Email Designs Are Neglecting The Needs of Boomers

The Boomer generation is a critical audience for marketers. By 2015, those aged 50 and older will represent 45% of the U.S. population, according to AARP. And currently, Baby Boomers control over 80% of personal financial assets and more than 50% of discretionary spending power, according to ThirdAge.

However, marketers regularly use small text on their Web sites and in their emails and other marketing materials, creating unnecessary legibility issues for some of their most valuable customers. Speaking at the Forrester's Marketing Forum 2010, an executive from financial services company TIA-CREF said it asked its community how to improve its Web site. The #1 response was "bigger font."

Not considering the needs of Boomers when designing marketing materials means lost revenue for marketers and a poor user experience for many Boomers -- not to mention other visually challenged people like myself.

To help address this issue, I've created the Boomer Legibility Initiative for a New Decade (BLIND), which seeks to convince marketers to increase the point size of their fonts by 1 point this year, in 2015, and in 2020, to make it easier for the growing Boomer population to read and take advantage of their offers.

The problem is particularly evident in marketing emails. Even brands that skew older like Nordstrom (see example) and Ralph Lauren (see example) use overly small fonts.

And the problem is worse when you look at administrative text at the bottom of emails. Sixty-four percent of retailers use an 8-point font size or smaller for their admin text, which includes critical information such as unsubscribe and "change your address" links. For retailers, this fine print often includes sale exclusions. Do they really not want their customers to be able to see which brands, etc. are excluded from a sale? That's a recipe for a poor customer experience.

Increasing font sizes is also becoming vital as more email and Web sites are viewed on mobile devices, which often scale content down, making text even harder to read. So this is an issue about reaching both Boomers and mobile customers.

Other Readability Issues

In addition to making fonts larger, there are a number of text treatments and design elements that also reduce the legibility of text: 1. Reverse type, where there's white/light text on black/dark background. Dell does this for its preheader and administrative text (see example).

2. Low-contrast text, where text and background colors are very close in value to each other. Coldwater Creek does this in this email, which uses a sun-dappled font color.

3. Text over background images with lots of bright and dark areas.

4. Full caps, which are not only considered shouting, but are harder to read than sentence case, where you capitalize the first word of a sentence and any proper nouns. Coach does this excessively (see example).

Have you made any recent changes to your design to make them more legible? Are there marketers that you wish would make their emails easier to read?

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18 comments about "Email Designs Are Neglecting The Needs of Boomers ".
  1. Raydra Hall , May 25, 2010 at 10 a.m.

    One of our owners is in his 80s and he lets me know when he has trouble reading text, but I never really thought about some of the other issues you brought up. Thanks!

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , May 25, 2010 at 10:28 a.m.

    Think Mobile. When the iPad is the du jour size of phone screens, mobile may have a chance for a longer than a flash check.

  3. Chad White from Salesforce Marketing Cloud , May 25, 2010 at 10:39 a.m.

    Raydra, it's great that you have feedback. I think part of the issue here is that most emails are designed by 20- and 30-somethings who generally have good vision.

  4. Victoria Oldham from Trade Winds Advertising Inc , May 25, 2010 at 11:28 a.m.

    Thanks for this article. I'm a boomer/designer and I have a vision problem now that I never imagined I'd have even up to age 50. So, yes, it is those younger designers with great vision who just don't identify with the problem. They should be convinced that you can still make great, fun design with larger, more legible fonts and somehow rewarded (by hearing positive feedback) for doing so.

  5. Deborah Trivitt from Trivitt PR , May 25, 2010 at 11:28 a.m.

    As a boomer, I can tell you this article tells the truth. In fact, if your website or email is in reverse type, small print, or low contrast....I will log out and delete email to JUNK. And I'm not likely to shop in your store, either.

  6. Janet Cameron from Resource Partners , May 25, 2010 at 2:31 p.m.

    I couldn't agree more. When I was an art student, in the dark ages, it was manditory to study typography. Today's graphic designers don't even know the basics and it urks me to no end. There is a difference between being legible and being horsey. First and foremost let's not forget we are in the business of communications.

  7. Rochelle Sollish from Brody Smythe Direct , May 25, 2010 at 4:54 p.m.

    All good comments. But not only should fonts size be larger but you need to watch the colors you use. Older eyes don't see them the same way as younger.

