Kerry Phillips
Kerry Phillips

When considering how to market a senior living community, a crystal ball that forecasts upcoming trends surely would be helpful.

Absent such a prognostication device, however, we substituted a team of senior housing marketing experts: Janis Ehlers of The Ehlers Group; Todd Harff of Creating Results; Barbara Kleger of Kleger Associates; and Jane Marie O’Connor of 55 Plus LLC. The team shared several predictions for 2018.

1. Successful communities develop a unique identity based on what is important to their residents.

Successful communities differentiate themselves with a unique identity. When it comes to shaping its identity and brand, a smart community determines what truly is important to its residents. According to an article in CRM Magazine, 80% of customers from 500 companies in varying industries said they believe organizations put more effort into selling to them than providing them with excellent customer service.

A customer audit can give you a glimpse through the customer’s eyes to see what is important, Ehlers said. Exit interviews with families whose loved ones have moved out offer a wealth of information (of course, the value of the information lies in sharing it with the community and then acting on it).

Customer audits should address communication efforts, too. A community can differentiate itself by something as simple as how calls are transferred or returned, how brochure requests are handled, and how someone waiting at the reception desk is treated. 

O’Connor has found that today’s customer values communities that have a social conscience and give back. She helped a client use social media to promote a project that involved planting more than 200 trees. The same community also has made a veteran’s discount part of its branding.

“Sales people are trained to inquire if a customer is a veteran and to immediately thank them for their service,” she said. “Veteran discounts are then offered. This goes a long way in influencing the senior consumer.”

Similarly, Ehlers has leveraged knowledge of a large number of veterans residing in one of her client’s communities as a great resource for public relations. She helped the community promote its “Wall of Honor,” which recognizes each resident-veteran as well as special military-themed events / holidays throughout the year.

Ehlers also emphasizes the importance of family events. One of her clients has at least two family-and-friends events each month, which are “pretty spectacular,” even if they are simply dining events.

What does an adult daughter talk about the next day to her friends? The community’s party she attended. This word-of-mouth advertising simply is priceless in conveying the community’s identity. 

To maximize the effect of these special events, Ehlers promotes video-recording them.

“Videos of special events create lasting value,” she says. “The event may be over in an hour, but a video maximizes its longer lasting effect.”

O’Connor believes that we’re just at the tip of the iceberg in the use of videos in branding. She sees value in video for testimonials as well as showing resident activities. Video also can help personalize a community’s website and generate a sense of connection and familiarity before prospects even walk through the door.

2. Although technology has a critical role, you cannot rely on digital efforts alone to create traffic.

Research supports that traditional marketing tactics — such as print, direct mail and TV advertising — still have value in some markets, according to Kleger. Although baby boomers spend a great deal of time online — with some variations geographically — people still read what shows up in their physical mailboxes.

Todd Harff concurs. Traditional marketing techniques still work but are improved through the technology that is available. For example, his firm is using improved call-tracking information and telephone ring tones to understand what promotion interested and motivated a consumer to call for information. O’Connor believes that technology compresses the sales cycle, but there still needs to be an emotional draw, as consumers want to know how the community will change their lives. 

3. Traditional media can start the conversation, but consumers want to go digital for more information.

Social media has value in telling a community’s story to both customers and influencers, Ehlers says, because people want to see people to sense the social fiber of a community and be assured that others like themselves live there. But content needs to be timely, relevant and connected to the larger marketing strategies, she adds.

Unskilled people often are charged with posting social media content, and this can be disastrous if efforts fail to properly convey the desired image. Kleger warns her senior community clients not to be discouraged if direct sales aren’t tied to a specific Facebook post. Social media is used to build relationships. Successful communities give consumers a reason to follow, like or friend them.

Customer relationship management programs will continue to offer value, according to O’Connor. She helped a senior living client create a small sales support team to work its database and make sure every lead was followed up. This freed up salespeople’s time to handle new leads. They found that many leads previously were neglected and miscategorized. 

According to Harff, the role of the advertising / marketing consultant in senior living is to help clients sort through the maze of tech possibilities and find what makes sense for them. He encourages communities to start slow. It is better to have fewer types of technology performing well rather than use the entire playbook but execute poorly. Live chats might be a shiny new tool in the toolbox, but he has seen clients experience mixed success without extensive staff training and commitment or the appropriate use of a third-party facilitator.

4. You must get creative to reach influencers.

Many influencers aren’t focused on senior living until there is a specific need, so communities must be creative in connecting with them. Instead of trying to entice people to visit the community, where they know they will be sold to, Kleger has found success with “road shows” as well as coffee and conversation in small venues such as a local coffee shop. When the customer is comfortable, it easier to build an emotional relationship. Effective sales teams need to remember to stop talking and start listening.

When it comes to listening, Ehlers finds there is no better situation than to bring together a group of adult daughters for a focus group. Daughters will tell you how it is and generally won’t hold back. Want to test an advertising campaign, learn what charities to support or understand the media in a geographic area? They’ll let you know. Convening a group of adult daughters also offers ancillary benefits of helping them meet others who can validate their parents’ choice of a specific community.

Harff is a fan of events at off-site venues, such as museums, where it is easier to engage with influencers and prospects who might not even be thinking about moving. At these events, there is low or no focus on sales; the sales team isn’t even part of the effort. Instead, a community might sponsor (or co-sponsor) an event where there is an overlap in the target audience. This helps establish the community’s presence and branding.   

5. A marketing consultant can be invaluable when repositioning an acquired community.

In repositioning an underperforming community, O’Connor has found that building a “dream team” of consultants — not relying on only one source — is invaluable.

Marketing research can offer data for pricing, redesign, amenities and more. New advertising should reflect the rebranding direction, from taglines and logo design to improved and updated websites and the technology to better understand where buyers are coming from. Architecture and interior design can be updated to resonate with today’s buyer.

The key, O’Connor cautions, is keeping all of the consultants working together rather than compartmentalizing them. Her suggested tactics include regularly scheduled meetings and continual communication to achieve a collective experience that will help the community succeed.

Kerry Phillips is a vice president with The Ehlers Group, seniors housing marketing specialists with offices in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and Fairfax, VA.

McKnight’s Senior Living welcomes guest columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.