Recognizing that the web is the gateway to their company, seniors housing operators are building more robust, engaging online sites.
By Lynn Peisner
Eight seconds. That’s all the time you have to capture a visitor’s interest on a seniors housing website.
A community or company’s website has much to accomplish in that eight seconds. Visitors who aren’t drawn in instantly will often assume that the quality of the website is synonymous with the level of care or condition of the building.
“The website has become our new front door,” says Deborah Howard, CEO of Senior Living SMART (SLS), a Sandwich, Massachusetts-based seniors housing sales and marketing firm.
SLS provides marketing support to create or enhance websites, develop content such as blogs, e-books and guides, increase lead conversion and provide sales tools and training. SLS typically works with start-up companies and firms with portfolios of up to 60 communities in multiple states, focusing on independent owners and operators.
“That front door can’t be locked. It can’t be beaten up. It can’t be creaky. It’s got to create an interactive experience and build a relationship,” says Howard.
The eight-second rule stems from research she’s conducted on the websites of her clients. And the numbers only get more interesting. Howard says 87 percent of all seniors housing sales begin at the website.
Often characterized as behind the times, seniors housing websites have been evolving rapidly in recent years.
“Just five years ago, if you had talked about a digital media strategy to a seniors housing CEO, he would have looked at you like your head was on fire,” recalls Tom Mann, executive vice president of Love & Company, a senior living marketing firm based in Frederick, Maryland.
So what is the anatomy of a timely, relevant and effective seniors housing website today? Many agree on the basics: An effective website has to load quickly on any device; be intuitive to navigate; tell a story with visual images; connect to your sales tools or CRM (customer relationship management); and lastly, share what are sometimes closely guarded company secrets — including pricing.
It’s about them, not you
Most seniors digital marketing specialists emphasize the importance of tailoring the website and all other associated digital products toward the users of the site. The main gist of a website is no longer centered on corporate identity. It’s on the senior or family member who may be knocking at that digital front door.
“User experience” is a commonly cited term among seniors website specialists today, particularly because a website has only eight seconds to grab the audience’s attention.
“One of the most important pieces of advice is do not make assumptions about who your audience is,” says Clara Daly, interactive communications director for Love & Company.
“We have a number of clients tell us who their audience is and how they consume information. Then we do focus groups with seniors and learn that the prospect pool isn’t at all what the owner/operator thought,” explains Daly. “Come to it with an open mind, do the research, let the data guide you, and you might have a lot of big surprises.”
“Users” are typically seniors, adult children or other caregivers, but the predictable designations end there. The fluctuating characteristics of this group are determined by how far into their search for seniors housing they are.
Howard calls this the “continuum of the buyer’s journey in seniors housing.” A web visitor may be an adult child just beginning to think about care and housing options for the distant future. Or the user could be a loved one in need of an immediate option for a senior.
“Some of the newer philosophies of website development break the user experience down by role,” explains Howard. If you are an adult child, you’ll receive different content than if you are the senior.
This is where a seemingly contradictory concept comes into play: The best seniors websites today aren’t trying to sell seniors housing.
Somerby Senior Living’s website gets to know its web visitor by offering content that isn’t even about the community, including articles that focus on driving safety tips for seniors and caring for a pet during retirement years.
“Our web visitors might go from knowing nothing about senior living to needing to immediately find a place where mom fits,” says Kimberly Stanford, director of marketing for Birmingham, Alabama-based Somerby Senior Living, which offers independent, assisted living and memory care through its portfolio of eight communities.
“Our website has a good bit of knowledge to help people. Even if Somerby’s not the right fit, we have resources to help them on their journey,” adds Stanford.
Quality website content comes in many forms. Love & Company, for instance, has a team solely dedicated to creating content, which includes white papers, case studies, videos, social media, blogs and all the digital products that are required to keep the relationship between the website user and the property rolling.
“Once they click on that content, that’s where the relationship begins,” says Mann. “That kind of content says that this company has given me good information, and I trust them. When I am ready to call for an appointment or to come in for a tour, I’ll call on them. Gone are the days when you start hounding people and calling them without their permission.”
Analytics prove this to be true. Howard says the most popular item on the Vitality Senior Living website, which SLS launched in March, was an article about yoga.
“That is something we see over and over in the field,” says Daly. “It’s not always what salespeople want to hear, but it results in more conversions if you give the user more power and control. They’re doing their research in their own time, and they won’t get on the phone with someone to come take a tour until they feel they have sufficient information.”
For a website to be effective, at a minimum it must be responsive. “Adaptive” is another adjective used interchangeably with responsive to describe this status. That means the website loads on any device, is legible and contains the same content viewing on a phone that you’d see if you were viewing the website from a desktop.
“The way it used to be is you’d build your desktop site, and then you’d have your mobile site. You’d maintain those two things separately,” says Carrie Peterson, director of website strategy and user experience for GlynnDevins, a Kansas City, Missouri-based senior living marketing firm.
