How Senior Living Can Build Better Referral Pipelines

Senior living providers tend to have complicated relationships with third-party referral agents. Some providers may see the choice as avoiding them altogether and running the risk of losing leads, or employing their services and incurring sometimes hefty referral fees. But the smartest approach may be a middle ground, in which third-party agents are one part of a more varied referral pipeline.

“In this day and age, I feel that you do have to work with some of these [referral] companies—that if you don’t, you’ll be missing out on a bunch of leads,” says Linda Bennett, vice president of operations for Oaks Senior Living, a family-owned company with six communities in the Atlanta area. “I just wish there was a way it could be more affordable.”

Other industry leaders have voiced similar sentiments, and they have been heard by companies such as Senior Living Smart, which is framing a new pay-per-tour offering as an alternative to third-party referrals.


As a solutions network aimed at curating resources to help operators improve occupancy, revenue and service delivery, Senior Living Smart has provided its approximately 400 members access to a free 24/7 live chat service on their websites as a means of generating more exclusive leads.

“People are looking to reduce reliance on third-party lead aggregators,” Senior Living Smart CEO Debbie Howard tells Senior Housing News. “Our members are interested in the model because it’s no risk. It doesn’t cost them anything unless we produce results.”

By The Numbers


Unlike aggregators where leads are potentially shared with other communities and payment is typically based on move-ins, the live-chat model intends to produce leads from website traffic already garnered by the community, Howard says.

And whereas a pay-per-move-in model might cost a community upwards of 85% of a resident’s first month of rent, Senior Living Smart charges $50 if an online chat is converted into a phone conversation and $400 for tours that are scheduled.

“What this does, it gives another way of capturing and converting the folks who are trying to find us, but when they get there, there’s nothing for them to do,” Howard says. “It’s interesting to operators because they want to do better with traffic they’re already generating.”

Given that about one in four tours results in a move-in, on average, Howard says resident acquisition costs come in at around $1,600 or less as compared to $3,000 or more for pay-per-move-ins.

The latter, however, is a model that senior living providers have grown accustomed to, Katie Roper, third-party referral agent’s vice president of sales, tells SHN.

“That wasn’t our first choice, but it seems to be what the industry expects,” Roper says. “And they’re now saying that it’s too expensive.”

Communities don’t have to pay to be listed on, and advisors spend up to half an hour or more on the phone with families before directing them to specific communities, Roper says. From there, if a sales director is on vacation or too busy to call them back, is the one to endure the financial blow.

“They don’t pay us anything, and we just have to eat it,” she says. “We’re taking all the risk up front.”

Even when a lead is converted to a move-in and a community is then required to pay, Roper says the benefits far outweigh the costs.

“If a person moves in and stays for 18 months, even if you pay $3,000 for a move-in, it’s still wildly profitable—more so than having an empty bed,” Roper says.

Different Methods, Different Purposes

About 34% of people searching for senior living communities had toured four or more, according to research conducted by, perhaps suggesting that the concept of exclusive tours is misleading.

“The bottom line is, people don’t want to only look at one place,” she tells SHN.

That’s not to say there’s no need for individual lead generation or other forms of referrals aside from aggregators like, Roper says. And Howard agrees, saying it very much depends on whether consumers know what they’re looking for already or not.

“I think there’s a place for everybody,” Howard says. “Lead generation is going to take different forms, and it’s important to use each one in their strengths and use them strategically.”

Still, it appears communities themselves are keeping their sights set on producing fee-free leads of their own.

“You have to do a good job as a company to be as close to that No.1 position on the organic side, where you get that call first without having to pay for referral sites,” Oaks Senior Living’s Bennett says.

Written by Kourtney Liepelt

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