Why Marketers’ Picture of Seniors is Getting Old

Senior woman on computer

It’s a lazy stereotype typically played for laughs: a befuddled senior trying to figure out how to turn on an antiquated desktop computer. It turns out, it’s as wrong as it is outdated.

“I love YouTube! I’m a YouTube fanatic. I get up in the morning and get on YouTube.” This rousing endorsement didn’t come from a Gen Zer. It came from Joan, a 64-year-old who participated in research we conducted last year into the digital habits of older adults.

A majority of online seniors spend at least six hours a day online and own an average of five devices.

Smart marketers know about the spending power of boomers and that the leading edge of Gen X is now hitting 55. But it’s sometimes easy for a youth-obsessed industry to fall back on demographic stereotypes or to assume that those over 55 haven’t evolved their media habits. According to the Pew Research Center, about 80% of Americans 55 and over are online, and today’s 65-year-olds have spent much of their adult lives experiencing advances in technology firsthand: They were only 36 when the first internet browser was introduced in 1992 and 42 when Google was founded in 1998.

Google partnered with a market research firm known to conduct qualitative and quantitative research in summer and fall of 2020. This research sought to understand the digital habits and behaviors of today’s boomers and seniors, particularly as they relate to health and wellness.

By digging deep into their digital habits, we found that the majority of online seniors — 86%, according to our analysis, which segmented seniors by their tech adoption and utilization — are enthusiasts who spend at least six hours a day online and own an average of five devices. We call this group “digital seniors.” These are sophisticated, engaged consumers: 8 in 10 continued their education beyond high school, and 82% use their smartphone every day.

For many of the seniors we talked to, being online and staying up to date with technology isn’t a choice. It’s an imperative. “Digital platforms play a big role in our lives, and there are always new possibilities that come along. Digital is here to stay, and it’s good to learn all we can,” said Maude, 77. Jeff, 59, put it more bluntly: “I just don’t want to be a dinosaur, you know?”

These digital seniors go online for a vast array of reasons, from staying in touch with friends and family (91%) to organizing their finances (87%) to improving their health and wellness (73%). And their enthusiasm isn’t simply a reaction to COVID-19: 70% of seniors say that they’ll spend the same amount or more time online once they’re no longer concerned about the pandemic.

⠀⠀Why seniors turn to digital

That said, lockdowns and social distancing have had direct impacts on the role that technology plays in seniors’ health and wellness. “I had my first telemedicine call with my doctor … [and] it was wonderful,” said Wendy, 66. “It gave us a little bit more time and was a better use of our time together.”

Marla, 73, was scheduled to have knee surgery and said that “before my … surgery, I did research on YouTube to find pre-exercises to get myself ready.” And Pam, 61, found a new medicine relevant for her condition. “It came up on the center of my screen. It was like ‘try this new medicine.’ It was a miracle for me.”

For many seniors, being online and staying up to date with technology isn’t a choice. It’s an imperative.

All of this digital engagement is coming at the expense of time seniors used to spend focused on traditional TV. EMarketer estimates that all baby boomers will watch 5.7% less TV this year than in 2020, with continuing declines into 2022, while Comscore reports that time spent watching YouTube videos among adults 55 and over grew by 10% from May 2020 to May 2021.

Marketers who have traditionally relied on TV and print to reach older Americans have noticed the rise of the “digital senior” and are making changes to their strategies to meet the moment. Aetna, for example, has seen its Medicare customers become “more and more digitally savvy,” said Gannon Jones, the company’s chief marketing officer. And it’s responding accordingly. “This can be seen in our investment in new tools and technology, as well as in our advertising strategy. To seize on the rise in digital usage, we’ve increased our investment in digital marketing with display, video, and search playing a critical role in our mix.” The pandemic has only sped things up, he added. “COVID-19 accelerated consumers’ adoption of digital channels, and we expect this trend to continue.”

With seniors’ digital savviness likely to only increase in the next few years, here are three ways you can begin reaching them.

  1. Understand your consumer with data and insights, not outmoded assumptions and hunches.
  2. Meet your audience where they are. As we’ve seen, YouTube plays a crucial role in seniors’ lives. Increase your investment where they’re increasing their time to build awareness and consideration.
  3. Prioritize high-value audiences, rather than broad ones. Use the rich set of intent signals available on YouTube (in-market, newly retired, similar audiences, location) to reach your most valuable consumers at scale.

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