The Digital Generation Gap: How Brands Can Capitalize on the Growing Senior Online Set


My mom is 64. On those rare occasions when I send her an email, with, say, my flight information, I have to call her first to let her know to “check the computer”. Her PC sits in the far part of the house, under a plastic cover, and is connected to the Internet via a painfully slow dial-up connection. My dad is even worse. At 66, he refuses to learn to type, and he is the kind of executive who still has his assistant print out emails to read at his desk.

Is this your vision of Seniors online? It’s certainly the prevailing mindset in the interactive industry. We are so focused on the youth market, and so averse to marketing to anyone over 55, you’d think we were all Army recruiters.

Well let me paint a different picture. There are 11.5 million Seniors who regularly access the Internet, defined as those 65 or older. Jupiter expects that number to double by 2010. Whereas only a third of the Senior population is regularly online today, in 2010, online Seniors will represent half of the total Senior population. That makes Seniors the fastest growing segment online. That’s right, they’re growing faster than any other audience, including children and teens.

With the Internet at about 70% penetration in North America, Senior consumers are some of the last people to get online. But the tide is turning. What can we learn from those Seniors who are already online? It turns out they are great potential customers:

They’re educated and affluent. The divide between online Senior consumers and their offline counterparts mirrors other age groups. The have more disposable income and are more likely to have a college degree. They are also more likely to be married or living with a partner.

They’re not sitting around the house. Seniors who are online are more likely to have a job, which means they are more likely to be exposed to technology at work and to have a network of younger colleagues to guide them. And all that disposable income means that they travel for leisure more than any other segment — an average of 3.0 trips a year, versus 2.2 trips for those under 65.

They’re not all watching 60 Minutes. Seniors use email, send e-greetings, and share photos at nearly the same rates as the general online population. You’ll find them in representative numbers on all the major portals, and at age-appropriate sites that focus on issues like health, personal finance, and genealogy.

So how are Seniors different? Simply put, they don’t have the same trust in technology that we find in younger consumers. It’s no surprise that in a recent Forrester survey, only 25% of Seniors somewhat or completely agreed that “Technology has made my life easier”. Only 18% agree that “The Internet helps me get ahead in life”. They can perceive the Web as an intimidating technology barrier, rather than as a source of knowledge or productivity.

While Seniors see the value of interactive media for communications, it’s not a priority commerce channel. They lag in a number of basic e-commerce indicators, including online researching, purchasing online, and in the average amount of each online transaction. But this will change as more and more Seniors come online, and smart marketers can’t afford to ignore this market any longer. At Organic, we are creating targeted interactive experiences specifically designed to match how Seniors think about and apply technology.


  1. Misha, I read your posting and wanted to add some additional thoughts to your post. First, at 64 your mom is at the high end of the Boomer generation. this generation shuns the world senior, grey, silver or any word that smacks of being old. This Age of Aquarius protested, burned their bras started the women’s movement – they do not mirror the stereotypes of past generations of “older” seniors.

    You mentioned the seniors lack of trust in technology. Why should they trust an industry that continously fails to design for their needs? For example, how many web sites use 10 pt type and/or pale text colors, with no contrast that are harder to read as one ages – or worse yet reversed out type. Ask a Boomer what they hate about using a cell phone and the females will tell you “having to put on “reader” glasses to see the numbers”. Ever try to use a Palm or Blackberry with aging fingers? The need to cram more into smaller doesn’t meet their needs. And ask an ad designer or web designer if her know that the use of Flash causes problems with screen reading software and accessibility tools – TRUST, their trust hasn’t been earned and isn’t deserved. Forester needed to ask the question, why has technology not made your life easier – I bet the answer would be because it is not designed with my needs in mind.

    Companies and agencies refuse to acknowledge research that shows that Boomers will change brands. Study after study has shown that the aging consumer considers this “the time of their life – a time for experimentation and learning”. Think of all the loss opportunties for new customers because of the refusal to view this market as a “new” market segment.

    I applaud your use of Persona’s, 1-800 numbers and live humans for the Geek Squad – but wouldn’t we all like this type of service from our cell phone, cable providers, insurance providers?

    I believe that the failure of companies and agencies to embrace this market comes down to three things. First, it isn’t perceived as fun, flashy or sexy to create for the older population. Second,it requires us to set aside our preconceived notions, biases, backgrounds, cultural views of aging and requires us to filter out the youth obsessed imagery that surrounds us daily. Third, it requires research and learning new ways of designing to serve the market.
    OK, enough, I would have written this on my blog and pinged you, but the “service” at Typepad has not been trustworthy :)

  2. I absolutely echo the points put across by Terri Whitesel. The Baby Boomers are not being catered for by marketers. True we may not be so tech savvy as younger people but that is changing fast. And it would change even faster if marketers thought more intelligently about the hurdles Baby Boomers face when going on line. The bottom line is that marketers better wake up fast to the potential that they are letting slip through their fingers in their obsession with the 18-34 year old target group.


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