Markets Focus: The Lost Generation?

Marketers are overlooking a vast Audience

For years, online marketers have dismissed men over age 65 with the following reasoning: Senior men don't do anything but e-mail. Despite sharp spikes in online usage among this age group, marketers don't seem to be taking advantage of the opportunities that exist in the segment.

Perhaps then, they should meet somebody like Jim Hannah, a 72-year-old retiree. Bright and engaging, he freely quotes Chaucer and Robert Frost. Hannah spends plenty of time in the photography forum, cheerfully dispensing advice. Or maybe they should chat with Don Deitch, a 75-year-old entrepreneur who, after failing in his quest to locate a realistic Wall Street board game, created his own. He works on the Web several hours a day, coordinating with manufacturing and distribution partners via

No, neither Hannah nor Deitch is your typical 65-and-older Internet user. And no, neither profile is likely to set the hearts of online marketers aflutter, especially given their crush on 18- to 34-year-olds. But plenty of older guys like them are on the Internet for comparable periods of time each week, with comparable levels of technological agility. They've got disposable cash and the time to engage with marketing content. So where's the disconnect?

Asked why marketers aren't taking into account the greater number of 65-plus men online, Ben Yurchak, director of strategy and analytics for interactive shop Refinery, shrugs, "Beats me." Adds Linda Natansohn, vice president of strategic development for Eons: "Seniors are the fastest-growing group [online] and there are plenty more to come with the aging of the population. But to most marketers advertising on the Web, older people are invisible."

According to Vertis Communications' Customer Focus survey, 62 percent of 65-and-older men had Internet access in 2006, up from 53 percent in 2003. And one out of four of them reported having been online in the past week. "Their numbers are increasing steadily where the rest of the population has leveled off or even started going down," notes Scott Marden, director of marketing research at Vertis.

That said, only 14 percent of 65-plus men feel "somewhat" or "very" comfortable using a credit card to shop on the Internet, compared with 35 percent of the U.S. population as a whole. Twenty percent of all consumers turn first to the Web when they prepare themselves to make a buying decision; only 9 percent of 65-plus men do the same. "They are still very influenced by the circular in the newspaper and by TV," Marden acknowledges.

But that's not a reason for marketers to back away. Even if they're not swayed by the current user data, marketers must remember that the best is yet to come. According to a Pew Research Center survey from early 2006, 35.5 million Web users are between 50 and 64 years old. Assuming that a sizable chunk of these users are already familiar with the workings of the Web through their jobs, the number of 65-plus males online will swell in the years ahead.

To get in their good graces, marketers need to ditch all preconceptions about the vitality of the 65-and-up audience. Deitch asks that anybody targeting him present "a good deal or a solid idea." E-mail pitches are more likely to annoy than tantalize him. "My wife and I generally gloss over anything that doesn't look familiar. So much of what pops into my inbox has no relevance."

Hannah, on the other hand, wants no part of anything marketers are selling online. He has installed layers of ad blockers and promises that any e-mail he hasn't specifically solicited will go straight into his virtual garbage can. "I'm a hard case," he says with a laugh. "My preferences are so highly specific that I doubt a marketer could begin to formulate an approach for me."

Which makes search the ideal option for Hannah and his ad-hostile ilk. "It's amazingly powerful," he says. Deitch also lauds search over other tactics "There's no limit to what you can do."

While the pundits agree, they call attention to a range of related issues. Mary Furlong, president and CEO of Mary Furlong & Associates, a baby boomer-centric firm, believes online marketing will soon become the venue of choice for older men. "A lot of the dissonances of aging aren't fun," explains Furlong, who founded SeniorNet and ThirdAge Media. "Nobody wants to talk about a prostate condition at lunch. Online, men feel they can go to ask questions and speak with other people in the same boat. Every pharmaceutical marketing rep should be all over this."

In some cases, marketers shouldn't confine their efforts to the 65-plus man. Especially for health-related products, marketers might consider targeting the people around him. "If you're trying to get somebody on Lipitor, talk to his wife or his children," Refinery's Yurchak suggests. "One approach for a product like that, is, 'Here's what you can do to help somebody you love do something about a particular condition.' Nobody's really trying that right now."

Eons' Natansohn mentions tools that have proven popular among visitors to her site, and wonders why so few activities have been crafted for this audience. "Our book club is on its second book and a group of people are trying to organize a cruise together," she notes. "Whoever says [older men and women] aren't ready to be engaged with a range of tools and activities probably hasn't spoken directly with them."

Yurchak agrees, adding that longer pitches resonate with this audience, if for no other reason than they have the time to peruse them thoroughly. "The slicker the pitch, the less impact it will have," he says.

There's no shortage of gaffes made by clumsy marketers clinging to outdated perceptions about 65-plus men. On the creative/tactical front, Yurchak warns against overusing rich media and Flash technologies. "Older people generally find them difficult to use," he says. "Older men are three or four years behind in terms of what they're comfortable with," he explains.

Smaller mistakes can doom a company with this audience as well. "Never, ever call them seniors," says Furlong. Adds Yurchak, "Don't use milestone events as part of your creative. Some people don't want to admit they've aged and the milestone events remind them." Natansohn warns, "Don't try to be relevant through nostalgia. There are more important things in their present-day lives."

As for the best places to reach older men, marketers shouldn't get too adventurous with their media buys. Financial sites, especially The Motley Fool and Yahoo Finance, resonate with this audience, as do news, weather, and travel sites.

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