Getting the message out to customers.

For people in health communication roles, aged care is one of the most interesting and challenging environments in which to work. There is a high degree of political intervention, government regulation, workforce organisation and consistent media attention.

It’s complex and there are many risks; the systems, procedures, policies, layers of bureaucracy and high degree of training required to deliver compliant services demand organisational sophistication.

There are also a broad range of stakeholders often with very different objectives. Ultimately it is about people. Making people’s lives better and engaging with communities. Much of the reporting and analysis undertaken is focused on workforce performance, financial viability and organisational structure. But what about expectations, perceptions and communication approaches?

For the aged care system to remain viable into the future, people will need to contribute far more to the cost of their care than in the past. The Living Longer Living Better report says that over the next five years the number of operational Home Care packages will increase by nearly 40,000 to almost 100,000. The principles of consumer directed care will be embedded in these packages, ensuring greater flexibility and choice for recipients.

When you have greater discretion over your spending, you think more about the choices you are making. Publicity following the government’s reforms has already raised the expectations of community members. Providers have received an increase in calls from people, often in the belief that changes not yet scheduled are already in place. It underlines the need for frontline staff to be briefed, prepared and recording the content of requests so the company may respond with services older people and families value most.

Unmet demand.

Despite increases in community care funding, most people who require care in the home as they age will have to fund some or all of it. A study conducted by Ellis Jones in 2011 reveals over 330,000 people with some level of on-going care needs leave Australian hospitals every year. That number is increasing at over 14 per cent each year and the overwhelming majority do not receive government care packages.

This represents an opportunity of which some care providers are already taking advantage. By linking more effectively with the hospital discharge process and advocacy services, providers are able to better co-ordinate and control the client experience.

As explored in the Community Aged Care Reform report, some larger and more financially robust providers have reworked their marketing strategy to be customer driven and sales focused. Predicating change, they have begun transforming their business models since the release of the Productivity Commission Caring for Older Australians inquiry report in mid-2011. When acting as a trusted adviser from day one, a business is more able to adapt services and vertically integrate them through retirement living, community care and, if required, residential aged care stages.

Knowing your market.

In residential aged care, as more flexibility is introduced into extra services, providers will have greater potential to meet resident demands and differentiate their offer from those of competitors.

However, more choice means more capacity for confusion. Providers will need to be very clear on the customer value proposition.

Our choices are informed by our values and interests. These are often shared by community members living around a facility. Marketers often make the mistake of defining consumers by age when this is only one factor in their decisions. The influential baby boomers have diverse values, interests and expectations.

Some aged care providers cringe at the thought of labelling residents and community aged care clients as “customers”. In addition, customer service has not traditionally been a focus for providers; more attention is paid to care planning and managing relationships with government regulators and health services.

The reality is that aged care providers exist to provide a service, which should meet the changing expectations of the community. This will be even more critical as consumer directed care is mainstreamed into aged care service delivery as part of aged care reform.

Providers that develop accurate buyer personae of their target segments will be in a stronger position to attract consumers. Investing in market research at the facility level can use insight to develop effective engagement programs and adapt services.

The more the community feels ownership over the sustainability and success of the facility as a community asset, the more consistent occupancy and take-up of care packages will be.

Standing out from the crowd.

In a crowded, competitive market, it is important to stand out from the crowd. Some aged care providers invest in a highly professional image and paid media campaigns to establish their brand.

But you don’t need deep pockets to have a compelling and “sticky” message – one that is memorable and people talk about.

As consumers begin to shop around for services, brand differentiation not only ensures you are noticed and remembered but you also attract the customers you want.

Smaller providers have a bright future if they can leverage community connections and demonstrate local specialisation. Major providers will benefit from differentiating their value proposition and communicating it coherently and consistently across all facilities and interfaces with customers.

Promoting a company as offering “quality care”, “experienced nurses” and “great lifestyle” will not be as effective as finding out what makes your organisation different, and making it front and centre in your communications.

Fortunately, just like people, no two companies are the same.

The digital dimension.

It is likely the government will aggressively promote the Gateway Service, aged care website and national call centre through mass marketing and advertising. Therefore it is likely consumers will regularly use these services to get the answers they need to make informed decisions about their aged care needs.

A poor score on the aged care website will have an impact on an organisation’s reputation but it need not be the only source of information. Providers can limit the damage by adopting multi-channel communication online and connecting with local networks using social media. Word of mouth is still the most powerful form of marketing. Social media has made this easier and more influential; but only if you are in the conversation.

More older people are actively using online channels. Our Older Victorians Online report revealed that more than 20 per cent of 75- to 85-year-olds and 37 per cent of 65- to 75-year-olds cited social media as one of their main online activities. This figure will continue to rise as a result of the government’s investment in the national broadband network. No matter the market or the medium in order to be consumer driven providers will need to shift their marketing from a basic functional level to being part of an organisation’s strategic objectives.

Original post by Reeni Ekanayake. Reeni is Health & Ageing Practice Lead at Ellis Jones. This article appeared in AgedCareINsite.

Image credit:  joshuaseye, Flickr Creative Commons