  8. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International , May 25, 2010 at 5:44 p.m.

    This all makes sense and can even relate to a business card. Have your name and phone in very large font so the baby boomers can read it without glasses. Kurt Johansen Australia's Email Marketing Strategist - http://www.kurtjohansen.com

  9. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , May 25, 2010 at 5:51 p.m.

    So Chad, you are saying the 20-30 year old designers designing for their same age groups prefer to leave the most affluent market money on the table ?

  10. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion , May 25, 2010 at 6:14 p.m.

    I agree with Janet; some of these examples are simply bad typography and design. Reverse type should not be used in large quantities in text blocks, but for accent in large type. The same is true for ALL CAPS; never use it for a text block unless it is Big and Little caps. That was part of my advertising courses in the dark ages. And, colors should be reviewed for readability. However, I received that ad in my e-mail from Coldwater Creek, and I didn't find any kind of problem with it — except I didn't have the money right then to buy anything. As far as size, anything designed for the Web should be checked for readability on all the screens and format sizes you can lay your hands on -- that now, of course, includes mobile devices. I am older than a baby boomer and frankly have very little problem reading Web pages and my (older) husband enlarges the type when he encounters a problem online.

  11. Chad White from Salesforce Marketing Cloud , May 25, 2010 at 6:28 p.m.

    Paula, I'm not suggesting that designers are purposefully trying to alienate Boomers. They just aren't thinking about readability issues to the extent that they should in every instance given the demographic trends.

    Another factor is the desire that some marketers have to squeeze as much content as possible into every email. When you do that, readability often suffers.

  12. Carol Parish from SynthesisPlus , May 25, 2010 at 10:27 p.m.

    As always, it's impossible to classify Boomers in one way or another. Some are totally competent in optimizing the type in emails and websites to improve readability. Many others haven't a clue.

    But this issue long predates email. As far back as the 1990, I have battled designers about type size. Designers seem to have been trained to work with 8 or 9 pt type (used in newspapers and news magazines, which use many columns) when the business world lives more and more with Powerpoint 12 pt or larger, bullet points, etc.

    Nobody reads lengthy prose any more. The more marketers realize that people rely on text tidbits, the clearer it is that copy must be short, to the point, and of a size accessible to most.

  13. Cece Forrester from tbd , May 26, 2010 at 12:28 p.m.

    Bad typographical decisions happen in print, too. Are art directors no longer told that you mustn't use small-font reverse type out of a dark background, let alone a light one? Off-register, it's a disaster; even when repro is optimal, it can be hard for anyone to read.

    Oh, yeah, people still do read long-form prose. It's called a book. They sell them where you get coffee, or you can use one of those newfangled tablet gizmos that let you dial up the font!

  14. michelle rutkowski , May 26, 2010 at 2:27 p.m.

    Great points Chad and as you mention this is a critical point if your target market is middle aged or older. This seems like Marketing 101 to me, regardless of the age of the creative staff. Yet I'm always surprised at people's reactions when I bring it up in creative review -- it is most often not part of the targeting process.

  15. Donald Frazier from OneVideo Technology , May 26, 2010 at 5:16 p.m.

    @CeCe -- Yeah, I remember those. What's a coffee shop without an attached bookstore?

  16. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , May 26, 2010 at 6:09 p.m.

    Right, Chad. "Not thinking" is THE problem. Whipper snappers who think "not thinking" is a good thing can be replaced with the older. experienced community who got shoved out who think "thinking" works. "Not thinking" can hurt a brand and lose more sales and profit they will never see. If the message cannot be expressed clearly from all ends, then the message is that the sender is careless and "not thinking." I can spend elsewhere and there are sooooo many places to do so. As Ken Rutkowski always says, "Experts are expensive; amateurs are a fortune".

  17. Deborah Rodney from The Next Level Marketing & Creative , May 27, 2010 at 3:04 p.m.

    As a boomer designer I've been on this bandwagon for years. Thanks for bringing it to the attention of a broader audience.

  18. Elaine Fogel from Solutions Marketing & Consulting LLC , May 27, 2010 at 8:14 p.m.

    I've been complaining about this issue forever. OK, at least since I started wearing reading glasses. :)

    And let's not forget the millions of people with visual disabilities. To get the low-down on how a Web site can be adapted, visit the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) http://www.w3.org/