Markets Focus: Missing the Boomer Market

To say that marketers have an interest in male baby boomers is like saying Yogi Bear likes picnic baskets; it understates the case so dramatically as to be almost comical. As has been well documented in study after study, consumers age 50 and older control a large percentage of the nation's wealth (77 percent, according to Age Wave). And the boomer population continues to expand. According to census data, the number of men between the ages of 45 and 64 is expected to grow from 30 million to 40 million between 2000 and 2010, a 33 percent jump.

So why haven't online marketers sunk their teeth into the male boomer audience with more urgency? Part of it can be attributed to a single outdated perception -- namely, that boomers are unlikely to do much online beyond e-mail. But to a person, pundits wonder why marketers who publicly herald their desire to better connect with cash-rich boomer men haven't adjusted their strategies to accommodate changing online usage patterns.

To wit, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported last year that 31 percent of boomer Internet users send instant messages. And the same percentage of boomer users gets news online as do Gen-X users (75 percent).

Chalk up marketers' relative languor to habit. "The advertisers who've been serving [male boomers] have not traditionally had to think about the online space," shrugs TACODA Systems CEO Dave Morgan. But in contrast to members of the generation that preceded them, few boomer men retired before e-mail and other Web-based activities became a central workplace component. "The boomers didn't escape business in time to avoid the Internet. It became an important part of their lives before they retired and moved on," Morgan adds.

Most boomer men aren't as tech-savvy as their Gen-X kids. In fact, they retain a lingering skepticism about the Internet, perhaps due to alarmist media stories about online fraud. "The older edge of the demographic took a little longer to convince. Now I think they realize that they're just as likely to have a problem when they give their credit card to a waiter at the restaurant," says Richard Lent, chief executive officer of AgencyNet.

That said, online marketers shouldn't take any unnecessary leaps of faith. Asking boomers to install new or updated versions of applications can spook them, while pop-ups elicit both confusion and annoyance. "The first time the father of a friend of mine saw a pop-up, he thought the computer was broken," quips Kimo Casey, executive vice president, marketing and cofounder of

Casey also reminds advertisers not to forget about boomers' advancing age, regardless of the vigor with which most embrace their post-retirement existence. Small font sizes are a no-no. "Just look at a banner ad -- if there are more than 10 words in there, a big percentage of your audience won't be able to take it in," he points out. When testing before its launch last year, Casey claims to have stumbled on another issue. "Almost 50 percent of [men] boomers have some sort of color blindness. We were wondering why so few people clicked on the 'go check it out' button -- the reason was that the button was green and they couldn't see it."

(Our official Markets Focus ophthalmologist, this writer's dad, claims the 50 percent figure is vastly overstated, but acknowledges that eight to 11 percent of men have a red-green weakness called protanopia.)

On the subject of male boomers' receptivity to marketing, pundits are split. Given their upbringing in the Golden Age of network television, they rarely tune out advertising entirely. On the other hand, studies show their aversion to the use of nostalgia as a marketing linchpin -- and yet marketers online and off still feel compelled to drop a few bars from "Turn! Turn! Turn!" into boomer-targeted campaigns.

"If you use music from The Doors or 'For What It's Worth,' you'll set off all sorts of emotions. But what boomers are really interested in are life-change issues and things that speak to them where they are now," explains Steve Wax, partner in Campfire, a branded entertainment firm. "They might sit around and talk about Steve McQueen and smoking dope in the '70s, but they live in the present." Cheap pop-culture shortcuts may generate a warm and fuzzy feeling, but they won't move mutual funds or hypertension medicine.

Product and brand allegiances don't mean as much to male boomers as they did to their elders, especially given their affluence and the greater opportunities for research the Internet affords them. "They're not the same through-thick-and-thin brand loyalists that their parents were," Morgan notes. "The smart companies are the ones that aren't just paying attention to them, but are acknowledging that they've moved into this new arena of the Web. It's like, 'Hey, they know where to find me.' "

Analysts commend financial-services firms for the job they've done finding male boomers online (,, and The Motley Fool are ranked as top online buys) and transitioning them to online portfolio management services. Pharmaceutical marketers receive higher marks for their efforts in luring boomer women, but earn kudos for adeptly offering information about conditions like erectile dysfunction.

Rather than cherry picking among boomer-frequented sites, however, marketers might be better off going the engagement route. The Golf Channel tapped AgencyNet for a program supporting "The Big Break V," a reality show in which amateur duffers compete for a pro tour slot. As op-posed to the brief bios that are a hallmark of every reality-TV Web site, The Golf Channel offers clips of each competitor's swing and a handful of games: a chip-the-ball-in-the-bucket challenge and, natch, a putting competition. The Flash-enabled site also includes an automatic-detection script. Rather than sending visitors into a tizzy by prompting them to upgrade, the site serves them whatever they're currently capable of viewing.

"Boomers have as much of a vested interest in a relationship with somebody on this show as younger people do with somebody on 'The Real World,'" he argues. "Now that broadband has taken over, you're going to see more people pushing the envelope for different audiences," Lent says.

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