By Pete Angus, United Group of Companies
If you build it, they will come…
You were thinking “Field of Dreams,” the classic baseball film where ghosts of the legends of baseball yesteryear come to play on Ray Kinsella’s field, right? Well in this case we’re actually referring to active adult communities of the early aughts, when the marketing approach was literally to build and wait for them to fill.
For example, in 1999 my company opened the Beltrone Living Center, a 250-unit active adult community in Albany, N.Y. These were the early days of active adult, and the building filled itself without the benefits of today’s internet marketing opportunities and reach. We built it, and they came.
As recently as 2013, some of our active adult communities didn’t even have websites. The onus fell on the development team, property manager and regional manager to find ways to attract residents, and somehow, it just worked. As a digital marketer from the early internet days, I sometimes find it astounding that properties didn’t have websites within the last decade, but it also reminds me of the incredible opportunity to innovate that still exists in our industry.
And innovating we are!
When I first entered the real estate industry I was equally astounded when I would speak with some of the largest real estate software companies in the country and they had never heard of using landing pages for paid advertising campaigns, and never experienced a customer asking about lead source attribution models and ROI reports.
Over the past three years, and through the pandemic, we have completely evolved our approach to marketing active adult and independent living lite communities. These are the most impactful changes.
Seniors Housing Business and InterFace Conference Group are hosting the 2021 InterFace Active Adult conference on August 4 in Dallas. Click here for details.
Field Marketing Investment
Three years ago, our field marketing function played an important but somewhat administrative function. They partnered with regional managers and assisted in supporting our property teams’ marketing efforts. Today we look at the field marketing function as equally important to the strong leadership and strategic thinking we expect from our regional managers.
We’ve invested where other developers and operators haven’t in building a nimble, smart and sophisticated field marketing team. These are not order-takers and coordinators, these are the people accountable for generating impactful results and making strategic decisions on our properties’ campaign tactics, budget, and product positioning.
Our field marketing team is responsible for managing the marketing plans at each community, planning and managing multiple events at their properties each month, managing and conducting outreach in the local community, and generating a large quantity of quality leads and reporting results to ownership groups.
This investment has changed the game in our lead generation efforts.
An Omnichannel Approach
Remember the days of putting all your eggs into a few baskets? In taking a property over from one of the largest operators in the country last year, we saw traffic from five lead sources, and in our first month of managing, 11 new leads came in from their prior efforts. A year later, that same community has nearly 20 unique lead sources sending us traffic and generates close to 150 new leads per month.
As seniors continue to make the shift from traditional to digital channels, we’ve seen our opportunities for lead generation explode. We now spread our efforts across all channels, and work to build brand presence everywhere.
Our messaging and brand image are monitored closely from our corporate office, where we have specialized marketers with the skillset to develop and manage complex marketing campaigns across numerous platforms. Customers today demand access and information at their fingertips, and a true omnichannel approach is the new normal in choice-based senior housing.
Test & Learn Programs
From 2002 to 2011, Google ran a project called Google Labs. It was a playground filled with new features that they made available to users to try out. It was an approach to test and learn that gave companies new tools to test and provided Google with data on what was most effective, and what products they should build and sell in the future.
The pandemic was a great motivator and opportunity for us to take a similar approach. A few examples from our test and learn program are outlined below. As a disclaimer, some worked extremely well and are in use today, and some were flops. However, these tests were opportunities to place some small bets on new tactics that didn’t risk our overall traffic flow.
Perq: Perq is a software solution that integrates with the property website and allows site visitors to tell you exactly what they are looking for. It adds value to the user in narrowing their search, as well as to the leasing team by providing deeper qualifying information. It is a conversion optimization tactic used more in multifamily than senior living and has proven valuable.
Roobrik: Like Perq, this quiz-like integration helps seniors determine their needs and explore whether they will be met by a specific community. It has traditionally been used in higher levels of care, but we’ve found that it helps us better position our sales approach on what is important for a potential resident. For example, if a prospect answers in the quiz that they don’t drive much, we can focus part of our conversation on our community bus, and our willingness to bring residents shopping, to appointments or out to events.
Content Offers: The tech industry has used content as a hook for over a decade, with HubSpot’s Inbound Marketing approach pushing content as a mainstream marketing channel. Senior living operators have not invested in this type of content heavily, presenting us with an opportunity to test it’s effectiveness in this industry. We recently published a guide for seniors thinking about downsizing and have started testing effectiveness (you can see an example of this approach here: https://resources.sandalwoodvillage.com/).
Optin Monster: Another conversion tool, similar to Roobrik or Perq, this program allows for integration and iterations in testing. We’ve used it to build personal connections for prospects perusing our websites by showcasing our staff. Conversion rates have been through the roof.
