Social Networks And Older Boomers

We frequently see excited news reports proclaiming that older adults, age 45+, are the "fastest growing demographic group on [Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, insert social networking site name here]." If you are marketing to older adults, the logic follows, you need to be investing heavily in social networking and social media.

Hold your Benjamins. We don't share in the excitement that Boomers and older adults are truly smitten with social networking sites for three reasons --- one based on experience to date, one based on psychology and one based on the math.

Experience: Over the last several years at least a dozen Boomer-focused social networking and social media sites sprang up --- BoomerTowne, BOOMj, TeeBeeDee, Eons, reZOOM, and more --- and practically all have disappeared due to lack of interest among Boomers (Eons lives on but only after it broadened its user base to include anyone over the age of 13 -- how's that for focus?). If Boomers want social media, they apparently don't want it exclusively targeted to them.



Our conclusion: Boomers are just not that interested. At least, not in something as generic as a social networking site for "Boomers." At issue is the thinking that being a "Boomer" is an affinity group. It isn't. It is a demographic label for a generational cohort. You can attract Boomers, but only if you segment them by interests, income, education, life stage, lifestyle, and so forth.

Psychological: We have long been a fan of Stanford psychologist Dr. Laura Carstensen, who has developed several accepted theories about how our brains change as we grow older.

One such theory is the "socioemotional selectivity theory," which basically says that older adults become more selective about their social networks, investing in people and networks that deliver emotional satisfaction. That typically comes from familiar individuals with whom they have had rewarding relationships (in the "real" world, we might add). Older adults narrow their social interaction to maximize positive emotional experiences and minimize emotional risks of investing time in relationships that are not positive.

Carstensen's hypothesis is that our motivations change as we grow older. When people are young, they perceive their future as open-ended, so they tend to focus on future-oriented/knowledge-related goals. When they grow older, gradually, over time, they feel that time is running out, so their focus tends to shift towards present-oriented/emotion-related goals.

In other words, with the clock ticking, we don't want to waste time with relationships that won't feed us emotionally.

Our conclusion: No doubt millions of Boomers using Facebook and other sites are deriving emotional satisfaction. But those on the sideline are not willing to invest the time necessary to obtain emotional satisfaction from a social networking site. Every day we get older and even less interested.

The Math: No doubt, Facebook's growth among adults ages 45+ seems impressive --- an increase of about 900,000 users in September alone (76% of whom are women). But Facebook also added over 1.7 million 18-34 years in same month (62% women), more than twice as many.

Growth doesn't tell the whole story. The overall numbers are modest. Facebook has 15.7 million users who are 45+ (out of total population of 121 million 45+, or a penetration of about 13%).

Not bad, but in September, Facebook reported about 43 million users ages 18 to 34, out of 72 million 18-34 year olds, or a penetration of about 60%.

Let's agree social networking is simply not as widely accepted among Boomers and older adults as it is among today's young adults. And based on Carstensen's theory, maybe it never will be.

21 comments about "Social Networks And Older Boomers ".
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  1. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, October 26, 2009 at 12:31 p.m.

    Excellent analysis. I think a major motivation for adopters has been in some critical mass of their current rewarding relationships with whom they are emotionally but not necessarily geographically close - with far-flung close business contacts, relocated family, etc - being on social media site X. They will then join because it's a useful tool to stay up to date on those people who are not easily reached in person except on rare occasions. Contrast this to the adoption mode of youth who primarily use it as an additional feature-rich way to stay in touch with existing local friends or even family members in their own house, or to meet new local people. Boomers have accumulated a lot of peers and more family than the average teen, and at the same time a larger number of these people are probably not local for boomers.

