Effective Ways To Differentiate And Scale Your Business

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Marketing Podcast with Debbie Howard

Debby Howard, a guest on the Duct Tape Marketing PodcastIn this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview Debbie Howard. Debbie is the co-founder and CEO of Senior Living SMART, a full-service marketing agency focused exclusively on the senior housing and care industry. Debbie is also a proud member of the DTM network for the last 3 years.

Key Takeaway:

A major challenge many businesses face is trying to find ways to differentiate and scale. And in order to do that, it starts with having a proven process and systems that works. In this episode, Debbie Howard shares how licensing the Duct Tape Marketing system gave her business the runway and framework to grow, scale, and thrive in her industry.

Watch this episode on YouTube

Questions I ask Debbie Howard:

  • [1:31] How did you get to where you are now?
  • [3:36] As anybody with aging parents will probably tell you certainly, senior living is a really emotional purchase – how does that kind of color your thinking in terms of marketing?
  • [5:34] Do you find that in some ways that the industry you’re in needs to come into the modern age? And do you also find though that some of what we might call the old school or traditional or offline marketing approaches are a significant part of what you need to do?
  • [7:17] What’s been the hardest thing as you’ve grown and what has been a constant struggle for you?
  • [10:20] As you’ve grown your business, what’s really been the most rewarding aspect of where you are today?
  • [11:24] Are there pros and cons to working in one very narrow niche?
  • [15:30] What would you attribute to the growth of your organization?
  • [17:13] Are there any trends going on that you’ve spotted over the last year or two that you’ve really been able to take advantage of?
  • [21:01] What are some places you like to turn to to get personal development and business development?
  • [22:35] Where can people connect with you and find out more about your work?

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John Jantsch (00:00): This episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by Marketing Against the Grain, hosted by Kip Bodner and Keion Flanigan is brought to you by the HubSpot Podcast Network, the audio destination for business professionals. Look, if you wanna know what's happening now in marketing, what's ahead and how you can stay ahead of the game, this is the podcast for you, host and HubSpot's, CMO and SVP of Marketing. Kip and Keion share their marketing expertise unfiltered in the details, the truth, and nobody tells it. In fact, a recent episode, they titled Half Baked Marketing Ideas, they Got Down In The Weeds, talked about some outside of the box campaigns with real businesses. Listen to marketing, its grain, wherever you get your podcast.

(00:55): Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch, and my guest today is Debbie Howard. She is the co-founder and CEO of Senior Living Smart, a full service marketing agency focused exclusively on the senior housing and care industry. It's also a proud member of the Duct Tape Marketing Network for the last three years. So guess we're gonna probably talk about that too. So Debbie, welcome to the show.

Debbie Howard (01:20): Thanks, John. Such a pleasure to be here.

John Jantsch (01:22): So tell me how you got your business started. Not everybody wakes up one day and says, I think I'm gonna start a marketing business that caters to the senior living space. So how did you come to where you are now?

Debbie Howard (01:34): Yeah, never my dream either. John , so well, myself and my business partner Andrea. We grew up in the senior living industry, and we both started at the single community location. I was in sales and marketing, and Andrea was in operations and dementia care. And we just kind of rose through the ranks with some of the largest senior living operators, publicly traded companies in regional divisional, and then national VP positions. And before starting Senior Living Smart, I was a national VP of sales and marketing for Five Star, which was the fifth largest senior living company. And we just decided that we thought we had something that we could bring the industry from the perspective of having worked in the industry and then translating that into solutions that were more realistic than what people were proposing who really hadn't grown up in the industry.

John Jantsch (02:25): Yeah. So it's funny you were kind of on the other side. I mean, you were being pitched by people like you right now to now today. And so did you have that kind of moment where you just said, what people are pitching us is not where we could do so much better? I mean, was it kind of that aha, I guess?

Debbie Howard (02:45): I think the aha was just that we always had to bring them the ideas. They were a marketing agency that just kind of said, oh, well, what do you want us to do this quarter? ?

