Marketing Culture Shock

Sales teams are forced to rework the way they do everything in the light of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions.

By Jeff Shaw

When outbreaks of COVID-19 rocked the United States starting in early 2020, Americans were hit with a barrage of frightening news reports. Since the virus is much more likely to kill older adults, every day the news was filled with reports of mass deaths in seniors housing communities, particularly skilled nursing facilities.

The disease has driven occupancy to a record-low rate of 80.7 percent for private-pay seniors housing at the end of the year. That’s according to new data from the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), an Annapolis-based nonprofit firm that tracks industry data gathered from 31 primary metropolitan markets. Meanwhile, 39 percent of all deaths from the disease have occurred in skilled nursing facilities, according to a December report by AARP. Nationwide, more than half a million people have died as a result of the virus.

This left seniors housing marketing teams with an extremely troublesome question: How do you sell a product that everyone in the country is afraid of?

“It was a massive tsunami that crushed the industry,” says Murad Velani, CEO of senior living marketing firm Bluespire. “How senior living operators marketed and sold their offerings changed dramatically.”

“Normalcy was uprooted, practically overnight,” agrees Kaleb Scharmahorn, president of Solinity Marketing. “The pandemic took away the comfort that so many seniors housing sales and marketing teams had trusted, and forced everyone into a new way of thinking and a new way of executing.”

Communities that already had occupancy struggles have it the worst, according to Traci Bild, president and CEO of marketing firm Bild & Co., saying they have seen occupancy “plummet with no rebound in sight, with some communities in the 50 to 60 percent range.” Even those that had strong occupancy saw rates fall by 15 percentage points or more, she adds.

“Culturally we went from strong demand to a complete halt in traffic, depending on what state operators are in. Even worse, communities were open and then shut for tours with ever-changing guidelines. We saw a huge lack of confidence and decline in morale among sales professionals, with the most experienced and long-tenured struggling to adapt the most.”

Change the mindset

In May 2020, the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) launched an industry-wide PR campaign, “Senior Living Today and Every Day,” which focused on sharing “real-time experiences within senior living communities and testimonials” through a variety of digital outlets. The campaign ran through January 2021.

The idea was to drown out the constant negative press regarding seniors housing and COVID-19 with positive messages about how seniors housing communities were coping safely with the pandemic while improving seniors’ quality of life over living at home. The campaign resulted in 33.7 million digital impressions across a wide variety of media platforms, and full feature articles in major outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times and Arizona Republic.

“Authenticity in communicating the community experience and benefits has always been a hallmark of the industry. During the pandemic, we have seen that message amplified in marketing tactics,” says Chris Egan, president and CEO of seniors housing marketing firm GlynnDevins, which assisted with the ASHA campaign. 

“These communities are well-positioned with safeguards and protocols to care for and protect residents’ health and well-being. So, safety and security are also reinforced in the messages when engaging senior audiences.” 

Marketers were tasked with educating the public on the real face of seniors housing, notes Velani. For many outside the industry, most seniors housing falls under the nomenclature of “nursing homes,” he says, and it’s important that operators and communities highlight their differentiation in the continuum of care and services offered in the market.

“Part of the challenge for the industry is how we can better inform and communicate the positive language around this generic term of nursing homes that conjures up images that are not the most complimentary.”

Safety protocols are key in marketing messages now, according to Janis Ehlers, president of marketing firm The Ehlers Group. “Use authority figures as spokespersons and shift the selling style from a salesperson to someone who can offer reassurance and credibility, such as the director of nursing.”

“Be honest and compassionate,” she continues. “Salespeople need to think less about signing a contract and more about showing empathy and being a comfort. It’s much more critical now to show we care.”

Joe Roche, president and CEO of The Roche Associates, has coordinated webinars and other online events for the company’s seniors housing clients. He says a nurse being present on the call is key.

“Just think about the Super Bowl — who flipped the coin? It was a nurse. There’s really been a recognition of the fabulous value nurses provide in disease prevention and control.”

Roche also recommends getting residents involved. Who better to tell prospects what it’s like to live in a seniors housing community than the seniors who actually live there? Willing residents can be used for one-on-one video calls or by incorporating them into webinars.

“We’ve been putting the residents out front. We believe our residents have life-changing experiences when they move in and live with us. It’s one thing for us to communicate that, but it’s entirely different to hear it from folks who are living in the communities during this time.”

Nan Hayes, chief revenue officer of Moving Station, a relocation platform for seniors, agreed. “Putting residents front and center is key. Nothing resonates with another prospect quite like real-life stories.”

“In general, though, the best approach is not to sell but to solve,” continues Hayes. “Instead of presenting one-size-fits-all move-in incentives, seek custom solutions that identify and overcome specific roadblocks to facilitate the move. At a time where prospective residents are a rarity, finding the right solution for each situation may make all the difference. ”

Examples of “solving” instead of “selling” include helping a prospect downsize, assisting with the home sale, and helping them move. “In our new reality, the real competition for senior living operators is now the prospect’s house,” adds Hayes.

