How to Market to Baby Boomers Online

The Behind the Social Media Campaign Series is supported by Oneupweb, a relentless digital marketing agency focused on search, social and design for mid-to-enterprise level brands. Download our free digital marketing magazine, The Merge, and our bonus one-of-a-kind cookbook.

If you think that the Internet is a young person’s phenomenon, consider this: Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, titans of the personal computer era, were both born in 1955, smack in the middle of the Baby Boom.

And Al Gore? Born in 1948. ‘Nuff said.

Of course, social media phenomena like Facebook and Twitter do tend to skew young. A 2010 report by eMarketer, for instance, found that 77% of Millennials maintained a social media profile compared to 36% of “Matures” (people between 63 and 75 years old, which pits many of them squarely in Boomer territory). But younger Boomers aren’t far behind: 46% had a social media profile at the time.

Boomers Online

There’s a myth that above a certain age, people are watching TV rather than going online, but the facts tell a different story. According to an eMarketer study released in March, younger Boomers (ages 47 to 55) spent 39.3 hours online per month, and older Boomers (56-65) spent 36.5 hours. A lot of that time was spent buying things. Forrester Research reports that Boomers spent $650 online, on average, over a three-month period in 2010 versus $581 by Gen Xers (aged 35 to


One area where Boomers do currently lag, though, is mobile. Only 25% of Boomers will own a smartphone or tablet in 2011, but eMarketer predicts that number will grow to 39.8% in 2015. That’s still behind the average today: IDC estimates that 49.2% of all consumers will have a smartphone by the end of the year.

One Crucial Difference

We all know Boomers who are on Facebook. Chances are that you know some who are fairly tech-savvy and others who are not. But, to generalize, there’s one major difference that marketers and analysts cite about the demo’s online media consumption habits: Boomers are much more apt to rely on a referral.

For instance, Forrester Research found that 49% of seniors (consumers who are 66 or older), rely on personal emails to direct them to sites, compared to 28% of non-seniors. They are also much more likely to be driven to a website by traditional media, like a print ad. In general, Boomers under-index in their use of search engines, as this March 2011 eMarketer report outlines:

AARP, an organization that caters to consumers 50 and older, has used this insight to try new social media ad programs that put referrals into the mix, like Facebook’s Sponsored Stories.

Tammy Gordon, director of social communications and strategy for AARP, says that she believes Boomers use the web a bit differently than younger consumers. “I don’t think a lot of Boomers type in ‘AARP Facebook,’” she says, “but if three of their friends ‘like’ it, they’ll check it out.”

Why? Jim Gilmartin, president of Coming of Age, a Wheaton, Ill., firm marketing consultant specializing in Boomers, says it’s only natural that as you get older, you get more skeptical about claims made in advertising and want to bounce them off your friends. “You get smarter, that’s what it boils down to,” he says.

Why Marketing to Boomers Is Tricky

Gilmartin says that there are a few ways that Boomers differ from other demos. For one, they tend to value experiences over products. While that may seem a subtle point of differentiation, he says that as people get older, they tend to value experiences more than stuff.

One marketer that seems to have recognized this is Apple, whose ads for the iPad are less about gadget fetish (which would appeal to twenty-somethings) than functional things you can do with the device, like read books or display recipes.

(One thing worth noting about the Apple ad is that, while you can be pretty sure some of the people featured are of Boomer age, you can’t tell for sure because you can’t see their faces. Likely, this is because Apple wanted to make the product the hero of the ad, but an eMarketer report recommended that marketers steer clear of featuring too much grey hair in their ads. “Boomers are immediately turned off by association of infirmity, old age and decline,” the report notes. “Most brands don’t want to ‘age’ their products with blatant appeals to older consumers.”)

Contrast that approach, with this youth-skewing ad for Verizon’s Droid Bionic. Here, the emphasis is on how cool the device is, not how consumers can use it in their everyday lives.

Beyond highlighting experiences, though, Gilmartin says that more than other demos, Boomers really resist broad-based marketing. In other words, don’t assume that you can target Boomers like you target Gen Y. ” As we get older, we get less alike, not more alike” Gilmartin says. He explains that you can probably get away with running a campaign aimed at younger consumers and assume certain things about them. If you’re targeting men 25 years and under, for instance, you’re probably safe in assuming that they’re familiar with videogames.

But Boomers are a different story. When someone reaches the age of 55, they have been refining their tastes for more than 30 years. You generally can’t make a sweeping generalization against anyone’s activities at that age.

What to do? Gilmartin suggests doing something that he says few marketers targeting Boomers have actually done: Get input on your online marketing from actual Boomers. After all, the creators of the online campaigns are often not even close to their target demo in age. “The stuff that’s put up there is put up on line by people who are typically under 35 and do it from their frame of reference,” says Gilmartin. “What they should be doing is testing their sites against Boomers themselves.”

Series supported by Oneupweb

The Behind the Social Media Campaign Series is supported by Oneupweb, a relentless digital marketing agency focused on search, social and design for mid-to-enterprise level brands. Download our free digital marketing magazine, The Merge, for ideas to ignite your strategy sessions, and our bonus one-of-a-kind digital cookbook, Drinks and Grub from the Digital Hub.

author avatar
Joe Beccalori CEO
Joe Beccalori is a twenty-five-year digital marketing veteran and industry thought leader. After working for fifteen years in enterprise web programming, design, and marketing services he founded Interact Marketing in November 2007 and is currently the company CEO, visionary, and public speaker. He is also a contributing author on Forbes, Huffington Post, and In December of 2017, Interact's parent company also acquired Slingshot SEO.
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