With margins under pressure, occupancy still in need of boosting and chatter of an uncertain economy ahead, 2023 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for senior living sales.
Few know that better than LCS Chief Marketing Officer Rick Westermann, who leads sales and marketing for the Des Moines, Iowa-based senior living company.
For LCS, 2020 and 2021 were all about recovery; 2022 was all about growth. As he looks ahead, Westermann foresees an “interesting” year for senior living sales in 2023, for better or for worse.
“The world is starting to shift. Interest rates are higher, the stock market continues to fall,” he said at the Senior Housing News Sales Summit, held last week in Arlington, Virginia. “What levers can we pull to get higher-quality leads, and did we create any bad habits over time?”
That theme — grappling with a changing world while rooting out bad sales habits — is one that I heard time and time again at this year’s Sales Summit.
In this week’s exclusive, members-only SHN+ Update, I share my key takeaways from the event, including:
- How senior living operators are redefining the sales experience
- Why social media for senior living operators is becoming trickier to manage
- What big trends sales experts see on the horizon in 2023
Redefining senior living sales for the future
One theme I noticed is that providers are trying to perfect the balance of in-person engagement with digital marketing. Though this is not a new trend, it took on new prominence during discussions at this year’s event.
Digital marketing in senior living has shifted from a “nice-to-have” to one that is now “crucial to have,” according to Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Legend Senior Living Christy Van Der Westhuizen.
The use of video communication — a crucial tool in reaching prospects when bringing them into communities was hard to do earlier in the pandemic — is here to stay, she said. And in the future, she believes the successful operators will use video to create short, personalized messages for prospects.
“Video was absolutely crucial to our success during the pandemic, and I do think that it still is a critical part of success,” she said during the Sales Summit.
Before the pandemic, in-person events were seen as the gold standard for senior living sales. But during the last few years, operators including Goodwin Living have learned that webinars are another useful tool for getting the word out.
“A lot of what we did, we continue to do because it was effective and has really given our prospects a different way of looking at the community,” said Susan Dolton, corporate director of sales at Goodwin Living.
Other operators have redefined the in-person experience for senior living prospects. That includes Priority Life Care, which has become more flexible in its in-person events in order to accommodate prospects’ adult children.
“We noticed that a lot of the adult children were working from home and had a lot more flexible schedules,” Priority Life Care CEO Sevy Petras said during the panel. “So instead of having those evening cocktail parties or grab-and-goes, we did a lot more of them during the day.”
The company is also putting time and resources into outside marketing events, such as by renting food trucks and offering donuts and coffee to churchgoers.
“Sometimes it’s still hard to just get people to come to the building and everybody has busy schedules,” she added. “So, we’re trying to find ways outside in the community that we can still get our name out there.”
St. Louis-based Arrow Senior Living also redefined its sales process. The company adopted the WelcomeHome senior living CRM amid the pandemic, and Managing Director of Marketing Nicole Rozsa said that has helped the company send personalized texts to prospects and better manage prospects’ sales journeys.
Risks and opportunities of social media
Social media is a powerful tool. But as the recent turmoil at Twitter has taught us, such platforms are not always good for advertisers. It’s obvious to me that senior living operators have started to wake up to some of these risks, sometimes through hard lessons.
For example, Petras shared a story of a nursing director who fell victim to a sophisticated smear campaign that included a fake Facebook profile and spoofed messages containing racist and vulgar language.
“They took these pretend conversations, screenshotted them, sent them to us at corporate, and then posted these in all these forums. This poor nurse … they wanted us to fire her,” Petras said.
Thanks to help from the police and a private investigator, Petras and Priority Life Care were able to clear the nurse’s name — but not before the story was picked up by at least one industry news publication. And while the record was eventually set straight, the experience gave Petras a new, more cautious outlook on the use of social media in senior living.
“You have to protect yourself, and you have to do the right thing for your employees and for your residents,” Petras said.
Westermann was also skeptical about the usefulness of TikTok in senior living marketing.
“Everyone says, ‘What are you going to do about TikTok, Rick? I’m not going to do anything about TikTok,” he quipped.
But despite that skepticism, there were many social media success stories shared during the event.
Goodwin Living, for example, last year started a campaign to boost the efforts of what Dolton called the company’s “ambassadors.”
The idea is that these social media super users would spread the word of the organization far and wide. That effort has since paid off.
“Our social media presence on LinkedIn and all the posts that we have done there have really helped us with our recruitment efforts,” Dolton said. “We don’t use anything else [than] LinkedIn, and Facebook.”
Arrow Senior Living also has launched a YouTube news program called Arrow Nicely News. The program, which focuses on heralding good news amid a sea of bad headlines, is sent out weekly to prospects, and has served as a useful tool in that regard.
Even if operators don’t plan on using social media, they should still plant their flag in it, according to Jeff Gronemeyer, VP of New Business Development at Conversion Logix.
“There are even times where it’s useful to have things in place, not because today it’s going to bring you a move-in, but because it’s going to be part of … this universe of Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, Google and whoever else comes out of the woodwork.”
Other big trends for 2023
As the new year grows closer, senior living sales experts are focused on the trends that could reshape the industry’s sales efforts in 2023. Although I think the industry is more cruise ship than speedboat in that regard. For example, the industry has pushed for more transparency in rates for years.
But it does seem like there are many new ideas percolating and a willingness to experiment.
One additional big trend on the horizon is the need for more transparency in senior living sales, particularly relating to rates. While some operators previously chose not to share rates until a resident visited a community, fearing sticker-shock; that is no longer a wise business decision, according to Petras.
She compared the process to buying a house: “Why do we think it’s okay to bring somebody in, fall in love with the place and then find out they really cannot afford it?”
“As an industry, we really need to start thinking a little differently about that,” she said.
The need to sell prospects on the value of senior living is another trend that several attendees identified as important for the future. Given that the cost of senior living has sharply risen in the past two years, operators must be prepared to show prospects what their rent is getting them and why that is valuable to their wellbeing.
“You have to get to the why,” Mather Senior Vice President of Sales Gale Morgan said during a panel discussion at the summit. “Why did they call you today? Why are they looking into you? And whatever that ‘why’ is, is probably the foundation for their values.”
One danger lurking ahead is that senior living operators will look at their current residents’ willingness to pay higher monthly rates and assume that prospects will see it the same way. That may not be the case, according to Morgan.
“Every prospect that I deal with asks about our monthly service fee increase this year, and whatever you tell them, they assume it will be that way forever,” she said. “And that’s a whole new challenge for us.”
Data collection is yet another trend that will accelerate in the future. As senior living operators get more savvy in digital marketing, their prospects are leaving behind an increasingly rich data trail. For example, Morgan pointed out that while a senior living prospect might visit a webpage 14 times, a deeper dive into their activity might show they visited one page more than the others.
That can be an opening for salespeople, as it indicates where prospects’ interests and needs lie, she said.
In fact, anyone who carries a smartphone is likely an “open book” of data.
“We get a really solid picture of what you’re doing and what’s going on,” Gronemeyer said. “We can dig into that persona, and really say, ‘Where do we want to go? Where are we going to find them? What are they doing all day long? How are they looking at things?’”
At the end of the day, there is a real effort to remake senior living sales for the future. And no matter what the new year brings, the long-term fundamentals still look good, according to Westermann.
“I always, always remind myself right now that a million seniors are going to enter our target demographic next year,” he said. “So, yes, we have headwinds coming up; but we have a million more people coming in, and that’s a pretty powerful thing in this business.”