LeadingAge Magazine · May/June 2016 • Volume 06 • Number 03

Your website is the world’s window on your organization. For better or worse, it usually makes the first impression any consumer gets of your services, the environment you create and your perceived competence.

Does your website convey what you want consumers to know, and intrigue them enough to learn more? LeadingAge asked 3 experts with long experience in web design and marketing for senior living organizations about the state of the art in aging-services websites:

  • Janel Wait, senior vice president, channel and content planning for GlynnDevins, a marketing firm specializing in senior living, based in Overland Park, KS.
  • Connie Parsons, president & COO of IlluminAge Communication Partners, and David Virden, the company’s content strategist. Illuminage, based in Seattle, WA, specializes in communications for health care and senior living organizations, including providers, associations, government agencies and more.



LeadingAge: In your opinion, how well are aging-services providers doing with their websites? What do they do not-so-well?

Janel Wait: Senior living has made excellent progress in the last 5 years. I started in senior living over 12 years ago and have seen a great evolution transpire over the years, Today, senior living communities understand that their websites are at the hub of their marketing and often create a community’s first impression.

Senior living providers understand that their websites must be responsive in order to reach mobile visitors. (Responsive means the pages render appropriately not only on a desktop computer, but also on smartphones and tablets.) They also are starting to add more content including photography, videos, blogs, interactive tools, educational resources and they understand the need for fresh content. In the beginning, communities considered news and blogs to be the only fresh content but we’re seeing more members focused on creating strong content strategies that drive more content generation.

We all visit hundreds of websites a week. Prospects visiting a senior living website are going to expect the same excellent experience they have elsewhere.

In terms of experience, we are starting to see more realism on senior living community websites. Community prospects want to see what life is really like at a community and it can be brought to life via video that helps to tell a story and feels authentic. When a prospect or loved one sees the video elements included in a site like this one, they tell us that the community feels warm and inviting. They also comment that they get a better feel for what life would be like when they view these experiential videos. Here is another website that includes realism via video (along with some content [that can be] leveraged in multiple distribution channels). The background video adds personality and realism to the website experience.

Connie Parsons: We work with for-profits and not-for-profits, and one interesting difference is that your members, because of their not-for-profit status, have a commitment to community to do things to support their 501(c)(3) status, and those kinds of things naturally create a really great body of content for their websites. They frequently have free educational seminars open to the community. I think this is, by the nature of what they do really well, something that spills over onto the website.

They also tend to have a more stable team and residents that are excited about where they live … so they have people really engaged in the community and which gives them real stories to tell that support their marketing and outreach efforts.

Here is one example of a provider offering a lot of comment on community activities, philanthropic efforts, and lifting up residents and their team. If you dig deeper you will find more of the same in the “about” section and the blog.

On the flipside, what [some] don’t do so well … is to take advantage of how easy it is to use their websites to tell their story. They don’t see that as an important piece of the puzzle. Web technology has changed in the last 5 years; content management systems [CMS] have gotten affordable and easy to use, and if you were to talk to providers you’d find only 1 out of 5 knows how to blog on WordPress. Using a CMS doesn’t require a lot of tech know-how, and sometimes they don’t invest in that—making sure staff is educated and management is on board.


LeadingAge: What in your opinion is a website’s relative importance in our members’ marketing toolbox?

Janel Wait: Technology has really empowered prospects today so there’s more self-serve research. A lot of prospects and loved ones seek educational resources to learn more about options available to them. They want to be sure the local provider has as many answers as possible. The objective might be to have prospects come in or get on the phone, but a lot of decisions are made before anyone picks up a phone or walks into a community.

Senior living communities are also embracing marketing automation as a way to curate relationships with prospects via email. Sophisticated onboarding programs are often tied to a website inquiry and focus on key messages to move the user along the journey. In addition, marketing automation tools can highlight ongoing digital behaviors and interactions with a community so a sales counselor will know more about what a prospect is interested in and can customize the sales process accordingly.

Connie Parsons: I might surprise you. When I work with your members and others in health care, [I see that] referrals and reputation are huge; when someone talks about a website and says I want it to increase census and move in residents, I don’t think the website is what moves people in. It’s your brand and your care and the lifestyle you provide that are #1 in priority. Your website is important, and to some degree more important than your print materials because it’s more accessible … I can get to it from anywhere if I have a phone or a computer. But it’s important because of the role it plays in brand development, telling your unique story, and cultivating your local referral sources.


LeadingAge: What’s the current best practice regarding the “shelf life” of a website—the interval of time between redesigns?

Connie Parsons: We recommend 3-5 years. Technology changes very quickly. You might remember “mobilegeddon” from a year ago, when Google announced [it would] require mobile websites to rank you in mobile search. Things change quickly, so if you don’t keep your site up to date and you are likely to fall behind in best practices relating to navigation, design and development. Right now, best practices in accessibility are becoming front and center. If your site was built more than a year ago, you likely have opportunities for improvements in that area already.

