The Internet haves and have-nots. Pew Research produced an intriguing summary in April, Digital Differences, a long-term comparison report of changes in Internet use between the years 2000 and 2011. In June 2000, only 12 percent of the 65+ population (aka seniors) were online – and today, 41% are. And just in time for US government agencies switchover to online requirements: the other 59% will need a backup plan. According to a new Washington lobbying group, paper versions of tax forms, savings bonds, annual social security statements and social security checks (switching to direct deposit) will soon be just a memory. So it is important to have accurate data about who has online access and who doesn't -- particularly within a vulnerable population of older adults.
What’s changed – perceived danger has faded, but actual risk has grown. In 2000, only 47% of all adults were online – today 78% are. In 2001, only 4% had broadband, today 62% do -- but only 30% of seniors. In those long-ago days, non-users of the Internet, especially seniors, thought the Internet was a dangerous place to be. Doesn’t that strike you as quaint today, because as we all know, today’s Internet, if you’re not careful, really IS a dangerous place: online fraud schemes, password and identity theft and rampant viruses, and now there's even phony grandchild Facebook fraud (!). Last year DC-based year Project GOAL (Get Older Adults Online) produced a brochure of safety tips which -- along with vendor and OS-specific guides for Windows PC and MACs -- should be distributed in every tech and phone store.
Breaking down specifics on the 41% of seniors online – good luck. That 41% represents an ever-growing market of nearly 17 million people. It’s too bad that Pew doesn’t offer sub-segments of that data in component age groups. Hmmm, which of these groups is not like the other? Could it be that combining 66-year-olds and 96-year-olds makes less than perfect sense? Of the nearly 17 million represented by the survey sample, using the Pew percentages, one can conclude that more than 9 million are shopping online and 7 million are banking online. Do banks get this, as a marketing opportunity? Uh, not really, see Bank of America and let’s just forget about Citibank. Do stores? Not exactly, though one wonders what is discussed at Macy’s meetings: type ‘online shopping Macy’s seniors’ into a Google search and see the plus-size dress page and study the models. Is that a chasm between search engine optimization and web marketing groups – or is that a just a chasm not crossed by Google?
What’s a marketer to do with a broad opportunity that remains undocumented? One wonders, if not Pew Research, then who? To reach folks in older age ranges – as FirstStreet and ElderLuxe, for example, must – better do your own research (as Link-age did). AARP, which should offer maximum granularity of data on older adults, is not too helpful. Check out this survey on credit card usage that included the 18-49 set (AARP members to be!) but lumped the entire older adult population as 50+. Or study AARP’s Connecting Generations – which does have sub-segments, but combines ages 59-75 (now compare that to another source, I dare you) and cites the opinions of those age 39+ (??? are they kidding?) who think computers and access to social media increase quantity and quality of communication with long-distance family. Right.
Fielding surveys about online access of seniors is very difficult -- so let's not. And modifying strategy based on behavior the results of surveys is even more challenging. As one nationwide aging services organization CEO told me not so long ago: "We really don’t need to focus on boosting Internet usage of older adults because it is happening anyway." Ah, but, as the few long-term survey sources reveal, it is happening v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.