Focus: Boomers Crashing the Social Media Party

Markets Focus: Everything New is Old

Everything New Is Old

"Congratulations! Your parents just joined Facebook. Your life is officially over." Such is the greeting visitors receive upon entering the blog "Oh Crap. My Parents Joined Facebook," which - as the name implies - chronicles the well-intentioned but oft-hilarious wall posts, quiz results, group memberships and status updates of an older generation of social network converts. Sample wall post: "OMG ... are u really going to be 20 tomorrow?! How is that possible? I must have had u when I was 12? ha ha lol ... Just humor me ..."

Such a post simply wouldn't have been possible just four years ago - unless, of course, mom was enrolled in a university or college with a valid email address. In 2005, Facebook dipped its toe in new waters, allowing high school students and, later, those who worked for select companies like Microsoft to create profiles. And one year later, Facebook no longer required a collegiate affiliation at all, and anyone older than 13 wielding an email address (read: everyone) could zombie bite to his or her heart's content.

"Parents join Facebook to keep up with the trends," Jeanne Leitenberg, My Parents Joined Facebook cofounder, recently told laist. "I believe it comes more from the 'my kid is my friend' mentality rather than a way to keep tabs on their children. These are parents trying to be 'the cool parents.'" Though it's not on par with crashing the hot tub party and passing the dutch, the age shift fundamentally changed how Facebook is used and perceived.
No longer are social nets the domain of the pbr-swilling youth and that socially awkward clerk at the Apple store - your Facebook feed now tells you that Norma's joined a Weight Watchers group and posted some pics of the grandkids.

According to iStrategy Labs, Facebook's seen its 35-54 demo membership blow up by 276.4 percent between June 2008 and January 2009. The 55-and over contingent grew 194.3 percent in the same amount of time. In comparison, that ever-so-sought 18-24 group bounced just 20.6 percent. The total number of Facebook users aged 35-plus in October 2007 totaled just fewer than 845,000, while as of this past January, their combined might totals just less than 8 million - 18.9 percent of the total Facebook pie.

Their might extends beyond Facebook, too. More than 60 percent of Baby Boomers consume socially created content, according to a recent Forrester report. Though they might not create content as willingly as your average 22 year old - the report notes they aren't as likely to start a blog or upload a video to YouTube - this group of 43-63-year-olds instead wields more disposable income and constitutes a bigger generational segment. So pay attention, because they have no problem consuming social content. In Forrester's survey, 62 percent of Boomers aged 53-63 and 66.7 percent of Boomers aged 43-52 said they could be found "reading blogs, listening to podcasts, watching user-generated videos, reading forums, or reading consumer ratings."

"Boomers are not particularly cutting-edge - they just catch up later," confirms J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich MONITOR and coauthor of Generation Ageless, a book chronicling how Boomers live today. Smith compares the surge of Boomers logging on to social networks to when Internet access gained steam in households in the late '90s. As then, with AOL, the user-friendliness of today's social networks is key. "It's all about easy of access. Boomers weren't doing lots of complicated things online but being engaged and keeping in touch."

Smith says social networks particularly appeal to nostalgia-loving Boomers because they allow them to connect with friends of the past. Doing anything more than basic networking with old high school buddies, however, might be pushing it for your average Boomer, who Smith says gravitate to "things that require a very small modicum of tech savvy." Photo and video uploads, for example, may be a bit more daunting than an easy interactive quiz application.

Facebook and MySpace aside, who better to cater to these emerging social network addicts than AARP? The nonprofit advocate for the 50-and-over contingent revamped and relaunched its Web site - including an online community boasting 400,000 registered users - last spring. Community membership is free to anyone (even if you're not a half-century old, for you granny-grabbers), and members can create personalized profiles with the ability to post photos, video and blogs. And according to Elly Spinweber, AARP's senior manager of media relations, older community members are getting their bearings just fine. "More than ever, our users are becoming more comfortable talking to each other, creating blogs and commenting on articles." Spinweber says.