John Jantsch (02:55): Right, right,

Debbie Howard (02:56): Right. So because they didn't know the industry, they just didn't have that ability to come into the conversation with something innovative. And so we just found that the industry was just borrowing examples from other people within the industry. And we are not a tremendously innovative and technology savvy industry. So all that we're doing is looking inside of ourselves to get those ideas and concepts and marketing strategies. We're probably just gonna look a lot like everybody else. And it was very just vanilla. It was all very generic. We thought there has to be a way to really elevate the conversation within our industry.

John Jantsch (03:37): As anybody with aging parents will probably tell you certainly. And that's again, a lot of the people that are making the decision with their parents. Hopefully it's a really emotional purchase, probably one of the more emotional purchases anybody will make. How's that kind of color your thinking in terms of marketing? Obviously you're not marketing a $29 product or even a very expensive course or program. You're marketing something pretty expensive, but also something terribly emotional.

Debbie Howard (04:05): It is. It's so emotional. It's not transactional at all. And so the approach has to be relational. And I think that the difficult thing is you're really pitching to two audiences kind of simultaneously. So mostly for assisted living in memory care, which is more needs driven, your primary audience is the adult children, usually the adult daughter, John . The guys are like, well, maybe my sister will take this conversation. And so mostly it's the adult daughters or daughter-in-laws, but then you still have to have a compelling message for your future residents so that they're going to see the value and benefit of moving into a community environment. Whereas if you're dealing with active adult 55 plus Margaritaville, it can be a lot more aspirational, a lot more creative, and a lot more fun. And those messages, the primary audience is then the older adult who's gonna be living in the community, but they're always gonna have to be supported by their adult children. Influencers who still need to be part of that conversation.

John Jantsch (05:06): Well, when the decision's been made and it's time to call somebody to put the move together, you call the guy then though, right?

Debbie Howard (05:13): Oh yeah. You call the guy . Yeah. And when it's time to sign the contract, pay the bills, .

John Jantsch (05:20): So you know, mentioned the idea that the industry was a little behind in the digital space, a lot of industries, again, you talked about this relational aspect, the fact that there's a physical location as opposed to say a virtual purchase. Do you find that in some ways, while they need to come into the modern age and digital is here to stay, do you also find though that some of what we might call old school or traditional or offline kind of hybrid approaches are a significant part of what you need to do?

Debbie Howard (05:53): Yeah, it's definitely a hybrid approach, and certainly direct mail is still in the mix and is very effective. Our audience still gets the newspaper and still goes out and gets that mail and responds to it. It's just a matter of integrating it. So use of QR codes, things like Bit Lees that can track the engagement event, bright other event type systems that you can get RSVPs where maybe the initial point might be a traditional marketing might be newspaper or direct mail ends up being a digital transaction. But the fact that it is so relational and it's so emotional means that you have to be on all channels all the time, but with different messages. And I think that's really the compelling part. And the length of the sales cycle, especially with the assisted living, has increased their sales cycle by about 36%. It takes, wow, over 200 days and 22 touch points to go from maybe a realization that I've gotta have a different solution, or dad's not as being successful at home as they were. They needed a more supportive environment, 22 touchpoints in like 200 days to get to decision. And so there's a lot of marketing within those 22 touchpoints,

John Jantsch (07:07): . So let's talk a little bit about your journey some more too. You know, start your business five years ago

Debbie Howard (07:13): Ish. Actually it was 10 years, but we just became a marketing agency five years ago.

John Jantsch (07:17): Okay, so let's start there. What's been the hardest thing as you've grown? And again, maybe it's like, well, next week is the hardest thing, but , what do you find that has always been a constant struggle for you?

Debbie Howard (07:32): I think for us is just trying to differentiate and then scale. And I think that's really why we entered into conversations around Duct Tape Marketing Network because we were trying to figure it out on our own. We'd never owned a marketing agency. It wasn't our intention that it was really just people kept saying, Deb, your background is all sales and marketing. We just need leads. We just need occupancy. Why don't you just focus on marketing? And so it was really external forces that kind of narrowed our scope of our work, which was more general consulting in nature operations and dementia care and everything else. So we landed about five years ago on, okay, all you need are leads. Okay, great. I can do that, we can do that as a team. But then we really lacked, I think having the system to scale. And to me, we were looking for, okay, now we've gotta figure out how to do contracts and what our processes is and how to document our ways of working and how do we make things turnkey and scalable, and how do we onboard new clients and how do we onboard new team members?

