Five Impactful Digital Trends

From social media to mobile ads, how the smart use of technology can help owners/operators boost the bottom line.

By Jane Adler

It’s hard to keep up with digital marketing trends. Look no further than a recent episode of the Viceland television show, “The Most Expensivest,” hosted by rapper 2 Chainz. The 30-minute prograam titled “The Most Expensivest Retirement” highlights an upscale retirement community in Florida — The Palace Coral Gables.

During the show, 2 Chainz chats with residents, questions staffers and samples the chef’s cooking. In the words of 2 Chainz, “I’m at a facility that tends to every particular need you have, with a penthouse that [costs] 13k a month.”

The full episode was posted on the community’s website and Facebook page — a social media marketing strategy unimaginable 10 years ago.

“We got a lot of mileage out of it,” says Janis Ehlers, president of The Ehlers Group, the marketing firm in Fort Lauderdale that represents The Palace. “The owner had the guts to do it.”

Operators and owners agree digital channels have become vital to a successful marketing strategy. At the same time, they grapple with what works, and how to keep pace with a quickly changing digital landscape.

Recognizing the challenges, here are five big digital marketing trends to watch.

1. Online footprint makes strides

Senior living operators and owners aren’t giving up on traditional media or special events, but digital marketing makes up an increasingly large part of the overall sales strategy.

In 2018, 100 percent of respondents reported having a digital marketing strategy in place, according to a survey by the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA). Brooks Adams, an arm of Kansas City, Missouri-based marketing firm GlynnDevins, conducted the online survey last August.

Members of ASHA and LeadingAge participated in the survey, which yielded 195 respondents.

More than three quarters (77 percent) of organizations reported using up to 60 percent of their overall corporate marketing budget on digital efforts, according to the ASHA survey.

“The percentage of the marketing budget spent on the digital side will creep up,” predicts Justin Dickinson, senior vice president of investments and acquisitions at CA Ventures, a private equity firm headquartered in Chicago. The firm owns 23 communities and hires third-party managers to operate its properties.

CA Ventures recently added a digital sales and marketing specialist to its staff to help bolster efforts at the community level. The specialist is part of an internal team at CA that also provides assistance with operations, expenses and clinical work.

Merrill Gardens, an owner-operator with 33 properties, allocates about 85 percent of its marketing budget to digital channels. Print and direct mail is used to market new properties, but stabilized facilities are almost exclusively promoted online, says Amanda Warren, director of marketing for Seattle-based Merrill Gardens.

Pathway to Living dedicates about 60 percent of its marketing budget to digital channels. “We are putting our money into better experiences on the website,” says Nicole Bartecki, vice president of sales and marketing at
Chicago-based Pathway. The company operates 22 properties and owns 16 of them. Pathway has three communities under construction that it will both own and operate.

2. Refresh websites often

The community website was named as the most effective marketing tool by 55 percent of respondents to the ASHA survey. But a static site without new or targeted content is not as effective as one that is continually updated, say operators.

Ehlers, a professional marketer, keeps community landing pages fresh. Monthly activities are posted to show adult children and seniors the changing range of programs. Operators vary content with current photos and blogs. Residents tell their stories in quick, 30-second videos.

Analytics figure in the mix. One operator uses heat mapping to see where visitors spend their time on the website to beef up content in spots that get ignored. The top places visited: floor plans and short educational videos.

Beyond original content, operators are fine-tuning strategies to convert website visitors into qualified sales leads, a process called “lead nurturing” or “marketing automation.” Website plug-in programs are often linked to customer relationship management (CRM) systems.

For example, Pathway’s websites include different touch points that target visitors with content tailored to where they are in the sales cycle. A first-time visitor can get general information and sign up for a monthly e-newsletter to learn more about upcoming events. A repeat visitor ready for a tour can sign up online.

A dialogue box with live chats was recently introduced on several property websites. (Chat boxes are also included on the community’s Facebook page.) A call center answers the questions with pre-programmed scripts. Consumers with a specific question, or those who would like to arrange a tour, are transferred to the property for a live call.

Using a different script, Facebook chat boxes also communicate with employees and recruit new workers — a novel approach to address the industry’s worker shortage. Prospective employees can find out if the community is hiring and ask about benefits and hours. “We can get them a response right away,” says Bartecki.

Senior Resource Group (SRG) recently launched an in-house contact center instead of outsourcing the work. Four employees respond to website visitors who fill out a contact form, and to consumers who call in to the community.

“We’ve found a phenomenal increase in qualified leads,” says Amy McGuire, corporate director of marketing and communications at Solana Beach, California-based SRG. The company owns and operates 19 communities, and manages 13 others. “No one can convey our culture like we can,” she adds.

Belmont Village Senior Living spends about $5,000 a month on a live chat web function for its 28 communities. Belmont owns and operates the properties and has three more under construction that open this year. “Sales people are overloaded,” says Jeff DeBevec, senior vice president of communications at Belmont, which is headquartered in Houston.

Like other senior living providers, Belmont separates leads by the level of interest and then provides appropriate content.

