Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned pro in long term care marketing, you know what it feels like to have too much on your plate. Reaching out to new prospects, maintaining relationships with existing residents and families, and keeping up with the latest industry trends can be exhausting.
While it’s important to stay on top of what’s happening in the world of LTC marketing, it can also be helpful to look at successful examples from other small facilities for ideas — or even inspiration.
Long-term care marketing ideas from a small LTC facility with a consistently high census
Wesley, a senior living and home care facility based in Washington, has seen exponential growth using a few simple – but crucial – strategies. Their executive director, Greg Byrge, and director of marketing admissions, Jamilyn Bloodworth, joined Peter Murphy Lewis on the LTC Heroes podcast to share insights into marketing and admissions in the long term care (LTC) industry.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a double-digit toll on occupancy percentages at skilled nursing facilities, the numbers are slowly rising again. This is largely due to the strong demand of baby boomers, who will all have reached 65 years old by 2030, at which point one in five Americans is projected to be retirement age. In fact, by 2034, older people are projected to outnumber children.
Still, it will take a great deal of effort for the long term care market, valued at 443.2 billion in 2019, to get back on track and continue on its projected path of 6.8 percent compound annual growth.
In February, Mark Parkinson, the president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, stated that SNFs must generate a 1% increase in occupancy over the next twelve months just to reach pre-pandemic levels.
Improving those census numbers at a smaller facility is not any easier. In fact, as Byrge told us, it is far more challenging. The reason is, a small amount of turnover is a big hit to your overall percentage. “When you’re only dealing with 36 beds, if you have two discharges, that’s a big percentage of what you’re losing in one day,” he noted. “If you have three discharges, now you’re at 10 percent.”
So how did Byrge and Bloodworth manage to overcome that challenge during a devastating pandemic that put seniors in the greatest danger? By using these five LTC marketing lessons, which can be applied by anyone in nursing home marketing:
1. Identify your LTC marketing’s unique differentiator
What makes you stand out from thousands of other nursing homes and LTC facilities?
If you can’t come up with one sentence describing how you’re different from the others, it’s high time you make one.
What if your facility has a rating of under-five stars? Bloodworth recommends that you differentiate your facility by choosing to focus on outcomes and quality measures instead. “If you have private rooms or anything as far as how the facility looks, like your therapy team, then focus on that,” he says. You can also focus on your LTC facility programs, like the robust disaster recovery program in your skilled nursing facility (SNF) or your continuing education programs for residents.
Four questions to help identify your unique differentiator:
Tim Williams, a pricing strategist and founder of Ignition’s Consulting Group, writes that long term care marketing teams should ask themselves:
- What are our core competencies, or, the areas in which we are best in class?
- Who are our best customers? Who do we know best in terms of categories, audiences, or brands?
- How can we leverage our culture? How do we add value through our methods or approaches?
- Why are we in business in the first place? Beyond making money, how would we describe our calling?
Some differentiators that get consistent results in nursing home marketing are:
- Proximity to downtown
- The newness of the facility
- Size of rooms
- Activities for seniors
- Diet and nutrition offerings
Specific differentiators to use in your LTC marketing efforts:
- Service superiority differentiation. Example: you have the highest nurse-to-resident ratio in the state.
- Market dominance differentiation. Example: your facility has the most number of nurse hours in the county.
- Resident experience differentiation. Example: every Friday, you serve the best bagels in Kansas. Describe how these bagels were made, the people in the kitchen, and the various flavors and tastes.
- Resident activity differentiation. Example: you are the only nursing home with Friday morning folk music hour.
- Local presence differentiation. Example: your nursing home had 165 volunteer hours from local high school students last year.
- Underdog appeal + sustainability differentiation. Example: a small facility that feels like home with plots of vegetable gardens.
- Service superiority + disaster readiness differentiation. Example: you are the only LTC facility in the state with no COVID-19 community transmission.
- Innovation differentiation. Example: you use the most advanced long term care software to help job satisfaction among nursing staff.
Don’t overthink it! Remember, the biggest differentiators do not have to be high-level concepts. Just ask yourself what stands out to you about your facility. It can be as simple as fresh oatmeal raisin cookies on Fridays, the number of seniors reading in the library before lunch, the six birdhouses visible from the dining room, or an initial assessment that really gets to know you by asking about your kids or your favorite movie.
Once you’ve established your unique differentiators, you can highlight them in your marketing materials and sales pitches.
2. Avoid inside-out thinking in long term marketing efforts
An inside-out thinking in your marketing approach means your focus is on the products, processes, tools, and systems you’re using instead of your customers’ perspectives and needs.
Unfortunately, inside-out thinking is prevalent in LTC and senior care marketing. Here are some concrete examples of inside-out thinking to avoid:
- You take for granted that children of senior parents do not always know the difference between assisted living, institutional care, home care, personal care, acute care, and hospice.
- You expect locals in your community to know about your facility.
- You assume that hospital discharge planners already know that you’re accepting admissions.
