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Here Come the Aging Boomers

Debra Aho Williamson
Here Come the Aging Boomers Debra Aho Williamson

The first baby boomers will turn 60 next year. This heralds a huge change in the U.S. population over the next 20 years, and a similar change in the internet population as well.

In 2005, there will be an estimated 50.4 million people ages 50 to 64 in the U.S., and another 36.7 million people 65 and older, according to projections from the US Census Bureau. By 2025, people 65 and older will make up 18.2 percent of the U.S. population, according to projections from the US Census Bureau, up from 12.4 percent this year. In raw numbers, that means that in 2025 there will be an estimated 63.5 million seniors in the US, 73 percent more than today.


There are powerful differences in internet usage between boomers and the current senior population. eMarketer estimates that there are 33.2 million people online in the U.S. between the ages of 50 and 64, many of whom are boomers. That’s triple the number of 65-plus online users.

The explanation for the stark difference in internet usage among older Americans and seniors is at once both simple and complex. The simple part is the mere fact of having access. The internet isn’t easily accessible for many seniors, many of whom retired before internet access became commonplace in the workplace and have no computer in their home. But for those ages 50 to 64, particularly the youngest members of this group, the internet is much more ingrained in their lives. They use it at work; they use it at home.

The contrast in computer and online usage among those 50 to 64 and those 65 and older is evident in a study by Kaiser Family Foundation in 2004.

If the simple reason for the difference in internet usage between the two groups is in having access, the more complex reason lies in the differences in psyche between boomers and the generation before them. While it’s difficult to generalize an entire generation, boomers are often thought of as more adventurous and willing to explore new territory. Using the internet is an extension of that quest.

Seniors are from a different era. For many of them, the desire to go online simply isn’t there. Baby boomers, by contrast, see it as something exciting and new. Tomorrow’s seniors will be a very different group of internet users than today’s.

Boomers are broadband fans

Seniors are one of the last strongholds of the dial-up access business. Boomers, on the other hand, are quickly becoming converts to high-speed access. This has great bearing on internet usage, because it implies greater frequency of use and greater likelihood to use rich media such as audio or video.

In the month of November 2004, broadband users spent an average of 22 hours online, versus 17.75 hours for dial-up users, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Among people who had used audio or video online in the past month, 65 percent had broadband at home, according to an Arbitron/Edison Media Research 2005 study. Broadband users are also more likely to spend more online, an average of 34 percent more than dial-up users, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.

Kaiser found in its 2004 survey that just 28 percent of adults 65 and older used a high-speed internet connection at home, versus 44 percent of those 50 to 64.

Boomers are more broadly engaged online

Research by Pew Internet & American Life Project has shown that seniors, once they go online, are often just as enthusiastic about the internet as younger generations, particularly in the areas of email and getting news online.

However, people in the 50 to 64 age group are much more engaged with the internet overall. They are more likely to pursue a broader range of activities, and they are more willing to experiment with newer online pursuits such as blogs. In many respects, they are more like younger age groups than like seniors.

Some of the differences in usage can be attributed to differing life stages. Retired people 65 and older have less interest in things like looking for information about a job or doing research for school or training. But shopping and managing finances are activities important to both age groups, yet there is a greater propensity for the younger group to do these things online.

Girding for change

Just as boomers changed other industries earlier in their lives, they will force change upon companies that do business on the internet as well. Financial services, health care and real estate are just a few of the categories that will undergo massive change as boomers demand online access to information.

For companies in these sectors, planning for boomer retirement isn’t new. What’s not as clear is whether the companies have a solid internet strategy to meet the demanding needs of aging boomers. Any company operating under the assumption that tomorrow’s seniors will be as internet-shy as today’s will be left behind.
This article is drawn from a new eMarketer report, “Seniors Online: How Aging Boomers Will Shake Up the Market,” by Debra Aho Williamson.  Ms. Williamson is a senior analyst for eMarketer.
eMarketer aggregates, filters, organizes and analyzes data from more than 1,700 research firms, consultancies and government agencies around the globe.