Janel Wait: For senior living, 3-5 years, though we try to use a platform that can live longer. Ideally we like clients to invest in ongoing maintenance or a plan [designed] so they don’t have to completely overhaul their site.

LeadingAge: What is your opinion about an optimal number of pages for a senior living website?

Janel Wait: We do see a trend toward minimalism on our sites. When you get to a home page your navigational options are fewer; we usually see 5 to 6 options for drilling deeper into the site, not 20.

Sites do need to be very intuitive, though. If you’re taking a visitor into the independent living section, for instance, it needs to be called “independent living,” not a branded name the user wouldn’t understand. In terms of number of pages, I don’t think there is a right answer as long as your content is logically organized and answers questions users are looking for.

Connie Parsons: I don’t think size limits on the web are an issue at all. Your site is going to grow naturally over time especially if you’re updating it regularly (as you should be). As long as it’s organized well, Google doesn’t care (search engines actually love content) and your visitors don’t care as long as they can easily find what they need.

However … if you look at an older website now, if you see 15 top-level navigation options on the home page, it says to me that the organization doesn’t know what’s most important to their visitors. Modern websites have scaled that down; you want to lead your visitors logically though your website.


LeadingAge: You talked about improving content. Can you describe what are you referring to?

Janel Wait: One thing we consult with communities about is why they need to think like a user: What will the user want to find on their site? We do rely a lot on monitoring analytics and we utilize testing or work with focus groups to see how people engage with our websites.

More and more communities are creating focused, goal-driven content strategies and plans that support major messages. We talk to our clients about focusing on the right content at the right time aimed at the right customer. Investments in content audits, content calendars, content generation and measurement plans help our clients get the most return on their content investments. After we collaborate with clients on content strategy and planning we ensure that any piece of content they invest in is distributed via the right channels. For example, if a multi-site provider invests in an interactive calculator for a system it can be leveraged across all communities. It can be used in emails, shared via social channels, leveraged in sales meetings and more. A smart investment in planning based on community goals can give communities content pieces to utilize throughout the year. Every piece of content should have legs and support major messages.

Connie Parsons: Well-written copy, copy that communicates the benefits of lifestyle, of what you’re offering, of peace of mind, instead of talking about features such as how many beds or how many rooms you have.

David Virden: With clients we stress benefits, especially on the front page. A lot of communities waste space on the front page with statements like “welcome to our website,” as opposed to using that headline to highlight a benefit.

Connie Parsons:
Here is one organization that really put a lot of effort into communicating a large array of services to the visitor. It’s also a very modern site that has a lovely mobile version.

We’ve found blogs tremendously helpful; [a blog] establishes the community as a thought leader. If you’re doing a good job with your blog, it can support email newsletters or a social media marketing efforts—driving traffic back to your website to understand more about what you do.

Some websites are more real-estate focused but when you want to know what it’s like to live there, the blogs can be used to show some of the life in the community. Facebook pages do that too. It humanizes things more.


LeadingAge: A lot of our members have a top leadership presence on their websites. For instance, they may have regular monthly columns by the CEO, linked from the main page. How valuable is this?

Connie Parsons: It’s a nice feature; when top leadership is talking about commitment to community and residents, it shows a level of engagement that’s powerful. Someone researching a senior living community will want to know what top leadership is thinking, but they will also want to know about events and programs.


LeadingAge: Can you talk about best practices in navigation and graphics?

Connie Parsons: It’s important to have really clear navigation that communicates levels of care and services, using clear verbiage consumers can understand. If you provide assisted living, label a page assisted living so that the consumer understands. Easy travel around the website is important.

You can tell the difference when you go to a website with good professional photography of their buildings, and [life plan community] clients tend to have really nice buildings. Having nice photos is important, and it really makes a difference in that first impression.

Photo galleries are always among the top 5 most-visited pages on a site, believe it or not.

We try to advise clients to think early on about what they’re willing to invest in photography. If you’re going to use your own photos, and not invest in a pro photographer, it may not work out well as well as you hope unless you have a talented photographer on your team. Also, balance photos with information on the page. Some very modern sites go too heavy on photos and offer very little content.

Here is a LeadingAge member with a great website. You will notice it has made a significant investment in fantastic photography, and it makes a huge difference.

The next interesting thing I’m looking for in website design is the affect that touch screens will have. A lot of laptops now have touch screens and that technology will probably spill into desktop computers, so the next question for us is how we can use touch for a better user experience do when everyone has them.

Janel Wait: Motion design incorporates engagement tactics and subtle motion. Users receive cues from subtle motion prompting them to take a specific action, and/or can be used when we want a user to look at something specific. Here is an example that includes the principles of interaction, animation and bold use of colors.


LeadingAge: There has been a trend toward use of huge images in the last few years.

