Marketing Your Facility Online

The last five years have spawned a plethora of online senior housing service providers in direct response to the growing number of people using the Internet to research and buy goods and services. A 2006 Nielsen survey found that 27.4 million people age 55 and older bought something online in the six months prior to the survey, compared with about 26 million the previous year. Deciding which senior housing online listing services make the most sense to support your overall marketing strategy requires some upfront research to determine which will bring the greatest value to your organization.

One thing is sure: Every senior housing provider’s marketing plan for 2009 should include an online set of strategies and tactics to increase their exposure to the 34 million Americans who are caring for dependent loved ones. With the National Institute on Aging estimating that there are seven million long-distance caregivers, the Internet has become an ideal way for them to source and screen senior housing options from afar. Making sure your community appears in a search result in your geographic area, and that the listing accurately reflects the features and services you want to stand out, can give your community the competitive advantage to attract qualified prospective residents.

The following are five helpful tips to evaluate the various online service providers that are available and emerging:

1. Research the senior housing service provider’s business model. How the company behind the online service provider makes its money often influences the end user’s experience on any particular Web site. Most online service providers are either advertising or professional referral or placement coordinator services. A few follow different paths, such as an emerging distribution model, which aggregates comprehensive senior housing community data into a standardized format licensed and published by third-party Web sites using their own private label.

No different from most print directories, online senior housing directories usually only display listings from paying providers. Some provide a comprehensive list of as many provider types that they can source with basic contact information, and then provide enhanced “ads” for the providers who pay. The size and location of the ad along with other ad enhancements, such as external Web links to the senior housing provider’s Web site, display of phone numbers, availability posting, and other descriptive text, can increase the cost of each advertisement.

Another common business model is one that is built as a front end to support placement coordinator services. In this online model, users are lured to enter their contact information after a set of screening questions that determines whether the inquirer plans to pay for housing with private funds. If the answer is “yes,” then the person who completed the online form is contacted by a placement coordinator who offers to assist them with their search. These professionals are compensated by the senior housing provider for placement with a referral fee, usually equally to one month of rent (similar to an employment agency).

In general, these services do not charge families directly if they are paying with private funds; they are compensated by the contracted senior housing provider who has entered into a referral agreement. If the family is eligible for Medicaid or Medicare, however, the placement coordinator will usually refer the user to the local Area Agency on Aging or will inform the user that they could assist them if they can pay an hourly professional service fee. This is because, in the case of Medicaid or Medicare funding, placement coordinators cannot be paid by the housing providers in the same way as with private pay due to federal anti-kickback laws established in 1972. Straightforward but broad, the law states that anyone who knowingly and willfully receives or pays anything of value to influence the referral of federal healthcare program business, including Medicare and Medicaid, may face felony charges and a significant financial penalty.

A few new online senior housing resources operate using the above-mentioned distribution model, in which the senior housing data is accessed through a range of Web service offerings by senior-serving health and professional Web sites for use by their constituents. Such listing services are paid licensing fees by the third-party Web site to build and maintain a database of current, robust information that attracts and retains users to its Web site. The Web site client, whether non-profit, government, or commercial, can access the listing service through a range of Web service offerings and can modify the user interface to fit the look, feel, and navigation, as it deems appropriate. An example would be the Alzheimer’s Association Senior Housing Finder that contracts with our firm for use of its national database of senior housing providers via a custom portal for

2. Evaluate any alliance relationships. Learning with whom the senior housing resource has formed alliances can help providers gain a greater understanding of the user demographics. Are users consumers? Are the consumers using the site the seniors themselves or their adult children? Or are users professional agents who serve as influential trusted sources of information and referrals to families undergoing transitions? Examples of these could be professionals such as elder law attorneys, transition move managers, certified senior advisors or social workers, or call centers staffed by case managers.

Most alliance partners will not permit a senior housing listing service to promote their affiliation or use their trademarks without exercising a level of due diligence. It is also valuable to inquire whether the alliance relationships are exclusive, i.e., the alliance Web site offers only one listing service to avoid confusing visitors. Organizations, particularly non-profit and government entities, will only form alliances if it reinforces their mission for improved service to their constituents. Thus, identifying alliance relationships claimed by the online senior housing services can give providers a degree of confidence, given the reputation and credibility of the alliance associations.

3. Evaluate Web site(s) traffic stats. Determine how the senior housing listing service acquires its user traffic. Does it invest in search engine marketing such as Google, Yahoo, and Excite? Does it have high organic search result ranking for particular keyword searches-that is, when a user types in the keywords “senior housing for dementia San Antonio, Texas” in the Google search bar, does it appear at or near the top of the search results? Have the services demonstrated a growth in consumer and/or professional senior advocate user traffic in the last 6 to 12 months? Are there enough new strategies or distribution partners on the service’s horizon for you to expect an increase in your targeted populations in 2009? If the service provider is a distribution model, you will need to aggregate the user traffic from multiple Web sites, not just a single site.

4. Make sure the service provides performance metrics. With limited marketing dollars, providers need to measure whether their investment in any online housing service achieves the stated objectives. Is your objective to provide broad national exposure to long-distance searchers? If so, then the number of times your listing was viewed could accomplish this goal. If, for example, the adult child lives in New York City and the loved one needing senior housing resides in Tampa, Florida, then having your community show up in a search result, using tailored care and lifestyle criteria, will increase the probability of a direct lead, either through an online contact form or a call to the listing’s posted number. If the goal is to attract qualified leads, can the service provider offer regular reports on e-contact forms sent directly to your facility? Can the service track phone calls from qualified leads? Does the service report the number of click-throughs to your Web site? Do you, the senior housing provider, have the capability and automated systems to track the leads to move-ins?

5. Determine what other value the senior housing service provides. Consumers and professionals want easy access to published quality indicators to help assess different senior housing providers. With Medicare Nursing Home Compare’s addition of “Five Star”-type ratings to Medicare-certified nursing homes in December 2008, it is likely that other online listing services will also provide a means to capture and report consumer and professional user experiences through user comments on listings and other rating methodologies. Inquire what plans the senior housing service has to include any user comments on listings. Will the comments be moderated? Most online sites that offer user comments on listings or blogs are open to providers to post their perspectives in response. Does the service uphold a high standard for user privacy? Review the published privacy and terms of use policies on each service to see if they in fact sell user leads to other vendors or distribute leads to other senior housing providers without users’ expressed permission.


When it comes down to selecting an online senior housing listing service to work with, the ultimate concern for a provider should be return on investment. Because of this, it’s important to research exactly what each service can offer your community. Also consider the fact that these services are not mutually exclusive, and that using more than one may be a better investment of your marketing budget than other options. Finally, if it is free to be included in an online senior housing resource, then by all means make sure that your community is listed. You have nothing to lose!

Eve M. Stern, RN, MS, is President of SNAPforSeniors, a national senior housing information company. She has two decades of experience in leveraging technology to promote enhanced and informed decision making by consumers and professionals for improved outcomes. For further information, phone (206) 575-0728, ext. 2006, or e-mail

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At a glance…

According to Eve M. Stern, RN, MS, every seniors housing provider’s marketing plan should include an online set of strategies and tactics to increase their exposure to the 34 million Americans who are caring for dependent loved ones.

Long-Term Living 2009 July;58(7):26-29

Topics: Articles , Facility management