It was the middle of the night and Priority Life Care CEO Severine Petras couldn’t sleep. With a pandemic still fresh on her mind, she found herself in a deep-dive into her company’s social media presence.
She would often notice an out-of-place detail, like a mask not being worn correctly or an awkward photobomb in the background and alert the rest of her team that the photo is “not social-media-ready.” This was not an infrequent occurrence, so much so that she jokes she “gave everybody PTSD, slightly.”
“I spend a lot of time scrubbing our social media,” Petras said at the 2022 Senior Housing News Sales Summit in Arlington, Virginia. “Social media makes me a little nervous, personally.”
Petras’ apprehension regarding social media is shared by others in the industry. While social media can be a powerful tool if wielded correctly, it can also just as easily lead to a marketing misstep.
Juniper Communities Founder and CEO Lynne Katzmann fears that the advent of social media has negatively impacted the way the general public views senior living communities and made ageism worse, a trend she saw accelerating during the pandemic.
“In general, [users] get pushed information of a particular sort,” Katzmann told Senior Housing News. “And that is reinforcing historical negative views of aging — hence, ageism.”
While some senior living operators would prefer to stay off of the web entirely, the internet is here to stay. Whether or not operators like it, prospective residents and their families are doing their research by first turning to a community’s social media presence on platforms like Facebook or Instagram. And prospects aren’t the only ones checking out social media. Potential staff members are, too.
Social media not a ‘standalone marketing story’
Navigating the current and future social media landscape requires senior living operators to be cautiously aggressive to drive sales and recruitment. For those that can do it, the ROI can be a differentiator. But doing so requires a holistic marketing plan.
“It should never be viewed as a standalone marketing strategy,” Harbor Retirement Associates Corporate Director of Marketing and Communications Ginger Atwood told Senior Housing News.
When Atwood joined HRA in 2021, each of the Vero Beach, Florida-based company’s communities had their own Facebook pages, managed by the communities themselves. Atwood estimates that about 15% of those communities used Facebook pages consistently.
In an effort to advance engagement and grow online reach, HRA partnered with its digital marketing agency to create an online portal where community representatives can upload images and content and send it to the corporate level.
After better organizing the company’s social media strategy, HRA saw online community engagement increase from 15% to 85% within six months and “the quality of the posts dramatically improved,” said Atwood. “Equally as important is that social media to website conversions increased 35%.”
Harbor Retirement Associates operates a portfolio of 36 communities in 14 states. While they’re all luxury communities, “the buyer persona is a little different from place to place,” according to Atwood.
“How we speak to a prospect in Jasper, Alabama is different than how we speak to our prospects in Princeton, New Jersey,” she said.
And while prospects are hopping from a Facebook page to a website, so are prospective staff members.
Bloomfield, New Jersey-based Juniper Communities found that prospective employees would find the company on Facebook, then jump to other websites like Indeed. But the company had little visibility on them beyond that point.
“As soon as that person bounced off Facebook to Indeed, we lost them. We lost the ability to track if they actually ever applied,” Katzmann told SHN.
So, Juniper changed its strategy. The company began using recruitment ads about a year ago, and has built a landing page with a simple form that employees can fill out. Juniper can also now track exactly how many Facebook users jumped from a Juniper advertisement to an online application, something they couldn’t do if the users went to another site like Indeed.
Senior living operators should break their online social media strategy into two segments: an organic side and a paid advertisement side, according to Chris Mohrman, VP of marketing with WelcomeHome, a senior living CRM software company.
“The paid side is a bit more straightforward… because you get to decide the message and the message is shared with a specific audience, ” Mohrman told SHN. “With the organic side, I think there is an opportunity, but it gets a little more challenging.”
Still, the road to internet marketing success is littered in cautionary tales. In 2021, a Priority Life Care nursing director fell victim to an online harassment campaign that included a fake Facebook profile and spoofed messages containing racist and vulgar language.
Through the help of a private investigator and the police, Priority Life Care was able to clear the employee’s name. But by that time, the story had spread to several news publications. To Petras, the valuable lesson was that social media use requires careful thought and planning.
“You have to protect yourself, and you have to do the right thing for your employees and for your residents,” Petras said.
Juniper Communities bought into the importance of Facebook early on. The Bloomfield, New Jersey-based company maintains community-level Facebook pages for all of its communities, because it “recognized the value of Facebook as a tool for our families to see pictures of their loved ones and to have visibility into what’s happening at that particular community,” Juniper VP of Business Development and Sales and Marketing Cindy Longfellow told SHN.
Juniper’s Facebook strategy is one of honesty and accuracy, according to Longfellow. She and Katzmann spent a portion of this week in State College, Pennsylvania, where more than 40,000 undergraduate students had just returned to Penn State University from winter break.
At Penn State, the first week of the semester when classes mainly consist of receiving the syllabus is known as “Sylly Week.” For students, it’s a week of reunion and partying. But, for the residents at Brookline Independent Senior Living at Juniper Village, Penn State’s Sylly Week means dressing in “sylly” outfits of pink, white, or brown and enjoying ice cream from Penn State Berkey Creamery.