AARP's community, a sort of Facebook-message board hybrid, has differentiated itself from the bigger social networks, Spinweber says, by encouraging its users to create and interact in groups (2,000 and counting). Spinweber singles out two groups as being the most popular right now - unsurprisingly, their content is of particular importance to an older audience. In "The Singles Perspective," users who have become single again can connect with each other, talk about their experiences and meet new people, while "Create the Good" gives users ideas for volunteering in their communities, whether they have five minutes or five hours to spare.

Markets Focus-Everything New Is OldGroup action aside, anyone with a grandparent knows they sure as hell don't hesitate to tell you what they think. In fact, in 2008 Forrester found that just over a third of Boomers aged 53-63 will react to social content. Last year, financial services giant Charles Schwab polled 4,000 individuals to gauge how different generations approach retirement. At its microsite called "Rethinking Retirement," Charles Schwab invited users to "tell us what you think" by completing a 12-part survey that would allow them to compare their answers to those already polled.

By way of the survey, a forward-to-a friend application, social tagging and widgets, the company ensured social interaction. "We focused on delivering helpful guidance with our interactive content ... in ways that address visitor concerns and in ways Boomers are currently receptive to interacting with content," says Matt Hurwitz, Charles Schwab's director of public relations. He says the company aimed to strike a respectful tone with the site - especially when engaging this audience in a conversation about retirement and their hard-earned cash.

So while life may indeed seem to be over for those whose moms have just joined Facebook, it's only just begun for mom herself. With all this networking going on, isn't it just a matter of time until Boomers jump aboard the Twitter train (which has only just hit the mainstream itself)? "I think there's an open question of whether Boomers will become engaged with Twitter," Smith says. "They haven't engaged with blogging. It might [take off], but there's reason to think it won't."

Just remember - they're the complete opposite of early adopters. "Boomers complain about the size of the keys on a Blackberry or iPhone," Smith says. "That's what old people talk about."

9 comments about "Focus: Boomers Crashing the Social Media Party".
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  1. Thomas Pick from Webbiquity LLC, June 11, 2009 at 7:51 a.m.

    Interesting article, but a few comments:

    - First, be careful with the age-based stereotypes. I can introduce you to plenty of boomers who are sophisticated in their use of online video and don't spend their social media time complaining "about the size of the keys on a Blackberry or iPhone." Painting boomers as technologically out-of-touch isn't healthy or necessarily accurate.

    - Second, many Facebook and Twitter users in my age group (35-54) are there for business, not to spy on our kids. It's more like a cocktail party where the parents are all in the living room discussing business and the kids are out in the garage listening to Nickelback than a pathetic attempt by the over-30 crowd to seem cool to their teenage offspring.

    - Finally, did anyone else notice how much that third photo in the Rethinking Retirement ad above looks like Guy Kawasaki? For a moment, I thought Schwab really was getting hip to social media!

  2. Leonard Sipes from Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, June 11, 2009 at 8:48 a.m.

    I'm 58 and I know a thousand times more tech than my daughters (18 and 24) and their friends. I have the nation's most popular crime related social media site at

    The sense that younger people know more about tech is a myth. Yep, they text message and search the internet but so what? I could teach our dogs (8 and 10) to do that.
    Best, Len.

  3. Ann Gagne from WPFO-TV FOX23, June 11, 2009 at 9:11 a.m.

    I agree with Leonard, they text and upload video but how many of them can put together a complicated spreadsheet, a powerpoint presentation, install a wireless router or hook up the TIVO to the TV - all things I can do effortlessly.

  4. Sue Booth from Net-Temps, June 11, 2009 at 9:44 a.m.

    As a 57 year woman working as the online advertising director for an internet job board, I can assure you that I can do all the things that Ann Gagne mentions above, as can many of my peers. Now that I'm older I find the age based stereotypes just as annoying as I've always found sexist remarks.

