Online Marketing to Baby Boomers: Why social media may not return the results you seek

I love seeing the current adoption rate stats for baby boomers and seniors’ general use of the Internet – people who didn’t grow up with such ready access to information truly appreciate the new-found connection to facts and opinion on any subject imaginable – and with the increasing use, I continue to see evidence that the post-50 generations do not relate to technology in the same manner millenials who create websites and mobile applications do.

The stats in this great post about marketing to baby boomers online dovetail with my less formal observations and support my contention that the value of the silver demographic is still relatively untapped due to both generational user preferences and ad strategies geared to younger markets. As effective as advertisers are in connecting with Gen X and younger, connecting with baby boomers online presents marketers with inherent obstacles.

Baby boomers readily acknowledge the role of technology in the workplace and have allowed it to reach into their personal space, yet the way boomers integrate social media, whether delivered via mobile or desktop, into their lives is very different from the outright dependence of our children. Participation in social media is viewed as an option, not a given, in the consumer decision-making process – while a product recommendation online makes perfect sense to the generation who used the first Consumer Reports publications, I suspect seeing a photo on a Pintrest page generates far less interest in the product – overall, boomers seek and use objective product information more than they can be pushed or prompted to purchase via virtual peer pressure.

Product promotion via social media has its risks when targeting boomers and seniors … recent experience has revealed two obstacles to be aware of:

One: Fundamental lack of understanding of the platforms. A lovely, visionary, not-quite-middle-aged community organizer phoned me one day and stated that she needed to Tweet security updates to her neighborhood association, and requested help in making this happen. I emailed her step-by-step instructions for stetting up a Twitter account and included draft text for an email inviting her contacts to follow her to receive valuable information, yada yada, and promptly received a phone call – “but I just want to send the neighbors Tweets on their phones – I don’t want them to have to set up an account to get them!”

You see the problem? The organizer recognized the existence of a perfect means to get the word out, but didn’t understand the platform is not meant to push anything to those who don’t actively request it. She also failed to understand that receiving Tweets on one’s phone is a secondary option, and viewed setting up an account an impediment …. so there was a substantial amount of education needed for the organizer, before she had any hope of engaging others in her demographic, to prepare her to best use a fantastic, free tool she knew would benefit her physical community.

Two: Mobile devices are not considered essential to life. Unlike many people my age, I’ve relied on email to do my job since 1998. In the early-mid 2000s, as I traveled weekly in a business development position, I not only carried a personal cell phone but also a BlackBerry, on which I was able to stay connected to my teenagers via AIM while waiting on perpetually delayed flights, find client offices, occasionally find an emergency hotel. Using a handheld device to get directions is second nature to me, but the majority of my peers have never checked in on FourSquare and don’t look for new dining spots on the spur of the moment, based on location – our lives are not as loosely structured as those of our young-adult children, and we don’t have the need to update our online statuses to the minute – and we tend to view using a mobile device in a nicer restaurant downright rude to one’s dining companions. If we have smartphones, they are typically used more purposefully than the devices are used by millennials; we don’t text if we can talk and we sometimes turn the things off entirely.

Circumstances like this present challenges in gaining the maximum value from mobile social media, if a significant portion of your target market is older than about age 45. Staying connected to the boomer audience requires integrating more desktop-focused efforts such as email, and even QR codes in print, and the adoption rate for smart phones among boomers will probably always be low enough to relegate the most successful campaigns to those emulating traditional direct marketing. Remember this generation still thinks anything important should be printed – green initiatives aside, printing is a hard habit to break – and acknowledge that being memorable to the 50-plus demographic requires different strategies than you’ll find need for the unplugged generation.

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