When the pandemic hit last year, many senior living operators relied on communication and marketing to win the trust of current and prospective residents and their families. But even if operators agree transparency makes the best policy, it’s not always clear what they should say, or how they should say it.
Four senior living operators — Aegis Living; Grace Management, Inc.; Knollwood; and Juniper Communities, with its marketing partner JPR Group — spent the early days of the pandemic crafting marketing and communication plans. The four operators share one thing in common: they all won recognition in the “Covid-19 messaging and communication” category as part of the inaugural Aging Media Network Aspect Awards.
What these four senior living companies learned during that process can help inform the wider industry as providers across the country hone their own strategy and regain occupancy in 2021.
“It was clear back in the beginning of all of this that we took a pretty big lump … and unfortunate circumstances obviously created a bigger overhang for the industry,” said Angie Snyder, chief marketing officer at Aegis. “So, we needed to make sure people understood that we understood what we were doing, we have expertise and broadly, [are] providing safe and sanitized and vibrant communities.”
‘A little more hopeful’
It was the spring of 2020. Covid-19 case counts were on the rise, census was declining and senior living providers weren’t sure what to do or say.
Sensing a shift in the public perception of senior living, Bellevue, Washington-based Aegis Living’s marketing team set out to craft a marketing and communications campaign that would both show sensitivity around residents’ fears and concerns while also projecting strength, confidence and leadership.
By June, they had their answer: “Living Happily Together.”.
The campaign, which was aimed primarily at adults between the ages of 45 and 65 — who are often the chief decision-makers for prospective residents — conveyed the concept that Aegis was both keeping its residents safe and helping them lead fun, fulfilling lives.
For example, in one ad, a smiling man plays a bongo drum, with a caption that reads: “Bongo Mike. Living safely. Still playing bongos.” Although he doesn’t really go by “Bongo Mike,” the man in the ad is a real Aegis resident named Mike. Other residents also starred in ads that depicted them holding a cocktail, rocking out on a guitar or just lounging with a crossword puzzle.
For prospective residents and their families, the intended message was that Aegis could keep them safe during the pandemic — and even help them flourish.
“We were very purposeful about the messaging in finding the right balance of safety … but also to give people something that was a little more hopeful and optimistic,” Snyder told Senior Housing News. “We wanted to bring a little bit of lightness to what was a very heavy time.”
Aegis was also purposeful in creating a campaign that stood apart from the rest of the industry.
“We really did and do believe we are safer [than seniors’ own homes], and had a value proposition that was maybe different than what others felt at that exact moment,” Snyder said. “So, we needed to stand out in a way that reflected that.”
Already, Aegis has seen the impact of its campaign in its web traffic and new resident leads. The company saw a roughly 40% increase in its web traffic, and is reporting stronger conversion of generated leads thanks in part to the appeal of the campaign.
The provider also received 11% more brand search leads in the second half of 2020 compared to the second half of 2019, and the operator’s conversion rate of web leads to move-ins rose from 8% in 2019 to 9.3% in 2020.
“The successes we were able to have — both in attracting people’s attention as well as getting [residents] who were truly engaging in our services and with the brand — were just really fantastic,” Snyder said.
Combating the crisis
In the early days of the pandemic, it was common to see headlines about the number of new Covid-19 cases or deaths at nursing homes or senior living communities, sometimes conflating the two.
But what those stories didn’t as often convey were the efforts of the staff inside the community to keep residents safe, according to Jeanine Genauer, founder and president of JPR Group, which leads Bloomfield, New Jersey-based Juniper’s communications strategy.
“We knew from the get-go, from the calls we were getting from the media, that we needed to change the lens that people in the media were viewing senior living through,” Genauer told SHN.
So, in March, Juniper and JPR began brainstorming on a way to respond to the ongoing crisis while helping to inform the public to contain the spread of the virus and save lives, and in the process, preserve Juniper’s reputation with prospective residents and their families.
Between March 2020, and January 2021, JPR and Juniper made efforts to communicate over a wide range of mediums. That included creating podcasts for downloading and streaming over Apple platforms; producing a YouTube series called “Voices on Aging”; publishing blog posts with critical health care information and information on new partnerships; and placing ads in print, broadcast and social media.