In a different twist, Belmont recently introduced a survey on its website designed by Roobrik, a maker of online marketing tools based in Durham, North Carolina. Visitors take an objective survey about their situation and receive a report that can help guide their decisions about senior living.

“It puts the decision making and information gathering in the hands of the consumer,” DeBevec says about the survey. “We’ve seen an increase in the time visitors spend on the site.”

3. Social media explodes

Facebook is by far the most preferred social network by seniors and baby boomers, notes Janel Wait, chief innovative officer at GlynnDevins. Data across numerous studies regarding usage among seniors and adult children supports Facebook as the priority channel today, she adds.

Operators are careful to keep Facebook pages fresh and inviting since the social site functions almost like an alternative corporate and community website.

With the growing popularity of podcasts, Ehlers’ marketing firm has launched community podcasts hosted on Facebook. “We’re really excited about that,” says Ehlers. Podcasts are another way for the community to tell its story. “We have to be proactive,” she says. Facebook is also used for blog posts and resident interviews.

Facebook visitors can get a feel for a community, according to SRG’s McGuire. “Social media is good for family engagement.” That encourages resident referrals, a big source of new customers. But, she adds, it’s a softer sell, noting that Facebook and other social media sites don’t typically result in a traditional conversion to a phone call or tour. “Social media offers support and validation,” she says.

McGuire expects the use of social media to increase, but she admits it can take resources and time away from other more proven marketing efforts.

Social media can leverage the reach of events. The Palace Coral Gables held cooking classes for the adult children of residents. Pictures of the class were posted on social media. The Facebook page also included a link where visitors could see more pictures from the event.

YouTube and Instagram are growing in popularity as marketing outlets for senior living providers. Video productions targeting elders should have a news or educational format, according to Rick Barrow of Barrow & Co., an advertising firm in Miami that works with senior living properties.

Older people prefer information, notes Barrow. Communities that partner with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, for example, send out e-vites to events. Every invitation previews a mini-lecture by the event speaker.

Reputation management on social sites is important, operators say.

Third-party firms offer services to monitor Google reviews and sites such as Yelp. The firm responds to negative posts to create a more balanced view of the property.

 4. Analytics are fundamental

Web advertising — pay-per-click, text and banner ads — ranks third in the ASHA digital marketing survey with 38 percent of respondents naming it as the most effective tool.

Online advertising is growing in sophistication. Operators are combining search engine optimization (SEO) with search engine marketing (SEM) to boost results. “A combination of both works well together,” says Warren at Merrill Gardens. “We complement relevant searches with paid advertising.”

Analytics plays a big role today. Data is available to show who clicks on ads and visits the website. “There is so much data,” notes Belmont’s DeBevec. “That’s the challenge.” Belmont customizes its search engine marketing campaigns by time of day and week.

SRG tracks results by monitoring keywords, traditional calls and visits from unique URLs. “We take that information and feed it back into our SEO strategy,” says McGuire.

Digital strategies are customized by market. Keywords that describe the topic of a web page for search purposes may differ whether the property is in an urban area or in the suburbs. The key words “senior living” might be more prominent in Arizona than in California one week, explains McGuire. But then the trend can flip.

“We adjust keywords on a weekly basis,” she says.

New communities can be hard for consumers to find online. Pathway to Living has had success building awareness of a new community with pay-per-click Facebook campaigns. Another successful tool is the use of retargeting ads, which follow website visitors as they search other sites online, advertising toward them on other sites. ”It creates brand awareness,” says Bartecki.

5. Digital goes mobile

The widespread adoption of smartphones is changing how digital marketing is delivered. About 77 percent of U.S. adults are smartphone users, up from 35 percent in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center. Among Americans age 50 to 64 — the typical age range of adult children who help elderly parents make housing decisions — 73 percent are smartphone users. About 46 percent of seniors age 65 and over have smartphones.

Smartphones allow people to use the devices for more than calling and texting. Users can get directions, shop online and research a senior living community wherever they happen to be and whenever they have the time.

The ASHA survey shows that 40 percent of consumers access corporate websites via mobile devices and 16 percent visit via tablets.

“These percentages are growing as greater numbers of baby boomers, who are heavy users of mobile technology, interact with a parent or loved one’s community or caregiver, and increasingly seek information about senior living and care services for themselves,” the report states.

“We’ve seen a critical increase in mobile visits,” says Belmont’s DeBevec.

Smartphones and tablet visits now equal desktop computer visits. “Often the initial point of contact is by mobile phone,” he says.

As a result, websites are being optimized for mobile usage. The website code is written to recognize the user’s device to deliver content in a format friendly to that device.

Mobile devices account for 50 percent of website visits at Merrill Gardens. Its websites are optimized for mobile use. The company also buys mobile ads through Google.

Operators are experimenting with advertising targeted to mobile phones through messenger apps, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Another new tool is geofencing, apps that deliver messages to smartphones that enter a certain geographic area.

Android smartphone users can download an app that turns the device into a flashlight — a big help in low-light situations. Mobile ads on these flashlight apps are effective, says Derek Dunham, vice president of client services at Varsity Marketing based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “It’s a good way to reach seniors.”