Consumers are branded faster on mobiles than any other device

The length of time between a brand message being received on a mobile device and being acted upon by the consumer is recognizably shorter than that same brand message being received on other personal communication devices.

Psycho-cognitive and psycho-emotive factors are more strongly in play when individuals have a device in their hands -- literally -- than when they're sitting at it or controlling it via remote from across a room. The psycho-haptic ("what I can touch is real") immediacy of the interaction gives it far greater psychological meaning and power than being branded on any other device.

Consumers' responses to mobile brand messages are polarized with no middle ground

Consumers will respond with a yes or no with no middle ground (polarized emotional responses) to a brand message received on a mobile device more often than on other personal communication devices.

This polarized response is again due to the immediacy of the interaction. Your brand message has intruded or asked for the consumer's attention. It has to deliver immediately. Take too long, and you're a nuisance regardless of the ultimate benefit. All your competitors are promising ultimate benefits, too. In the end, the question is speed of delivery, not content delivered.

Consumers believe a mobile brand message is more reliable/trustworthy than a branded message on other devices

Consumers believe brand messages are more trustworthy when received on mobile devices than on other personal communication devices because mobile users self-identify with their mobile device. They are "vested" in them ("skins" are an affect of this). This vesting translates into trust because people need to trust themselves, and whatever someone self-identified with must also be trusted. 

Consumers are more likely to respond positively to a mobile brand message than branding messages on other devices

Consumers responded positively to brand messages on mobile devices more often than they did to similar brand messages delivered on other personal communication devices. The tendency to brand positive is an aftereffect of polarization and vesting.

Branded content that would elicit neutral responses on any other platform leaned positive because the content is on my mobile (hence trusted and vested), therefore the content must be useful, and I don't know it yet.

But don't push it. Too many neutral-to-positive leanings, and brand betrayal sneaks in. The nuisance factor takes control, and you've lost your mobile audience.

Mobile specific sites offer poor user experiences

The majority of mobile owners don't visit mobile sites unless they have to. You may have great mobile traffic numbers and check them carefully against hard money outcomes. In the U.S. and Canada, well over 90 percent of responses could be summed up by one NYC based attorney's: "Mobile sites? I visit sites, I prefer the non-mobile versions. The mobile versions seem to offer limited or harder to disseminate content."

Mobile users set their mobile browsers to download desktop sites if they needed to get something done.

Mobile sites require ternary logic designs to direct users toward outcomes

Most people are familiar with binary logic -- yes/no, up/down, on/off, 1/0. Binary logic trees are simple to design and intuitive to use because they offer a simple to understand pattern. This becomes the traditional menu system of "Click here, get this information/page." It works wonderfully for large systems (desktops and such), but not at all for small systems (mobiles and tablets).

The reasons are purely psychological. More correctly, the reasons are purely psycho-haptic.

Placing increasing power into people's hands implies increased responsibilities. Nobody's worried about launching missiles from their mobile, and the increased focus and attention required to use mobile interfaces translates into a psycho-haptic need to navigate a middle ground.

This is where ternary logic -- -1, 0, +1 -- comes in. Provide users with a middle ground in the decision tree, and they'll take it almost every time. Just make sure the middle option is the option you want them to take. Survey designers have known about this quirk for years and are only now using its power in mobile interface design.

Mobile menu systems must be iconographic to communicate purpose and goal as rapidly as possible

Users are becoming increasingly aware that mobile devices are also time-sinks and that their best multi-tasking abilities aren't up to mobile-in-the-environment exchanges. The resulting requirement is that objectives (what do I get if I do this?) be as efficiently communicated as possible. The evolution of all language systems is to communicate the greatest amount of information in the least possible time (hence the rise of jargon and cultural idiom).

Mobile interface "jargon and cultural idiom" become an obvious visual-to-objective menu system so that users know before acting that this option is the correct option for what they want to do.

