Leads aplenty on the Web

When one of the nation's largest senior living companies is getting 25 percent of its leads from online senior placement and other referral agencies, a number that “creeps up month over month,” it's likely an indication of things to come for providers. “The real opportunity here is we only get eight percent of our move-ins from those leads,” says John Cincotta, senior vice president – sales at Emeritus Senior Living. “We realize that this is a preferred starting place for the customer right now, and we want to make sure we're meeting their needs.”

Online senior placement services, which have existed for longer than a decade and can be discovered en masse with a simple Google search, have been “exploding over the last couple of years,” Cincotta says. Depending on the specific service, visitors to a senior placement website are asked to input their information to be matched with a facility or selection of facilities that may meet their needs. Sometimes the facilities are those that have paid to work directly with the online service; other times the service solicits facilities with referrals. In regards to both placement services and referral agencies, providers can be charged a flat monthly subscription rate, a portion of a resident's first month's rent if and when they move in, or even a fee per lead.

“It varies depending upon the type of agency and whether or not they have an advisor,” says Cincotta, who has been using some form of senior placement and referral for 14 years at Emeritus. “And those are the ones so far that are working the best for us. They have not only an Internet presence, but also an advisor connected to it. They are basically filtering the lead for us and we build a relationship with that particular advisor.

“Those advisors have seen our communities and we have a bond, and the lead becomes very much personal at that time.”

These personal relationships also allow the senior living provider to continuously educate advisors on the types of residents they accept, or better serve, and ensure that the pricing is right to get the best leads possible. “We don't want to waste anybody's time,” Cincotta says.

Also in the interest of using time more efficiently, since the online placement and referral services are electronic, Emeritus is auto-populating these leads in its lead management system used by community sales forces. “Some of the placement companies can give us reports on how quickly we responded to their leads,” he says. “If we're not responding quickly to these people, we might be overextending ourselves.”


Not all lead generation on the Web is in the form of senior placement. A variety of creative options exist to help providers raise awareness about their facilities. Robert Walker is a brand manager at senior housing directory RetirementHomes.com, a Canadian company online since 1997 that does a bulk of its business in the United States and receives close to 250,000 unique visitors each month. “We have about 34,000 individual facilities listed on our site, of which about 2,600 are paid,” Walker says.

Any facility can receive a free listing on the website, while paid listings appear at the top and have more interactive features, such as photos and access to a mapping function. “Fees for listing are determined by a variable of expected performance,” Walker says. “If a facility is in a state where we receive more traffic, they will receive more exposure, and thus the price will reflect that. But if a facility is in a lower traffic state for us, they do not have to purchase as high a listing to get the same exposure.”

SeniorHousingNet—part of the larger Move, Inc., network of sites—launched in 1999 as an Internet listing operated as an online marketing service. The company also delivers phone and email inquiries from prospective residents to its more than 2,000 senior living provider customers. It's a monthly subscription service and allows providers to link their social media pages to each listing, as well as host facility pictures, floor plans and other media.

SeniorHomes.com is another online directory, which has the option for surfers to contact an advisor by phone. Providers are then charged per qualified lead; no other fees are owed. The site also boasts a staff of 15 writers, mostly geriatric care managers and gerontological experts. “We have all this content to help educate consumers when they're faced with this big decision,” says Chris Rodde, co-founder and CEO of SeniorHomes.com. “What are the costs? How do I pay for it? When I go to visit an assisted living community, what questions should I be asking?”

Rodde says the communities that he sees standing out are those with an outward personality and the ability to connect with individual residents—or build relationships, as echoed by Cincotta. “It's really about figuring out what that person is uniquely interested in and seeing if you've got that,” Rodde says. “And if you don't, then maybe it just isn't a good fit.”

Having the placement, marketing or referral service understand what would make a resident fit in at a facility is fundamentally important to a provider receiving quality leads. Because of Emeritus's size, Cincotta says the provider prefers to work with companies that have “a certain scale and scope,” and that focusing on fewer services rather than many is often essential to keeping leads managed cleanly for timely follow-ups. “The worst thing we could do is not get back to our customer, and that's not fair for any of us,” he says. “You have to continually reevaluate if you can handle the volume.”


Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, cautions that seniors themselves should be seeking out more options than online referral services. “Older adults and caregivers need to get information from other sources than just placement,” Markwood argues. “They can call the area agency on aging. They can call the aging and disability resource center should one exist in their community. There are a number of different types of associations or geriatric professionals.

“You don't need to go to a placement service—and if you do, you have to go with your eyes open and ask questions. How many times have you referred to this facility? Do you have any special arrangements?”

It would make good business sense to disclose that information up front, and Markwood insists that providers be transparent with residents when working with online placement companies. “When you get into a situation where there is monetary reimbursement for placement, then, first of all, the consumer needs to be aware of that. And secondly, that may give he or she reason to ask additional questions,” she says.

Perhaps a more alarming note is senior placement and referral services have been accused of not screening facilities for serious violations. According to a December 2010 report in The Seattle Times, some of these companies employ salespeople operating on 100% commission. In the scramble to hit their goals, such salespeople may feel inclined to send senior referrals to facilities they may have not either visited or screened to ensure a proper fit. Even worse, seniors have been placed in facilities cited for poor care, including fatal neglect, although the report did find most placement companies operate on the up and up. But all it takes is one improper referral for a senior's well-being to be affected, and Washington State has since passed legislation—the first of its kind—requiring senior placement companies to disclose when they conducted their most recent inspections of facilities.

“It's not a one-shot deal because often people get into a facility and find out that it really wasn't what they thought and that becomes difficult and disrupting to an older adult who then has to be moved,” Markwood says.

This is disrupting likewise for the provider, who certainly does not want to see a resident experience that abrupt change, but also for the simple fact that they did not connect with the individual to adequately meet all of his or her needs. It was not a “good fit.” And it could mean a reassessment in the use of that specific placement or referral service.

“The closing ratios say everything,” Cincotta notes. “If we're not connecting with people, even though it's through the Internet, this may not be the right thing for us.”


How do online consumer reviews affect senior living? Find out at www.iadvanceseniorcare.com/WebReviews.

Long-Term Living 2011 July;60(7):14-19

Topics: Articles , Facility management