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Marketing Your Facility Online

July 1, 2009
by Eve M. Stern, RN, MS
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Five tips to evaluate online service providers

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 http://www.alz.org.

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.

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