Is the nest half-full or half-empty?
It was a dark and stormy night in Rodanthe when Diane Lane and Richard Gere gazed longingly into each other's eyes and realized that being middle-aged doesn't mean you're not still hot. This romantic tearjerker is an iconic example of the meme of the empty nester: a couple with no responsibilities and enough money to do what they want in whatever romantic location they want to do it in. (See also: innumerable ads for pills to get all those gorgeous and eager silver-haired men into motion when they're in the mood.)
But this stereotype is due for a makeover, according to Sharon Whiteley, CEO of ThirdAge Media, which publishes an eponymous Web site for people of a certain age. That age milestone, however, doesn't necessarily mean the nest is empty.
In a new study of 6,000 people in their early 40s to late 60s, ThirdAge found that 35 percent still had children living at home. Meanwhile, about 8 percent of them had never married, and 38 percent were now single.
Among truly child-free couples, a study at University of California, Bekeley, found that those women were happier with their marriages than those with children at home. The key? While neither group claimed more time together, those with children at home reported less quality time together.
"The idea that the kids leave home, you're free, and they're not going to be back has changed," Whiteley says. "There's a much more modified family structure than in times past."
To Boom or Not?
The nest is also emptying later. Traditionally, a couple who procreated early would get the kids out of the house in time to be alone in their early 40s; most of today's empty nesters are in their late 50s to early 60s.
"Today, kids tend to leave the house later, and our generation tended to have kids later," says Tom Murphy, editor-in-chief of RedwoodAge, a news site for baby boomers. In fact, the idea of the empty nester as free-spending and wealthy may have been out of date even before the economic meltdown turned their IRAs into Jello.
"The image is true for about 10 percent of empty nesters - the richest 10 percent," Murphy says. "The rest are struggling."
That's not to say that this is a worthless market. Empty nesters can be seen as a subset of the baby boomer demographic, consisting of 78.2 million people born between 1946 and 1964. And this group as a whole spends around $2 trillion a year, according to the research of RedwoodAge, which focuses on those age 44 to 62.
While 70 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 are online, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, it can be really hard to target them there, Murphy says. This crowd avoids sites that play too much to their age. "Who wants to go to a site that's about going gray?" Murphy says. On the other hand, they tend not to play in social media as much as the Gen X and younger folk do. Spencer has found that portal ads work better for the empty-nest demographic, which is very news-oriented.
Meet in the Middle
"Empty nester" is more psychographic than demographic. When Chrysler LLC prepared to launch the Dodge Journey in April 2008, its marketers had a counterintuitive inspiration: Empty nesters and young couples have a lot in common, even if they're coming at a car from opposite ends of their lives.
Empty nesters tend to be downsizing their homes and cars, while young couples are ready to move into a bigger vehicle, says Mark Spencer, senior manager of Dodge communications, who spearheaded the launch. The fuel-efficient Journey, with its slimmed-down size and extra cargo space, was just right for both kinds of consumers.
"Young couples are taking on more responsibility, empty nesters are shedding responsibilities, and both have need for this medium-sized vehicle," Spencer says.
The Dodge launch, developed by BBDO NY, with a multicultural campaign by Global Hue and interactive work by Organic, was at that time the brand's biggest marketing spend ever, and 29 percent of it went to interactive media. The campaign included home-page takeovers of aol, Yahoo and msn, with a presence on travel, wellness, finance, sports and entertainment Web sites.
Dodge marketers struggled with the messaging strategy: Should there be different messages and creative for the two target audiences? In the end, Spencer says, "The approach was to take product messages, serve them against different audiences online, and optimize to see what was working."
The newly free couple may be in the market for all the things we'd expect, says Josh Perlstein, president of Response Media, a boutique interactive media agency. Perlstein says his clients have targeted empty nesters for travel destinations and services, health and beauty products, and pharmaceuticals.
"It's not all age-specific pharmaceuticals," Perlstein points out. "A lot of drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter, can work for any age group. And the age range for empty nesters happens to be a primary target for a lot of these drugs." For example, he's worked on media plans targeting this demo for an osteoporosis drug and a heartburn drug.
Another sector that traditionally goes after empty nesters is financial services - including insurance companies, banks and investment firms - because this is a time when a couple's financial goals and earnings change. Perlstein notes that this sector is cutting back on online advertising for now. Will next year bring a slew of new offers to help mid-lifers keep their claws around their shriveling nest eggs?
The best practice for reaching and connecting with this demographic using interactive and digital ads, according to Perlstein, is to offer them multiple channels for response - not just a click-to-purchase or an opportunity to email.
"For this group, the phone is enormously important," he says. Putting a phone number on the landing page from a search ad or in an email lifts response. In some cases, in fact, Perlstein sees a better response to an email via phone than via click-through.
In the end, the tactics that get through to empty nesters aren't unlike those that reach their progeny. Whiteley of ThirdAge says the way to climb into the empty nest is by building trust and providing information-based advertising, like sponsored content. In short, she says, "when advertising seems shallow, it feels phony, and there's a loss of trust. So, get real."