The operator was not press shy, either, and spent the pandemic pitching media outlets across the country to show what was happening in its communities. Juniper CEO Lynne Katzmann held interviews with national publications, including The New York Times, The Philadelphia Enquirer and Forbes. Cindy Longfellow, Juniper’s vice president of business development, sales and marketing, also handled some local media interviews.
“There was no running away from the reality of Covid,” Longfellow said. “So, we took the position of not running away from that and instead sharing the truth.”
Juniper also communicated often with its residents and their families. Between March 15 and July 4 of last year, Juniper sent an internal daily update detailing the current number of Covid-19 cases and more generally “the reality of what was going on in our building,” Longfellow said.
“And that same transparency, I hope, is what we brought to the press,” she added.
Juniper measured the campaign’s success in its media impact, with an estimated reach of more than 895 million impressions for Juniper Communities and more than 2 billion earned media impressions for Juniper Villages, all told. And that has translated to an uptick in web traffic for the company.
“When we see a spike in traffic on the website, or maybe a spike in form submissions … that’s certainly a measure that what we’re speaking to is important, and is solving or resolving concerns that families may have,” Longfellow said.
Showing what’s essential
Some senior living providers pared down or halted their marketing efforts when the pandemic spread last year — but not Grace Management.
Instead, Minneapolis-based Grace — which is a subsidiary senior living management company of Chicago Pacific Founders (CPF) along with CPF Living Communities — ramped up its marketing efforts with partner Triad Advertising, according to the operator’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, Kymm Clark.
“We really took a very thoughtful, purposeful approach to continuing our marketing efforts, and making sure that the messaging and what’s being communicated would resonate with seniors and their families,” Clark told SHN.
Between May and December of last year, Grace targeted prospects in each of its 57 communities’ market areas, with the goal of increasing lead generation, mitigating census declines and maintaining an average occupancy rate of nearly 85%.
The company’s campaign, “Senior Living is Essential,” included direct-mail postcards to new prospects; a series of flyers for local referral sources, residents, and existing prospects; digital display advertising; and print advertising.
The campaign occurred in three phases. The first was meant to entice new residents by showing them how they could live their best life in Grace’s communities; the second focused on resident and family testimonials; and the third centered on vaccines and education.
“Our messaging was not just about encouraging new individuals to move in, but also ensuring that our existing residents retain that confidence and trust in us,” Clark said.
The campaign not only met its stated goals, but exceeded them. For instance, lead generation increased 18% in March of this year versus January of last year. The company also maintained its nearly 85% occupancy backstop during the pandemic, and is now working to build on that number.
“While we need to continue to generate leads and work from a marketing perspective, we’re also transparent in our communication, as that’s how you can continue to build confidence and trust,” Clark said. “And that’s what we continue to do in 2021.”
Bridging the distance
Senior living communities all but closed themselves off to the outside world in the middle of the pandemic — but that created a divide between those within the community and those outside of it.
Knollwood, a life plan community in Washington, D.C., set out to bridge that divide through a campaign called “Distance Brings Us Closer.” The phrase was an internal rallying cry, and one that served as the theme for all of Knollwood’s external communications during the pandemic.
When the pandemic hit and communities across the country began closing off to the outside world, Knollwood Director of Sales and Marketing Carol Ann McCormick brainstormed with the community’s marketing and public relations partner, Van Eperen, on a new communication and marketing strategy.
“We needed to still be able to connect with potential customers, find a way to reach them during Covid, and stay connected to them knowing that some would be afraid to come in person,” McCormick told SHN.
Megan Neapolitan, an executive leader from Van Eperen who works closely with Knollwood, added: “We knew that this was going to change the way that we had to communicate, and I think we pivoted quickly with that.”
Knollwood maintained its website and outbound newsletter as a way to share news and keep residents and their families informed. The community also began hosting free webinars with guest appearances by experts and current residents; shared posts on social media a few times a week; and targeted local and national news publications for stories on Knollwood.
The linchpin of the effort was Knollwood’s digital presence and webinars, according to McCormick.
“The pandemic made people connect more digitally. I mean, my mother was using Zoom when she had never used it before,” she said. “Our digital responses have been very high, and that’s critical, as that feeds into other marketing efforts.”
Knollwood believes the campaign was a success, with 56 million media impressions and an uptick in new leads and deposits. In fact, Knollwood has continued with the campaign right up through present day.
“We want to continue that success,” McCormick said. “And we do not want to let our foot off the gas.”