(08:36): And we just didn't have the time to start from scratch. And so Duct Tape Marketing really offered us the ability to go into versus that our, it's much easier to be an editor than to start from scratch so I could go in and download something and then make it work for our team or for our industry. So that really became the biggest focus for us was I feel like we've licensed a system that gives us a framework. And that framework resonates with prospects who most of the time don't understand. Marketing feels kind of fluffy into a system that they can really understand. You can't argue with the fact that you need to be on all these channels and they need to integrate. No one can argue with that. And it also gives us a framework as a team as well.

John Jantsch (09:19): Are you an agency owner, consultant or coach that works with business owners? Then I want to talk to you about adding a new revenue stream to your business that will completely change how you work with clients. For the first time ever, you can license and use the Duct Tape Marketing system and methodology in your business through an upcoming three day virtual workshop. Give us three days and you'll walk away with a complete system that changes how you think about your agency's growth. The Duct Tape Marketing System is a turnkey set of processes for installing a marketing system that starts with strategy and moves to retainer implementation engagements. We've developed a system by successfully working with thousands of businesses. Now you can bring it to your agency and benefit from all the tools, templates, systems and processes we've developed to find out when our next workshop is being held, visit dtm.world/workshop. That's dtm.world/workshop.

(10:20): So as you've grown your business, I guess the flip side of what's been a challenge, what's really been the most rewarding aspect of where you are today?

Debbie Howard (10:28): I think it's just really seeing the results. Talking to, we're into our quarterly or our quarterly reporting and talking to clients saying, thank you for bringing us these ideas that we would never have thought of on our own. It's, it's really helped. Other agencies have just executed to what we've kind of laid out in terms of a roadmap, but you've really come in and said, Hey, why don't we try this? Whether it's virtual events that was totally new to our industry before it was all driving people into the community and we had to reimagine that whole experience. And so being creative and innovative within the space that probably isn't known for being creative and innovative is probably the most rewarding. You

John Jantsch (11:15): Have chosen a fairly narrow niche that's a lot of people give that advice for marketers. I'd love to hear your opinion. Do you feel like working in one very narrow niche? I mean, are there pros and cons to each? I mean, do you sometimes wake up and go, oh, it's great we got another new client, but wouldn't it be interesting if we had a client that did something we weren't familiar with ? So again, obviously you're happy where you are, you love the niche you're in, that's why you chose it. But I'm just curious if you have ever thought to yourself, there's kind of pros and cons to that, that

Debbie Howard (11:53): There definitely are pros and cons, and I think you would go crazy in a niche industry, John, you'd be like, I'm bored. I need to learn something new. For us, we've grown up in this industry, we know it inside out and backwards, and it just really makes sense. I don't need to go out and learn about people who have carpentry companies or car repair companies. It really is that expertise. I think where it can really be a con is if you allow it to get kind of that wash, rinse, repeat, yeah. And you end up, there's advantages to being turnkey and to have some packaged strategies that work consistently, but then you've gotta tie into each individual client and really understand their personas, their better and different story. And then I think you have to constantly be intentional about innovation. And that's another thing I really appreciate about being part of the network is I don't have the time always to go out and demo a million solutions. I get pitched a lot. I'm sure you get pitched a lot. And to be able to go and have a network and say, Hey, has anyone tried this? Are you using it now? Or can you gimme some insight into how you're applying? It's a great time saver because we have to constantly be fresh to keep our teams engaged and keep our clients engaged for year after year. From a retention standpoint,

John Jantsch (13:14): And I'm sure every industry has these players. I know that in your industry there are people that focus on that niche also. But I, you're right. I think some people take that approach and think, oh, we can just template this entire thing and we're basically just selling a product then without any strategy behind it. I'm sure you encounter that all the time, don't you?