“Now, with responsive design, you’re building one site, and it’s controlled by the same content management system on the back end. So as you go to a smaller device — from a desktop to a tablet to a phone — it’s going to render exactly the same, the copy will not be minimized, and you will be able to easily see all the components contained on the full site.”
On a mobile version, the full navigation menu typically turns into a “hamburger,” (the three-lined icon often seen in the corners of mobile sites).
“It’s interesting to me to see how many seniors websites are still not optimized to be used on a mobile site,” says Libby Lauer, co-founder and COO of Senior Source Consulting Group, a Tampa, Florida-based senior living marketing and consulting firm.
“About one-third of the businesses that request our help have websites that aren’t responsive,” says Daly. “If a site isn’t responsive in this day and age, it’s not working. Even if you have done other best practices for seniors to update the site, if it isn’t responsive it’s as good as lost.”
Lauer urges all senior living firms who may not know whether their websites are optimized to be used on a mobile device to type their URL into the following site: https://search.google.com/test/mobile-friendly
Google algorithms penalize sites that are not optimized for mobile viewing, says Lauer. “Websites that are not optimized are at a competitive disadvantage during Google searches,” she says.
“This would be a part of our advice to senior living providers to not only play well with Google to show up higher on search results, but also to improve the overall customer experience.”
Quality visuals are critical
According to Peterson, it’s essential to have navigation tools that are intuitive and allow users to easily hop around the site.
“There should also be a very nice visual impact and visual design that is an extension of the community brand,” she says. “The online experience should be very similar to the experience when the person actually goes to the community for the first time.”
This is typically best achieved through video and other visual means. “Our brains process much faster through visual narrative, than through reading and comprehending text,” says Peterson. “So that first impression is almost always the result of video or other elements such as interactive floor plans, virtual tours, photo or video galleries or siteplan interactive maps.”
Somerby’s website was redesigned by Luckie & Co. in 2016. Chris Bradley, who has moved on to found his own Austin, Texas-based advertising agency BRADLEYWEST, was on the Luckie team at the time of the Somerby project.
He says that the company established a budget to work within, one that included the cost of shooting video of residents who live at Somerby.
The first order of business was repairing Somerby’s non-responsive website status. After that, the main objective was a video-heavy approach for the relaunch.
“Before we started designing any kind of website, we went out to the property and interviewed residents and videoed their stories,” recalls Bradley.
“We wanted to know the real story of their experiences. Often that began with a fear, with not knowing what was going to happen with a transition into a managed-care community.”
The videos stand out because though they are positive overall, they don’t come across as obsequious advertising testimonials.
“The key part of the new website is the videos,” says Stanford. “Our videographer took hours of footage and edited it down to what you see on the website. The videos captured their real concerns before moving in. Our main objective was to convey what it looks like to live here, spoken directly by senior peers along with their adult children.”
Now that the website’s been live for about a year, Stanford says analytics show that of all the elements on the website, visitors spend the most time watching the videos in their entirety.
Renovations on a budget
Seniors housing website design experts urge operators not to despair if they don’t have the budget for a head-to-toe renovation of a website or a multi-pronged digital media marketing campaign.
Beyond ensuring your site is responsive, there are some easy, affordable add-ons that can really turn business around for the better.
“If people can’t afford a brand new website, there are enhancements you can plug into an existing website that will create the kind of interactions you need to build relationships with your user,” says Howard.
She recommends live chat as an example. “Anybody can put live chat on their website,” she says. “It is the lowest cost, most no-brainer thing you can do with a line of code.”
Although only about five percent of website visitors will use the chat function, the feature has a high conversion rate, emphasizes Howard. Forty percent of people who chat convert to a lead, and 20 percent of people who chat want to schedule a tour directly through the chat exchange, based on aggregate figures from Howard’s client base.
Howard says a chat feature costs nothing to install and is billed only when a tour or qualified lead is generated from the feature. A few hundred dollars a month can typically buy products like interactive web surveys.
Professionally written and original content, such as blogs, e-books and guides with automated workflows and lead-nurturing campaigns can range from approximately $3,500 to $5,500 per month. And a cutting-edge, brand-new website with all the bells and whistles can range from a one-time cost of approximately $30,000 to $40,000.
Mann suggests that if a new website doesn’t fit within a budget, then pay-per-click advertising that drives traffic to squeeze pages can be a good first step. A squeeze page is a specially designed landing page that generates leads for a property. These efforts can bypass an outdated website and drive qualified leads.
“In addition, pay attention to your community’s online reviews,” says Mann. “Every time you do a search, whether you’re doing it online or through a device like Alexa, you’re doing it through an AI (artificial intelligence) database. AI is beginning to pay particular attention to online reviews.”
The senior living industry is on the cusp of another breakthrough when it comes to the use of artificial intelligence, according to Mann. “I really believe that we are not that far off from asking: ‘Alexa. What’s the best retirement community for me?’”