When silver turns to gold

Marketers who still refer to internet users aged over 50 as silver surfers are not only patronising, but are failing to differentiate sub-groups of this expanding population that includes the UK’s most affluent consumers

For at least a decade, British internet users aged 50 or over have been labelled “silver surfers”. While this was initially a neat way of classifying the older generations when examining their online activity, the picture in 2008 is very different.

Such is the variety of use among this age group that lumping them together in one homogeneous demographic is now as unhelpful as it is patronising. If children are subdivided into several different categories, such as pre-school, primary and teenagers, then why aren’t the over-50s?The 50-plus set will make up more than half the British adult population by 2020 and currently hold 80% of the country’s wealth. When they finally reach the shifting retirement bracket, they are more willing than ever to explore new leisure activities and embrace emerging technologies. Far from being a young person’s playground, the internet is there for the taking for those reaching, or already in, retirement.

Digital media agency EquiMedia, in association with YouGov, commissioned research looking at the online habits of several subsets of the over-50 population to give marketers a more in-depth appraisal of what they are using the internet for, and also what functions they would consider using in the future.

Respondents’ primary reasons for logging on are researching and managing hobbies and interests or keeping up with current affairs (31%). More than one-third of men (36%) compared with just over 25% of women indicated that these combined uses were their primary purpose for going online, while some 35% of respondents aged 50 to 59 ticked this box – more than double the next highest activity in this age group.

The figures suggest that people in their 50s lead very active lives even outside work, with a keen interest in the world around them, compared with older segments where the numbers drop away.

Breaking down the internet interests of 50to 59-year-olds further, it is apparent that some are happy to go online primarily to use internet banking (16%), although perhaps surprisingly, it is the older internet users who feel that checking their accounts and paying bills online is their primary reason to use the internet.

A similar number of respondents in their 50s use the internet first and foremost to keep in touch with family and friends. However, a greater proportion of 60to 69-year-olds (23%) and those who are 70-plus (29%) say this is their main reason for going online. Overall, communication was women’s joint top reason (27%) along with hobbies and interests, but it was only the third most popular selection for men, behind hobbies and banking.

Meanwhile, only 1% of men and 2% of women ranked gambling and gaming as their main pursuit online. Instead, discernment is a driver for this demographic – two-thirds of all respondents would consider visiting price comparison sites to get great deals (with similar percentages for men and women). This penchant for a bargain is supported by the 56% who have a fascination for browsing auction sites such as eBay, although the proportion decreases as people get older.

“Keeping in touch” figures prominently again in answers to the question which online functions or programmes would you consider using? Over 40% of both men and women claim to be keen on using Skype, webcams and the like. Women over 50 are more interested in social networking (19% overall compared to 14% of men), but only 8% of those over 70 have any interest in the likes of MySpace and Facebook compared with 20% of 50to 59-year-olds.

Relatively new online media, such as image sharing platform Flickr, could prove popular among the younger group in this market with 21% of people in their 50s considering signing up. Meanwhile, a significant number from each segment (6% overall) claimed they will think about blogging their experiences online, embracing a new form of memoir. Finally, 5% of people in their 50s admitted they may look for love via dating sites.

In summary, these insights could enable marketers to reach these time-rich, affluent consumers effectively with online advertising campaigns. It seems there has been a misconception that this vast group has a tentative, arm’s-length relationship with the internet. They are using it to save time and cost in the same way as the rest of the time-poor population, but they are also using their time to embrace the Web in a bid to enhance their lives and develop their interests.

Iain Dawson, EquiMedia director of Insight, contributed to this week’s Trends insight





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