Debbie Howard (13:32): Yeah, especially we have in our industry, some website providers that, here's five templates, pick your website. They all look alike. They're terrible, they don't perform well, but people feel like it's an easy button and you're basically renting your website. You really don't own it. And so I think for us, we've kind of developed three sub niches. So we have the for-profit senior living space, which is rental. We have the Not for Profit, which is a buy-in kind of life plan guarantee. And then we've actually evolved into business to business companies that serve the senior living industry. So we kind of have three different sub-verticals, and that also keeps it really interesting and really fresh.

John Jantsch (14:17): And one of the things that drives me crazy when I've come across some of those, the legal profession is notorious for them as well, is that they also lock people into these websites. And then if you wanna leave, it's like, well, okay, see you later. But you're starting from scratch now, and people don't realize 3, 4, 5 years down the road how damaging that's gonna be for their business, do

Debbie Howard (14:37): They? They don't understand the consequences. And in our industry, they do two year contracts, which autorenew, if you miss that window, you are stuck . And we've had clients that have had to pay $60,000 to buy out so that we can build up something good on WordPress. And really, it just breaks my heart that people are still kind of falling for that, oh, here for 500, $600 a month, we'll do your website. And then you try to get reports and they're like, oh, you don't need those . And then we try to get in to run Google AdWord campaigns, and then the client finds out they don't actually own their Google ad account, they don't have access to their Google Analytics. This website company really owns them, which is not a good place to be .

John Jantsch (15:25): Well, I mean, it's basically extortion . Yeah. Quite frankly. So let's call it what it is. So talk a little bit about the growth of your organization because you've shared some numbers with me or some percentages with me, and you've had pretty significant growth over the last couple years. What do you attribute that to?

Debbie Howard (15:43): So yeah, I think when we first started, John, we came into the network, I think there were four people. It was myself, my partner, and then one full-time person, and then one con contract person. And now three years later, we are a team of 26 full-time employees. And then we do some outsourcing of copywriters, graphic designers, just kind of for overflow when our full-time team might get overwhelmed. And I would say bringing things in house. I think when we first started, John, the reason we were able to do that is we did outsource a lot to some white label agencies that would kind of do the work. And that worked for a while. But honestly, I think as an agency owner, we just came to realize that the only way that you can really maintain the quality of your work is you have to bring it in.

(16:31): And so making that decision was a huge thing for us. And frankly, conversations with you and other mastermind folks really kind of gave us the conf to go ahead and make that adjustment. But we double in size every year in terms of revenue. And I think a lot of that is we have found a way to make it scalable, to leverage the Duct Tape Marketing System, mapped out the prospect journey. Retention is really important. So we have clients who've been with us for five years, which I think is unusual for agency life. But I would say that those are the things that have really kept us, I think, competitive.

John Jantsch (17:13): So you talked about, I think, coming up in the industry, but that you've really had this approach where you want to continue to be innovative. Are there any trends going on that you've spotted over the last year or two that you've been able to take advantage of or that, or maybe they're even, it's just a gap in the market that people aren't filling?

Debbie Howard (17:33): Yeah, there's a lot of gaps. I mean, senior housing and care, it seems to be kind of the last adopters. So probably things you were talking about five years ago on this podcast are things that our industry's going, Hey, there's chat and there's bots, and there's these other things that maybe we should try out. So in our industry, I would say 2023, really leveraging SMS is something that we have to do. People just, that's where folks are, right? Search, social, email, and text. And so I think building those types of campaigns and really using video more creatively or two of the things that we're focused on, we just had a call with a vendor who was, we're all trying to figure out about the anonymous traffic and the traffic that we can no longer track and we can no longer retarget. And I think that's gonna become an increasing need is, I think right now we can only probably track and retarget to about 30% of our website traffic.

