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Let's talk about social media

October 1, 2010
by Kevin Kolus, Editor
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What's your message?

When news spread this past July that the “world's oldest Twitter user,” 104-year-old Ivy Bean of Branford, England, passed away, it was a mass media awakening for those who've underestimated their elders. Despite living in a care home, Bean had amassed 57,000 followers at the time of her death. She was a legitimate star.

The message was that social media—once considered our youth's most generationally segregating activity—had been embraced by savvy older adults. It seemed like on cue, stories of people ignoring Facebook friend requests from aunts and uncles and grandparents became commonplace.

The numbers back up what Bean's unexpected fame implies: People of all ages love connecting online. You've probably heard those towering statistics; that at more than 500 million active users, Facebook would be the third most populous country, or that Twitter recently logged its 20 billionth message—also known as a “tweet.” Seniors housing providers, pay careful attention: Between April 2009 and May 2010, social networking use among Internet users aged 50-64 grew by 88%. Nearly half of all people in that age group who go online participate in social media, and 26% of those 65 and older are active users as well.

Your current residents and your future residents have become the fastest growing user base in online networking. What are you doing to keep pace?

A crl senior living communities resident interacts with family on a skype terminal. (image taken from promotional video.)
A CRL Senior Living Communities resident interacts with family on a Skype terminal. (Image taken from promotional video.)

This was a question addressed by Redstone Highlands Senior Living Communities, a Christian, nonprofit continuing care retirement community provider with four locations outside of Pittsburgh. Through a carefully researched social media program, the communitites have given themselves much needed public awareness, says Barb Hall Christner, Redstone's director of fund development. “You have a huge audience, whether it's local or abroad, because you can reach so many individuals,” she says.

Of particular interest to Redstone was how it could promote fund-raising initiatives with social media. All it takes is one person with many followers to make a community's request for aid go viral. “A perfect example we were given was of an organization that had tweeted, ‘We need funds or we are going to be in jeopardy of closing,’” Christner says. “A celebrity was able to help them out by retweeting that message to her own followers, hitting thousands of fans, and the organization met its goal overnight.” Looking to achieve similar success, Redstone endorses its “Redstone for 30” initiative, which seeks to raise $30,000 in benevolent care funds for the provider's 30th anniversary, on Twitter. While Christner says Redstone is being realistic in the number of donations it expects to receive from social media ventures, the “visibility” that comes with a larger Web presence is worth the effort.

Upon visiting Redstone's Facebook fan page, families and potential residents get a glimpse of what life is like at its communities. In terms of updating the page with content, Christner assures that it's been a mix between impulse and preparation. Redstone reviews what events are planned across each campus and then schedules the activities departments to take pictures. “Camera and photo releases are kept on hand,” Christner says. Those pictures are then posted on Facebook and cross-promoted via Twitter with descriptive text. YouTube videos or other promotional items are also occasionally hosted.

By consistently updating the page with useful or visually interesting content, not only does Redstone improve its image to those who follow or those who are interested in its services, it also assists in changing the misconception random surfers have about the lifestyle of seniors. “When someone is out doing an Internet search and comes across our page, they're seeing more than just residents playing bingo,” Christner says. “They're out there going to casinos. They're out and about all time. Our residents have fun, and that's what we want to show people.”

More than marketing

In Ari Weinberger's opinion, social media can serve a great purpose if providers view the tool as more than a branding opportunity. “I participate in some of these webinars and discussions about the use of social media, and they all talk about how they use it to drive sales,” says Weinberger, president of CRL Senior Living Communities, which operates 16 memory care, independent, and assisted living communities in Illinois and Wisconsin. “But nobody really talks about how they use it to communicate with families. This is a service that we take very seriously because we believe that not only do we need to care for their loved ones, but we need to help them as well as they are making that transition.”

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