Home Again

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

SWIMMING POOLS and golf courses. Dance lessons and card games. Cookouts and crafts classes.

It may sound like a summer camp or a luxury resort, but it’s the lifestyle active adult communities are pitching to a prospecting universe increasingly populated by baby boomers.

But to attract boomers to their properties, builders have to dispel the notion that their communities for people over age 55-comprised of freestanding two-bedroom (or larger) homes-are for old fogies. Many are doing this by turning to direct mail to build on leads generated by direct response newspaper ads.

Barnegat, NJ’s Heritage Bay has generated an astounding 40% to 50% response rate from its mailings, including such efforts as an invitation to a barbecue celebrating the opening of a new clubhouse. And not far away in Toms River, NJ, Lake Ridge has sold all of its 971 units thanks in part to mailers trumpeting features like a full-time activities director and fitness center.

New Jersey is a booming area for active adult communities-XXX such properties exist in the state, XX built since XXX. Much of the growth can be attributed to the fact that many people in the heavily populated metro New York/Northern New Jersey area want to stay near their doctors, family and social circle, instead of running off to Florida, notes Paul Entin, a spokesperson for Lambertville, NJ-based Oxford Communications, which handles the Heritage Bay account.

The boomers are not the same market as their parents, a fact marketers have to address when trying to sell homes. As “Rocking the Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing” notes, the current mature market feels they needed to earn their rewards, while boomers feel they simply deserve them. The impact of this idea on builders can be felt in a number of ways. For example, Entin notes, unlike their parents, boomers won’t look at a cathedral ceiling and think simply of how much energy it will waste. They’ll think of it as an amenity they want.

A recent study by American Association of Retired Persons and Roper Starch shows that boomers are for the most part optimistic about their retirement. A factor here is naturally household income. Boomers with a household income over $70,000 are overwhelmingly looking forward to kicking back. In contrast, only half of those with household incomes under $30,000 are seeing that gold watch as a positive thing.

Kurt Medina, head of Medina Associates (which specializes in mature marketing) says AARP statistics show 78% of all people stay in their own homes as they age and more want to. Direct mail and print, he says, is a good way of starting a dialogue and beginning the multi-step process that is buying a home.

The overwhelming mantra of marketers creating pieces to promote the communities is clear and simple: work from benefits of the community, not features of the home. As Medina notes, don’t focus on things like a fireplace, swimming pool and a spacious dining room. Focus on how comfortable the children and grandchildren will be when they visit and how the new neighbors will seem like 40-year friends after three weeks.

The facts have to be there, says Medina, but marketers need to focus on right brained creative thinking. Don’t overwhelm people with the whole story in the initial mailing piece, because frankly, they don’t care yet. An initial mailing piece would be a great opportunity to invite people to an informational breakfast, he says.

It’s important to give prospects a reason to call you, because as Entin notes, buying a retirement home doesn’t have the same sense of urgency that buying a new home does. There’s not a lot of pressure to move, so they can take their time. Entin sees direct mail as a way to shorten that sales cycle.

Heritage Bay, a 294-unit community, usually targets its on average 8,000 piece direct mail efforts towards recent visitors. Response is gauged by how many people call or visit after receiving the mailing. They sell about 8.3 homes per month and expect the community to be sold out by winter.

The community began selling in the spring of 1996, and has built a 11,000 name proprietary database through newspaper ads, radio spots and from people who drove by and stopped in. They haven’t used rented mailing lists, mainly because there aren’t a lot of good localized files available. The Heritage Bay database includes whether or not the prospect has a home for sale. If they do, the community may help the buyer with the sale of their old home to facilitate the sale of their new one.

Heritage Bay has avoided using a trap of mature marketing-what Medina termed “stock photos of plastic looking seniors”-by utilizing some very different images. Postcards feature images such as a traffic jam (headlined “Spending too much of your summer in shore traffic?”, an oversized clock (“Time is money”) and a door latch (“Avoid getting locked out”)-all concepts familiar to people tiring of the city and rat race grind, the shore community’s main target

Two little girls whispering were used in another mailing to give prospect s a “heads up” on availabilities in a new section. For Heritage Green, a sister community to Heritage Bay, a piece extended an invitation to “Inside Story” tour on the building of a home. To get extra mileage out of an article from an advertising section of the Newark Star Ledger, a piece was dashed off quickly in black and white-a way for the community to get in the mail more frequently at a low cost, notes Entin. A generic Heritage Bay mailer has also been produced for sales reps to send to a prospect immediately following their visit .(But that’s not to say the don’t use photos of seniors in promotions. One of the initial pieces was “The Beacon,” a newsletter that used photos to play up the shore lifestyle that residents would experience.)

Toms River’s Lake Ridge is comprised of several communities: the original development, which opened in 1994; The 988 unit Fairways at Lake Ridge, which opened in June and Meadows at Lake Ridge, with 227 homes under construction.

Lake Ridge has compiled an approximately 20,000 name database. When guests visit the communities, they are asked to fill out a form that asks questions like when the prospect plans to buy a new home, their size and price range, whether they and/ or their spouse are retired and some of their leisure time interests. Postcards have also been distributed to residents, encouraging them to share the names and addresses of friends who might be interested in information.

Jill Lawlor, director of account services for Mount Laurel-based Winning Strategies, which handles the Lake Ridge account, says big, colorful postcards have been an effective part of their marketing plan. Size matters, she say, because it means the piece won’t get lost or thrown out easily.

The response rate has fallen the respectable 2 to 3% range. They’ve used the oversize postcards for things like the grand opening of the Fairways (playing up the 18 hole golf course, of course), and through all stages of the sale of Lake Ridge: “Let the games begin,” “Wish You Were Here”, “We’ve Saved the Best for Last,” and “Procrastinators Beware-this is your last chance to own at home at the original Lake Ridge.”

One thing that will change in upcoming Lake Ridge mailings is the type of person depicted. Even though by law most residents must be over age 55, the community wants to start targeting boomers as early as age 48 and get them thinking about their future. To facilitate this, the photos will move away from gray haired people who look older than boomers see themselves and more towards folks who look and dress like people who might have been at Woodstock.

Direct mail isn’t the only form of direct response utilized by these communities. Heritage Bay does have its salespersons do follow-ups by phone. Lake Ridge, however, doesn’t. Lawlor says they experimented with having residents follow-up with prospects by phone, making the contact a friendly peer-to-peer experience. Unfortunately, it was a little too friendly, as the calls took too long because everyone enjoyed chatting so much.

Direct response television is a difficult medium for active adult communities to use not only because of the cost, but because retirement marketing needs to be so localized, says Medina. But , he adds, national DRTV potential might exist for destination retirement communities in the sun belt because of their broad appeal.

Lake Ridge tested 30 second DRTV spots on New Jersey cable channels this summer. The spots gave an overview of the community and featured an 800 number and the address of its Web site (www.lakeridge.com). The site offers ample information about the community, as well as the opportunity to receive a free book in exchange for basic information for their database.

On a slightly more low tech note, Heritage Bay tried radio for a lifestyle oriented “why wait?” themed campaign, timing the spots to coincide with events like grand openings of model homes. The spots performed well on adult contemporary stations, particularly on a Frank Sinatra special that ran prior to his death.

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