  2. Jan Zlotnick from the zlotnick group, October 26, 2009 at 12:52 p.m.

    Marketing to "Baby Boomers" seems quaint, now that we all, as one universal social gathering, are talking with each other across all divides. I feel like this kind of media talk is just not relevant anymore in a universe of social media inter-conversations we're connected to. I can't imagine other generations feeling compelled to check out or stay involved with a site that identifies them. Babyboomers just not being interested? They sure are at Mom sites, but they aren't going there and being herded into feeding slots by generational tags. That seems the kiss of death, like a sales guy at a car dealership leading me to a desk in the showroom that has a big sign over it: Boomer Section. Dr. Cartensen's theory of "older adults becoming more selective about their social networks" seems more simply put that people go where they want to go...where they feel some one or some place has their particular intention in mind....and Baby Boomers, like anyone, share thousands of such desires, needs, and intentions. If Boomers feel the clock ticking because of an appreciation for mortality, what's the Jack-Baur 24/7 tick-tick-ticking that 18-26 year olds feel that drive them? If "Boomers" are not as widely accepting of social networking, it's nothing more than the classic curve of early adopters, et al; When the technology gets boring (re: simpler, less conscious) they will be in it, because they already are and just don't know it yet.... I liked this strangelove piece that gets into this...

  3. Brent Bouchez from Five0, October 26, 2009 at 12:53 p.m.

    As usual Matt, you've gotten it all wrong.

    Facebook is the future of media and the world. By middle of next week or so, there will be no more television, or newspapers, or websites or magazines or outdoor boards or radio or even those little bi-planes with banners trailing behind them flying over the beach in Venice, there will only be Facebook. We will keep our money on Facebook, we will buy our groceries on Facebook, our children will go to school on Facebook, you and I will go home after a long day of work on our Facebook pages and settle in with the family to watch some Facebook. In fact, I'm told that the U.N. is, at this very moment, closing down it's buildings here in New York and replacing them with an exciting new Facebook page, which all the countries of the world have signed on to. Except for Iran which is going with Twitter.

  4. Michele Hush from Michele Hush, October 26, 2009 at 1:11 p.m.

    I agree that most baby boomers have no interest in sites that function as ghettos for a single generation. But, as I noted on my blog last week (and as the New York Times noted a few months ago), there are good reasons why general social media sites like Facebook work well for us -- as demonstrated by the iStrategyLabs finding that Facebook use among people 55 and up jumped 513% in the first half of 2009.

  5. Michele Hush from Michele Hush, October 26, 2009 at 1:13 p.m.

    I agree that most baby boomers have no interest in sites that function as ghettos for a single generation. But, as I noted on my blog last week (and as the New York Times noted a few months ago), there are good reasons why general social media sites like Facebook work well for us -- as demonstrated by the iStrategyLabs finding that Facebook use among people 55 and up jumped 513% in the first half of 2009.

  6. Esther Surden from E. Surden Associates, October 26, 2009 at 1:22 p.m.

    Just because older adults become more selective about their social networks and invest in people and networks that give them emotional satisfaction, it doesn't mean they don't get much satisfaction from online social networking sites. In my experience, many boomers use social networking sites differently than teens do, but still get satisfaction from them. Perhaps they play fewer games or different games, or join different affinity groups from their teen counterparts. Some boomers join because they are relatively isolated, and social networking is a way they can "see" far flung friends without traveling. I wouldn't give up on marketing to boomers at these sites yet, not until the underlying question of how the use of social networking sites differs for different age groups is answered. Then perhaps more effective marketing aimed at boomers can be devised for Facebook, et al.

  7. Yvonne Divita from BlogPaws, October 26, 2009 at 1:28 p.m.

    Oh Matt, you speak such welcoming words. It's never the technology, and it isn't even the label - it's always about the people. Boomers, for want of a better term, are people of a certain sort - the sort that includes much, much diversity and cannot, will not, be herded into a box for marketers to study.

    It's okay to define groups of "people" as one thing or another, if you have a product or service that you know is more attractive to that "group."

