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Boomers, barriers, and myths

Assumptions, aspirations, and realism.  In recent here-there-everywhere travels, I was often intrigued by assumptions that were cited as fact.  I heard about barriers to adoption, narrow-cast definitions of broader opportunities, and sweeping generalizations about markets too broad to characterize. That last, of course, is the so-called baby boomer market -- discussed all day at a well-run event in Tampa -- the Florida Boomer Lifestyle Conference. Talks were packed with baby boomer market possibility. But boomers are no more a market with meaningful shared characteristics than adults, women, or workers. You know this when you hear a discussion of an age segment in which the target market year begins with 40 or the upper end extends beyond 64. Or when the speaker apologizes and says "I'm not a baby boomer, but..."

Enough boomer demographic data to confound any marketer. In keeping with the theory that boomers are a market, the conference presenters generally began their talks (as all, including yours truly, do) with stats to help make their case -- baby boomers are wealthier, tech-savvy, own iPhones, are entrepreneurial, self re-inventing, chronic-disease plagued, interested in franchising, traveling, dating, volunteering, etc. It was a fascinating day, inspiration for attendees to learn more, start and run new businesses. My favorite segment was a presentation by 23-year old Alex Chamberland about Tampa Bay's EasyLiving, the home care agency founded by his mother that he manages -- since he was 21! -- hiring the workers, finding referral channels, implementing tech tools, upgrading the website. And check this out: EasyLiving also provides a concierge service that includes taking seniors to concerts, out to dinner, or shopping. Come to think of it, isn't this something that all home care agency franchises should offer?

In tough times, boomers create their own opportunity. In other recent and related news, you may have noticed this intriguing observation from the Kaufman Foundation: more than 80% of all tech startups in 2008 were by people over 40, that the number of people age 55-64 starting tech businesses grew 36% in 2008, and that the 20-34 age bracket had the lowest startup rate. And most entrepreneurs that I speak with tell me that they are not venture capital backed -- a good thing if they are woman-owned -- see today's NY Times on the dearth of Silicon Valley investment in women-run businesses. The more common practice: take an idea, bootstrap it yourself, augment with angel investors to grow quickly or (my favorite) grow it slowly, gaining market insights and forging partnerships along the way.


Okay, now for this week's rants. So now that we're on the topic of tech, let's mull some myth-like barriers to tech adoption, reinforced in my talks and travels this past week:

If my organization adopts monitoring technology, it increases our risk. From a senior housing executive, here is this assumption -- if we have alerting data about a problem with a resident in our senior housing environment, our organizational risk and liability are increased.  Example: information-based alert about a possible problem is transmitted and not addressed, placing this into the 'what I don't know can't hurt me' category. 

Reality: according to Craig Smith, IRR national practice leader for Senior Housing and Healthcare, the reverse is actually true. If it is feasible (through technology tools) to know information about a resident, your organizational risk is greater if you pretend that you don't or can't know. Craig notes that "you cannot hide behind 'we did not know someone was a fall risk' when they use a walker to come to meals and are clearly observable as having ambulation issues."

Products and services for older people must have limited functionality to be usable. In a blog post by Joseph Coughlin, MIT Age Lab, he cites easy-to-use cell phones with no programmability, few buttons:  "Limited functionality is a statement by the manufacturer that they believe the user is unable, unwilling, or uninterested in a more complex product." Yup. Think Jitterbug phone, the Go Computer, Big Screen Live -- all designed to simplify (although some might say 'dumb down') the functionality needed to make a call, use a computer, or go online.

Reality: According to the Coughlin post, the baby boomer is part of the 'me generation' and will expect a more personalized user experience. He offers up a customizable Samsung phone "empowering the end-user [which] successfully appeals to buyers of all ages. Doing so allows manufacturers and service providers to develop one phone with multiple service options while enabling the user to define his or her needs and preferences." So true. Perhaps the buyer of an ease-of-use product or service becomes comfortable over time with the product and yearns for more capability -- like adding an external device or add-on software to a locked-down Go Computer. Conclusion: The ability to see, design, and sell an upgrade and customization path is a must for providers who think they may 'understand' the senior market at a moment in time.

Older seniors won't (...) -- fill in the blank.  Related to the above, in the category of 'what you expect is what you get'. This week I heard assumptions presented as unassailable fact: Older seniors respond more to print ads than online, older seniors prefer buying by telephone, older boomers and seniors prefer print newspapers to online media, seniors will only use (fill in the blank). Proof was offered in the form of statistics from surveys, some broad-based, some limited and from tiny samples.

Reality. Simplified product designs based on assumptions may be practical -- something must be manufactured -- for the near term. But simplistic assumptions about interaction preferences are just that -- simplistic -- and they are unencumbered by investment in plastic or manufacturing.  If you market to seniors in print, it is feasible to reach out to them (and to their families) online. And the investment to try is comparitively low. As the Nintendo Wii and Facebook have proven, sometimes when you don't market, you can get amazing uptake. Imagine if early on they intentionally marketed them as appealing to older adults? 

Thoughts welcome.








Marketing myopia and thinking "in the box" will eventually give way to creative entrepreneurs
who heed your insights. Keep them coming!!

I have to disagree with Mr. Coughlin where he implies that users would in anyway WANT a more complex product. Complexity is inherently stressful for people of all ages and should be avoided by all product and service designers. I do, however, agree that the goal is elegant simplicity, not "dumbing things down". I would also like differ from your implication that Jitterbug is limiting functionality to only deliver phone calls. You may not have been following what the company has been doing over the last year, but our latest device is "over-the-air" application capable and we have been expanding our Services Store to provide customers with a portfolio of applications to stay connected, to improve safety, and to improve well being. While the device itself is still perfect for people that want to be able to see and hear their phone; it is an enabler, not a phone for just making phone calls. Our customer experience can also be completely customized, just as Mr. Coughlin suggests is the goal. If you don't want text messaging, you never see it, and it never gets in the way of your other features. But if you want it, we have the most elegantly simple text messaging application in the market. You should take a look the innovative things Jitterbug is doing, it is anything but "dumbing things down".

David Inns
CEO, GreatCall

I enjoyed meeting you finally in Florida, Laurie. We disagree about the notion that a generation cannot be a market segment, however. Although, as I stated in my presentation, there are millions of possible sub-segments, generations develop "formative integrative tendencies" and "collective mentalities." These tendencies and mentalities can be addressed with marketing messages that capture and evoke nostalgic and period reflections, thereby augmenting brand identity and value. Can a single message appeal to an entire generation? Of course not. But preponderant and viable percentages can and do react to generationally-sensitive messages. This was proven in the case studies I shared from Sony, Fidelity and GE (in actual brand development research and sales performance metrics). I also know this first-hand because I've created dozens of advertising and sales promotion campaigns designed to reach Boomers using cohort sensitive messages. This has been a large part of my career for the last 30 years. And I have performance data to back up my conjectures. You can treat a generation as a market with the right message and succeed in the marketplace. The more you sub-segment a generation, the more likely you will be to match specific messages with specific market segments. But you still can reach a sub-segment with creative messages that draw from a generation’s formative and widely shared experiences.


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