Facebook and other outlets are required for success, but proceed with caution.
By Mike Gray
Social media is a term that didn’t exist a dozen years ago, but now generates billions of dollars in revenue every quarter. From Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and Pinterest, businesses — including senior living operators and developers — understand that they need to be active on social media to reach their target audiences.
The good news for the senior living industry is that residents and families are the fastest growing segment on social media.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 report on social media usage, 65 percent of all Americans are active on social media. Notably, usage among Americans over 65 has tripled since 2010 and the trend continues to grow. The next fastest-growing segment of social media users are those between 45 and 55 years old, many of whom are the children of current and potential residents.
It’s easy to recognize the opportunity here. Senior living operators can position themselves to reach their potential customers through social media. They can raise awareness about their senior living brands and talk directly to a wide array of current and potential customers.
Social media lends itself to word-of-mouth marketing, and there’s nothing more effective than letting a current resident share his or her story on your social platforms. It’s authentic and it connects. The best part is that social media campaigns are a lot less expensive than traditional advertising.
The Pew study also found that over 90 percent of millennials are active on social media. This means the platforms offer impressive employee recruitment channels for an industry that has high turnover and is facing significant labor shortages.
It’s not all perfect
Despite the enormous upside to senior living operators and developers becoming active on social media, there is an increasingly precarious set of potential pitfalls.
From responding to criticism on social media to posting content strategically and consistently, senior living providers must deftly handle their social media activity, especially when it concerns residents. Respecting the privacy of your residents, and their loved ones and visitors, is paramount. Although all providers would agree with this statement, the vast majority don’t have strategies in place to protect the privacy and dignity of residents.
In fact, in August 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued new guidelines on employee use of social media in response to the increasing number of cases where resident privacy was violated on social media. Although these guidelines are focused on nursing homes currently, it’s only a matter of time before they’re extended to other segments of the senior living industry.
Interestingly, this issue of privacy is capturing the attention of more senior living lenders and investors that want to ensure that their investments are protected. Operators need to be prepared for pressure from lenders and the government to maintain the privacy of their residents.
Regardless of heightened regulatory attention, the CMS guidelines should be adopted by all senior living and retirement living communities as best practices. Yes, social media has a great deal of potential, but like any tool it needs to be leveraged effectively.
Running social media audits
All senior living communities should conduct ongoing social media audits. An audit not only serves to gauge areas of improvement, it is a powerful risk management tool.
Communities should evaluate what content they’re posting and identify areas of concern, including privacy violations. The social media audit should take place on three levels:
• First, review what platforms you’re using. Do you post content to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Periscope or others? Where are you seeing the most engagement or interaction? Consider the demographics of users on various social media sites. All social media platforms share user information by age, gender and more. You likely will find it’s best to focus on a limited number of social media sites.
• Second, review your content. What are you sharing? Are you getting responses to any posts? Are there privacy violations?
• Third, review what your competitors are doing. This final part of the audit can be illuminating for many communities. It helps you develop a better sense of where you stand in your local market.
Based on your research, develop a brief report with recommendations. If you see privacy or dignity violations, address them quickly and create policies to prevent them from happening in the future.
Creating social media plans
Once the audit is complete, senior living communities should turn their attention to a social media plan. This plan outlines the type of content you want to post, what platforms you will use, overall objectives, a schedule for publishing content and how you’ll measure your social media activity.
Plans also should include guidelines for responding to questions, comments, and reviews that users post on social media about your brand. For example, Commonwealth Senior Living has a social media plan that outlines the type of content to be posted, the frequency and who is responsible for handling responses to reviews and comments.
Additionally, the senior living provider works with monthly content calendars to strategically plan and tailor what it wants to share on social media across its 23 communities. Social media posting has been centralized, so all content from communities is approved before it’s published on community social media pages.
Since implementing this plan, Commonwealth’s communities have seen higher reach and engagement on social media. Additionally, traffic to Commonwealth’s website is up and potential residents and family increasingly cite social media as a place where they learned about the community.
Mandating social media training
As an evolving communications channel, it’s also imperative that senior living operators and developers conduct ongoing social media training for all employees.
Even if your company centralizes its social media management, frontline employees could still be taking photos of residents and posting them on their personal accounts. Develop specific guidelines and policies for all employees to follow regarding social media. Add the policy to the employee handbook and consistently remind team members about it. Also, be clear about the use of photo disclosures, whether in resident agreements, photo releases or posts around your community.
Additional social media training should be a requirement, but doesn’t have to be burdensome. For example, Erickson Living’s marketing team crafted a training class for the public affairs team members who manage the community-specific Facebook pages. In addition, the marketing team has put together communication packages for the different levels of employees throughout the organization that include best practices, posting suggestions, consequences and other valuable resources.
Furthermore, Erickson Living’s marketing team collaborated with the legal and human resources departments to incorporate social media training into the company’s annual compliance training for all employees. Compliance training is already required and now includes brief updates on social media policies and guidelines.
Mike Gray is a partner and co-founder of Commonwealth Partnerships, a communications firm that specializes in the senior living and real estate sectors.