Marketing to Seniors: A critical strategy for business

5 minute read

In the next 20 years
more than 75 million more Americans will turn 60, according to the U.S. Census
Bureau.

That’s a huge
potential market that small businesses can’t afford to ignore. And that market
doesn’t consist solely of penny-pinching pensioners. Barry Robertson, CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based Boomers
for Boomers, noted that the U.S. over 50 population reached 108 million in
2014, a segment that controls 85% of the country’s wealth. Almost 89 million of
those were born between 1940 and 1964 and would comprise the 15th largest
nation on earth.

Robertson said that
despite their dominant spending power, big U.S. corporations often give short shrift to seniors
when marketing their products, a mistake he cautions small businesses to avoid.

He said seniors have to be aware of a small business
and understand what that business does well before they will switch or develop
new customer loyalties.

“What’s the store
like? Is the décor aimed at attracting millennials or younger crowds? I was
setting up a T-mobile account—because they love small businesses and offer
affordable call rates—-but if you go to one of their stores, their
environment is very much aimed at millennials,” said Robertson, a native
Englishman and former advertising executive serving automobile manufacturer
clients. He’s spent decades researching the Boomer market and suggested small
businesses should consult with advertising agencies or professionals about how
to shape their message.

Robertson advised
small businesses trying to lure senior customers not to ignore social media.
While seniors aren’t the earliest adaptors, they have come to embrace
technology and many employ social media to stay in touch, read up on topics of
interest and shop and peruse websites.

Fastest growing users of social media

He said seniors are
now the fastest growing users of social media, with 40 million people over 65
using Facebook, Twitter and Skype, according to the Pew Research Center’s
Internet and American Life Project. He
said they have e mail accounts, perform Google searches and watch videos on
YouTube.

“Small businesses need
an online presence. Aging doesn’t mean we’re dumb about technology, though
we’re not as early adopters as younger generations. When we arrive, it’s in
droves, millions of us. Online is an important aspect. Delivery is important,
too,” he said.

He recommended staying
away from the age stereotypes.

“Just don’t treat us
like geezer,” he cautioned. “We think of ourselves as being 10 to 15 years
younger than we actually are. We don’t want to see ourselves as 20-year-olds, but more like 40 to 50 year-olds. Treat us
the same as younger customers.”

He said it’s
different when businesses are trying to connect the generations preceding the
Boomers, who sometimes need help and use walkers and wheelchairs.

“But Boomers don’t see themselves there yet.”

Listen to the music

Robertson said there
is at least one marketing tip that small businesses can borrow from their large
corporate counterparts and affordably apply to reaching Baby Boomers.

“Popular music from
the late 1970s and 1980s connects at a subliminal level to make Boomers feel
welcome in the setting,” said Robertson, while exempting punk, heavy metal or
raunchy tunes from that era. He advised
playing music subscription services like Pandora or Spotify in the background.

“Adult upbeat and
romantic music connects us to a more settled stage in our lives. Our
freakier, wild times are behind us – no more sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll . But after
the kids are put to bed we’re still taking care of business.”

Ann Arnof Fishman, president of Generational Targeted
Marketing, a firm that advises businesses on marketing to seniors, said Baby
Boomers respond best to customer-pleasing service.

“They don’t want to
hear how the owner or sales person feels today.
It’s all about the customer What are you looking for? What can I do to
help you?” Fishman cited as examples. “If I were a small business owner, I’d
have as my tagline ‘We care about you’.”

She advised
maintaining customer purchase records and remembering their preferences.

“Treat them special. It’s
all about your desire to please them. Tell us what you need and see if my
company can help. Match your company’s
ability to the needs of your customers.
Ask the best way to get in touch with them about sales and special items
and then follow up with that preferred way of contact.”

She said many Baby
Boomers never left the ‘60s or ‘70s and appreciate a business that recognizes
that in its décor, music and ambience.

“Make sure to give
personal service and make ‘em feel the love,” she said. “Don’t hit them in the
head with it, but make them feel comfortable.”

She said Baby Boomers
in particular respond well to recommendations from their peers, so positive
reviews from Zagut, Trip Advisor and other referral sites play well to them.

She said the
generation preceding the Boomers, which she calls “The Silents” (born in the
1930s and early 1940s), have disposable
income and usually come to buy.

“They like to know
you’re the number one store in town and seek out the advice of experts and a
Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, while Boomers want to know that their
friends like you. The Silents have money
and will spend extra and like the Boomers, they like to help people. They were raised by Depression era
parents and want to feel good about the
money they spend. If your store donates to a worthy charity and their purchases
help support that, it takes away a little of the guilt of spending.”

She said Boomers
generally like to be left alone while they shop while Silents often prefer
having someone follow them to answer their questions. Both demand good customer
service, though.

She said while
Boomers also appreciate familiarity, Silents are a little more reserved. “Don’t
call people of a certain age by their first name unless they’ve given you
permission,” she said. “But they do like being recognized and remembered.”

She said Baby Boomers
have formed strong relationships with their grandchildren, which she said
presents a real marketing opportunity for small businesses.

“For example, businesses
selling seniors on giving a grandson a new set of care tires should emphasize
the products’ ability ‘to keep him safe on the road.’ Never forget you’re not just selling to a
person here, but to a person with grandchildren. That’s a leitmotif that runs
through both generations,” said Fishman. “It’s important to understand the differences
between the generations and apply those lessons to your business strategies in
reaching and serving them,” Fishman said. “It’s about understanding the values
and attitudes of the people you’re trying to reach.”

Seniors disproportionately wealthy

Subir
Bandyopadhyay, a professor of marketing
at the Indiana University Northwest School of Business
& Economics who consults for small businesses, said seniors own a
disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth.

Bandyopadhyay said
cultivating a senior clientele pays dividends for small business owners.

“They tend to be very
loyal customers and patronize businesses that respect them and cater to their
needs,” he said. “While it may not always cost the business a great deal,
seniors appreciate that extra added service. If you own a small grocery store,
consider offering deliveries. A little extra service goes a long way. Most
seniors don’t mind paying a little more for the added convenience. And those
little extras, many of which are intangible things, can differentiate your
business from others and build customer loyalty.”

Banyopadhyay cited
several examples, describing a diner that routinely offered in the afternoon a
corner section of his restaurant to seniors, who play chess, checkers and card
games while eating lunch and visiting friends.

“The owner set aside
a regular space for them and encouraged them to socialize and that made them
feel at home,” he said. “They feel like it’s their place. And they have become
his most loyal customers.”

Bandyopadhyay also
noted a local McDonald’s franchise that offers live music on Tuesday
afternoons. He said local seniors make a regular point of eating there that day
and visiting with friends. “It’s their kind of music and they feel at home
there and continue to come the rest of the week,” he said.

He advised small businesses
to listen to their older customers and offer them something special.

“Let it happen
organically. Create that environment and opportunity and they will come and
tell their friends and the business owners will have a loyal clientele base,”
he said.