Juniper typically will post images and context on Sylly Week that are representative of what it was like to participate in the program. That idea — showing fun, spontaneous moments — is what the operator aims to achieve.
“The vast majority of content on our community-based social media pages is exactly that – it is not staged, it’s in the moment,” said Longfellow.
The benefit is twofold. First, the adult children of residence can see and interact with their loved ones on a Juniper community page. Secondly, potential families will see not a staged, well-lit photograph, but an accurate depiction of what life there is really like.
That strategy holds water, according to Jeff Gronemeyer, VP of new business development with Conversion Logix.
“For seniors, it’s more important to be transparently honest than it is to be staged,” Gronemeyer told SHN. “I would argue that everything we have is over-staged right now.”
The over-staged presentation of senior living communities can have a negative impact on converting leads, according to Gronemeyer, because prospective residents are often looking for reasons not to move in, rather than reasons a community is a good fit.
“The more honest it is, even if it’s got hiccups, even if it’s not perfectly lit, the more [seniors] are going to be truly able to identify with it,” Gronemeyer said. “The key is variety and volume… multiple videos and multiple channels.”
Whether the goal is to communicate with current residents and their families or to drive brand awareness and ultimately move-ins, Facebook remains the biggest and most important channel, according to Gronemeyer.
“[Facebook] gives you a content platform and it allows you to deliver targeted ads to the users. And that’s a huge advantage,” he said.
Indeed, organic social media can account for as much as 10% of conversions, according to Teddy Helfrich, VP of Sales with WelcomeHome. He added the paid social media engagement is consistently much lower.
Helfrich told SHN that there are three main factors that determine the success of an online social media strategy. The first is how sales directors treat digital leads, the second is the sophistication of the operator including CRM capabilities and chatbot efficacy and the third is how sales personnel respond to the lead themselves.
“If you’re not engaging… in an authentic way, you will lose traffic towards residents that are coming on,” Helfrich told SHN. “You are also going to lose opportunities at attracting potential staff. Recruiting is as much sales and marketing effort as actual sales and marketing.”
By showing the senior living industry as it really is, operators stand to earn the trust and interest of a much younger demographic, the demographic that largely makes up the potential talent pool.
“There’s probably a large swath of the 18-22 demographic that doesn’t consider senior living their first choice for employment,” Helfrich said. “But if you can show that they’re engaged and that senior living is a fun, mission-oriented and vibrant place to work… it’s going to be an easy path to get them into your inbox.”
The platform they’re most engaged in is TikTok, he said.
Operators are exploring how they can leverage TikTok, a relatively new video-sharing social media platform that has been a lightning rod for overnight fame and government oversight.
TikTok on the clock
Gronemeyer, a hobbyist billiards player, admits that TikTok tutorials have improved his billiards game. TikTok, a video-based social media platform, is notable for its ease of use and bite-sized content.
The TikTok algorithm does not take engagement such as likes, shares and comments into account. Instead, it focuses on how much time users spend watching videos. Most viral videos boast an average watch time of more than 100% of the full video. By prioritizing that metric, TikTok incentivizes creators to be short, snappy, suspenseful and informative.
The kind of engagement on TikTok leads to a hyper-aggregated experience where a billiards player like Gronemeyer for example would not need to use the app very long before it figured out he liked billiards videos. And it knows seniors, too.
“My mom, when she wants to wish someone a happy birthday, never gets it right on Facebook. She just can’t figure out the tagging and posting,” Gronemeyer said. “But she navigates TikTok like a champ.”
Focus group feedback often includes the note that prospective residents or a senior living community do not want to simply go from sitting and watching an event to simply going to another event where they just sit and watch.
“If my mom looks at a TikTok and sees [her peers] doing a cooking class or having a wine tasting or singing a song or doing a dance challenge or whatever… she gets a vision of that building in a truer sense,” Gronemeyer said.
Senior living content has at times been a viral sensation on TikTok with some younger people moving into active adult or independent living communities out of necessity or by accident. And most recently, the TikTok account Retirement House – which depicts a cast of senior adults making video content – has garnered international attention and earned a following of more than 3 million followers.
On TikTok, not everyone in senior living is sold. LCS Chief Marketing Officer Rick Westermann, for example, is still skeptical of the platform’s usefulness in marketing.
“Everyone says, ‘What are you going to do about TikTok, Rick? I’m not going to do anything about TikTok,” he said at the Senior Housing News Sales Summit in December.
Some in the federal government also see the app as a potential cybersecurity and espionage risk, given it is subject to a law that requires China-based tech companies to share all of their data with the Chinese government.
TikTok has been under scrutiny since 2020, when the Trump administration said it was exploring a nationwide ban on the app. In recent months a number of state and local governments have mulled banning the app on official government networks and devices. Furthermore, the U.S. Congress has moved to ban the app on government devices.
But that hasn’t stopped some other senior living operators from diving headfirst into the d social media platform. Juniper Communities has on its staff two TikTok influencers the company plans to involve in its TikTok strategy with the thought that their online reach will attract others to the company.
“I believe the industry should come together on a collective social media strategy, which aims to increase our influence … provide some greater balance to the negative statements we see about our industry and aging in general,” Katzmann said.