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Three Ways to Avoid Survivorship Bias in Senior Living Marketing.

Over my 30+ years in marketing, I’ve always been obsessed with trying to answer John Wanamaker's age-old question, "half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.” In the digital world, there are plenty of tools available to help you identify and isolate ideal targets on- and offline as a way of cutting wasted spending. But since you only convert 2-3% of website visitors, it is a real challenge to understand who the other 98% of non-responders are, and most importantly, how to convert more of them faster.

As a result of knowing so little about anonymous website visitors, many marketers rely on look-alike modeling using known prospects and customers in their lead gen efforts. While customer match efforts can be effective, both on- and offline, there are at least two problems with solely relying on them. First, all of your competitors are spending against the same target audience in the same geographic area, driving up acquisition costs and creating a downward spiral as more money chases the same consumers. Second, it opens marketers up to the challenges of “survivorship bias.”

According to Wikipedia, survivorship bias is “the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. This can lead to some false conclusions in several different ways.” As marketers, we confront selection bias in market research and segmentation all the time.

The most famous example of survivorship bias comes from WWII. The US Navy needed to add armor to bombers to protect them from anti-aircraft guns, but they couldn’t add weight to the entire plane. So, the Navy started analyzing damage on returning planes to guide their efforts.

They concluded that armor should be added to the areas where returning planes took the most damage. Until the famous statistician, Abraham Wald suggested adding armor to those areas where there was no damage. He reasoned that they were analyzing planes that survived, not those that were shot down. That meant the places with all that shrapnel were not critical to staying in the air because, well, they made it back home. As a result, the Navy added armor to the areas where anti-aircraft guns didn't hit the surviving planes to great success.

What does that have to do with digital marketing in senior living?

In analyzing performance and budgets, many marketers are looking at all those bullet holes the wrong way and possibly putting the armor [budget] in the wrong places. For starters, 98% of your website visitors will remain anonymous, many over numerous visits over a long time. (Estimates range between eight and twenty visits before acting.) In a highly considered, emotional, and complex journey category like senior living, it has amazed me how little marketers focus on understanding, nurturing, and converting website visitors who are qualified but are not yet ready to talk with an advisor. They show the highest level of intent possible, consuming content you painstakingly created, and are actively considering your senior living community. However, they still don’t reach out to talk with a family advisor. Or worse, they bounce off your site only to land on a competitor’s or lead aggregator’s website.

In the absence of first-party data, even conversion rate optimization (CRO) efforts intended to maximize leads from navigation, content, and calls-to-action, tend to focus on and replicate what has worked and are inherently subject to survivorship bias. For example, reducing or adding the number of actions, steps, or pages needed to produce another opt-in. But many efforts don’t focus on the fact that there may be an entirely different type of visitor on the site. Sophisticated marketers are doing the research, creating personas and customer journey paths to meet the needs of different segments. Think “self” shoppers for independent living, adult children for assisted living, memory care for higher need residents. It’s a great start but doesn’t go far enough.

So, who are those thousands of anonymous—and often repeat—visitors? Are they too early in the self-education process? Are they actively planning, or are they in the comparison shopping phase? Do a parent’s ADLs and IADLs suggest they need more help? Are all those visitors I send to my site each day even qualified?

Luckily, senior living marketers have several tools to understand who their website visitors are. Most importantly, some of these tools not only give you feedback on who is on your site but can help you convert more visitors into leads and moves.

As a marketer, you want to know at least three basic things about all that traffic you are driving: 1) are they qualified? 2) are they ready to move, and 3) if they are not ready, what will it take to get them to act.

1) Are you generating high-quality traffic?

The team at #SenioROI has created a pretty impressive match-back data platform called WebTrak. It not only identifies consumer profiles on a substantial number of website visitors, but it can also show you how many prospects are financially qualified and where to find them. The platform uses over 400 data points to match online visitors to offline profiles. (IP addresses are used as an authenticator instead of a direct match, and it meets all privacy and regulatory requirements.) When profile data is appended to your CRM files, it can also give detailed profile information on your leads at each stage of the funnel for your sales reps, as well as find those look-alikes within your target geographies. More than that, it can produce data needed for creating the right conversion content and enable precision targeting both online and offline.

2) Are visitors exhibiting high potential buying behaviors?

There are plenty of digital tools like #HotJar that can produce heat maps of how visitors interact with content and calls-to-action on your site. It gives indicators of what type of content is resonating and how they are navigating around your website. But, within the senior living category, #LeadInsite has created an algorithm—based on millions of sessions across senior living sites-- that maps visitor navigation, behavior, and page/content consumption to create a High-Value Visitor score by source channel. It essentially paints a picture of how many visitors you are driving to your site match (or don't match) the behaviors of others who have actually moved in. Most importantly, it helps you build the right journey and content to help lead and inspire visitors to action in the proper sequence. Pretty cool!

3) Are visitors ready to act or just about to act?

#Roobrik, a family decision support, and lead conversion tool have created a simple to use widget that not only gathers detailed first-party data on your website visitors at scale but converts more of them. Many website visitors who engage with the self-discovery tool but were not ready to talk with an advisor when they arrived, ultimately opt-in to becoming a lead within 4-5 minutes, resulting in a 20-40% lift in lead volume. The Roobrik tool connects with anonymous visitors who are “stuck” in the decision process with a series of 19+ questions and insight modules that help respondents answer the question “Is it the right time for senior living?” for themselves or a loved one.

In a consulting engagement with Roobrik last year, I had the opportunity to take a deep dive into my favorite subject. Who are all the non-opt-ins that are highly engaged but still not taking action? While one-third of people who answered 19 self-assessment questions over 4-5 minutes immediately changed their minds about talking with a sales advisor and opted-in as a lead, two-thirds still didn’t opt-in. I helped analyze 8,770 anonymized adult caregivers across 50 different operators and hundreds of communities over 12 months. Not surprisingly, about 30% of visitors completing the tool appeared to be over a year away or not yet self-qualified. But nearly 70% of people who were qualified in the moderately high to high care need category were under 12 months away. Many self-reported they had not yet talked with siblings. Others felt mom or dad was resistant. Others were on the borderline on ADLs and IADLs, although they were likely under-reporting severity. It proved that thousands of visitors across community websites were highly qualified but stuck on one or more obstacles that could be addressed by excellent website content or lead nurture communications. Several forward-looking Roobrik clients are creating new content that addresses specific barriers uncovered through the tool, with others incorporating self-reported, first-party data into lead nurture and conversion programs.


More than just a marketing curiosity, understanding your website visitors and capturing qualified leads earlier in the decision-making process can help you build a competitive advantage for your communities. Very few senior living marketers acquire customer data or use lead nurture and content marketing to get to qualified buyers earlier, leaving a significant opportunity wide-open. And as digital marketers in every category prepare for a cookie-less future next year, becoming an expert at acquiring, interpreting, and using first-party data puts those senior living communities that do well ahead of the pack. And, of course, it helps them get to those valuable leads before anyone else while avoiding the pitfalls of survivorship bias.


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