Baby boomer couple in love and on holiday
Marketing Content Strategy

Generational Marketing Segmentation Is Broken: Have We Forgotten Baby Boomers in Our Race to Lure Millennials?

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Everywhere we turn today, marketers are clamoring for millennials. Every piece of advice, every “how-to” article, every case study, every conference features marketing segmentation and the much-feared younger generation, with experts showing how they’ve reached—and kept—that all-important millennial audience.

But millennials are struggling to get on the property ladder. They have large student debts to pay off. They’re working hard to make their own mark. They don’t have the disposable income of their parents’ generation. And who spends money on millennials? That’s right: their parents and grandparents, otherwise known as the baby boomers, those over 50 but under 70, who came of age in the 1960s and 70s.

Over in the UK, the over-50 market has a whopping £173 billion in collective spending power. Stateside, it’s even more—studies show the baby boomer generation controls about 70 percent of all disposable income in the US, and as their parents pass on, studies predict that baby boomers will inherit about $13 trillion to enjoy during their retirement or pass on to their children. That’s trillion. With a T.

Speaking of trillions, US baby boomers spend $3.2 trillion every year—that’s greater than the total GDP of countries like Italy, Russia, the UK, Brazil, and France. Yet only 10 percent of marketing budgets are used to reach this affluent generation, the one with all the time and money in the world. Why are we not marketing to baby boomers more?

79 Percent of Baby Boomers Feel Patronized by Advertisers

Maybe because it seems we are really, really bad at it. Recent research by Gransnet found that this lucrative market feels ignored, patronized, and maligned by brands. A survey of more than 1000 Gransnet and Mumsnet users over 50 found that only 12 percent believe agencies creating ads really understand the 50+ age group; 85 percent believe that ads aimed at older people rely on stereotypes; and 79 percent say their age group is patronized by advertisers. That’s just one consumer out of five who doesn’t immediately turn away from marketing messages.

Elsewhere in the enlightening Gransnet survey:

  • 63 percent say that brands don’t realize that 50 is not “old.”
  • 61 percent don’t like the fact that ads assume that older people are a homogeneous group, simply targeting “older people” rather than individuals.
  • 55 percent hate words like “older,” “silver,” “mature,” and “senior.”

Helen Mirren

Image attribution: Gage Skidmore

Baby boomers don’t want to hear about stair lifts and gardening; they want to hear about adventures and great food and all the holidays they should be going on. The most common way advertisers get it wrong, the survey says, is they don’t realize 50 is not “old”; respondents named brands like L’Oréal (“anything with Helen Mirren”) and Marks & Spencer as front runners.

Gransnet editor Lara Crisp says: “What our users have made clear is that age should not be brought into the equation when it comes to marketing. They value peer-to-peer recommendations most highly, which makes sense as there’s no hard sell. Advertisers need to take more care not to patronize this demographic, and should focus on producing ads that don’t rely on outdated stereotypes of older people.”

Is Generational Marketing Over?

So is marketing segmentation by generation a broken strategy? For that, your correspondent turns to that most boomery of baby boomers: her mum.

“I’m not one of those 64-year-olds who have given up and just want to potter down to the pub and the bingo; I couldn’t think of anything worse. And I’m not interested in death insurance, life insurance, or any other insurance,” says Mary McMenemy, Scotland-born, Australia-dwelling, currently visiting her daughter in London, UK. Mary feels a lot of advertisers these days try too hard to be clever, that a lot of marketing is getting too abstract. She deletes online ads. She denies cookie consent. She deletes email newsletters—her friend, she says, has 2,500 unread emails on her phone because “she knows they’re ads.” If she wants something, “I’ll go out and find it myself.”

Older man with beard giving thumbs down sign

Image attribution: Daniel Páscoa

So what would she say to people who are looking to . . . Mary interrupts: “Bugger off and leave me alone!” she laughs. “Everyone thinks that, though. The advertisers get you in too many different mediums, people have actually become anti-ads; they’re just not interested at all. They’re more of a nuisance than an interest.”

And if she had a choice to use an ad blocker on her smartphone? “I would do it. I’d do it in a minute. And when these call centers call me up, if it’s not a private number then I go in and block the caller so I don’t get them again.”

Baby boomers are the Woodstock generation; they signaled early on they wouldn’t be limited by their parents’ morals and lifestyle, says Steve Olenski. “They would think and act for themselves—and they still want to be thought of that way. The least hint of patronizing the baby boomers will flatten any marketing campaign, just as Wile E. Coyote was flattened by the Road Runner.”