Nextdoor: As the Nextdoor app became a standard way for neighbors to communicate, we looked to build our brands’ presence on it by communicating with single-family homeowners and maintaining a voice in local conversations. (Note, this happened to be one of the flops for us.)
Spotify: Spotify allowed us to target higher income, more technologically savvy senior and adult children audiences. This thinking has led us to explore other subscription services that may be beneficial in the future, including Pandora, Sirius XM and multiple TV streaming services.
Facebook Lead Ads: A new integration with our CRM moved us beyond traditional Facebook advertising and organic posts to test their Lead Ads product. Cost per lead has been shockingly low, but a warning – you’ll need a larger staff to handle the lead volume and be savvy with your targeting options.
Video for Everything: We’ve used OneDay for years, and our teams have taken it to a new level throughout the pandemic, using the platform to shoot video for our Featured Floorplan Fridays, resident events, personalized leasing videos for prospects, and just about everything else. We anticipate that this heavy use, and resulting benefits, will continue as COVID restrictions continue to ease. Videos have been a beneficial addition to our proprietary Socially F.I.T. program throughout our portfolio.
The opportunities to test and learn new platforms and conversion optimization tactics are endless, and each month we’re exploring something new.
Expanding the Marketing Technology Stack
The traditional ‘set it and forget it,’ approach to the technology stack in active adult marketing is dead. We used to build a website on our CRM platform and we were done, but today, we have multiple integrations and utilize different software solutions for each phase in development.
Our toolkit now includes most of the software solutions discussed above. We also utilize additional lead generations sites (such as www.floridaseniorlife.com) built in Wix, landing pages hosted in Unbounce and tools integrated with our CRM, marketing suite and accounting back-office solution.
Simply put, we’re operating more like a technology company than a traditional real estate developer and operator when it comes to our marketing efforts.
Market Early, Market Often
While this phrase may evoke thoughts of the Tammany Hall political machine in New York in the 1860s, this has become our standard approach for building demand around our active adult product. In the past, companies built a project, ran some television or print ads a month or two before opening in hopes of creating a buzz and relied on outreach to local journalists and the hope that they’d write a piece on the project.
Today, we start marketing our projects up to two years prior to opening. Many of our projects are being promoted well before funding is even finalized! By leveraging small, lower-cost lead generation campaigns and building the brand earlier in the process, we typically have hundreds of prospects in our pipeline before our leasing consultant even starts.
As we’ve turbo-charged our marketing approach, we’ve also had to revisit traditional success metrics. It used to be that generating 100 new leads per month was the gold standard for active adult lease-ups. Today we have assets generating well over 200 leads per month, making us rethink what true success is.
Historically, we’ve seen cost per lead numbers for active adult fall in the $125 – $150 range, but many projects now generate leads at under $100 while still maintaining a high close rate.
Our traffic to tour ratio benchmark has usually been in the 25-30% range, but even that has required a fresh look now, as we drive 100+ leads per month to attend community events in some markets.
Most active adult operators outsource much of their marketing and advertising. While we rely on partners for some aspects of content creation, we’ve intentionally kept most of our work in-house. The true value of this approach is the intellectual property that it creates.
If you send all your creative or paid advertising to an agency, your outcomes are fully dependent on your partners’ motivation to meet and exceed goals and the skills their staff brings to the table. You lose key elements of brand development and never gain the advantage of learning from both your successes and failures.
The evolution of marketing strategy and technology in senior living is only picking up steam. By this time next year, we’ll have a whole new set of tools and best practices, and a new set of benchmark goals to hit.
In the past decade, the higher education market began shifting their marketing approach from print material targeted to parents to diverse efforts focused on reaching younger students (some as young as middle school!) in building brand preference. When the time came to make a choice, students had known for years which school they would attend.
As we target adult children, and a younger demographic of seniors, we’ll be utilizing a similar strategy. Active adult apartment communities were once just that; apartment complexes for people age 55+. Today they have become meaningful brands with personalities, and real differentiators. They carry influence and evoke the type of feelings traditionally achieved by retail brands.
I left the agency and technology world to market in the senior living industry. My only fear in making this move was that I was leaving an innovative market and the entrepreneurial spirit that that came with it for a more traditional, stodgy industry. I could not have been more wrong in that fear; we’re innovating at a blistering pace and resetting the standards in senior living.
While I can’t predict the future, I can say with certainty that it’s going to be a fun ride as we continue to revolutionize the senior living industry!
Pete Angus is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for United Group of Companies. His background includes marketing and technology leadership in agency and corporate positions for both national and international brands.