Markets Focus: Seniors Take to the Web

When most people think about the computer and Internet usage patterns of older Americans, they envision a tech-terrified grandma confronting unfamiliar territory with a puzzled squint. They assume that any task beyond simple e-mail correspondence with the grandkids eludes her. They imagine she calls Dell tech support every time a pop-up befouls her screen, and worry that she'll eagerly part with her personal financial information to help that very nice man from Nigeria relocate his family fortune to these shores.

Recent research, however, suggests that today's senior citizens have little in common with this stereotypically clueless old biddy. According to Pew Internet & American Life Project data, more than 55 percent of all Americans aged 60 to 69 are currently online, as are 26 percent of 70- to 75-year-olds and 17 percent of those 76 and above. Nonetheless, marketers and media folks continue to hew to the aforementioned outdated perceptions. At best, they indulge online seniors with larger typefaces; at worst, they ignore them almost entirely.

It's a mistake that is likely costing them money. "Marketers, and retailers in general, have been so, so slow in terms of waking up to the opportunity with older consumers," says Janie Curtis, managing director of consultancy Frank About Women. "You hear so much along the lines of 'young people are receptive, old people aren't,' and that's way off base with the data we're seeing." She points to research conducted by her firm revealing that a greater percentage of 50-and-up consumers are open to trying new things -- which ostensibly includes on-line product research and any number of other activities -- than their thirty-something counterparts.

Online marketing to seniors does, of course, come with more than its share of challenges. Perhaps most pivotally, companies must challenge the thinking that "old people" constitute a homogeneous audience. When targeting kids or teens, marketers can assume a certain consistent set of physical and emotional characteristics. Seniors, however, vary wildly in their abilities. "One 80-year-old may have sight or hearing issues and the next may not. You can find people in their 60s who physically are indistinguishable from 45-year-olds," says Stephen Gordet, president and creative director of senior-focused firm Gordet & Schmidt.

To this end, experts offer any number of hints on how to most effectively market to seniors online. Not surprisingly, most of the conversations start with ways to convince wary seniors to trust the comparatively unfamiliar medium. "You've got an audience that has heard all sorts of things about how it's dangerous to be online and how you can expose yourself to fraud," notes Jonathan Steuer, vice president and consumer strategist, technology/consumer electronics for Iconoculture. "Establishing trust in the early interactions is more important with this demographic than with any others. They're the least likely to give you a second chance."

To build that trust, marketers must hand-hold older customers through online transactions and prominently display a phone number for assistance. "In their minds, a phone number lends a sense of officialness, if that's a word," quips Roary Wilder, director of research and analysis at Moxie Interactive. Simplified, straightforward pitches also tend to resonate, as opposed to the buy-it-now-now-now! calls to action often employed to great effect among younger audiences.

"We are not about to be seduced by gushing claims," says Sharon Whitley, CEO of baby boomer-oriented "We've lived a long time and know when something is authentic and when it's not." Adds Gordet: "Don't allow ad messages to creep into editorial content. That's a huge trust red flag for older people."

Companies with seniors in their sights must also fight the urge to employ the flashiest technology in their e-mail missives and online campaigns. For one thing, much of this technology -- pretty much everything involving Flash -- isn't compatible with screen-reading software and similar accessibility tools. And, as Steuer points out, older consumers are less likely to upgrade their computers every two or three years than younger ones, meaning that many of the newfangled bells and whistles will either be lost on them or frustrate them. "When something doesn't work the way it's supposed to, [seniors] won't beat their heads against it or try again later. They'll just walk away," he explains.

As if all this isn't enough to ponder, marketers must further tweak their approaches when pitching those products and services about which a senior's child may be the primary decision maker (with elder-care options, for instance, or financial issues). A quick rule of thumb: If you're marketing directly to older Americans, depict them as slightly younger than they may be; if you're targeting their children or caretakers, depict them as realistically as possible. "Children might not recognize that young, active senior as being their parent," Gordet suggests.

To find seniors online, Wilder encourages marketers to look beyond the obvious health, financial, and news destinations. Just-retired seniors boast a greater level of computer savvy than older ones and are eager to shop and indulge their hobbies. Wilder points to his father, a retired physician, as typical.

"He was basically looking for something to fill some of his extra time and discovered online gaming," he says with a trace of amusement. "He has spent thousands on the best hardware and peripherals to support his new hobby." Steuer agrees: "A lot of casual online gaming skews old." Other top destinations: travel sites (especially those that facilitate research as well as booking) and anything family-related, including but not limited to genealogy sites.

Search-engine marketing also rates surprisingly high with seniors, though Steuer cautions companies not to indulge in the "search-engine fiddling around" that results in higher positioning but lower relevance. "Younger people and even boomers have some idea about the way search works, but older people get really annoyed: 'This isn't relevant, this isn't what I'm supposed to see here. Who are these people and why are they appearing in my search results?' It's another credibility killer."

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