By: Tim Mullaney | Senior Housing News
Senior living marketing is not simply about promoting today’s communities, but being forward-thinking to help shape the future of the industry. From operational models, to pricing practices, to leveraging data in the most efficient and effective ways, marketing executives are envisioning what tomorrow’s winners will look like and they are pushing for innovation accordingly.
“There’s so much room for improvement in this industry,” said Dan Hutson, chief strategy officer for Cornerstone Affiliates, at the recent SMASH Senior Care Marketing Sales Summit in Chicago. Cornerstone Affiliates is the parent company for a family of senior living brands, including the merged operations of major nonprofit providers be.group and American Baptist Homes of the West (ABHOW).
The fact that senior housing today captures only about 4 million out of 46 million potential customers is one piece of evidence that huge improvements can be made, said Hutson. Change is not easy for industry professionals or residents, but settling for “how we’ve always done it” is a recipe for failure, he argued.
Hutson and a few other top leaders in the realm of marketing weighed on what some of these changes might look like.
- Break the Mold
One challenge for marketers in today’s senior living environment is that providers seem to be offering increasingly similar products, noted Jamison Gosselin, vice president of marketing, communications, and resident enrichment at Holiday Retirement, the nation’s largest independent living provider.
“How to differentiate [your brand]?” Gosselin asked.
For Hutson, the answer is not that slick marketing can put a new gloss on what is essentially a familiar product. Rather, operators need to be thinking about what seniors desire and use that knowledge to create bold new models. The typical independent living, assisted living, memory care/skilled nursing community is not going to appeal to seniors who increasingly are looking for communities that support their goals for highly active, engaged, enriched lives.
“We give lip service to a lot of those aspects [of senior living],” Hutson said. “There’s a huge market opportunity to step outside traditional product categories, [into] great uncharted territory … We’ve got all this investment money coming in to build yesterday’s product. It’s short-sighted.”
Cornerstone has engaged an innovative design firm to help develop a new concept, Hutson said. While the ongoing affiliation between be.group and ABHOW has slowed the progress on this somewhat, a prototype is close to being developed. Hutson plans to offer more details about this new concept at next month’s LeadingAge conference in Indianapolis.
- Stop the Concessions
Innovative new operational models should consider the pressing need for more affordable housing for a middle-market consumer, Hutson and his colleagues agreed. But that should mean a sustainable pricing structure, not one that relies on a cycle of discounted rents to increase move-ins.
“I hate to see us offering discounts, concessions, giving things away,” said Carlene Motto, executive vice president of sales for Belmont Village, a Houston-based operator with more than two dozen communities.
When it comes to these pricing practices, Motto called on senior housing operators to “stop the nonsense.”
To make her point, she shared a personal story about looking for a home care provider for a family member. The agency said that typically, its rates would be $18 an hour, but it was willing to knock that down to $14 an hour in Motto’s case. Rather than being grateful for the price break, the offer rubbed Motto the wrong way, as it suggested the care for her family member for some reason was not worth the going rate.
“It left a terrible taste in my mouth,” she said. Her message to sales and marketing teams, and other executives in charge of setting price structures, was clear: “The concession is not going to make the difference.”
- Prioritize Meaningful Engagement
Technology is making it easier than ever to capture data, and sales and marketing may be feeling pressure to collect and report key performance indicators, sometimes to a fault—Motto shared the example of a worker expected to report occupancy every day.
“Our business doesn’t change that much in thirty days,” she said, noting that occupancy is relatively stable in private-pay senior living compared with some other health care settings. Rather than spending the time collating useless data, workers should be focused on “meaningful engagement” with residents and prospects, she stressed.
For Hutson, the name of the game in data is to be selective. He’s focused on lead quality, not volume, so is looking for how many touches a prospect gets, and which types of contact are most effective in moving someone from one stage to the next in the journey to becoming a resident. It’s not necessarily possible to be totally precise in tracking what these triggers are, but this is where the effort is being focused, he said.
More broadly, Hutson is interested in measuring Cornerstone’s progress toward its overarching goals, by capturing key metrics in a more automated fashion and displaying the information in a visually appealing way on a simple dashboard that executives can check in on quickly and frequently. This involves looking for some proxy measures that can give the leadership more timely insight into key targets—such as resident satisfaction—that may only be directly measured once a year.
- Go Digital
At the same time that marketers are taking on the challenge of shaping the future of senior housing and capturing market share in a competitive environment, they are seeing their budgets under pressure. To stretch their dollars, they need to consider that some traditional avenues for marketing are no longer the best place to make investments.
“There are still companies spending a lot in print advertising, [and] you can probably leverage those dollars a lot more with digital,” said Motto. “I’d look at your subscriptions and some of the print advertising you’re doing … and make sure you’re not duplicating those efforts.”
That said, it’s important for marketers to be sensitive to individual markets, said Danni Holman, vice president of marketing, sales, and engagement with Gardant Management Solutions. Based in Bradley, Illinois, Gardant manages assisted living, memory care, and supportive living programs. As the largest assisted living provider in Illinois, Gardant serves diverse markets and has learned some lessons the hard way about what type of marketing works best for different demographics.
“What works up in Chicago might not work down in southern Illinois,” said Holman. “Print ads do very well down in southern Illinois, but one of my communities spent $63,000 in ads in Peoria, and I read that paper every single day, and it did not catch my eye. So, we did just throw $63,000 out the window.”
Weighing the decision to go digital versus sticking with print ads emphasizes that marketers still need to go back to basics in crafting their strategies. It’s about looking at your marketing plan, seeing where those dollars are spent, and making sure you get a return, Holman said.
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