Misunderstood icons mean lost time and wasted movements. The level of frustration demonstrated by pressing an incorrect icon was far greater than the frustration of having to go back a link in a desktop browser, again due to the concept of my device betraying me (not doing what I wanted). But my device can't betray me because it's part of my identity. Therefore you, the brand, betrayed me. Not good.

In a world where having information seconds before someone else does, the obvious clicks -- positive and negative, desired and undesired outcomes -- will always sell the brand and device.

The best mobile interfaces cause a rebranding every time the user has the mobile devices in their hands regardless of whether the user is visiting branded content

Mobile users keep physical contact with their mobiles for long periods of times, far longer than any other device, save medieval weaponry. What medieval weaponry and mobiles have in common is ego-identification (are you an iPhone person, an Android, ...?). People used to believe their weapons had power of their own, and the psych profiles of habitual mobile users show similar attitudes toward their mobile devices.

Mobile users who had a positive branding experience will relive or "savor" that experience to some degree just by carrying their mobile devices in their hands. They won't necessarily be aware of it, but that mobile branding will be burying itself deep in their non-conscious minds.

Remember what we explained above, however: A negative experience will be directly attributed to the brand, not the device. That negative experience will be carried in their hands and will be distinctly remembered as the brand's failure, not the mobile users', which is another big ouch.

Users who are negative to a brand can be redeemed via improved mobile experiences

Consumers who have negative, non-mobile branding experiences can be brought back into the brand family via good mobile experiences.

Consumers may have a strong negative emotional relationship to a given brand, based on non-mobile interactions, and they are more willing to become completely positive rather than completely negative about a brand if they have a rewarding mobile branding experience.

Simpler interfaces with easier to identify targets and rewards will dominate future mobile properties

Easily identifiable targets and rewards demonstrate polarity values -- good/bad, yes/no, success/failure). This is currently seen in available mobile games' lowest difficulty play levels.

These low-difficulty levels provide training and hooks for consumers; the easy wins are encouragement to buy more advanced games with higher difficulty levels.

Brands need to make use of mobile gaming user psychology studies when designing apps and sites.

Think "microsites"

Businesses must determine the spending potential of their mobile audience sector and let that determine the sophistication of their mobile property spend. The best mobile properties will resemble microsites -- single purpose and visitors either converted or moved on. In either case, the consumer's time-cost is minimal.

Create branded apps with social factors rather than mobile sites

Mobile users hand their device to others to demonstrate and validate a fact or datum. Imagine doing that with your desktop.

This "let me show you" behavior gives branded mobile users greater social influencer value due to the immediacy of sharing mobile-based results. The response and reaction times to shared mobile content averaged 75 percent less than similar content shared via other platforms.

This greater social influencer value also carried into offline social settings. The trusted mobile user is trusted in person, regardless of having their mobile devices in their hands, far more easily (with some exceptions) than a person who shared through other media.

Branded apps, with social factors, cause branding decisions to be made at the fastest cognitive-decision speeds.

But beware; increase in social cognition comes at a savorability price. Anticipation is a far stronger driver than having in many age groups. Once something is obtained it's essentially ticked-off the mental "must have" checklist and out of mind and experience.

The good side to this is that mobile branded networks, perhaps an extension of social shopping, could create stronger and more active branded communities offline.


NextStage expanded its mobile research and studied mobile drivers and patterns in more than 100 countries, and the results are an alert to online anthropologists; the device is driving the experience regardless of culture, language, and ethnic boundaries. What works here truly does work there.

In all countries, best mobile marketing practices come down to psycho- and neuro-economic attention cost considerations. Want your brand to be loved on the mobile marketplace? Be prepared to meet users' attention costs with highly functional, objective oriented interfaces.

Joesph Carrabis is the founder and chief research officer for NextStage Evolution.

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"Blond happy girl with her Chihuahua doggy" image via Shutterstock.



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