Senior living providers rapidly shifted to digital marketing and sales in the midst of Covid-19. Now, they are building on their digital strategies for 2021 and beyond — and while doing so does require more investment, the digital revolution is about much more than increasing spending or buying more online ad space.
For its 2021 budget, Harmony Senior Services doubled its digital marketing spending while also not reducing traditional advertising. And The Ridge Senior Living plans to spend a significant amount of its roughly $1.7 million marketing budget on digital marketing.
Other providers shared similar strategies during on-background discussions with SHN. One regional operator plans to spend as much as 40% more on marketing this year, with the bulk of that going toward digital marketing and advertising.
Across the board, operators must craft the right messages to win back the trust of prospective residents and their families after months of negative headlines about the industry. And with many more people stuck at home and spending time online, the way operators are reaching those audiences has also changed and is continuing to evolve.
For example, when Covid-19 hit the U.S. a little under a year ago, Harmony Senior Services Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Margaret Cabell sensed a seismic shift in senior living marketing was underway. With the help of Nashville, Tennessee-based Reed Public Relations, the operator last March began pivoting to the so-called “new normal” of senior living marketing.
“[We] hired a digital media manager to look at all of our touchpoints, we immediately increased our digital spend for SEO,” Cabell told Senior Housing News. “And we took a look at our Facebook pages and saw an opportunity there to drive the appointment center [by urging leads] to book a tour, and by using it for more of a marketing platform than simply just an informative communication tool.”
Charleston, South Carolina-based Harmony has 29 open and operating communities in seven states, with another 15 under development.
The Ridge Senior Living, which has three communities in Utah and Colorado and works with national senior living marketing and ad firm GlynnDevins, went through a similar process last year.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many traditional lead sources dried up, necessitating a different approach. The Ridge Senior Living had worked in previous years to build up its digital marketing and advertising infrastructure, and those efforts intensified when the pandemic hit, according to COO Mandy Hampton.
“If A Place For Mom and Caring.com don’t have leads coming in, that means your local referral sources and agencies are also struggling,” Hampton told SHN. “So, there was no choice but to switch to digital, and luckily, we had already done that.”
Defining digital marketing
Digital marketing is a somewhat nebulous term. For senior living providers, a digital marketing strategy typically encompasses a variety of domains, including paid search results, online listings, banner ads, digital videos and social media.
The overarching goal of digital marketing is to stand out to leads while they’re reading the news or going about their day online, and direct them to a destination, typically a provider’s website. Senior living marketers often speak of the need for multi-channel marketing and sales strategy, and this approach has only become more important with Covid-19, according to GlynnDevins Director of Media Lindsay Johnson.
“It’s all about getting people to the website and how we do that,” Johnson told SHN.
Over the past year, Facebook has become an even more powerful tool for reaching and engaging prospective residents and their family members.
“It’s really important to have a presence there,” Johnson said. “[That includes] from an organic standpoint — managing your Facebook page and making sure that you’re posting content regularly — but also from a paid ad standpoint.”
Digital marketing doesn’t stop once leads have landed on a provider’s website. Sometimes, it’s necessary to re-engage clients to keep them in the sales funnel.
“We will serve ads to people who have already been to a community website or engaged there,” Johnson said. “And once that prospect has raised their hand and maybe filled out a form on a website, we want to make sure that we’re engaging with them in email and assisting the sales team.”
A successful digital marketing strategy not only helps providers get in front of leads, but also differentiates them from their competitors, according to Katie Adkisson, partner at Nashville, Tennessee-based Reed Public Relations.
“It really starts with the foundation of the message, and who your core customer is,” Adkisson told SHN. “[That is] before we even get into the levers that you’re pulling, or the different tactics or channels that you’re using for a digital campaign.”
The need for senior living marketers to stay nimble in the face of Covid-19 pressure is underscored by the fact that the pandemic has pushed many prospective leads and their families to spend more time online. For instance, although GlynnDevins noted an overall drop in the number of new sales leads in 2020, web leads were up about 20% over the prior year.
“Digital usage is very much still up,” Johnson said. “What that tells us is we need to focus on digital, we need to focus on getting people to the website and engaging with the content there and on getting them to raise their hand.”
Additionally, Johnson noted that video streaming among older adults increased as a result of the pandemic — and that is something senior living providers should take note of for their own marketing plans.
“There are some other channels, like online display, retargeting and digital video, that right now, I truly believe are the hidden gems that communities need to take advantage of,” Johnson said.
Providers should also be prepared to nurture leads for longer as they engage them digitally.
“They are digital and less personal,” Adkisson said. “So it takes a webinar and then a follow-up, and those types of things, to actually convert those leads.”
With Reed PR’s help, Harmony audited its digital marketing strategy in the months before the pandemic hit. Cabell, who joined Harmony about a year ago, made it a goal to understand the provider’s strategy inside and out.
“I wanted to understand every feature on our website: where it clicks; what it asks the customer to do; is it valuable; is it useful; is it fast, especially on a mobile device?” Cabell said. “That was really important, and that helped us as we went toward a Covid marketing plan.”
Cabell also looked at user behavior, and found that the pandemic had altered the amount of time users spent on Harmony’s website, and where they were coming and going online.
“People weren’t getting up early, taking kids to school, getting ready for work — they were working from home,” Cabell said. “We also saw the sites that they were going to were different, traffic patterns were different.”
In response, Harmony altered its marketing plan to better suit users’ new preferences and schedules. For instance, the company changed the times at which Facebook ads were displayed to users.
“We adjusted our times that we were boosting and sponsoring ads,” Cabell said. “And then we changed our content on Facebook to be more interactive and to have more educational Covid updates.”
The ways that providers are discovering leads also changed with the pandemic. For instance, The Ridge Senior Living worked at the outset of the pandemic to meet prospects where they are by using video conferencing apps like Zoom. The company also invested in equipment for digital marketing, like tablets, phones and cameras better suited for video calls.
In response to the pandemic, The Ridge Senior Living also tweaked its messaging. Today, the company focuses on transparency, sanitization and safety in its marketing materials.
“Our building in Denver opened in mid-September, right in the middle of when they were going to shut the state down again. We’ve moved in over 50 residents,” Hampton said. “I think that speaks to the fact that our messaging is working.”
Looking ahead, both Harmony and The Ridge expect the digital landscape to continue to play a big role in senior living marketing, even after life in the U.S. returns to something more akin to normal.
“We serve some of the most vulnerable population, and they deserve to be reached in a way that they feel safe and comfortable,” Cabell said. “And we continue that focus through digital advertising.”
To learn more about the latest senior living sales and marketing strategies, join us next week for our SHN Sales Summit, Jan. 26 through Jan. 28. Admission is free of charge for senior living community owners, operators and developers. Click here to learn more and register.