Clarity and Respect for the 50+ Market
How to inspire a population that's already been there and done that
by Sharon R. Cole
More people than ever will turn 50 next year. That fact is based on the National Center for Health Statistics record that the largest number of live births in history4.3 millionoccurred in 1957. For direct marketers, such a market offers limitless opportunity, if only they knew how and what to sell to a group of skeptics who have lived long enough to quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. Before planning any direct mail campaign, interviewees for this story say marketers should first know exactly who 50-plus people are.
The 50-plus Profile
Such an examination of this market, however, is not cut and dry. Kurt Medina, president of Medina Associates, Rose Valley, Pa., breaks the population into three markets:
* Pre-retirees, who are right around 50 years old and are beginning to think about retirement;
* Active retirees, who have retired but are exceedingly activelearning new things or even starting a new job; and
* Seniors 75 and over, who are slowing down.
"Each of these markets is looking for different products and services, and responding to different tactics," he says.
Similarly, Scott Parkin, vice president of communications for the National Council on Aging (NCOA), Washington D.C., profiles the group as, "the 50-or-so people who are still working, spend two hours sorting through e-mails and about three hours on the Internet; the 60 to early 70 group who is still fairly active; and the 75 and older individuals who are ... very hard to communicate with."
"A large segment of this population is working all the way through their early 70s, either because they want to or because they need the money," he says.
However, Ken Gronbach, principal of Haddam, Conn.-based KGC Direct, and author of "Common Census: The Counterintuitive Guide to Generational Marketing," looks at this market as a whole, stating simply that as people turn 50 their consuming changes. He says they know what they want: "They've been buying the same oil for their cars for years and they wear tan pants. ... At this point in their lives they want only three things: life made easy, time saved and to not be ripped off. ... Direct mail does that in spades."
What They Want
While direct mail may possess three key elements that work for the 50-plus group, it must be applied to the products and services they desire.
David Wolfe, president of Wolfe Resources Group, Reston, Va., and author of "Ageless Marketing," says matter-of-factly, "They pretty much want the same stuff as those under 50. They all want cars, clothes and food. They all want entertainment."
True, yes, but there's a little more to it according to Medina. He's found that pre-retirees have an eye toward retirement and financial services, and that they are considering short-term travel. "They are still working like crazy, but they're preparing," he says. "On the other hand, active retirees are more interested in education, travel and anything that is participatory."
Everything changes around 75, he says, when health care, assisted devices, Medicare services and reverse mortgages become important.
Medina adds that boomers and active retirees enjoy apparel and automobiles and, with more disposable income, they go for higher-end items.
"The Vespa scooter is an interesting example," cites Medina. "Vespa ceased U.S. distribution years ago and then reintroduced the scooter in 2000. To the company's amazement, the boomers loved it the most. In fact, they bought fully loaded models with all the bells and whistles, unlike 20-somethings who opted for cheaper models."
What other products can be sold to 50-plus individuals? Gronbach says riding lawn mowers and freestanding sheds for the mowers are two popular products. "Their bodies are changing and they look for items that accommodate those changes," he says. "In the lawn mower case, shed manufacturers realized that people ordering big mowers needed a place to store them."
In addition, gas prices are making this market much more eager to buy items remotely right now, rather than hunt them down or figure out ways to get them home from the store themselves. "Shipping is key right now because of gas," says Gronbach. "This is a prudent group that would rather have products shipped to their doors than spend gas money to go out and buy them."
Convincing the Wise
Here is where the "older and wiser" aspect of the 50-plus market comes into play. It's common knowledge that by the time people reach 50, they aren't buying sales pitches as easily as their younger counterparts with I-want-it-now attitudes.
There are a few message styles to avoid. According to Wolfe, marketers should stay away from fakery and from message that rely on urgency since older people have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. "These are Ph.D. consumers who are particularly turned off by inauthentic messages," he says. "For instance, don't say, 'You are one of our select few favorite customers.'"
Wolfe adds that story telling works better than didactic expository messages like, "Our product is better than another." Older consumers don't believe such claims, and companies that are socially irresponsible are not likely to get a positive response.
NCOA's Parkin says his organization and affiliates have used a pyramid that breaks out value systems to better understand audiences, since people in their 60s and 70s have completely different values and can be easily offended by the wrong message.
In fact, focus groups conducted by the NCOA found that this generation is offended by certain words and terms like "low-income."
"Luckily the government has done a lot of this research themselves," says Parkin. "'Extra help' is definitely more effective than 'low income subsidy.'"
Parkin adds that Americans 60 and older are skeptical of hyperbole in direct mail. For instance, when a marketer mails something resembling their social security check envelope, it's a turn-off. "There are so many scams out there that you should avoid looking like one. Use plain language and be up front," he says.
More advice comes from Medina who touches on Internet usage. While the fastest growing Internet usage group is 50-plus, he says marketers should be careful about integrating it into direct mail campaigns.
"The dividing point is about 68 years old," he says. "Those younger use or used computers at work, or at least prior to retirement, but those older are slow or resistant to adapt."
According to Medina, the Pew Foundation released a study indicating Internet usage of people 50 to 69 was 51 percent, while usage of those 69 and older was just 21 percent. "That's a huge drop. ... I advise clients targeting those 70 and over to go ahead and include the Web as part of their marketing mix, but to avoid placing too much emphasis on it."
By Simple Design
Specific rules apply to direct mail formats within this market as well. The general consensus is that larger fonts and point sizes16 and upshould be used, while reverse type should be avoided. Interviewees remind that the older generation often has corrective vision, and requires bigger print with contrasting colors.
Wolfe adds that bulleted lists are not effective since readers would rather be told a story than be lectured. He also says pastels are not good, and that colors should be bolder and warmer. "Also consider the grade level at which the piece is written," says Parkin. "Simple sentence construction ... is sometimes needed when targeting 75 and older."
In terms of production quality, Gronbach recommends using the best when reaching out to this market. "Don't ever use bad or low-grade paper or bad color, and don't be afraid to use boomer models. This group doesn't see themselves in sizes three, five or seven, so don't insult them with non-representative images."
Medina cautions readers to steer clear of highly promotional formats and graphics when marketing important products like banking and major health programs. "Such pieces should carry the dignity of the product," he says. "Terms like 'final sale,' 'act now' and other razzmatazz don't work. It's a respect issue."
He says older consumers know that if they miss the Macy's one-day sale there will be another one in two weeks. They also don't need as much stuff as younger people. "Younger folks are in the accumulation phase of life. People 50 and older have no more room on the walls. Instead, this group loves to buy gifts for grandchildren and children," Medina states.
Whether it's the product, message or format, all interviewed agree that a careful approach is necessary when targeting a market that feels no need to please or prove themselves to others any more. Still, they are responsive to products and services if marketers are willing to offer them in a respectful way. "It all comes down to treating older people with dignity. Don't patronize, and don't try to pull the wool over their eyesjust tell them like it is," says Medina. "This is a group that simply can't be fooled around with."
Sharon R. Cole is a Philadelphia-based writer contributing to print-industry publications.