Let’s look at the third assumption in action: Bloodworth realized on her first day as the Director of Marketing Admissions at Wesley that hospitals in the areas had no idea her facility was accepting admissions. This is because of an oversight on behalf of her predecessors.
“I realized that there were referral systems that the hospitals used that we hadn’t signed up for,” she said. But she quickly corrected the problem. “The most important thing I did my first week here was ensuring that our care center had logins for every single referral portal used by hospitals in the area. [I found that] we were missing two or three of them.”
It can be a challenge in LTC marketing to take a step back and look at your goals from a broader perspective. But doing so can have a dramatic impact on your growth.
How to adopt an outside-in approach:
Imagine yourself in your customer’s shoes. What do they want to hear about your services? How can they reach you? What information will benefit them?
Think about the initial experience of residents. For instance, you can include the name of your MDS assessment nurse that residents will initially meet. Or make clear that prospective residents will be made to feel welcome by inquiring about their interests, like playing Scrabble, and mentioning other residents who share them. Maybe they’re looking for new opportunities. You can tell them about art or yoga classes, hobbies they’ve been looking to get into but haven’t been able to because they lacked the communal support of a nursing home until now.
If prospects are interested in finding a community and a strong support group, mention three residents from the same church as them and share that the current residents have a strong Tuesday prayer group. You want them to know that this will be their own home in the future.
But most importantly, let hospitals know what you have available. “If I have beds available, I call who I need to call, and I let them know what my bed availability is,” Bloodworth emphasized.
And you don’t have to stop there. While you have them on the phone, you can insert a subtle pitch as well. “When you have them on the phone, you can gently ask: what do you guys have going on this week? Do you have anybody that wants to come?”
Long-term care marketing ideas that use an outside-in approach:
- Be flexible in your conversations with discharge planners. Adapt on the spot, and don’t just stick to a cookie-cutter sales or marketing script.
- Involve others: relatives, spouses, friends, or personal carers in conversations with prospects. A third-party perspective is valuable, and some residents may need help articulating their needs and preferences.
- Take it slow. Make time for introductions when meeting new hospital staff or family members of residents. Ask them about their day, family, or work before focusing on services or products.
- Give control to discharge planners, family members, and would-be residents. Let them lead the conversation.
- Aim for meaningful interactions instead of thinking of it as an opportunity to get an admission.
3. Make relationship-building a core foundation of your LTC marketing
Relationship marketing is rooted in the idea of cultivating and nurturing genuine relationships with hospital discharge officers, residents, and their families.
Instead of thinking of it as a sales transaction, this nursing home marketing approach puts the spotlight on helping your customers.
This approach has worked well for Wesley, where slow and steady efforts were more effective than aggressive sales tactics. Their Lea Hill campus has only 36 beds, but it almost always had a 90 percent census even during the peak of COVID in 2020.
“I’ve seen a lot of aggressive marketing, people going into places they shouldn’t or have been asked to stay away from, but go anyway,” Bloodworth said. “But that is not appropriate in our industry,” he adds. “There are more respectful ways, like using a light touch, that will carry you for years with these discharge planners.”
How to avoid being too aggressive in long term care marketing:
- Don’t overuse the name of the person you are trying to impress.
- Don’t speak only about yourself and your product.
- Don’t talk negatively about your competition.
- Don’t pressure your referring partner into a fast decision.
- Don’t name-drop to make yourself seem more important.
How to be respectful in LTC marketing:
- Listen actively to your referring partner’s interests.
- Remember your prospect’s name, interests, needs, and social interests.
- Ask for the best channel to talk to your referring partner, whether it be texting, email, visits, and the appropriate schedule to ping them.
- Be human and authentic by mentioning that you are excited to see your referring industry partner at the county fair this weekend, or that your son is playing soccer with her son on Tuesday. There is no need to act like your communication has to be 100 percent business.
Make yourself available
Create channels or opportunities where discharge planners or family members of residents can ask you questions directly. Perhaps relatives of low-income prospects want to know about the annuity, fees, or other potential financial burdens. Maybe they want to know if Medicaid can be used for skilled nursing facilities or if they need to have another care provider or health insurance, like Medicare. You can help them avoid a lot of hassle when trying to figure out their long term care insurance options or how to choose among long term care providers by having that information ready.
Meet customers on a platform with which they are comfortable so that you can gain their trust and demonstrate your sincere desire to build relationships. You can implement a Facebook Messenger Bot for service-related questions. Or you can share your work number on social media and address concerns directly. For some, a simple phone call might work best. Whatever is most convenient for your customers, do that.
Bloodworth shares that her close relationships with discharge planners resulted in them sending her referrals. They would even let her come and talk to patients at their bedsides. That is the power of building real, human relationships.
Try this LTC marketing exercise on your social media account:
Highlight discharge planners in your area on your Facebook page by asking them three simple questions:
1) What’s your favorite part of working in healthcare?
2) How do you make a patient feel comfortable when referring them to a local nursing home or assisted living facility? Any memorable experiences that you can share?