  5. Kevin Lenard from Business Development Specialist, June 11, 2009 at 10:08 a.m.

    It's the undercurrent of articles like this that I find fascinating. When I was a kid, stamp collecting was all the rage. In fact, my friends and I, like youth in any era, were contemptuous of anyone who WASN'T into stamp collecting. Those others simply weren't on the leading edge, they weren't participating in what we judged to be a worthwhile expenditure of our time.

    Decades later, all that energy, time and money that was invested by hundreds of thousands of people into stamp collecting is just... Well it's gone, evaporated, of no real consequence. It was a popular hobby trend that passed out of favor -- a way of spending time, of MAKING time, to participate in a hobby that is no longer considered cool.

    What few commentators say about the involvement of the more mature and seasoned generations in blogging, Twitter and social networking is that they are a different sort of 'filter', they bring a different set of evaluative brains to these social/technology experiments. Facebook has already seen the wave of time-spent on-site amongst the more mature set of 'invaders' drop off. Busy professionals see SOME measure of merit in blogging to share ideas and raise their professional profiles, less so with the way Twitter is currently being used (the jury is still out on what real value there is in sharing 100 comments a day about either your choice in breakfast cereal OR quantum equations -- I'll wait for the published paper re: the latter). The mature users are quicker to apply a cost-benefit analysis OTHER than a 'popularity index' or 'volume of posts index' to these new ways of spending time on what are really not much more than trendy hobbies.

    The contemptuous undertones I'm seeing in so many "Social Media Marketing" posts/articles is wearing a bit thin with industry professionals who have the experience and analytical ability to see long-term value, or not, in trendy new hobbies. I believe we can look to the older participants to judge what the underlying value of Facebook (allows me to stay permanently in touch with my lifelong collection of acquaintances), blogging (allows me to maintain a record of my most insightful thoughts and share them with like-minded professionals) and Twitter (allows me to publicize my blog posts to a large audience at no cost to me).

    Yesterday, Lon Safko on posted what I thought was an entirely self-serving "10 Commandments of Social Media" (a plug for his book) that would have seen all of us, as individuals and companies, spending 24 hours of every day posting frenetically on all these media in an effort to beat out our competitors/colleagues with the quantity and frequency of our 'participation in the online conversation'. Where is the quality in this? Where's the real value? What contribution is anyone making who is spending so many hours doing this instead of working at a job that actually makes a difference in terms of analysis and the creation of new concepts and advancements in technology?

    I'd suggest we should look to the experienced professionals for their evaluation of these so-called 'social tools' before writing them off as nothing but hangers-on who are ruining the potential of these experiments. Friendster is dead. SecondLife is a fascinating technological experiment that was an interesting hobby for a while. Show us old farts the REAL value in these latest trendy 'hobbies' and we'll be more than happy to either make worthwhile use of them, or leave a generation who 'invests' so much of their time engrossed in video games. That's not an implied criticism, it's just a choice we all make about how to use the time we do not spend working at our jobs.

    Some media are ripe for injecting advertising into them, others are simply communication media like telephone connections or IM groups -- they are useful for monitoring conversations and listening carefully to consumers' issues with our brands and their interests in general, but they are not suitable for marketing efforts. Yes, there's a youthful 'party' going on via social media, and forgive the parents/grandparents for checking in on what's going on, but don't try to convince us you're hard at work with all that time you're spending socializing! In the end you'll find we won't spend long enough at the party to ruin it for the youngsters -- we have to be up early tomorrow to get some work done.

  6. Michael Kremin from NeoGen Digital, June 11, 2009 at 10:46 a.m.

    The comments from Sue Booth, Ann Gagne, and Leonard Sipes are spot on. As a Boomer whose career has been almost exclusively focused on technology applications and the online environment, I am frequently surprised at the lack of significant tech knowledge applied by the younger generations. Perhaps that is because we Boomers had to work with primitive and arcane user interfaces, slow connection speeds, and early versions of microcomputers and networks in the work environment, when the technology was less seamless. We often had to actually "figure things out".

