In the first quarter of 2020, Vitality Living’s Facebook presence had a total of 11,000 impressions.
As Covid-19 gripped the United States, however, the Brentwood, Tennessee-based provider began to use the social media platform more aggressively. Senior leadership and executive directors provided daily live updates of its pandemic response across its 16 communities in Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and Texas.
As the weeks progressed, Vitality interspersed its daily updates with other initiatives as a way to mitigate Covid-19 fatigue. Executive directors would host tours of their communities on Facebook live broadcasts. Vitality conducted a six-week “Talent Tuesday” competition featuring residents, team members and other members of its staff. And Vitality founder and CEO Chris Guay hosted frequent fireside chats where few questions were out of bounds.
Engagement exploded. Vitality’s Facebook platform logged over 1.1 million impressions in the second quarter of 2020, and is on pace to match or exceed that in Q3, Chief Sales Officer Julie Podewitz told Senior Housing News.
That is 100 times the Q1 impressions.
“It really taught us, this is how people are engaging,” she said.
Before Covid-19, providers commonly treated their digital presences and social media channels almost as afterthoughts. Over the past six months, however, these platforms have become essential to operations. Much like demand for telehealth services has exploded during the Covid-19 outbreak and could have long-lasting effects on how clinical services are delivered in senior living, the pandemic may have finally ushered in the digital age of senior living sales and marketing.
Tours have gone virtual as providers restricted access to communities to non-essential personnel. Marketing campaigns are increasingly balancing selling the lifestyle that senior living offers with transparency regarding resident safety. Digital campaign spending is growing, and providers are using websites and social media channels to interact more with resident families and prospective residents, and capture information to generate new leads.
With that comes new challenges. The growing importance of digital marketing is resulting in higher provider spends, and digital advertising companies are beginning to charge higher rates for ad placements.
Some providers are now seeking a new balance between increasing digital spending and updating websites to capture visitor information, generate leads and convert those into move-ins.
“We’ve probably seen more innovation in the last six months than we have in the last 10 years of senior living marketing,” Senior Living SMART CEO Deborah Howard told SHN.
With buildings restricted to only essential personnel, social media platforms and websites became primary destinations for families to learn about what was happening inside facilities, and how providers were responding to the pandemic, Bild & Co. CEO Traci Bild told SHN. And while providers leaned more heavily on digital channels to reach residents, family members, associates and prospects, they were also changing their messaging in response to events on the ground.
Arguably the most important lesson providers learned during the early weeks of the pandemic was to err on the side of transparency regarding Covid-19 updates in communities. Bild & Co’s clients use their digital presences to highlight testimonials from residents and community team members about how programming has shifted as the coronavirus progresses, what they have learned about the realities of Covid-19, and how those lessons are being applied to bring some semblance of normalcy back into residents’ lives.
“The most important thing that we’re seeing that’s working with people who are getting results is being very candid and transparent in their marketing. I’m a big believer that there’s nothing more powerful than the story,” she said.
Providers refined their messaging to sell an adaptive lifestyle, Howard told SHN. Fundamentally, senior living still offers the same benefits: socialization; dining services; amenities; access to care and a maintenance-free lifestyle. But it does look different now as new safety protocols include smaller groups, greater distancing between residents and mask requirements.
Additionally, many operators are selling enhanced protections such as upgraded ventilation and HVAC systems, new ultraviolet lighting, spray disinfectants, and plexiglass barriers.
“[The industry] looks different today than it did six months ago,” she said.
Providers that took their digital presences seriously pre-pandemic were able to quickly pivot their approaches and messaging when the virus swept across the country, GlynnDevins Senior Vice President, Digital Communication Carrie Mandelbaum told SHN.
The senior living marketing firm’s clients interspersed Covid-19 updates with morale boosting stories from residents and team members, as well as infographics and other images to provide visual proof that life inside a facility is safe for residents, and that staff is doing what it can to provide positive engagement throughout the day.
“We didn’t want our clients and communities to go dark. [Covid-19] is our reality,” she said. “Showing residents in masks is not a bad thing.”
As the outbreak continues, more providers are going “all-in” on digital, allocating more money in their budgets to optimizing their websites and replacing dated on-site experiences. All on-site interactions that prospects used to do at the community had to be replaced with virtual experiences.
“Prospects now expect to be able to download a brochure, watch a virtual tour, schedule a video chat or a personalized video tour from the website,” Howard said.
With virtual tours in place, providers are increasingly using their digital presences to capture basic information about visitors, such as what website pages they are visiting, length of stay and referral sources, that can be used to develop basic profiles and lead generation.
GlynnDevins casts wide nets on its clients’ websites to capture as much information as possible — whether it is registering for an event online, contact forms, and even the calculators on websites some visitors use to determine how much money they need to afford senior housing, Mandelbaum told SHN.
“All of that is still relevant. It is keeping users engaged enough and providing the type of content that they’re searching for,” she said.
Vitality website is an example of the multiple ways information can be captured. Its homepage allows visitors to schedule virtual tours at any of its communities. There is a mailing list field where visitors can enter their information. Virtual sales assistants stand at the ready. Online personal assessments can determine the best care level for a prospect and if Vitality is the best fit.
Vitality’s website also offers downloadable guides for prospects, ranging from funding the move to senior housing to a comprehensive guide to moving in during Covid-19. Every one of these landing pages captures information, which is used to provide sales associates with the necessary information to begin the sales process.
“We want to put action behind [our] resources,” Podewitz said.
Despite the rising importance of strong digital sales and marketing, many providers still view their digital presences as afterthoughts. Website homepages look and feel like brochures, but visitors are unable to get more information or schedule tours and calls with sales teams.
“We need to make sure that there is a lead generating website,” Bild said. “Pay-per-click is important to be investing in right now. If you’re sending [visitors] to a brochure-type website, you’re going to lose leads.”
All these steps are going to take more investment, both financially and with sweat equity. The pandemic has lengthened the sales cycle, so more nurturing is needed to keep prospects engaged and in the sales pipeline until they are ready to make a decision, Howard told SHN.
She believes automation and video will be essential to this, moving forward. Personalized journeys can be created based on each prospect’s stage, role and interests so sales teams can work the “ready to close” leads and marketing automation can nurture the “not yet ready” leads.
Digital, interactive brochures can be placed on websites or emailed to prospects. These are essentially flip books so prospects can turn the pages and click to start videos or activate links. Video brochures, meanwhile, combine printed collateral with video to send the community experience directly into prospects’ homes.
Video can easily be added to prospects’ emails, which allow sales teams to personalize their pitches to prospects. Some of Senior Living SMART’s operators are also embracing platforms which convert still architecture and lifestyle photography into virtual tours.
“People are starting to figure out that they have to reposition the messaging,” Howard said. “We can’t just bury it on some hidden internal page. We have to be a little bit more direct about it.”