Amy McClain headshot
Amy McClain
Amy McClain headshot
Amy McClain

COVID-19 changed everything and accelerated our collective digital maturity in a very big way — especially for older adults. And three years later, many senior living organizations still are struggling to keep pace with the new rules of engaging and activating potential residents. 

Much of this comes from that newfound comfort researching and exploring online. Pre-pandemic, some senior living communities relied on professional word-of-mouth and even hospitals to keep units filled. During the pandemic, though, with limited face-to-face contact and more time spent online, families shifted to digital resources to zero in on the right homes for their loved ones. More than 75% of prospects and families now cite online research as their first and main research tool, a seismic shift from just a few years ago. 

Although this seems like enough shift for organizations — and although many have upped their digital marketing game as a result — driving impact isn’t so simple. Given the residential nature of the communities, Google Ads targeting options prohibit using key categories such as gender, age, parental status, marital status and ZIP code to engage audiences — those parameters are seen as a direct challenge to the Fair Housing Act’s discrimination-related requirements. At the same time, without those targeting specifications, senior living communities are losing valuable efficiencies, wasting advertising budgets on people who, simply, wouldn’t or couldn’t convert. 

Feeding AI and algorithms for better results

Although restrictions are increasing on more traditional ad targeting, other approaches are gaining traction — AI, specifically. Search engines such as Google and Bing increasingly are using sophisticated machine learning to better understand and respond to user search queries. Much of this effort has been focused on semantic matching and understanding intent based on various factors besides the keyword — and sometimes, instead of the keyword or any keyword at all, but that is a topic for a different day.

By leveraging this intent-based targeting, senior living communities can work around Google Ad restrictions. Instead of surfacing ads to a target demographic, advertisers can align to relevant search queries, showing spot-on messaging to people actively searching for their services. 

It’s a full-scale reimagination when it comes to search. Now, rather than targeting using rigid demographics and filters, savvy advertisers can “feed the algorithm.” This approach is particularly useful when it comes to broader search terms or ones likely to get caught in the crossfire of irrelevant and expensive searches — which, often, includes keywords and phrases surrounding senior housing and senior living.

Granted, this isn’t an overnight shift. Moving to this AI-based strategy requires means: 

  • Thinking categories, not keywords. Senior living communities should organize ad groups around a semantic theme, now — and not be pedantic about separating two different words if they mean the same thing. Although language has nuance, grouping semantic equivalents allows you to accrue data more quickly and provide it to the algorithms to use in their decision-making.
  • Focusing on singular, meaningful, preferably financially related metrics. Like humans, asking an algorithm to do too many things at once can cause it to do none of them well. A well-defined goal or key performance indicator that the algorithm is optimizing to is essential. If there are clear economics associated with that KPI, even better. For example, a smart algorithm can help you calculate financial trade-offs based on volume versus return on advertising spend. 
  • Embracing responsive search ads, or RSAs, and other forms of dynamic, algorithmic creative. If you’re still running expanded text ads, it is essential to retire them in favor of algorithmic optimization. When setting up your RSAs, consider the key value propositions or offers associated with your ideal target audiences. Doing this is important to ensure that you identify the right audience members. Then, over time, this action helps the algorithm find more of them.
  • Using divergent themes/offers in your RSA copy. RSA doesn’t limit you to A/B testing. With proper structure, an RSA can contain offers or messaging for multiple segments and figure out the optimal mix to maximize the performance of the overall ad in a way that is impossible for traditional A/B testing.  
  • Verifying everything. Ensure that your leads or conversions are the ones you seek, and tweak your messaging and available targeting settings to help zero in on your target. Try to align your creative with back-end analysis.

With more, if not most, prospects starting their searches for senior housing online, it is essential that senior living communities focus on quality search marketing strategy — and that means leaning into AI. Although some targeting options no longer are available, leveraging new technologies, such as machine learning, while leaning into traditional marketing tenets, such as testing and campaign analysis, still should result in a strong sales funnel.

Amy McClain is group director of performance media at performance marketing agency Beeby Clark+Meyler.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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