Chances are your grandparents, aunts and uncles are using email these days to stay in touch with loved ones and buy products and services online. Many even use instant messaging, once the domain of kids and die-hard internet users.
Older adults -- those 55 and up -- are rapidly taking the Internet to heart. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that the percent of older adults who go online jumped by 47 percent between 2000 and 2004. The organization's February 2004 survey indicates that 22 percent of Americans 65 and older have Internet access, up from 15 percent four years ago.
"Wired seniors are often as enthusiastic as younger users in the major activities that define online life such as email and the use of search engines to answer a specific question," says Susannah Fox, director of research for Pew/Internet. "They are as likely as younger users to go online on a typical day. Communication and information searches attract wired seniors and there has been sharp growth in the number doing key Internet activities such as health searches, e-shopping and online banking."
Fox added that about 94 percent of wired older adults have sent or received email, compared to 91 percent of all Internet users.
To reach this lucrative demographic market segment, says Mark Carpenter, general manager of AARP, many companies, non-profits and government entities worldwide increasingly use the Internet to provide information and services to older adults.
"Research conducted by AARP shows that older adults benefit from social connections that are supported or enhanced by Internet technologies," he says. "But there are still barriers -- access to computers and the Internet, prices for computers remain outside the budget of many, and acquiring basic computer skills is a challenge."
Wendy Rogers, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says older adults are more likely to get lost in complex Web sites.
"They often worry about 'breaking' the system, whereas younger people seem more willing to experiment," Rogers says. "This might be the result of seniors' experience with early computer systems, which were more likely to break as a result of user mistakes."
Making the Web more usable and marketable for seniors
Carpenter says that, fortunately, many organizations are addressing these issues. AARP, for instance, recently launched its Older Wiser Wired initiative, which brings together professionals to share ideas that will enable Web sites to serve older adults better. The site has a plethora of information and related links, some of which include:
- A community of practice around usable Web site design for older adults
- Research results and tools
- Online community of peers (discussion board and email newsletter)
"In some cases, challenges can be solved with education and information," Carpenter says. "In others, they may require policy efforts or consumer-oriented calls to manufacturers to speed up their efforts to make technology products less expensive to own and easier to use."
One company that has taken a proactive role in accommodating older adults is Fidelity Investments. Tom Tullis, senior vice president of Human Interface Design, says his company has conducted a number of studies that focus on improving the usability of Web sites for older adults.
"Our studies demonstrated that even when the level of PC/Web experience is controlled, older adults experience more usability issues on the Web than younger adults," Tullis says. "When design modifications were made to accommodate the unique needs of older adults, the modifications improved usability for all users, with equal affect."
To attract older adult customers, Fidelity revamped its sites to ensure that each met the following guidelines:
- Reduce the amount of text on each page.
- Use action-word links that clearly explain what happens when the user clicks the link (the more they understand what will happen when they click, the more likely older users will be to click -- and the faster they will click it).
- Use a medium-sized default font.
- Provide an obvious way for older users to increase text size, like a visible button.
- Use a scalable font that enables users to increase/decrease text size using the browser functions (View>Text Size>Larger).
- Use an obvious and consistent method of displaying text links, like blue underlining with red on mouse over.
- Use image-based links that provide a larger target area for the user to click.
- Increase redundancy in links (making text and bullet links) to increase the chances that older users will successfully reach their target.
- Don't use Web or other technology-related terms without defining them. Some of these terms include Back (or go Back), link (click the link), URL, menu bar, toolbar, IM, minimize, Login and home.
As people age, Tullis says, they have an increased likelihood of disabilities, including visual (myopia, cataracts, etc.), fine motor (tremors in hands), muscular/skeletal (bone disease like arthritis), and cognitive (short-term memory decreases). He says Fidelity Investments periodically reviews the Worldwide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which provides recommendations for supporting technologies and designing for users with disabilities.
So what other kinds of Web sites are older Americans visiting? According to Rogers, Web-based support communities, travel agents and genealogical societies are three of the most popular cyber-destinations.
"Great potential also exists for Web applications such as online drugstores that mail prescriptions to your door," Rogers says. "Electronic means of support such as these may help older adults live more independently."
Strategies the work with seniors
Scores of Web sites cater specifically to older adults. Some of the most popular and successful are:
ThirdAge is an online media and direct marketing company that targets older adults. The company has 1.5 million registered users. The site provides content, products, services and community forums. It features chat rooms, various newsletters, free classes and more. The company has also inked deals with a number of advertisers to draw traffic to the site. Viewers, for example, get 15 percent off at 1-800-Flowers.com. A link to SeniorDiscounts.com provides members with a comprehensive list of 120,000 discounted services and products nationwide, from airline tickets to golf to health benefits and prescription discounts.
SeniorJournal.com claims to be the leading provider of news for older adults on the Internet -- more than 60,000 visitors each month. Its key strengths are health and lifestyle news for older adults.
"We absolutely dominate the news and information field for senior citizens (and baby boomers). There is no Web site or even print publication that carries nearly as much daily news for seniors," says Tucker Sutherland, SeniorJournal.com's publisher. "We thrive because we have a product that meets the needs of our readers without unnecessary distractions."
Advertisers have ranged from online gaming companies like GamePipe.com to All One Nutritech, a vitamin supplement company. These companies hope to reach SeniorJournal.com's customer base via front-page banners, text links, section page text links, news story text links and more.
Senior Circle is a national non-profit organization with 44,000 members and 73 chapters nationwide, each affiliated with a local hospital. Members pay $15.00 a year and receive numerous benefits. A discounted national travel program offers tours worldwide and includes accommodations, sightseeing, several meals and a tour guide. A pharmacy discount card from ScriptSave offers savings up to 50 percent depending on the medication, dosage and participating pharmacy. Senior Circle says its members have saved more than $832,000 since the program was launched in August 2001. An eye care plan provides discounts up to 50 percent off retail prices of eye care and eyewear. The company also has an agreement with National Car Rental that offers older adults discount coupons.
Boston-based Seniorlink has more than 1,200 network affiliates nationwide and is a provider of eldercare solutions for older adults, employers and family caregivers. The network is comprised of professionals in a variety of health-related disciplines. The company has formed a wide variety of partnerships with financial service, employee assistance and health insurance companies such as Anthem, BlueCross/BlueShield, John Hancock and Health New England.
These partnerships have helped increase membership and revenues. One agreement with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts (BCBSMA) provides 2.4 million BCBSMA members and families with discounted access to services, some of which include Seniorlink referral services, free enrollment and a free three-month trial of a personal emergency response service, and discounts on Seniorlink's care management services such as in-home geriatric assessments and individualized care planning.
More and more older adults are becoming attached to the online world. Companies are realizing that if they fulfill the digital needs and requirements of this lucrative customer base, the proverbial sky's the limit.
"Given the convergence of the trends of information technology and global aging, these efforts are well worth pursuing," says Carpenter. "Information technology holds considerable promise for addressing challenges in health care, independent living and caregiving, to name just a few. Waiting 10 or 20 years until the older adult population is more computer savvy is not an option."
Neal Leavitt is president of Fallbrook, CA-based Leavitt Communications, an international marketing communications company with affiliates in Paris, France; Hamburg, Germany; Hong Kong; London, United Kingdom; Bangalore, India; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. He writes frequently on Internet and high technology topics.