Targeting the silver surfers’ pot of gold

Almost half the UK’s over-50s use the Web and spend £900m a year online. No wonder marketers are starting to take note of them, says Nathalie Kilby

Almost half the UK’s over-50s use the Web and spend &£900m a year online. No wonder marketers are starting to take note of them, says Nathalie Kilby

We are all aware that the population is getting older and the notion of silver surfers is becoming a familiar one. Yet the marketing industry is still chastised for ignoring the over-50s – especially online.

According to new research from Starcom, of the 20 million people aged over 50 in the UK, 43% are internet users and 23% of them buy goods and services online. The over-50s spend about &£900m a year online and account for over 20% of all online shoppers – a figure that is set to grow.

As an age group that commands 80% of the UK’s personal wealth and accounts for 40% of all consumer spending, it is a market advertisers cannot afford to ignore any more.

Helen Troughton, consumer strategist at Starcom, says advertisers need to understand the dynamics of this market now if they are to succeed in attracting these online consumers. “Advertisers have not ignored this sector completely, but they have perhaps not been given a good enough reason to target them,” she says.

Fiona Hought of mature marketing agency Millennium agrees, but says advertisers are beginning to wake up to the importance of this market with digital being the focus for many campaigns in the recent past. “The over-50s online are challenging perceptions. We know they make up a quarter of online consumers and about 14% of 70- to 79-year-olds have Web access, while over half of the over-50s use broadband.”

These figures of prolific Web usage among older consumers may surprise some, but they represent little more than a natural progression of PC use at work and home PC ownership says Hought. “For many of these users, the internet and technology were part of everyday working life, so it’s little surprise that they are online.” However, she says that it is somewhat surprising that 95% of internet-connected over-50s have been online for at least two years.

Hought adds that the over-50s online are Web-savvy and single-minded in their approach to online advertising and that too few advertisers fully understand the market.

“Advertisers need to examine and understand their behaviour online. They tend to ignore banners and pop-up advertising, favouring search instead. Search engine optimisation is crucial for advertisers targeting the over-50s online. These consumers say they go as far back as three pages before clicking onto a link, suggesting they have preconceptions about sites listed earlier. They shun paid-for search results preferring and trusting natural listings instead.”

She also points out that e-mail is not such an effective marketing tool when targeting the over-50s online: “E-mail does not work well as a recruitment tool, but is effective in terms of customer retention.”

Starcom’s Troughton says trust is a major issue and the battle to drive over-50s to your website is one that is best fought offline. “Older consumers consider print advertising, particularly in the regional press, to be the most trustworthy and influential. Perhaps somewhat counter intuitively, advertisers should use old media to encourage the trial of new media channels. As just 26% of these consumers use price comparison sites when searching for products, it is crucial to use print media to steer them to your website,” she says.

Starcom research also shows that 22% of over-50s shopping online use familiar high street brands, versus 32% who buy from purely online outlets. This is perhaps not surprising given that they tend to have the time to browse high street stores, but Troughton says their brand repertoire is broad and Hought points out that sites such as Amazon and Ebay are just as attractive to the over-50s as they are to younger consumers.

“These consumers are buying goods from books to cars. Travel and fashion are the most popular sectors for purchases and interest just as they are among the wider internet community, yet too few advertisers are targeting these consumers,” says Hought.

It is clear that advertisers and marketers have woken up to the Web as a marketing tool, yet both online and offline it appears they are wrestling with that age-old problem: an obsession with youth.

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