Real Answers With Andrea Ellen, Principal at AE Communications
CommCreative sits down with senior living industry insider Andrea Ellen to hear her perspective on the evolving decision-making process for those moving to a senior living community during and post-COVID-19. Learn how senior living owners and operators are shifting their messaging, strategy and brands to be more relevant in today’s climate.
In your mind, how has marketing changed for senior living communities?
Today’s senior living industry requires a radically different approach to reaching its prospective residents and their families and nurturing them along the way. Those providers who are successful have found themselves having to redefine their marketing and strategy. This redefined approach was evident prior to COVID, but COVID highlighted the need to shift messaging and brand alignment. Many years ago, we used to message directly to the customer and their family as influencers. The potential customer would call and ask us to send them some information. We would then pull together a beautiful package in a shiny new folder, with sell sheets, a brochure and maybe a little goodie and send it via snail mail. Those days are long over.
Now, the customer is in control. And the whole family has a voice, oftentimes, a louder voice than the prospective resident. They take control of their own journeys. Prior to COVID, they were looking at many communities, sometimes five or more. They searched online, scoured websites for information that was important to them. They spoke with their neighbors, friends and colleagues. They showed up unannounced for a tour—during mealtimes, on weekends, at night. They read online reviews. They researched owners and operators and their financial stability.
Today, the consumer is still in control and is now controlling the message, perhaps even more so. COVID has complicated the customer journey, but customers still listen to others who influence them. We live in a “shop around” society. Consumers listen to those they trust—neighbors, friends and colleagues—much more than they listen to (and believe) operators who sell with features and benefits. Adult children are still looking online, sometimes at an even higher instance than before COVID, touring virtually and watching and reading the news. They can’t tour five places anymore. Their parents are frailer, their needs are more acute and immediate, and they’re isolated at home alone, watching the news and experiencing anxiety and depression. Their parents are deconditioned, tired, scared and often unsafe at home. But they’re afraid their parents could be isolated once they get to us, that they may not be able to visit frequently.
The consumer has changed, but the smart operators are paying close attention to strategy and messaging. The leads that operators are currently generating are primarily from the website (SEM and SEO) and internet partners such as A Place for Mom or Caring.com. Overall, leads are down from before COVID, but the ones coming in are converting to move-ins at a higher rate. Slowly, leads have been trending up, nearly to where they were prior to COVID.
Today’s successful senior living operators are nimble and respond to the customer’s emerging needs quickly and sensitively. Adult children are not as interested in amenity spaces such as libraries and movie theaters. They want to know their parents will be safe and happy, surrounded by caring, well-trained professionals who will not allow them to be isolated or alone—even in a pandemic—and will instead keep them healthy, happy and engaged in a new community, one that cares and listens and attends to their every need.
Customers are no longer necessarily “touring” five or more communities in their search. Operators need to listen to their prospective families and residents, not feature-and-benefit sell. Operators need to develop a relationship—even more so than ever—and listen to what is happening or not happening in the prospect’s life. They need to tell stories about the lifestyle in their community: how life is safer, happier and richer in meaning. Vitality is important, and people miss it.
How can senior living providers meet customers where they are in this new world where the customer is empowered?
We know if we can’t help customers find what they are looking for easily, they will go somewhere else. There are plenty of options, and it is our job to recognize that no two customers are alike and provide them with the information they need and want. In addition, it is important to nurture these leads to keep them engaged until they move forward in their buying journey. No two customers are alike. It’s our job to meet them where they are in their journey.
What can senior living communities do to help families feel more comfortable moving, especially during this time?
Maintain transparency. With so much information flying around about COVID, it’s hard for the consumer to know what—and who—to trust. Transparency is vital. Don’t say your community is 100 percent COVID vaccinated because if you have a new associate starting work tomorrow, who hasn’t yet been vaccinated, it will not be 100 percent true. Provide that constant and personal communication with your current families and any prospective residents. Remove COVID language on your website from one year ago. You don’t need to define COVID-19 any longer. You need to tell families how you keep your community safe, what your policies and procedures are for visitation, safety protocols, infection control, HVAC and filtration, cleaning, vaccination control (residents and staff) and more. What are your policies for when there is an outbreak? Where will the residents eat, and where will engagement and recreation take place? What is your visitation policy for families?
Last but not least, your brand is critical. There is an expression and even a book by marketing expert Mark Schaefer that states: “the most human company wins.” Brands should not be “in” a community; they should be “part of” a community. The brand should speak to being curated and artisanal, personal and local. Brands need to speak to those they serve. Families and prospective residents are interested in seeing what companies are doing as a brand and how they will impact their community, not what companies and brands say about themselves. The process should be personal, highly curated. Adult children want their parents to thrive in the community, and among a brand they are comfortable with, partnering with community members they trust. Architects often call this “a sense of place.”
How do successful companies achieve these goals? Brands need to go directly to their customers and influencers. Finding them is just the first step. Once you find them, you need to nurture them, engage them. Consumers will listen to their “influencers” such as friends, colleagues and neighbors, making it important to be part of the local community. Be in front of your current families and residents. They are your customers. Make “fans” of your existing customers or make “fans of your fans.” They will organically tell their circles of influence. These prospective customers trust their friends and colleagues more than they trust what the brand says about itself.
What would you say to someone trying to decide whether to move to a senior living community in today’s climate with COVID?
People sometimes wait for the emergency to happen, but you will be in a much better situation by deciding that it’s time before an emergency. Your options decrease exponentially when a crisis emerges. I’ve heard dozens of new residents over the years asking themselves, “Why didn’t I do this years ago?” because it actually improves their life. It’s our job to connect with the consumer, the adult child and the prospective resident so they can feel trust, which is key in decision-making. Smart and successful senior living communities have created a bubble around themselves for safety. It has often become safer to live in such a community setting versus living at home alone, with people coming and going (who may or may not be vaccinated), bringing in deliveries and groceries, helping with care, going out to medical appointments—not to mention isolation. Living in a safe senior living community, among new and old friends with like-minded values, and being overseen by professionals committed to everyone’s safety and well-being is often just the peace of mind families and future residents seek.