​Skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) are facing incremental challenges to building and maintaining census as well as effectively marketing their services as the broader health care landscape continues to shift—increased pressure on hospitals to bypass post-acute care providers, reduced lengths of stay within SNFs, and augmented bundled payment initiatives tied to accountable care organizations. Commenting on these trends, the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care said in its second-quarter 2017 NIC Skilled Nursing Data Report: “At 81.7 percent, occupancy fell to its lowest point in the past five years and was 100 basis points below the first quarter rate of 82.7 percent.”To compound these challenges of improving occupancy, many long term/post-acute care marketers fall victim to five common marketing mistakes that may inadvertently thwart the efficacy of their efforts. By recognizing and rectifying them, the marketer will be better equipped to ensure a more trusted relationship with the medical community and sustain census growth. 1. Failure to develop a marketing plan. Many SNFs take a reactionary approach to census development. Marketers may wait passively by the phone or fax for patient inquiries, or for interested family members to walk through the doors for a tour. Some facilities may overly rely on their quality-of-care reputation, which, ostensibly, makes them feel little need to market their services. These mistakes invariably lead to unoccupied beds and unrealized goals. A clearly defined marketing plan that provides a road map for effective census development is essential to achieve growth. Marketing plans should be developed with the input of the medical director, administrator, marketing director, and anyone else involved in census development. Marketing media that should be considered include social media, print collateral, clinical specialties, physician/hospital relationships, insurance contracting, customer service, and the admission process. Another common mistake is the failure to implement or adjust the plan. Too often, figurative boxes are checked, the plan is filed away, and little is done to measure its effectiveness. Regular review and modification of the marketing strategy is essential to achieving success in a rapidly evolving market.2. Not understanding the target audience. When providing an in-service to a partner hospital, a lunch presentation at a physician’s office, or touring an inquiring patient or family member, the marketer may convey a sales pitch that may come across as disingenuous hyperbole of the SNF’s distinctive features. The reality is that most facilities are marketing the same hackneyed theme—we have great nursing care, an amazing rehab team, a beautiful facility, caring staff, and a delicious menu. Marketers need to ask pertinent questions to ascertain the relevant needs of their target audience. Subsequently, marketers need to tailor their presentation to meet those needs (describing the strength of the facility’s physical therapy program to a patient seeking hospice care obviously misses the mark; touting the new state-of-the-art physician lounge to a doctor not interested in following patients at the facility falls on deaf ears). The marketer needs to take a genuine interest in and sincerely strive to understand the needs of the target audience. By doing so, the marketer can provide a foundation for addressing concerns and describing the SNF’s unique value proposition in a way that resonates with the target audience. For example, to address the needs of an acute hospital’s expressed goal of reducing avoidable readmissions, savvy marketing directors may develop and present specific programs designed to resolve issues commonly attributed to readmissions, including the increased involvement of physician extenders, improved intake protocols, and enhanced clinical training.3. Playing favorites. It is natural to gravitate to those who are friendly and welcoming, but to focus one’s marketing efforts only on those who are approachable guarantees that opportunities will be missed. A common scenario at physician offices and partner hospitals is the situation where a favorite medical assistant, physician, or case manager is singled out and showered with both attention and acts of kindness—a thoughtful birthday card, a perfectly-timed Starbucks coffee, or even a kind word can be effective in strengthening relationships in the medical community. But if those acts of kindness are exclusive to one or two individuals in a hospital or medical office, marketers run the risk of alienating others who could help them achieve their goals. A better approach is to make a concerted effort to be universally friendly, look for ways to serve, and be a resource to those who may benefit from the facility’s services.Take the example of Jeremy Jergensen, a caring nursing facility administrator in Southern California who for years visited his local hospital weekly to provide comfort to the sick, encouragement for the depressed, and a smile for everyone he came in contact with.Whenever one of his residents transferred to the hospital, Jergensen would visit with a thoughtful card or a kind word. When patients needing post-acute care had questions or unique needs, Jergensen would spend considerable time (often in the evenings and weekends) at the bedside visiting with patients and their loved ones to help them feel at ease with the next step on their path to recovery. Over time, Jergensen came to know many of the hospital’s employees, from the security personnel to the floor nurses, housekeepers, and therapists, and when he visited, everyone was excited to see him because of his infectious smile and endearing personality.Like Jergensen, marketers who do this well take a sincere interest in the lives of those they come in contact with and leave those they meet feeling better about themselves because of their gracious nature and thoughtful words.4. Ineffective follow-up. When a marketer does not reply to an inquiry in a timely manner, fails to return a call from an inquiring family, or forgets to follow up on a hospital’s request to notify the hospital staff of bed availability, these miscues can lead to damaged reputations and fewer admissions. Success follows from strategic health care marketing built on a foundation of consistent commitment and follow-up. Arguably, this may be the most difficult marketing mistake to remedy. It requires teamwork and effective communication at all levels of the admission process—professional and consistent phone etiquette, established systems and standards for processing inquiries, and constant quality-control audits to ensure system adherence. Teams can start by mystery shopping their own facility, which includes touring or calling at various times of the day or weekend and gauging the effectiveness of the interaction. Much can be learned from these exchanges.5. Saying “No.” Visiting prospective patients at the hospital and touring interested family members can be a great way to determine whether a facility can meet the needs and expectations of a potential resident.Sometimes, however, these exchanges lead to unique requests that the facility may not be able to accommodate. Questions like: Can I have a private room, or do you allow pets to visit, or would it be possible to have a family member stay at the bedside through the night are often met with the response: “That’s against our policy,” or “I’m sorry, we can’t do that.”This same “no” attitude often extends to interactions with discharge planners and case managers, thereby earning the facility a reputation for being “picky” or unhelpful. The most straightforward way to overcome this common marketing mistake is to create a “culture of yes” that extends to all levels of the facility. Whether it be empowering employees to go to the local grocery store to pick up a patient’s favorite beverage or snack, or providing the training, staff, and resources to accommodate higher-acuity patients, creating a culture built on a “yes” attitude and looking for ways to accommodate the needs of the patients as well as the medical community will build trust and repeat business. Jeff Stewart is chief business development officer at North American Health Care. He can be reached at jstewart@nahci.com or 909-519-3219.