Older adults come of age in social media

Not long ago, older folks were ridiculed as being technologically too clueless to program the clock on a DVD player. Now people 55 and older are the fastest-growing group adopting social media: more than 43 percent of Americans 65 and older are using Facebook and its cohorts, compared to just 1 percent in 2008. The Pew Internet and American Life Project has found that 39 million people 65 and older use Facebook, Twitter, and Skype. And Marketingprofs.com reports that 83 percent of seniors now spend more time online than they do watching television.

Proportionately, there are still fewer in this group communicating over the Internet than in other age ranges, but the Silver Set is coming to social media faster than there are young people being born into it.

In 2014, the number of adults 55 and older adopting social media will continue to grow faster than those in younger age groups. But, so far, advertisers and marketing campaigns have been slow to capitalize on this emerging trend.

That will change rapidly this year. Adults 55 and older control 70 percent or more of the U.S.’s discretionary income. Pair that with another unexpected number: a 2012 study by the television rater Nielsen Co. discovered that a third of online banner ads sway buying decisions in the advertiser’s favor, while only a fifth of TV ads do. On the other hand, 26 percent of TV ads drive buyers away, while only 16 percent of online ads have a negative effect.

Companies with services and products to sell will tailor not only their messages, but also their choice of venues, to seniors hanging out on social media.

Among those seniors, Facebook is the first choice. More older adults tune into Facebook than any other social forum. The reason is simple: It’s still the first choice for staying in touch with family and friends.

Here are some key indicators that will come full circle in 2014:
The habits of hand-writing letters to take to the post office and handing in rolls of camera film at the drug store were made over a lifetime. But now fewer of the people these folks want to stay in contact with are doing those things. To see what the grandkids are up to, it’s essential to tap into social media (which might explain why teens are fleeing from Facebook and adopting newer venues such as Snapchat and Instagram).
Older people are still busy; it’s less time-consuming to post photos and messages to a Facebook page than to reprint six pictures and write and mail a dozen letters. Besides, every day a larger share of the folks qualifying as “seniors” come to that age category with basic-or-better skills in electronic technologies.
Age can strip people of their familiar social networks. Lifelong friends die; the neighbors of 30 years move to warmer climates. Social media not only ease the sense of loss by enabling seniors to keep in contact with friends and make new acquaintances; it also is immediate.
Many adults find their social networks centered around their places of work. Retiring from a job also can mean retiring from a network of friends. Facebook offers a way to stay in touch with people that an older person might otherwise have no reason to contact.

Keeping in touch is the prime reason for Boomers to migrate to social media. Loneliness and social isolation are implicated in deteriorating physical and mental health and social media provides the antidote: networks of like minds that can be contacted with a few key clicks. There are affinity groups for people who share religious or political views, passions for cooking or television series or other activities, and for retirees from various fields.

“I was dying of boredom,” a 73-year-old woman told a New York Times reporter. Social media sites, where she often spends 12 hours a day or more in conversations and watching news, “gave me a reason to keep on going.”

Businesses leading the way

Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that companies catering to seniors are among the businesses leading the foray into seniors’ social media territory.

Merrill Gardens, a chain of more than 50 assisted living facilities, uses social media to contact not only older people, but also their children who are — or soon may be — looking for supervised settings for their aging parents. Merrill’s homes also use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep residents and their adult children in touch with news and events, and Merrill’s Pinterest site hosts community pages for residents who knit, love cars, and share other special interests.

Twenty-four of HCF Management’s 27 senior care residences throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania also have created their own Facebook pages. The facilities also offer YouTube “virtual tours” and introductions to the homes’ caregivers. Far-flung family members can watch the videos, then discuss their opinions of various possible residences. Adult children don’t have to take a plane trip to see if a sibling is making the right choice for Mom.

Marketing to seniors and their families is a bottom-line issue for senior residential care centers in another way: the satisfaction of residents and their families is becoming a factor in how well the centers are paid by government social-service agencies. Engaging, educating, and entertaining seniors through in-house websites are becoming crucial levers in boosting satisfaction for residents, as well as their families.

AARP, the association of older persons, claims more than 40 million members, more than a million Facebook friends, and 62,000 Twitter followers. It uses YouTube and other social media to broadcast tips for staying healthy, managing finances, connecting with grandchildren, and other member-targeted messages. The steady stream of targeted content adds value to members’ lives, keeps members loyal, and keeps renewals coming.

The trend to use social media to engage and sell to seniors has spawned its own support industry. For example, the Quincy, Massachusetts-based firm Connected Living creates customized web and Facebook home pages for senior residential facilities and, through a network of “ambassadors,” offers training, group online activities, and one-on-one support to users.

In other words, people over 55 are beginning to use social media much like those who are younger. In fact, according to a study by the Center for the Digital Future for AARP, “there is often little difference in use of online technology between Boomer and older users and some of the youngest users.” Adds Jim Gilmartin, principal of the Coming of Age marketing consultancy in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, people 55 and older are “using all forms of information gathering available to them, and so should marketers. Those that discount new media” — whether older adults themselves or marketers hoping to reach them — “are making a big blunder.”


For ideas on how the talents of older workers are being tapped in creative ways, check out the work of encore.org. The not-for-profit was founded “to make it easier for millions of people to pursue second acts for the greater good…jobs that combine personal meaning, continued income and social impact ­— in the second half of life.” The organization provides resources, grants and training opportunities to realize “work with a purpose.”

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