    But to say one group or another is smitten by some new tool or technology, proves the speaker is out of touch with reality. People want to connect to people, period. It doesn't matter how - granted, Facebook (oh, not my favorite tool at all!) and Twitter, and blogs, and such allow us to engage with new people and family and experts, but in the end, it's our core group of friends that matter most.

    As a boomer woman very much engaged with social media, and with the women's market, in general, I can say with assertion that brands are more likely to impress me if they get to know me. The best way to do that is to actually engage in the conversations going on in social media circles.

    Then, let me ask questions, draw my own conclusions, and make the decision on further contact. (remembering that I am one person connected to millions of others - one by one, or several dozen by several dozen)

    Social media is just yesterday's coffe klatch, held online in thousands of living rooms all over the U.S. , with moment by moment reporting. Oh, excuse me, I have a twitter post to reply to...

  8. Kelley Connors from KC Healthcare Communications LLC, October 26, 2009 at 1:37 p.m.

    I agree with your analysis and that social networking success with younger cohorts does not extend to boomers for the reasons you mentioned. However, worth mentioning, is that in healthcare there is over 35% uptake (according to iCrossing 2008) in social media among men and women looking for diagnosis and symptoms assistance among "patients like them". It's all about trust, and in healthcare women are the key decision makers for themselves and their families, and their aging parents.

    In particular, women remain skeptical of traditional sources of information related to drug therapy and treatment so pharma web sites are not the place to go. Instead, women look to each other for expert advice, in the context of opinion and real life experience. Only social networking offers this, and as much as we want to partner with our doctor for information as to what ails us, we want to be empowered to take control of our health.

  9. Scott Rackham from Brigham Young University, October 26, 2009 at 1:44 p.m.

    Perhaps we were all supposed to draw the conclusion on our own, but I think connecting the dots is worth doing. If the theory of "socioemotional selectivity" is correct (which intuitively it is), then Facebook's primary service to Boomers is that of keeping real-world emotional ties strong today through distance and time-- as opposed to creating new "less real" emotional connections online. If so, then those Boomers on the sidelines may yet choose to sign up and find old friendships Facebook, but will most likely be content with these new ways to connect to the past, and not play well into the monetization of Social Media 2.0.

  10. Bruce Christensen from PartyWeDo, October 26, 2009 at 1:50 p.m.

    We baby boomers look at social media as a tool.. We pull one out of the box, when it works for a specific project (example: to see video of grandchild), and then move on to the next tool.
    My wife and I have used social networking tools to play a gift exchange with all of our family during the holidays. After the game is over, we basically turned off that tool until next season.
    If it wasn't for the fact that we chose to become Facebook application developers, we would probably leave most of these social tools in the box, much of the time.

  11. Rodney Brooks from ToTouch One, Inc, October 26, 2009 at 1:59 p.m.

    What do they mean by "older". At 45, some people are still looking at another 30 to 50 years of life. Marketing needs to look at this segment just like any other segment as consumers who's wants and needs change as they mature.

  12. Thorsten Rhode from marqueteer, October 26, 2009 at 2:06 p.m.

    "Let's agree social networking is simply not as widely accepted among Boomers and older adults as it is among today's young adults. And based on Carstensen's theory, maybe it never will be."

    Uhm, no. Let's agree that this article uses the numbers to make its point -- what does it tell me that younger demos sign up for FB at twice the rate the boomer generation does? Not much, when you think about it. It would have been interesting to hear how these numbers develop over time.

    I would argue that the picture would change dramatically and we would see an ever-increasing adoption rate among 'mature' audiences over the past year or so. What marketing is about, at least to a degree, is to be there at the onset of a 'trend' (and we've moved past that point, right?) and then reap the rewards of being a 'pioneer.' The conclusion (?) of this article is that Social Media may not live up to the hype -- my conclusion is: Heed Matt's advice at your own peril. You might get left behind.