Baby Boomers Are Affluent and Engaged

When marketing to baby boomers, remember that they have both the time and money to spend on comfort, amenities, entertainment, and recreation. Half of people aged 50 to 64 in the US are on social media, likely on more traditional and well-established platforms such as Facebook (though there is an increasing number on so-called “younger” platforms; see UK influencer Grandmother Pukka, the “instagran of Instagram”). As Neil Patel writes: “Social media marketing is all about engagement. The data shows us that baby boomers are an incredibly likely source of such engagement.”

Patel continues: “Boomers can be sexy; they’re not as old as you think; they’re not that set in their ways; and they’re incredibly tech savvy. Why bother marketing to baby boomers? Because the baby-boom generation is probably the hottest age-defined marketing segment you can tap into.

“Don’t fall into the trap of appealing only to millennials with every message. Baby boomers make up a population that nearly equals the millennials, and they are more active on social media and mobile applications than ever. Don’t underestimate this generation. There are very few products or services a baby boomer wouldn’t be interested in.”

In general, baby boomers are optimistic, secure, and not done spending. Their top online activities are using search engines, email, and shopping for products or services. As Pamela Lockard writes for research firm DMN3: “Search dramatically outperforms social media and viewing online videos in getting boomers to take actions, including making a purchase. Using search engines to reach boomers takes a number of forms. The simplest is PPC advertising. Effective search engine marketing also involves Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and content (inbound) marketing. There is no substitute for providing content that meets boomers’ need for information in an interesting, relevant and timely way.”

Image attribution: Matthew Smith

Content Marketing and Storytelling Get the Segment

Yes, some marketing to baby boomers does work, and you’ll be glad to hear it’s based in content. Writes Karina Tama-Rutigliano of Caring People Inc. in Forbes: “About 60% of baby boomers spend time reading blogs and online articles as a source of information and intrigue, and about 70% enjoy watching videos about products and services. If you’re looking to market via social media platforms, you’ll find an active audience of baby boomers on Facebook, where they’re happy to post news and photos of their grandchildren and latest vacations.”

Let’s go back to Mary, whose late husband worked in advertising; she says there is one email she reads religiously, and it’s from a travel company she stumbled across online: “I get a blog once a month from this man called Colin, and it’s a whole article about the company’s latest travels. It’s not click here and find out how much it costs. It’s just an information piece about what they do. It’s a story that is interesting and well written.”

The other thing Mary would like? Person-to-person contact—and not through chat bots. She wants to call up and talk to an actual person, not an automated machine. But only once she’s done her research online.

“I don’t think generational targeting and marketing segmentation works, because at my age what I get is health comparisons, insurance comparisons, funeral arrangements, retirement villages. Excuse me? I’m 64 and I don’t have health issues—touch wood—and the majority of people have all their insurances tied up for years and years before they even retire, so I don’t want to hear all this crap. And also I don’t want to go into a box at a retirement home—what makes them think everyone wants to do that? I want to make the most of all my free time. I’ll do it when I’m ready to do it.”

So a brand that provides great customer service, high quality products and integrates digital with offline will go far in attracting the segment—as long as you don’t patronize. And remember to pull this audience in, not to push to it. No hard sells, and no “silver” foxes, please.

Let mum have the last word on marketing to baby boomers: “Just don’t lump everyone in the same box, regardless of age or gender. You can get 30-year-olds who are health freaks, you get younger people who want to be more informed about their finances. Why lump us into generic age groups? I know it’s necessary to drill down on demographics and marketing segmentation and who you’re targeting, but I don’t think it’s working anymore. Something new has to come along, and it’s not online.”

She pauses, thinks. “Actually,” Mary says, “a Saint Bernard with a little barrel around his neck and a note addressed to me would be really good—it would certainly get my attention.” Marketers of the future, take note: It’s all about dogs.

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Featured image attribution: Toa Heftiba

Lauren is a storyteller. A journalist by trade, she has worked in agencies, in-house and in the media over her 20-year career. She's worked as an editorial strategist and content creator for some of the world's biggest brands, setting up processes and guidelines, advising on planning, auditing content, building loyal audiences, leading social campaigns, writing blogs and flyers and presentations - pretty much handling the stuff with words. She was born in Australia, has resided in London for the last decade, and writes fiction on the side. You’ll often find her grinning like a fool at a rock concert.

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