Q&A: The new age of marketing for seniors

Chief Strategy Officer Dan Hutson talks about the role of content in reimagining senior living in America.

BY Todd Cywinski
EVP, Client Strategy

You think your job is tough? Imagine your work was to market senior living solutions to a target audience who doesn’t want to think about aging. Because no one wants to get old. And the last thing most senior parents or their adult children want to think about is when and if it’s time to leave the family home for parts unknown. It’s expensive, complicated and life-altering: no, thank you.

That’s what Dan Hutson does every day.

As chief strategy officer of HumanGood, owner/operator of senior living communities based in California, Hutson has a role that has the potential to transform the lives of our growing U.S. senior population. It’s a worthy mission. The number of Americans 65 and older is projected to more than double to more than 98 million by 2060 from 46 million in 2015, according to the Population Reference Bureau’s Aging in the United States report.

Goal one for Hutson is rebranding the post-retirement decades of our lives as a time of possibility and purpose. At a more nuts-and-bolts level, he is helping oversee the merger of two regional, nonprofit senior living organizations: the former be.group (based in Southern California), where he was vice president of communications and marketing, and the former American Baptist Homes of the West.

We talked to Hutson to find out why content is at the heart of his marketing for the newly formed HumanGood, a network of 80 senior living communities in five Western U.S. states.

What is your ultimate goal in using content marketing in your work?

I honestly believe that the future of the senior living industry has to be about self-actualization. It’s about helping older adults become their best selves. My personal aspiration would be that the people who live in our communities look back at the end and say, “I’ve had a great life, but the time I’ve spent living in this community has been among the best years of my life.” Now that’s a real challenge. You’re talking about people having families, having amazing careers. And our aspiration is to say the time that they live in our communities is more profound and impactful and fulfilling than any time in the past. But I really do believe that this is attainable for many of the people we serve.

There will be senior living companies that remain focused on safety and security and providing health care. Obviously, we’re going to provide all those things too. But that should not be the focus of our business. The focus of our business should be on helping people live engaged, purposeful lives.

You’re in the process of combining two nonprofit senior living companies into one brand. What are the biggest challenges you’ve been trying to solve with content marketing?

Ours is a niche industry without strong brands. It’s a small market, and it’s not like people have great familiarity with our brand or anyone else’s brand. There are very few nationally known senior living companies that the average person would be familiar with.

Buying into a senior living community is very much a local sell. People don’t typically buy the brand; they buy the community. Our customers come from a 5- to 10-mile radius around a particular community or they have a family member within that radius. But I believe that the brand is going to become more and more important, and building that brand is to the benefit of our individual communities. Brand development over the next several years is going to be crucial in expanding our mission of serving older adults and their families, especially as we start to explore other products and services.

If this is a community-based purchase, how do you use content to create a brand that is unified and local at the same time?

We had developed a lot of great content, both educational and experiential content, content that tried to shine a light on what the living experience is. But on our old site, it was invisible to a lot of our visitors. People didn’t come to the home page and follow this logical progression of looking at general content, doing their research and then drilling down to look at a particular community. Because it’s primarily a community decision, they were going first to the community’s home page where that content was not visible. They might not ever go to any other part of the site.

We had distribution and promotion strategies that made content visible, but in terms of inbound traffic, we were less successful. On the new site, we’re weaving that content throughout the site and making it very visible on all of the community pages even though it’s not specific to that community. It’ll be interesting to see if our hypothesis is accurate, if by layering that content or spreading access to that content throughout the site in different ways, we’ll start to see a real uptick in interaction with that content.

Why is content the best way to market to people facing this life-altering decision?

The biggest generator of leads in our business is the internet. It’s why we’ve worked for months on our new consolidated website and why we built it on a platform of rich educational and storytelling content. You’ve got to adjust your sales and marketing tactics to recognize that at the point that they become visible to you, they have already done a lot of research. You need to focus on becoming part of that research process long before they ever stand up and say, “Hey, I want to talk to you.”

It sounds like your work focuses on getting prospects to the top of the funnel. How do you then influence the purchase decision?

