When I first got into the senior marketing arena in 2007, I was immediately struck by how low-key the industry was in terms of both marketing and sales. There was a singular calmness and largely non-competitive approach. Local senior communities were more like allies than rivals for market share—often gladly referring prospects down the street if another community seemed a better fit. I recognized it as an extension of a shared passion to serve human lives—often frail and very trusting—in an area of utmost importance to their well being.
Then came 2008 and the Great Recession. Suddenly maintaining occupancy became a pressing issue for almost every community. Marketing folks who had never had to defend or dicker on price soon began to learn the importance of creative promotions and agile negotiation in closing a sale. Older communities became very serious about redesigns and repositioning to meet flashy competitors with their emphasis on hospitality that was elevating residents to “members” and even “guests.”
As the market sputtered back towards a recovery, real estate developers nationwide began to realize that senior housing had actually performed quite well relative to other multi-family building sectors. Suddenly, the race was on, and billions of dollars were moved from building apartments, college dorms, condos and hotels into senior living housing. The old guard of nonprofits began to see new for-profit communities popping up in their markets like mushrooms after a hard rain. These new players brought not only a profit centric business, hard ball business model but also the kind of “mano-a-mano “marketing that thrives so well in the profit-centric economy at large.
Now, massive senior housing building programs—that were formulated several years ago—are still moving forward, even into clearly over-saturated markets. Soon, the metrics of local market size simply will not allow sustainable occupancy levels for everyone—in a few markets at first, and then it will be many, if not all. Getting there “firstest with the mostest” apartments or villas (to paraphrase a noted civil war general) is no longer the key strategy here—but actually now part of the problem.
Moving forward, brand dominance and intelligent targeting will become the game changers—and marketing and PR generalship will determine who the winners and losers (game over!) will be in the next several years. While concern for residents will also be a fixture of senior living, senior marketing is moving into a new era of competiveness it’s never seen before. To be sure, each major sector will have its special challenges.
Well-heeled for-profits will bring larger budgets and more sophisticated marketing resources—but often still struggle with conveying a genuine, resident-centric brand experience. Smart not-for-profits will hold fast to their altruistic value proposition but will need to fine-tune their ability to use all market channels effectively and at the lowest cost. Both sides have much to learn from each other.
The winners will be those who craft a uniquely compelling brand, rooted in caring and competency, while also communicating that brand in agile, integrated marketing campaigns engineered for the biggest bang for the fewest bucks. That will mandate moving from an experimental phase with digital marketing efficiencies and bringing an A-game in terms of local market website and content strategies, e-mail marketing, social media and ultimately, full marketing automation—to marry marketing and sales into a more seamless, single process.
As we move into 2016, the entrenched players will rise up to the meet the invasion of newcomers in a marketing confrontation to hold—or win—market share. It’s going to be rumble. Ready or not, you’re heading for a marketing “street fight” for ultimate survival of your brand. In fact, I invite you to visit our special content page on “Three Weapons You Must Take to a Marketing Street fight.” So take heart, there’s nothing more fun than winning!