    What's more: What do we know about the 13% of 45+ FB users? The article doesn't mention it, but we can assume these are the early adopters, the innovators, the 'role models' to their peers, higher education / high income -- why would anybody want to ignore them, if one can access them this cheaply and efficiently? What other medium enables you to do that? Heed Matt's advice at your own peril. You might get left behind.

  13. Matt Thornhill from Boomer Project, October 26, 2009 at 2:16 p.m.

    Keep those comments and complaints coming. Except for you, Brent Bouchez.

    You have to go to the blackboard and write 100 times "I am not as funny as I think I am."

    You're actually funnier.

  14. Dillon Franks from Relevant ideas...LLC, October 26, 2009 at 2:59 p.m.

    What I think is important, from this, is that Boomers are not an affinity group and must be marketed to as a demographic within affinity groups. So, if your affinity group uses social networking, okay.

    I also get from this that boomers are much more interested in the present, not the future. That makes them a good target for the NOWISM trend.

  15. Micah Touchet from NewBirth Creative Design Agency, October 26, 2009 at 3:14 p.m.

    The university here in Monroe, along with my company, just made a presentation today about using social media in economic development and business growth and the majority of small business owners in attendance were 50+ years old... and every one of them admitted to being addicted to Facebook.

  16. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 26, 2009 at 5:13 p.m.

    On a 60 minute interview with Dustin Hoffman, he was talking about his perspective after The Graduate. Then he was able to look down the road another 40,50+ years. Now, at 65, he can't say that. As for FB, I have gotten invites from people who I don't know. When I ask them how I know them, all they reply is that is was a recommendation. No introduction. No letter. Nothing. Not good enough. Not a friend or associate. Unlike people of all ages who have contacted me through MediaPost who have something to say and can express themselves. "Yous guys!"

  17. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, October 26, 2009 at 5:19 p.m.

    @ Brent, actually I think Iran is going with MySpace.

  18. Ray Welling from Zazoo, October 26, 2009 at 7:48 p.m.

    Yes, the numbers for the over-45s don't sound as impressive as the 18-35s. But how do they stack up if you factor in comparative Internet use between those age groups? Also, I know as media professionals we need to look at statistically significant data, but anecdotally, I am seeing a stream of people in this age group embracing Facebook. Like it or not, it is becoming the connecting tool of our age.

  19. Barbara Crowley from Snabbo, Inc., October 26, 2009 at 9:54 p.m.

    I am sorry Matt, but I do not agree. My own Facebook account is full of my high school class (1971) playing Farmville! Not only are they embracing social networking, they are totally engaged in the activities provided. Plus, Boomers buy big ticket items and if we are going in droves to social networks to renew old friendships, doesn't it make sense for advertisers to make sure they have a presence there? We also take longer (due to age and less hyperactivity) to look around the place, read stuff and see what is new. The kids just get on, check their wall, write a message or two and get off. I have developed a Baby Boomer social networking website and launched last month, so I admit I am probably a bit biased, but I can say sincerely that I have done a massive amount of academic research on the subject as well. You can check out My blog is

  20. Fard Johnmar from Enspektos, LLC, October 28, 2009 at 1:39 p.m.


    This is an interesting analysis. While I agree that uptake of social networks by Boomers is still lagging, there's still reason to be optimistic -- especially in the health arena. See my post here:

  21. Linda Armas from Residential Care Placement Specialists, October 29, 2009 at 2:36 p.m.

    This is not a scientific survey, but my own humble opinion: I think many "Boomers" resist being lumped into a category and labeled solely based on the year they were born. Many of us who are part of that generation, (even though we may have actually blindly followed the crowd of our peers), believed we were asserting our free-thinking individuality and breaking away from mainstream philosophy and values. Part of those ideals still live within us today and we do not want to confirm we are part of a "marketing group", which implies we have sold-out whatever shred of individuality remaining in us. Also "Boomers" is too broad a category to see enough personal, emotional, or ethical benefits of belonging to the label, so why not instead focus our attention on those micro-categories that have more personal meaning?

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