    Today's social media has much less of a learning curve, as do the devices and software applications we use in business or the home. An application faces stiff obstacles in the marketplace if the user interface is not intuitive. My observations are that younger generations have little or no tolerance for any technology challenge.

    It seems only natural that as the value of this technology becomes understood, it is adopted by Boomers. We see this in the "wait and see" adoption of the current iteration social media applications. How quickly we forget that it was the Boomers who embraced email, ATMs, VCRs, online banking and more, contributing to the rapid growth of these technologies.

    Yes, some of my Boomer friends are on Facebook to monitor their children's activities. Most, though, look at the convenience of having another communications tool to connect and share, not just with their children, but to reconnect with former friends and colleagues.

  7. Alisa Boone from Southern Progress, June 11, 2009 at 11:13 a.m.

    I wouldn't dream of asking my teen son to be my fb friend. I don't want HIM to see what I'M up to with my boomer buddies. In fact, I get a little uncomfortable when my friends' kids invite ME to their fb world.
    The POVs in the article are very stereotypical. Must run -I've got to send a tweet on my iPhone.

  8. Stephen Cobb from Monetate, June 11, 2009 at 12:55 p.m.

    Very stimulating article Gaetano, as evidenced by the lengthy comments! As a rule, age or gender related stereotyping is bad business. However, while I am tempted to say that the ability to understand such things improves with age, the wisdom of many of my younger friends tells me that is also a stereotype.

    The history of the Web is littered with mistaken assumptions about demographics. Unless you erect barriers to entry--as the early Facebook did--the World Wide Web includes every person, of every age, in every country. Any service which is open to all will eventually be used by all, whether it's email or Twitter or the-next-big-thing. But any universal community will also sub-divide along shared interests, which are often not age/gender specific.

    While there's nothing wrong with trying to make a viable business out of targeting a demographic that matches one's own, it is wrong to assume your demographic is the best. Suppose you're a guy under 30 and you want to build a business selling clothes to other guys under 30. That's fine, but bear in mind that 65% of online apparel sales go to women over age 35, and the fastest-growing sector is women between 55 and 64 years old, something that WSJ's Christina Binkley pointed out here:

    As for comparing the surge of Boomers logging on to social networks to when Internet access gained steam in households in the late '90s, as J. Walker Smith does, that just proves my point about false assumptions. For a start, many of the "top people to follow" on Twitter are boomers. And the fact is, I met a significant percentage of my boomer-age friends and colleagues through CompuServe Forums, in the 80s.

  9. Mai Kok from So What, June 12, 2009 at 10:50 a.m.

    I particularly hate Boomers as I blame them for every ail and harm to this country from economic to societal ills. I blame their unrestrained liberalism in their spend-spend-spend mentality and their hedonistic social values. I also particularly hate that they never saved, collectively, and now are getting social security paid from my pockets- of which I will never get to see a dime when it's my time.

    That said, I'm not in my 20's but as an SEO, I am very tech savvy. FB was amazing to use because I was able to connect with a lot of college friends (acquaintances) and HS friends. Similarly, the old people (boomers, etc.) do the same thing. I imagine the same thing for most of the users.

    I can't blame the old people for trying to use FB for business purposes since everyone of every age is doing that. But that kind of spam was part of why Myspace is rapidly diminishing. I personally no longer use Myspace.

    People from my church use it to catch up with each other outside of church and with their old college and even HS friends. Similarly, it's a great way to stay in touch with non-immediate family.

    Only a select few use it with their own kids. And those few are moms I would not classify as wanting to be their kids best friends. Often they are single moms and kind of have to be their kids best friends - if only to keep everyone sane. But the few that are active on FB with their kids are rare moms that are actually just very wacky - not faking the funk, not trying too hard. If they are active in their kids lives, it does if done right, help keep the kids in line and out of trouble.

    If anything, the kids, for fear of being made to look bad by their parents acting the fool - can behave a little better. Not always the case, but I can say parents have a good reason for staying active with their kids on FB.

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