It’s user friendly.”

WCI only began giving out the tablets to buyers early this year at their options appointments, so it’s too soon to tell how effective they are at bringing in more business. “Instead of giving them a closing gift way down the road, when the house is done, we give it to them up front,” says Boyd. “It’s probably a little more expensive” than a traditional gift, she adds. But most traditional gifts don’t make communication between builders and their often far-flung buyers easier, and help current buyers connect to their communities long before they move in, not to mention the potential to amplify referrals.

And then there’s the “wow” factor. “I was shocked when they said, ‘You get to keep it after your house closes,’” says David McCuistion.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Cape Coral, FL, Orlando, FL.