One tip to improve long-term care marketing

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Tim Mullaney
Tim Mullaney

Senior living and long-term care marketing honchos gathered in Chicago last week for the inaugural SMASH SeniorCare Marketing Sales Summit HQ conference. I was glad to take be there taking it all in, and my notebook filled up quickly. I was planning to write a “five tips” type of blog, to share some of the most interesting ideas I heard (“Don't sell, solve” “PR people are naturally defensive”). But really, there's one idea I came away with that I feel is most pressing. I'll put it this way:

Feed your marketers, they're probably starving.

Sorry, this won't be as easy as dialing Domino's … I don't mean LTC marketing executives are starving for food, but that they are starving for connections with their peers and the chance to glean expert insights into what they do, and how they could do it even better.

The first hint I got about this situation actually came a few weeks ago in Nashville, at the LeadingAge annual convention. There, I spoke with Chris Ragon, director of communications at the Retirement Housing Foundation in California. She praised the abundant educational sessions, but said she wished there were more that focused on communications, public relations and social media.

Ragon's apparently not alone; many SMASH attendees seemed nearly giddy that they were at a national event focused exclusively on their area. At lunch, I sat down with Kristin Hambleton, director of sales at Willow Valley Communities in Lancaster, PA. She spoke effusively about the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with such a diverse group of attendees, coming from both the for-profit and nonprofit world and from markets all over the country. She takes part in a local group of marketing professionals, but SMASH was a chance to greatly broaden her perspective, she said.

As she shared the story of Willow Valley and explained many of their marketing successes and challenges, as she walked me through some of their strategies for balancing print and digital and even billboard advertising, as we discussed techniques for addressing people's reluctance to enter senior living, I noticed she was talking more eagerly than she was eating. And not because the salmon was bad. This was really the vibe of the whole event — that people were feasting on the camaraderie and exchange of ideas. Never have I been to educational sessions where people introduced themselves to me as quickly, or were so consistently engaged and participatory.

Okay, maybe marketing people tend to be extroverts. And probably every kind of long-term care worker would welcome a conference devoted exclusively to them. But there's an argument to be made that marketers have gone from being barely needed to essential players in long-term care in a very short period of time, and they still might not be getting the attention and support they need and deserve.

Marketers are essential in the “new world order” in long-term care, the event's executive director Bailey Beeken told me. From a world in which hospitals and nursing homes had a basically self-sustaining loop of referrals, we've entered a world in which senior living offerings are dizzying in their variety and payers, and in which post-acute companies have to market themselves actively both to consumers and the other healthcare providers that are sending people their way.

It seems that the C-suite and marketers still are negotiating their relationship in the new world order. In talking with people during the conference's planning stages, Beeken says she noticed two patterns. One is a disconnect between CEOs and marketing departments over money — the C-suite often does not have an accurate idea of what is being spent on marketing. Perhaps that is just a symptom of the other issue, which is that some CEOs told her they aren't getting all the information they need to understand what's working and what isn't, while the marketing people told Beeken they have good lines of communication with the execs.

While this suggests there are still some kinks being worked out in integrating marketers into senior living, Beeken is quick and emphatic in saying that marketers are not being “neglected” by the sector as a whole. LeadingAge and other major associations do offer marketing-related education, but they simply have so many constituencies that it's impossible for them to really drill down into something so specific at a national tradeshow.

“That's what's really great about doing small, very targeted conferences for specific titles, and for a group that had not had the opportunity to share at this level,” Beeken told me. " ... the power of networking among real peers. To me, that's the best learning, when they come together and discuss ‘How are you going to apply that?' or ‘That's the craziest thing I've heard.'”

The 2015 conference will take place in Chicago again, although probably a little bit earlier in the fall, Beeken said. So, here's one way to feed marketing directors: Send them to SMASH next year.

But I think it's important to look for other ways to feed marketing teams as well. There are numerous conferences devoted to marketing in general, and while these might not elicit the same level of excitement as one focused on senior living, they still could be a great way for LTC marketers to nourish themselves on new ideas and relationships. Webcasts and other continuing education opportunities also abound.

While some people like to fast before Thanksgiving, the 190 SMASH attendees will be going into the holiday already feeling very well-fed, at least in the metaphorical sense. And they'll have another fresh blessing to count this Thursday.

Tim Mullaney is McKnight's Senior Staff Writer. Follow him @TimMullaneyLTC.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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