David Virden: Large images create immediate interest and engagement with the user, which is one reason you’re seeing this trend right now. People tend to respond more quickly and easily to photos, and if you can find one that conveys a benefit well, it makes a powerful statement and makes for a compelling website.


LeadingAge: What do we know about smartphone or tablet usage by consumers accessing our members’ websites? How has that affected how websites are designed?

Connie Parsons: What the move to mandatory mobile websites did to web design is huge. It made everyone look at their websites and scale down navigation to make websites easier to navigate on small screens. It made us have to take a good look at what is truly important to our businesses and [create] easy navigation and calls to action to support that information. Before that time you’d see 10-15 top-level navigation choices on a site. It just isn’t reasonable, in today’s world of using my phone as much as my desktop.

Having a mobile-friendly design is important in every market, including this one. Traffic reports for clients show 20-40% of traffic to their websites is from mobile devices.

Other things that continue to change are accessibility and usability requirements, like using alt-tags on all images, or laying out your navigation so that someone with a screen reader can click through your navigation without actually seeing the graphics on your website. Those technologies and best practices change in that area.

Janel Wait: We often see a range of 35-50% of traffic coming to our websites from mobile devices, including tablets. Location can impact these percentages.


LeadingAge: For our field, how important is a search function on the website? Many but not all providers have them.

Connie Parsons: We still put them on sites, but I don’t know how useful they are. If it’s a 10-15 page, fairly small site, people can usually find what they want. If it’s growing and getting pretty big and you have a lot of resources, it’s useful. It’s easy enough to include.


LeadingAge: In this field, how important are text sizes and font choices?

Connie Parsons: Very important. It’s an audience that’s 40-plus and most people start having a decline in eyesight then. Almost any website should consider readability. Many users don’t know that you can adjust the the sizes of sites and text.


LeadingAge: Some organizations’ websites make it difficult to reach specific people, often relying on fill-in-the-fields contact forms as the only form of contact. Is that a problem in your opinion?

Janel Wait: We’re seeing a huge shift in the way we have to handle the digital customer experience. It is important for communities to respond to inquiries immediately and in the manner a lead wants to be communicated with. For example, if someone fills out a website form, they most likely want to be communicated with via email first unless they request a call. Some sites have chat features, not meant to sell a prospect, but just to provide a little information and get the conversation started. We can do more to provide for people who are looking to find more information, and we do a lot of marketing automation so if you fill in the form on the site we can start to curate the relationship even before a counselor reaches out.

Connie Parsons: A lot of clients use contact forms. The first point of contact might be admissions staff, and if you change employees often (or if that person is out for a week), the contact forms make it easy to re-route those messages.

Ultimately it’s important [that providers] test their forms, and it’s very important that forms be answered in a timely manner, and for those that can do so, it helps to show faces and contacts for actual persons. In some organizations it’s just not possible or there are other limits.

LeadingAge: Is adding a specific media contact a good strategy?

David Virden: Having a media page or contact is an excellent idea but I think the reason people tend not to get involved in that is that they’re focused on the end consumer and not the media.

Connie Parsons: The other challenge is that they don’t always have a media person. It might be a marketing person who also does PR, and especially on the not-for-profit side they might not be triaging negative press very often.


LeadingAge: are your aging-services clients pretty sophisticated about using analytics?

Janel Wait: Yes. Our clients understand how their sites are performing. Measurement plans go further than they used to, it’s not just about measuring the number of visitors, time on the site, bounce rate—some of the basic indicators we used to look at years ago. Those are still important but there’s a lot more that senior living communities can benefit from today.

The combination of UX (user experience) and analytics fuels smart web decisions. Our UX focus is on the users and understanding everything we can about the experiences they have on websites. We know that a community’s ultimate goal is to garner a conversion. We conduct tests on interactive forms vs. static forms, long and short forms (short forms convert better) and we also test photos. When you want a conversion on a page, don’t have the person in the picture looking directly at you, have them looking in the direction of the form fields. Studying user experience via analytics and testing enables us to better serve our senior living prospects and adult children.


LeadingAge: What are your thoughts about search engine optimization (SEO) and other strategies to maximize the utility of sites?

Janel Wait: Additional investment in SEO will continue to be important. SEO audits, recommendations on fresh content, inbound linking strategies, keyword optimized headlines/copy and smart website development practices should be included in all senior living plans.

Connie Parsons: In this market, when people talk about expensive SEO or paid search, it always gives me pause. I wonder, for a very expensive SEO or paid search program, as a not-for-profit in the community, what else could that money be funding in the community that supports their 501(c)(3) status while supporting their brand and cultivating referral sources. These programs are expensive; I’ve seen clients pay $1,000 and more per month.


Editor’s note: Both GlynnDevins and IlluminAge (Bright Ideas Blog) publish blogs with useful tips and advice on web design and marketing.