Chatting up your parents

Posted on 24/05/2011


How would your grandparents flirt online?

Or how to engage with older generations online.

Like most, the advertising and marketing industries are prone to fads. 2011 has already been declared the Year of the Mobile by many commentators, including big wigs like Eric Schmidt (Google) and Sir Martin Sorrell (WPP). Fads have their role, and new technology’s worth adopting, but it’s overshadowing something else.

Mobile might be the platform of the future, but it doesn’t factor for older generations. Only 4% of baby-boomers, and 1% of 65+ would miss their mobile phones if they were no longer available.* Given that this group makes up over a quarter of the population**, you begin to wonder if the fad for mobile’s blurring our judgment.

The UK is one of several countries undergoing the same demographic change. With the number of people under 30 shrinking, and a growing number over 50, it’s time to start thinking about how this population shift will affect advertising. Baby boomers in the US make up 38.5% of all spending on consumer packaged goods, vastly more than the trendy, yet poor 16-24 age group. As long as agencies are clambering over each other to work on exciting youth-targeted products, they’ll be missing a trick.***

I’ve read several articles (The Economist, and Nielson for starters) recently on how older generations are still consuming traditional media. Yes, older generations are watching more TV (up 50 minutes to 5 hours 10 for the average 64-year-old), and still buying newspapers, but it seems that no one’s taken the time to consider online media.

This leads me to think that we don’t yet to understand how to communicate with baby boomers and over 65s on the internet. Western economies will be growing more slowing for the considerable future, and if brands want to grow their business in these countries, they’ll need to be skilled at this. So just how do you go about chatting up your parents and grandparents online?

1. Getting better connected

Firstly, forget any prejudice you have about them not being online; older people have more to do with the internet than accidentally severing cables.

Nielson’s 2010 study of Boomers in the US shows they’re more likely to have broadband internet access in the home. They also frequent 8 of the same top 10 web domains as 18-34 year olds, including Facebook. Their seniors are even getting involved with 40% of households over 65 having the internet, increasing fourfold since 2000. They’re also on social networks:

To assume they’re not going online, or in significant numbers is plain wrong, and means that an integrated advertising strategy could be highly effective.

2.  Rethink old opinions

If people are living longer, when do you become old? One way is to follow the general consensus. The European Social Survey suggests that it’s at 68 that over 50% of people begin to consider themselves as old, and this increases over time. However, the survey revealed that around 20% of people aged 80 still think of themselves as young. With a growing number of centenarians , they might have a point. Brands that recognize this and help them to feel and stay young will benefit from this change.

3. Recognise their experience

Like it or not, the retirement age will either rise or disappear completely, and there will be more older people in the workplace (7.6 million by 2020). Aside from the economic reasons (pensions, greater productivity), there are really valid social reasons for doing this. Older workers are more experienced, and it’s harder to find experienced younger workers. This idea’s been echoed by the new IPA president, Nicola Mendelsohn, who’s looking to attract people to advertising later on in their careers. It’s time to change our perception of them being “over the hill” and utilize their experience.

People will be working longer, but they’ll also be retiring differently. 51% of today’s workforce wants to continue working beyond the retirement age to remain active.**** Instead of a sudden switch, it will become more of a gradual transition, with many people working part-time hours before fully retiring.

This is a huge change compared to how people used to live. Retirement will no longer be a period of inactivity, or a withdrawal from society. It will be a slow changeover allowing people to settle into retired life but still remain active. Current retirees and the baby boomers are in the privileged position to rewrite what it means to old, and they will make time for brands that help them do this.

4. Know what’s important to them

The value of inheritances might have increased over the past 11 years, but that doesn’t mean you’re getting any. Less than one in five retired people feel the responsibility to leave their money to their children, according to the Visions of Britain 2020 report. Instead, one of the benefactors will be their grandchildren. Something like a “Random acts of Kindness” campaign could be exciting if it’s aimed at helping their grandchildren.

Brands and advertisers could see grandchildren as a way into the grandparent’s wallets, but I think the wider trends of environmentalism and improving the social good will also appeal to retirees. Due to fewer work commitments they’re also more likely to volunteer their time elsewhere – 51% of current volunteers are over 60. Sharing these interests and supporting these causes will make older internet uses more likely to listen to and more likely to get involved with a brand online.

Marketers and advertisers have developed hundreds of techniques to sell online, and, of course, these still stand. However, a better understanding of both Baby Boomers (aged 55-64) and retirees (aged 65+) can give us new and improved ways to engage with them on the net.

5. Respect your elders

I’ve not gone through reading around on this without coming up with a few ideas of my own. One of the main things I’ve noticed is the wider challenge we all face to help educate older generations about technology. Both Google and BT with their Internet Rangers scheme are finding ways to fix this skills gap, but it still exists. If we’re to connect with older people online, we need to be sympathetic to this. They’re going to use social media differently, and chances are they’ll also expect to be spoken to differently by companies than by their friends and family. Here’s how to respect your elders:

  • Trust – there was a time (way before the brilliant Pringles banner ad), when we were very wary of clicking banner ads. Technology can be scary, especially when you’re new to it.. One of the students on the BT Internet Ranger programme put it best: “It is difficult for our generation as we were brought up with the ‘don’t touch’ approach to new technologies”. For the consumer –company relationship to work, there have to be no surprises. This means being clear about your policies, no OTT banners rolling out across the screen and complete confidence that there won’t be any side effects of sharing something online.
  • Text size – I have trouble reading online sometimes, and my eyesight’s OK. Accessibility options should be clear and animated text should be easy to read. All so obvious, it’s surprising how often it doesn’t happen.
  • Make them feel that it’s face to face – My grandparents are not huge fans of call centres. They feel like they’re processed by a machine rather than by a real person, and much prefer going into a branch to sort things out. I can’t see any harm in reminding your customers/ fans/ followers that there are real people working with them online.
  • Bring the fun that digital advertising and social networks have brought to young(er) generations to this “wiser” age bracket. Make them and help them feel young. Rewrite retirement with them and NEVER call them old.

Back to top * compared with 34% of 16-24 year-olds. (ONS e-society 2010 (PDF))

Back to top ** 28.4% of the UK population in 2011 is over 55 (data from the ONS)

Back to top *** It turns out agencies are beginning to get the idea. The day after writing this I found a link to the NYT article “In Shift, Ads Try to Entice Over-55 Set”. There’s now “good reason for ad clients to seek the mature audience” (Stephanie Pappas, a senior planner for BBDO NY).

Back to top **** Visions of Britain 2020