Digital takes over

When the pandemic first struck seniors housing, many operators found they had a sudden and urgent need for digital resources. Whether for webinars, virtual tours, telemedicine, events or activities, the need for distanced communication became paramount in short order.

“The communities that already had the appropriate technology in place had an easier time, but it required a heavy investment of time by all to guide seniors through a different digital buying journey,” says Egan. “Just because the door is shut to the physical sales office doesn’t mean computers and digital cameras don’t work. The sales office has evolved to a fully digital office with engagements through virtual reality experiences, e-mail and video.”

Many operators have introduced virtual reality systems, and greatly increased their spend on digital advertising through search engines and social media.

Hosting events, whether for promotion or activities for existing residents, was a particularly high hurdle. Bryan McKeever, vice president of marketing and sales at The Roche Associates, recommends “small, socially distanced, in-person events coupled with virtual events.”

“Even when we had an opportunity to hold events in settings that were safe, we offered multiple options — join us in person or join us via webinar. That meets people where they’re most comfortable.”

Safe, in-person marketing strategies include drive-by celebrations for holidays like Mother’s Day, drive-through food tastings for prospects, home deliveries of supplies and model apartments accessible through the patio without entering the rest of the building. In lieu of an in-person lunch, some operators even send a meal delivery to eat during a call with a prospect.

“The secret to a strong turnout is an integrated campaign,” says Roche. “If you’re just relying upon digital marketing or paid advertising, you’re going to be very disappointed. We encourage a multi-channel marketing program that includes e-mails, a landing page and some limited Facebook and Google ads. But the heart of it is the direct marketing — mailers and phone calls. That’s what generates the turnouts.”

Scharmahorn suggests that some of these changes to digital marketing will pay dividends in the long run.

“Operators had to transition from a brick-and-mortar experience to a brand experience. Focusing on and building up the brand for many of these communities is one of the silver linings of the pandemic. 

“For the communities that have embraced this change, they will see more eyeballs on their community, and more engagement opportunities throughout the decision cycle for prospective residents.”

Focus on sales

With so many new ways to communicate, it’s easy for the sales team to be distracted by the various events or other marketing efforts. However, warns Roche, those tasks should be left up to the marketing team, not the sales team.

A Roche Associates study of time logs found that salespeople were spending between 23 and 45 percent of their time on actual selling activities. “They should be shooting for a minimum of 60 percent, and up to 75 percent,” says Roche. With a focus on keeping the sales team on sales activities, one Roche client saw move-ins increase 58 percent, he adds

“The greatest tools that every individual salesperson has is their in-depth knowledge and belief in their product. The marketing and sales teams have to work harder to differentiate from the competition, to talk about overall value not just price.”

Hayes agrees that salespeople need to focus on selling. Many had to switch strategies, but the end goal should be the same.

“Currently, operators need to shift the focus back to sales as much as possible, given the ongoing and necessary operational adjustments. They must re-engage prospects by instilling a sense of confidence and security, and share stories of those who successfully lived in a community or moved to a community during the pandemic.

“Remind prospects of the reasons they considered a community environment in the first place — the more convenient lifestyle, socialization and access to amenities and support as needed. Sales staff need to be trained to put aside their personal fear and biases, and set aside the assumption that people don’t want to move. Assume they do.”

Velani emphasizes that successful operators demand quantifiable and measurable return on marketing investment for digital and traditional media spend.  “Generating high-quality sales leads and accelerating the prospect-to-resident journey is key to success. Quality of leads and high-velocity conversion matters.”

What’s here to stay?

Many of the changes to digital marketing were made by force. Operators couldn’t welcome prospects into their buildings, so virtual meetings and tours were the only option. 

However, now that the changes have been made, there may be no going back.

Bild says that being more tech-savvy is good for operators. That said, companies should be cautious that they only keep programs where they get their money’s worth. 

“Just because a site gets 10,000 impressions or 500 clicks doesn’t mean they will convert into residents,” she says.

“Digital marketing is complex and spend can add up quickly. It’s vital that an overarching strategy is created first that is rolled out one step at a time to ensure that what is being put in place is working. Rolling a massive digital strategy out all at once can be disastrous.” 

Marketing spend represents the amount of money a marketing department spends on activities such as content marketing, paid advertising, search engine optimization, social media, trade shows and more.

Ehlers notes that programs that started because of COVID can be long-term marketing tools.

“Keep websites up to date with valuable information geared to consumers — become a resource. There is a greater comfort level with the use of Zoom, so more opportunities will be created, such as sharing resident events with prospects.”

McKeever says what will stick around is not just the digital tools, but the way operators communicate with residents.

“The more we connect with our customers in an authentic and transparent way, that tends to build trust. Even if the message isn’t always what we want to be delivering, residents will feel more comfortable and trust us. That will ultimately lead to higher rates of satisfaction, which correlates to higher rates of referrals.”

At the end of the day, the switch to a more digital marketing strategy may pay dividends in the long run for seniors housing operators.

“Marketing strategies leapt forward 10 years in about a 12-week span,” says Egan. “The omnichannel strategies of engaging the consumer how, when and where they want — those are here to stay.” n