Quite honestly, I’ve always found influencing purchasing decisions is the least interesting thing about communicating with an audience. When you’re talking about building the brand, the influence you have on purchasing decisions is greatest as an outcome of effective thought leadership.

People ask who our biggest competitor is. Our biggest competitor is not another senior living organization, not another community. Our biggest competitor is people’s homes. Change is difficult for everyone, but when you’re talking about someone in their 70s or 80s—the thought of uprooting yourself from a home you’ve been in for 30 or 40 years, where you’ve raised a family, celebrated milestones and developed emotional attachments—that’s daunting. We’re asking prospective residents to downsize, to move into a new community with new neighbors, a new lifestyle and different routines. Until you actually experience the benefits of community living, it’s pretty intimidating.

Our job is twofold. The first is educational. We need to provide the unemotional factual basis upon which people can make decisions for themselves. They need the factual ammunition to justify the decision and know that that decision was the correct one for them.

But ultimately—and this is the second part of the job—what drives the purchase decision is much more subjective. We need to provide them with the kind of emotional storytelling that engages and convinces them that this is the right decision. It’s really about making our content visible and compelling in a way that causes someone to think, “You know what? Maybe staying home isn’t the best option for me.”

How do you make your content visible? How do you become part of your audience’s senior living research?

Content is meant to bring people to you, right? For us, it’s part of an inbound strategy. It’s about making us visible to the right customer. But we can’t possibly compete if we treat content as just another broadcast opportunity. We can’t be louder than our biggest competitors. We can’t be everywhere that they are. So how do you create content that is so in line with what the customer needs and wants that it attracts those prospects versus what our competitors are doing? The real market opportunity is how do we influence people who don’t think they’re in the market for our product at all.

You market to three distinct audiences: seniors, their adult children and other senior-serving professionals who can provide referrals. How do you create content for three different audiences and roll it into one content marketing strategy?

The decision to move to a senior living community is a complex emotional purchase decision that usually involves a lot of different players. There are frequently family members involved. Not everyone necessarily has the same opinion or outlook, so it can get very complicated.

People largely don’t understand community living. That’s one issue. The other issue is a lot of misconceptions based on old stereotypes of what senior living communities are about. They tend to equate them with old nursing homes or retirement homes, and that’s not really what our communities are about at all. So there are both educational opportunities and storytelling opportunities to help combat that.

What are the benefits of living in a community? How do contracts work? We offer a contract-based product where you pay an entrance fee and a monthly fee for services, and that entrance fee may or may not be rebateable upon death. So there’s some real financial complexity there. A lot of financial planners don’t understand the benefits, so there are opportunities to educate them so that they can better counsel their clients.

If education, storytelling and correcting misconceptions are the tactics, what is the content marketing strategy?

It’s to help people age well, help them continue to live purposeful, engaged lives. The whole concept of retirement is really anathema to us. People can now enjoy another 10, 20, 30 years beyond that traditional retirement age, but no one has really defined what that period should look like.

Through our storytelling, we can begin to help people craft for themselves what that life might look like, whether it’s continuing to work or revisiting old interests, old passions, pursuing new passions, things that they never had time to pursue before.

The key is that our customer wants to be engaged. They want to live purposefully. They want to feel that they’re continuing to contribute and be useful, that they’re engaged with the world around them, with their friends, with their neighbors, that they’re continuing to grow and learn.

This is a time of life when you have greater freedom to become that most authentic self, to become the person that you have always aspired to be. Our job, through education and storytelling, is to help people understand how they can make that so through the use of our product.

Bonus question: What are the 3 top senior-audience marketing mistakes?

One: Content that doesn’t truly differentiate one senior living community from its competitors.

Two: A lack of powerful storytelling that helps people truly understand what daily living in a community looks and feels like—there’s too much focus on features and benefits, not enough focus on bringing the experience to life.

Three: An unwillingness to be provocative and challenge assumptions about aging and life at this stage of life. You can’t stand out if you’re always playing it safe.

Photo by Patrick Strattner

published: January 25, 2018

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