(18:29): Google Chrome is kind of the last bastion, and only 50% of people are on that, and 40% of those folks block the tracking. And so really you're down to about 30%. And so things like being able to reverse IP match back to physical addresses, or using longitudinal longitudinal to get a household address, whether that's to serve up direct mail or to even serve ads to the devices that reside at house. I think some of those types of things where you're really blending that hybrid marketing model and really personalizing, to your point, it is a relational sale. And you've got to personalize that journey down to the individual and their motivation and their timeframe and what level of care they're interested in. And so I think the better job we can do with that, hopefully the more we can impact that very long sales cycle to build trust a little bit quicker.

John Jantsch (19:23): It's funny, of course, this is gonna come to SMS and it's certainly email marketing, all the privacy things that are mm-hmm. coming out there in terms of what you talked about retargeting. But it's funny how the old school direct marketing, you and I've talked about this, I mean, you can go by a mail list that has a lot of data on it that you could never get or capture or track or keep online. And I think that we're gonna maybe see a resurgence of direct mail because of that.

Debbie Howard (19:50): Totally. I mean, we can get, unfortunately, or fortunately, I guess for us, it's a good thing. I don't know , but we can get ailment criteria. So I can purchase a list of people who have self-identified and have agreed to share certain diagnosis and dementia and all of the things that typically trigger the need for a more supportive environment as people age. And we can even look at people who have a senior in their home . So we'll be able to know that this person is probably taking care of a family member. And we know that there's a timeframe where that may not be possible. And we can have a very specific campaign that just goes to those households where there is one senior within a household, or people who have different diseases or certain needs. It's amazing how much information, there's no privacy on the list side. And if you have a really good, we have a great list, guy .

John Jantsch (20:47): Yep. And again, this is, you've been a great member of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network. You've been a great collaborator and share, and I appreciate you saying kind things that you say about Duct Tape Marketing. Having said that, what are some other places where you get personal development, business development, what some places you like to turn for that?

Debbie Howard (21:09): So I do listen to a lot of podcasts and webinars. I would say just from a timing standpoint, the in person things, unfortunately have certainly minimized in our industry. So it's really, it's reading and it's webinars and it's podcasts. I would say even listening to master classes, they have amazing master classes, which, you know, can always find those nuggets in those types of learnings, I think. Yeah,

John Jantsch (21:38): I don't commute anywhere and , so I sometimes find it tough. I'm not a person that can sit down and watch a video course. I get bored very quickly, but I find that going out, walking or driving for a long distance or something, if I ever end up having a trip that I'm making or something, that's really where I can consume a lot of audio content. But I do find it, this is really sad for a podcaster who's done as many shows as me to say I don't listen to many podcasts because I just don't worked into my habit.

Debbie Howard (22:08): Well, you're a big reader though.

John Jantsch (22:10): I am a big reader, .

Debbie Howard (22:12): Yeah, and I think you read and listen at the same time, so you're doubling your intake.

John Jantsch (22:16): I do that sometimes. You're right. You've heard me talk about that not really not listening and reading two different things. I'm actually listening to the audio version while I'm reading it. And so I feel like I really retain a lot more by doing that. So Debbie, I certainly appreciate you taking time to stop by the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. You wanna, is there anywhere you want to send people, if they heard this and they thought, oh, I'd like to follow that, Debbie, or connect with her anywhere you wanna send folks to learn more about what you're doing. So

Debbie Howard (22:44): Probably LinkedIn, very active on LinkedIn. That would be a good spot. Or on our website, senior living smart.com.

John Jantsch (22:50): Awesome. Well, Debbie, hopefully we'll run into you one of these days soon again, out there on the road.

Debbie Howard (22:56): I hope so, John, thank you so much.

John Jantsch (22:58): Hey, and one final thing before you go. You know how I talk about marketing strategy, strategy before tactics? Well, sometimes it can be hard to understand where you stand in that, what needs to be done with regard to creating a marketing strategy. So we created a free tool for you. It's called the Marketing Strategy Assessment. You can find [email protected],. Check out our free marketing assessment and learn where you are with your strategy today. That's just marketingassessment.co. I'd love to chat with you about the results that you get.

This episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by the HubSpot Podcast Network.

HubSpot Podcast Network is the audio destination for business professionals who seek the best education and inspiration on how to grow a business.




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