3) At our nursing home, we like to surprise our residents once a month with unique ice cream flavors. What are some of the most popular flavors with your patients?
The third question is an example of including a sales pitch without making it obvious.
4. Emphasize customer support in your senior care marketing strategy
Your customers are humans who, by nature, want to be heard. If you aren’t listening, your customers are likely going to find another LTC provider who will. Consider customer service as the core of your marketing principles from the first touch until the end of the customer journey.
A customer-centric marketing approach for LTCs, as opposed to a product-centered one, will allow you to directly engage with potential residents and discharge planners. That sort of exceptional customer service is a big brand differentiator in health care. “Customer focus is a core value to who you want to be as a company and how you want your customers to feel about you,” says Jonathan Brummel, Senior Manager at Zendesk Premier Support.
You can start to build a customer-centric brand by rethinking the purpose behind conversations and engagements. Be intentional with every interaction you have with residents, family members, and hospital discharge planners. Offer help whenever you can, ask questions, make them feel understood, and take the time to listen.
If you do customer service right, customer success and revenue will follow. If you have the available funds, invest in customer service training and coaching for your marketing and sales staff.
Customer service is a powerful driver of long term care profitability in any industry. In a 2020 survey for Microsoft, 90 percent of respondents indicated that customer service is an important factor their choice of brand and purchasing decisions.
Top-notch customer service means putting in the time. “You have to be willing to answer your phone all the time, even on the weekends,” says Bloodworth. “The hospitals don’t close on the weekends, so neither do I. It’s constant contact.”
At the same time, you don’t want to seem pesky. “There’s a fine line between annoying hospital discharge planners and being helpful to them. So you need to find a way to be helpful instead of annoying or calling them, asking for referrals, asking if they have anybody for you,” says Bloodworth.
If you make yourself available consistently, you might not even have to ask for referrals. “I don’t think I’ve ever asked [if they have any prospective residents] in my entire career. I just find a way to be helpful to them. And then, at the end of the day, they appreciate that, remember it, and call you the next time that they need help with a short-term rehab replacement,” Bloodworth said.
A recent study in Health Marketing Quarterly into the changing demographics on account of the rising age of baby boomers concludes that:
“The staff at the facility needs to be customer service ambassadors who are friendly, attentive, and responsive to your clients. Your marketing department or admissions coordinators need to be prepared to receive future customers any time of day and on the weekends as well. Plans need to be made for weekend coverage or marketing information to be on hand so that your future customers don’t walk out of the facility empty-handed.”
In short, you must go the extra mile and always make yourself available to be competitive in an expanding industry.
5. Hire the right person for your long term care marketing team
With so many marketing specialties out there, finding the right team members for your LTC marketing crew can be challenging.
Bloodworth lists the tangible and intangible skills that every senior care marketing team member should have in their toolkit:
- The ability to read a referral and basic knowledge of medical terminology. “I’m not clinical, but I have enough basic knowledge to be able to give an honest ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” says Bloodworth.
- Above-average email skills. The right hire should be able to write a well-thought-out email with correct grammar and proper use of relevant clinical terms.
- Strong presentation skills both professionally and conservatively. The right hire should be able to connect with the various personalities in a hospital, not only residents or patients but also discharge planners and supervisors.
- Awareness of the minutiae of how a hospital operates. This includes knowing the time frame for discharges, its policies and procedures, and the hierarchy of its bureaucracy to know who is in charge of what.
- Dedication to excellent customer service 100 percent of the time. The right person can “smile over the phone”.
How to find the right person for your nursing home marketing team
Find someone with the dedication required to learn how to do the job well and then stay at it. Bloodworth shared that she values drive and ambition over experience. “I can train anybody,” she said. “[But the person I hire] needs to have a certain level of ambition, drive, and work ethic. Informally, I call it, they need to be able to hustle. And they must have a love for the job.”
Residents aren’t just heads in beds
The most crucial thing that Byrge said that an LTC marketing team must keep in mind is: stop thinking about filling out your facility.
“This is something very hard for most people to swallow – operators, executive directors, administrators, owners, companies – but you cannot have a mentality of a head in the bed,” he said. “That will kill you worse than anything.”
That might seem counter-intuitive, but, in this industry, keeping the long term culture of a facility in mind will reap greater rewards in the long run.
“You have to show restraint and take the right patient at the right time,” he said. “You have to accept that it’s better to leave the bed empty than it is to fill it with just anyone that comes along.” According to Byrge, this is key to building your brand and your reputation. “If you do it the right way and take [only] the right people, you can have good outcomes.”
That’s because word gets around in long term care, where there is great concern about creating healthy environments. In conclusion, Byrge remarked, “Your reputation will carry you, and it will also sink you.”
For more resources on long term care marketing, check out these LTC Heroes podcast episodes:
- Improving Occupancy Rates at LTC Communities with Lola Rain, a Growth Strategist at Senior Living Foresight
- How to Be a Sustainable Non-Profit SNF with KJ Page, Executive Director of Chaparral House