Five common misconceptions about marketing to seniors

Five common misconceptions about marketing to seniors

With all possible target markets, why would anyone want to sell to the elderly?

Considered a “lost cause” by some, they are labeled as too old, too disabled, too forgetful or too frugal. While these names may apply in some cases, it’s surprising how wrong these perceptions are when you examine the reality of today’s buying public despite a deteriorating economy, real estate crisis and unemployment at its worst level in decades.

Suddenly, the elderly seem very attractive to some, if not all, marketers because of a few basic facts:

Misconception #1: Senior citizens are a minority

fact: 76 million baby boomers in the United States are now turning 65, a fact that makes senior citizens the majority. According to data from February 6, 2011 New York Times essay on the business of aging, these new senior citizens differ from previous generations by expecting a life expectancy that is longer than in the past – a span of at least another twenty years. Globally, the segment of the population aged 65 and over will double, from 523 million to 1.5 billion by 2050, according to UN estimates. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are more women than men nationwide, with the Northeast leading the way for that distinction, as well as having the largest percentage of people in the 65 and over age group. Although more people will delay retirement in the interest of maintaining a sustainable income, those who do decide to retire will have a lot of time on their hands for which the only escape is to be busy. And extrapolating truth from reality, staying busy means that senior citizens will represent one of the largest markets in the country, too expansive to ignore and certainly too affordable to turn down.

Misconception #2: Senior citizens are too old, technologically challenged and computer phobic

fact: Since a “senior citizen” is defined as someone who has reached an advanced age (yet, to this writer’s amusement, still described as “ancient” in some dictionaries), most of the baby boomers will be a relatively young group (ages 65-74) until 2034. That’s a good twenty years of time that marketers can take advantage of. Baby boomers are not wallflowers intimidated by the prospect of going out dancing. Indeed, it is our device-savvy, forward-thinking, mature and experienced driving forces that have been major contributors, if not initiators, of today’s technologically advanced lifestyle for most of its existence. Hardly socially disengaged, these are connected individuals aware of the ramifications of social media and Google rankings, alternately engaged and irritated by an environment of political wrongdoing and world events, and affected by the effects of job loss and home foreclosure. These are highly aware users of the most formidable stature.

Misconception #3: Senior citizens are too “cheap” to spend money

fact: The elderly today are the biggest wasters. According to estimates based on the Consumer Expenditure Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about $2.6 trillion was spent by baby boomer households in the United States in 2009. That’s a 45% year-over-year increase as measured by a Gallup poll cited on June 10, 2010. New York Times article by Katherine Rampel titled “Who’s Spending Again? The Rich and the Old.”

While it’s true that older people tend to be more conservative in their tastes and thrifty in their choices, it’s also true that their spending habits are heavily influenced by the wants and needs of those who matter to them: their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. If, for example, the son of a senior citizen has lost his job and can no longer support his family to the level of comfort they once enjoyed, it is far from a grandmother to watch them suffer. Many older Americans have welcomed younger generations back into their homes and are now spending lavishly to keep them fat and happy, so to speak.

But there’s another reason older people have let go of their often extra-large balls. Recent stock market gains have a psychological effect on the thinking of retired people with investments, even if those investments are based on bonds or annuities, leading them to conclude that they are richer. Add this sentiment to the rationale that older people may feel that life is too short and now is the time to splurge before it’s too late. Buoyed by years of moderately successful finances, now bolstered by the meager fruits of Social Security, some of these seniors enjoy substantial means and plan to experience life’s luxuries before time runs out.

What does this mean? This means vacations, cruises, luxury vehicles and home entertainment purchases. This means shopping for clothes, jewelry and gifts for the kids. This means spending on hair and nails, plastic surgery and a new smile. This means dining out and going out for an evening of pleasure. All regularly. Once they start, it’s hard to stop.

