The over-50s get Social Media. So why doesn't social content get us?

Our wealthy ageing population is using social media more than ever before. If your brand doesn’t have a social content strategy for the over-50s, it’s time to re-think, says Mark Beasley, marketing consultant and Chairman of the Mature Marketing Association


Social media has a real problem with older people. Like a surly teenager, it doesn’t want to be seen with them, even though they pay most of the bills.  Just when life couldn’t get any hipper, along comes your audience in its unfashionable leisure clothing, gate-crashing the party, talking to your friends and trying to dance to your music.  What’s more, they’re not going anywhere, so social media is going to have to start talking to them, in a way that they understand, about things they’re interested in.

Older people are now more active on social media than ever before.  All the growth in social media is driven by older people, while numbers remain static amongst younger people, some of whom are even undergoing ‘digital detoxes’. According to Ofcom, 64% of all adults aged 45-54 and 51% aged 55-64 now use social media. This compares with 64% of all adults and 99% of 16-24 year olds.  The biggest change can be seen in people aged 65-plus, where usage has increased to 35%, from just 2% in 2010, according to PEW2.  However, we have found that social content seems to either ignore or patronise this increasingly important group.

A large, growing and wealthy group

Older people may be late arrivals at the social media party, but they’re here to stay. What’s more, the size of this audience will continue to increase exponentially. Not only will social media use continue to increase amongst older people, as the more digitally savvy get older, but there will also be more older people. People aged over 50 already account for 35% of the total population and 45% of the adult population. And over the next 20 years, the number of people over 65 will increase by 50%. Social media is fast becoming mainstream and it’s time for social content to reflect that.

The icing on the cake is that older consumers have most of the wealth – more than 70%, according to the ONS – and account for more than 40% of consumer expenditure. In fact, adults aged 55-64 outspend the average consumer in most mainstream product categories. More older people, using social media more, with money to spend - it just keeps getting better.

Social content has societal benefits

Best of all, it turns out that what’s good for social marketers is also good for the consumer. Social media is proven to have real benefits for older people, especially those aged over 65, by increasing social participation and addressing issues of loneliness and isolation. Studies have found that the use of social media improves cognitive capacity, increases feelings of self-competence and has a beneficial effect upon mental health and physical well-being. As Professor Thomas Morton, of Exeter University, who led the large-scale European ‘Ages 2.0’ project3, said: “Human beings are social animals, and it’s no surprise that we tend to do better when we have the capacity to connect with others. But what can be surprising is just how important social connections are to cognitive and physical health.”

Challenges faced by social marketers

No-one said it was going to be easy. One of the biggest challenges faced by social marketers is the age gap between those who produce social content and those older people who consume it. On the one hand, people in their 20s and 30s – the age of most people working in social media - are likely to hold incorrect assumptions about older people, often involving negative perceptions, caricatures and stereotypes. They may well live in a world where the young and the cool predominate. On the other hand, what it means to be old is changing fast, as we live longer and continue to be active consumers into our 80s and beyond.

It is also important to understand how older people consume social content.  Social media just isn’t as important to older people, who use it less often than younger people and for very specific purposes, especially social contact with family and friends and pursuing interests and hobbies.  Compared with younger people, social media is less likely to be seen as a place to just hang out, to ‘curate’ an idealised version of oneself, or to enjoy video and music clips. Instead, it is seen as a practical resource, a means to an end. This suggests that for older people, social content needs to be relevant, not just an amusing way of passing time.  Generally, the over 50s are fairly conservative and tend to stick to what they know, which for more than 90% means using only Facebook. This means that static content is more likely to be viewed, while links to other websites will be avoided.

And finally, and frustratingly, all older people are not the same. In fact, we get more diverse as we age. So, the convenience of being able to use jovial, active, healthy and wealthy silver- haired grandparents as a cipher for all older people is not matched by the more complex reality.  Never has the need to know your audience been more important. For example, many wealthier ‘baby boomers’ in their 50s and 60s are extremely savvy – about technology and the world generally. This group is unlikely to be receptive to any content that patronises them or suggests that they are in any way ‘old’ or out of touch. On the other hand, many older consumers – especially those over 65 – are likely to be relatively new to computers, the internet and social media. Such ‘narrow’ users, as Ofcom terms them, lack confidence and knowledge and need to be addressed with care, to avoid misleading or confusing them.

Five ways to improve social content for the over 50s

While there is no substitute for a strategy, here are five ways to improve social content for older people.

  1. Be more inclusive.  For many mainstream brands, older people are part of a larger audience, yet often feel excluded. For example, why use age-specific images of people implying that only the young and glamorous need apply?  Instead, create content which is more inclusive and less age-focused (whether old or young). The problems faced by consumers and the benefits promised by brands are usually the same, irrespective of age.  
  2. Tell a good story and tell it well. Older people have high standards and an intense dislike of bad communication. They want facts, information and logic and they expect well-written and well-structured English. Above all, they want to make up their own minds, based on the evidence.  
  3. Appeal to the right sort of emotion. Research by Dr Karen Nelson-Field4 has shown that videos featured on social media are much more likely to be shared if they draw a ‘high arousal, positive reaction’. For older people, emotions are most likely to be aroused through reference to universal values, not sensationalism or ‘clickbait’. The most popular types of Facebook post for the over 50s, according to over-50s specialist, Silversurfers, are nostalgia, human interest and humour.
  4. Speak their language, not yours. Avoid techy speak – no-one over the age of 12 is likely to care if it is World Emoji Day, as one over-50s brand recently told us. Focus on the message, not the medium, avoiding slang and jargon.  And please, avoid speaking as though shouting out to a bar full of 20-somethings, when your brand and therefore your social content is (or should be) focused on 60-somethings. Here’s how not to do it, as demonstrated by recent social media utterances from a well-known stairlift brand: ‘Check out our latest ad! What do you guys think of it?’, ‘Who’s ready for the weekend? Kick back and relax – or put your party shoes on’. To add insult to injury, the latter irrelevance is accompanied by a photograph of a confused looking old man failing to operate a set of DJ decks. Haven’t these people heard of Tony Blackburn or Bob Harris?
  5. And above all, don’t patronise your audience. Older people are likely to be experienced and discerning consumers, who have been there, done that and may well still be wearing the Tshirt. Avoid stating the obvious, as these recent social media utterances from over-50’s ‘specialists’ have done:
  • ‘Rome has so many attractions and sights that it would take a full guidebook to cover them all.’
  • ‘Who has a family trip planned this summer? It’s the perfect opportunity to catch up with loved ones.’
  • 'Now that it’s summer, why not treat yourself to a walk in the sun.’

So that’s the over-50s for you. A large and diverse group,  many of whom have heard of Rome, are aware of the purpose of family trips, and need no prompting to go for a walk. Too important to most mainstream brands to ignore,  increasingly heavy consumers of social content and way too savvy to patronise.  If your brand doesn’t have a social content strategy for the over-50s, isn’t it time you did?

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