When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many referral sources wilted — but in the year since, some providers have found a way to keep leads flowing by utilizing digital messaging, harnessing data and investing in less-traditional sales and marketing channels.
For example, when more traditional sales methods used by Kendal Corp. lost effectiveness last spring as the pandemic gained steam, the organization realized it had to act fast in ramping up its ongoing digital marketing strategy.
And Kendal is not the only senior living provider to have switched up its sales and marketing tactics to better capture leads and referrals in the age of Covid-19. Evanston, Illinois-based Mather also upped its digital game when the pandemic struck last year. The organization’s sales and marketing teams overhauled their digital marketing efforts to include more paid search and mobile-friendly web layouts.
“It’s been all about investing in digital tools, and our digital partners, to understand where we should maximize our efforts,” Brenda Schreiber, Mather’s senior vice president of marketing said during the recent SHN Sales Summit.
Restacking the deck
One of the immediate effects of the Covid-19 pandemic was that resident referrals — once a reliable source for move-ins — dropped off a cliff.
At Kendal communities affected by the pandemic, referrals from residents slowed significantly, according to Howard Braxton, director of sales and marketing at Kennett Square, Pennsylvania-based Kendal Corp. The organization has a portfolio of 13 affiliated communities.
“Residents were saying to us, ‘We feel very comfortable, we know that players here — the staff, the other residents, et cetera — we know how you’re managing things,’” Braxton said during the SHN Sales Summit. “But we don’t want to be the ones to ask our friends to join us here … because we don’t know what’s right around the corner.”
Similarly, leads and resident referrals ebbed and flowed with the virus at Mather’s three communities in Illinois and Arizona, Schreiber said.
Both companies responded to the slowdown by doubling down on residents. For example, Kendal began organizing virtual panels where current residents could tell prospects about their experience living in senior housing. The effort was part of the organization’s larger pivot to virtual and live remote events as a result of the pandemic.
Last summer, Mather’s research arm, Mather Institute, surveyed the provider’s residents to get a sense of how they felt living in their communities. The results showed that 88% feel safer living at a Mather community than in their previous homes, and that 93% of residents believe their health and safety are top priorities of Mather.
“We hear from residents that they do tell their friends that they were taken care of, that they had everything available to them,” Schreiber said.
Mather’s marketing team also took those results and added them to the organization’s outreach efforts, with the goal of showing prospects that senior living communities are still safe, engaging places to live.
“I think in the long run, resident referrals will come back,” Schreiber said. “The positivity that the residents shared with their friends has continued this entire time. It’s now up to those folks they referred to inquire and make the move.”
In overhauling their sales and marketing plans to attract referrals, Mather and Kendal also implemented several new and innovative practices.
Kendal took its marketing efforts a step further by surveying residents, taking notes on the various personality types within its communities and the ZIP codes in which they lived before moving into senior housing.
Specifically, residents were surveyed on their background, interests and hobbies, college history, career and travel preferences. Then, the company created specific email blasts for each ZIP code.
“[We are] segmenting and understanding the population we have within the community already to … track those same types of individuals from the general community around us,” Braxton said.
The organization also held live video tours where prospective residents or their families could view a walkthrough of the property and ask questions in real time.
“In the first three months that we actually really delved into the video event platform and presentations, we found the increase to be significant in certain areas of prospects attending virtually,” Braxton said. “We chalked that up to people feeling like they could attend last-minute … or people choosing not to come out to our community because they didn’t feel like leaving their home.”
Doing so resulted in a “windfall” for Kendal, he added.
“It helped us, as we got into July, August, September, to develop a more robust response … and thus, move-ins really started to come back to us,” Braxton said.
Both organizations are also contacting prospects directly through new methods, such as by texting or through remote video conferencing services.
“Whichever way you wanted to communicate with us, whether it was FaceTime, texting, emailing, Zoom — we’re in,” Schreiber said. “Texting has become very popular, and I don’t see that going away, either.”
Kendal also has noted an uptick in texting and emailing among prospective residents and their families, Braxton said.
Some of those changes in prospect behaviors might have something to do with the way the pandemic altered their preferences. For instance, Mather has noted an uptick in online inquiries, with its forthcoming community in Tysons, Virginia, accounting for nearly 85% of total new prospects — and 70% of that traffic comes from a mobile device.
“We have to ensure that our mobile experience actually converts people to the leads that we need,” Schreiber said.
The organization also has invested more heavily in webinar platforms with greater visibility over prospects, and in more digital tools to aid the sales process.
Traditional methods remain
While both Kendal and Mather implemented new techniques to keep up with prospects and leads during the pandemic, the old ways still remain.
For example, direct mail is still a crucial component in both organizations’ marketing strategies. Mather launched new campaigns to differentiate itself, and put out advertorials extolling the health and wellness benefits of living in senior housing.
“We believe that print ads and direct mail certainly drive traffic,” Schreiber said.
Still, it’s all about finding the right balance.
“We constantly are looking for multichannel opportunities, so, if we’re in print, there’s usually an online version at this point, and possibly even some retargeting ads,” she added.
Both Mather and Kendal also are making inroads with universities, a sector that has in the past collaborated with the senior living industry but hasn’t traditionally served as a big referral source.
“George Mason University [in Fairfax, Virginia] has an arts program, and we were able to get in front of their artists and have a VIP artist meet-and-greet over cocktails to get in front of people,” Schreiber said. “[Being] virtual has allowed us opportunities to get in front of the right people in the right time, and create these really wonderful engaging experiences.”
Working with universities and other institutions is Kendal’s “trademark,” and it’s something the organization will continue to do, Braxton added.
“It’s more of a community awareness builder,” Braxton said. “[It’s also] lifelong learning for the residents who live with us, as well as promotional opportunities.”
While Mather’s sales staff don’t use leads from purchased lists of emails, Kendal started using them in recent months. The organization uses purchased lists in a similar fashion to how it uses direct mail ads, according to Braxton.
And while both organizations have reinvented their sales processes in big ways in the past year, they are also looking forward to the day senior living communities can reopen to in-person tours across the board.
“While digital and virtual events and chat functions and seeing each other through Zoom or other platforms has been an incredible part of this past year — and I still think we’ll continue that into 2021 — the missing piece is really developing relationships at an emotional level,” Schreiber said. “I do see in-person coming back, but I see virtual staying with us for quite some time, and taking a hybrid approach all through 2021.”