Misconception #4: Senior citizens lack brand loyalty

fact: Adults demonstrate much greater brand loyalty than members of today’s younger generation, who tend to be fickle, jumping from one thing to another in an instant. While fads, trends and social influences lure youngsters from one product to the next, older adults are considered more valuable as customers, according to a Sept. 26, 2007, survey. New York Times article by Matt Richtel on “Sticky Old People”. The adult will take time to consider the decision carefully and will stick to that commitment longer as a general rule.

Although older adults have a lifetime of experience to draw on, a wealth of knowledge on a range of topics, and valuable skills representing a variety of careers, this wisdom is viewed with some reservations in today’s rapidly changing world. First, old age leads to forgetfulness and memory loss. Second, when it comes to the availability of knowledge, Google provides answers to anything and everything in a matter of milliseconds, which is hardly a match for a senior citizen (or anyone for that matter), no matter how smart or accomplished they may be. Finally, the skills adults have learned are usually for things we no longer need or use, such as motors from yesterday or outdated entertainment hardware now replaced by state-of-the-art wireless computing technology. Even if the elderly have kept up with every technological development over the years, their motivation to keep up with such changes after retirement decreases significantly, as does their retention capacity. Here the younger has an advantage.

Misconception #5: Senior citizens won’t buy anything unless there’s a discount

fact: If there’s one thing seniors totally dominate, it’s the health care market, discount or no discount. No one buys more health-related products than senior citizens, making them easily the most valuable market for businesses in this industry, bar none. Old age naturally creates difficulties with balance, dexterity, autonomy and mobility, as well as sensory support and retention. Some of these conditions promote social withdrawal. Industries concerned with protecting the elderly from physical and psychological death can only look forward to reaping the benefits of their manufacturing and marketing acumen. Still, it’s clear that the prospect of serious investment in developing products that can serve such purposes is worrying companies poised to take advantage. The reason for this is that the adult market is still unproven territory, as it has not shown that it will buy new technologies that preserve health and well-being, even if there is a dire need for it. Rather, companies like Ford Motor, which features a hands-free parallel parking system that alleviates the need to strain the neck (a common pitfall of aging), combined with blind spot detection and a voice-activated audio system, find comfort in the ability them to be marketed to a broad market and not just target the mysterious seniors for product success.

While writing this article, I happened to be contacted by a local non-profit organization, Aging in Place, who claimed they needed a marketing plan to facilitate an increase in paid membership. Aging in Place is a concept used by national senior citizen groups to describe efforts to help older adults remain in their own homes as long as possible while receiving assistance from a variety of outside services as needed to find solutions to any inconvenience or problem they face. This may include assistance with medical, social, financial or nutritional needs, to name a few.

At the same time, many real estate development companies across the country have embraced the idea that building senior-friendly housing or retirement centers that include new technologies to monitor the health and safety of residents, as well as social, dining, entertainment areas, fitness and physical therapy, are a safe bet for senior marketing.

Certainly, both scenarios make sense as long as all marketers are addressing the age-old question: What’s the best way to reach seniors? Or is the question instead how do we reach the grown children of senior citizens? While the choices remain the same as when trying to reach the entire market, all of which are expensive, with an unknown response rate always possible, there are ways to target older adults with some intuitive reasoning. Think old fashioned if you want an older demographic; think creatively to reach the newly arrived “younger” adult baby boomers or their adult children. Among a whole host of strategies, old-fashioned means newspaper advertising; on conservative talk radio programs; or sponsor marketing and live presentations with giveaways at fairs and events at community or religious centers. Creative marketing might mean using the Internet to reach more tech-savvy seniors through an email campaign; or sponsored ads to accompany relevant Google searches to just touch the tip of the iceberg of possibilities. Probably the safest route to any older person is through their postal address, lists of which can be purchased by selecting an age plus a range of other parameters that may be relevant.

And as with all marketing, one effort may not be enough. A varied approach, as well as multiple trials, is usually what translates to a more successful outcome, being vigilant about measuring response at each step of the process. But keep one thing in mind. Seniors have fallen victim to scams more often than we care to admit. While some may still be helplessly vulnerable, others have become even more wary, distrustful of every marketing pitch they come across!

#common #misconceptions #marketing #seniors

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