A few months ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg surprised online marketers by revealing that since opening registration of his site to the public in late 2006, 50 percent of its user base now falls into the non-student category. It was just the wake-up call advertisers needed to realize that social networking is no longer just for kids.
In fact, while sites like Facebook and MySpace still dominate the social networking space and much of their audience continues to skew young, social networking is being embraced by internet users of all ages. Over the past few years, social networks have emerged catering specifically to older, more educated, and often more affluent audiences. Like the social sites most marketers are familiar with, this next generation social networking site for older generations offers both traditional and unique ad customization options, and a new avenue through which to reach baby boomers and busy moms.
Consumers over the age of 50 have long been desirable as a target audience for marketers, and that's especially true now that they're online. According to Pew Internet & American Life Project, nearly 70 percent of Americans aged 50 to 64 use the web. One of the sites they're frequenting is Eons.com, a social network focused on "Lovin' life on the flip side of 50."
While one of the main attractions for advertisers is the size of the audience -- one million users strong -- the degree to which Eons members interact with the site is also a draw. Users averaged over 15 minutes per session in June reading Eons content on health, beauty, money, travel and love, and engaging in quizzes and games, both publisher-generated and advertiser-sponsored. Other advertising opportunities include corporate profiles, and branded virtual gifts consumers can give to their online friends.
Consumers aren't the only ones exploring Eons; the online community has even prompted several presidential candidates, including Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, to create profiles. Like advertisers, they hope to create a natural dialogue with users with an eye toward building loyalty and trust.
Primarily a niche lifestyle portal, BOOMj.com recently launched a social networking component that, consistent with its previous objective, doesn't just target Boomers but also Generation Jones: the generation between Baby Boomers and Generation X born in the mid-50s to mid-60s. According to BOOMj, Generation Jones currently represents more than 25 percent of all U.S. adults, and when coupled with the Boomers, comprises nearly 80 million people.
In its quest to deliver "content, community, commerce, context and personalization," BOOMj's social network enables members to create both personal and professional profiles and tap the site's featured articles on such topics as entertainment, relationships and financial planning. With a newspaper headline news feed, email functionality and a public bulletin board, users' personal MyBOOMj pages act as customizable home bases within the portal itself.
In addition to content, behavioral and geo-targeting, BOOMj offers advertisers video and sponsored video player placements in featured multimedia content, as well as a BOOMj Movies section, where users can preview and purchase tickets to the latest films appealing to the Boomers and Jonesers demographics.
In May, Lavalife, an online personals site for singles, entered the Boomer social networking space with the introduction of lavalifePRIME. The niche space is designed for mature daters -- aged 45 and up -- in the United States and Canada, and offers all the social media trappings, including a personalized profile, email and chat forums.
Still in beta, the site is working out the kinks, and as a result advertising is being kept to a minimum with Google-generated sponsored links. But the appeal of the demographic coupled with Lavalife's stalwart reputation in the online personals space will likely rocket this romance-focused social network to success.
When it launched in early 2006, SisterWoman.com was positioned to be a social network through which women could connect and chat with their girlfriends. It has since evolved into more of a support network, proving just how powerful social site users can be. "It turned out everyone coming to the site was seeking a particular kind of support," says Allie Savarino, one of SisterWoman's founders. "So we completely modified the design of the site to reflect the desires of our new audience, adding more functionality and customization options."
SisterWoman is putting what it has learned about its users to work for its advertisers, too. According to Savarino, its members respond strongly to polls and surveys that allow them to share their opinions, but aren't as open to video yet. This sort of profile data can save a marketer a lot of time and money planning and developing creative for a SisterWoman campaign.
While its user base overlaps somewhat with SisterWoman, CafeMom is expressly for women who want to discuss everything tied to raising kids. It's clearly a broad topic; Hitwise reports the average site session time in June was over 21 minutes, and the site's market share grew by more than 500 percent from January to June of this year.
Interestingly, the same source also found that more than 25 percent of CafeMom's referrer visits came from MySpace.com, suggesting, says Hitwise, that it appeals to MySpace users as they become parents. This may create an opportunity for marketers to target users with similar ad creative across both networks for a pervasive and consistent campaign.
Another strong competitor in the wired mom space is MothersClick, which since its launch in October of 2006 has differentiated itself with its focus on facilitating real-life connections offline. Along with the ability to create custom profiles and plenty of forums and message boards at which to discuss parenting issues, the site features a geo-mapping system that helps users locate existing mothers' groups for stay-at-home and working moms in their area.
This creates an ideal opportunity for local advertising. Marketers targeting mothers by geographic location can sponsor a local group to connect with consumers on a more personal and relevant level. Given the site's newness, activity is still limited to certain parts of the country, with participation growing through word of mouth and trade press. Those lucky enough to be targeting an area with a larger user base (the site's home base of San Francisco being among them) can start that all-important dialogue with users immediately.
It's important to keep in mind, though, that unlike some other social networks MothersClick wasn't intended to become a business. It was simply started by a mom who couldn't find good parenting advice online. With membership growing (the site currently has about 25,000 members and receives 40,000 unique monthly visitors), founder Andra Davidson's focus has shifted somewhat. Earlier this year the site was relaunched with a more ad-friendly design to accommodate the increasing marketer inquiries. Overall advertising is still sparse, eliminating concerns about clutter among media planners and buyers.
It will take some time for it to build up the kind of traffic strength that warrants a major campaign, but MothersClick is already an appropriate supplement to a broader mom-targeted effort.
These types of social sites have a lot to offer advertisers whose target audience falls outside the realm of tweens and teens. However, their existence also provides a new way for social media marketers to craft their strategies overall. By targeting a cross-section of social sites, marketers can reach consumers at different key stages of their lives. Why should the desire to connect with like-minded people online end with the teen years? Consumers are enamored with social interaction, and the web is the ideal place for it to play out.
John Gray is VP of interactive marketing at Enlighten. .