• November 1, 2006
  • By Coreen Bailor, (former) Associate Editor, CRM Magazine

Elder Effect

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It's been 40 years since then-24-year-old Paul McCartney released "When I'm 64." Every generation has trouble seeing itself at the age of 64: What youth quake--era flower child, for example, wanted to accept a future of shuffleboard and early bird specials, no matter how far off the prospect? But the realities of today's retirees' lives have turned out to be quite different from the stereotypes we as kids condescended to (and feared turning into). Older folks are challenging the notion that they are frail, inactive, or unhappy. Take Macca himself, who turned 64 this past summer: He's still releasing music, playing sold-out shows, and supporting charities, and has even entered new creative realms, such as writing children's books. The aging music icon's spirit and attitude parallel those of many mature Americans, defying the geezer stereotype associated with people born in 1945 or earlier. This population comprises the War Generation (ages 61 to 66), the Depression Generation (ages 67 to 76), and the G.I. Generation (age 77 and up). Interestingly, the 85-and-older age group is now the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. But in many marketers' eyes the elder generation's consumer value, quite frankly, stinks. As a youth-obsessed culture, conventional wisdom--regardless of how inaccurate it is--tells us that marketing to this older demographic is a waste of time, as these penny pinchers are too stuck in their ways to, say, invest in high-ticket items or to switch brands. It's time that sales and marketing organizations trash these outdated (hence, false) perceptions. Just as not every 42-year-old consumer behaves identically, the same is certainly true for elder consumers. Age shouldn't be the only factor used to predict consumer behavior. Others, such as lifestyle, race, gender, and geographic location, must also be considered to form more accurate customer segmentation. Companies have a much better chance of appealing to this audience by understanding it and by crafting personalized marketing and service initiatives just as they would for other generational segments. If It's Not Too Dear The War Generation holds a different view of retirement compared with earlier generations. For those who reached their 60s in the 1980s, retirement typically meant a relatively passive period of life. Many of today's older consumers, however, see their retirement as a time of exploration and reinvention: They're traveling, volunteering, spending more time with family and friends, and taking up new hobbies. Some even enjoy their work so much that in part,they view it as another form of recreation; others remain active in the workforce for intellectual stimulation. Without doubt, this generation is doing more than choking down a steak dinner at four in the afternoon and haunting shuffleboard courts. Pat Conroy, vice chairman of Deloitte & Touche's Consumer Business industry practice, says, "When you market to them, you really need to market to their lifestyle, because that is fundamentally how they're thinking about what they're doing." Leisure activities like traveling do require funding, so some older consumers are staying longer at their full-time jobs or picking up part-time jobs to fund their interests, or, in some cases, just to cover living expenses. Still, most elder consumers live on fixed incomes. Many also have a savings mentality since a significant portion of these consumers grew up during times of economic turmoil and hardship like the Great Depression and World War II. So, when targeting this group of consumers, marketers should "convey a sense of value to what they're bringing to the market that's really going to help individuals make specific product choices," says Mike Irwin, president of AARP Services and The Kantar Group's joint venture Focalyst, a research and consultancy firm focused on older consumers. (Focalyst refers to the elder generation as the Golden Generation.) Grandchildren On Your Knee
Effectively appealing to older consumers means understanding the values they grew up with. This cohort is a generation that historically has had a greater respect for institutions and authority than other generations. Brands need to establish and leverage an authoritative and genuinely trustworthy voice when trying to win over older consumers. This mature population has also been very focused on family and community, making these consumers much more likely to reveal positive and negative buying experiences to friends and family, and more likely to consider recommendations from them. Another important consideration is the segment's often multigenerational household. Many companies wouldn't normally consider a woman in her 60s to be the buy decision-maker in her household, but there's an increasing trend toward households containing three and four generations, where a 62-year-old woman may have her parents, children, and grandchildren living with her. Don't ignore the spending power of these older head-of-household consumers by insulting and patronizing them with marketing pitches like "not your grandfather's" widget. Feature positive, realistic representations of older consumers in marketing and advertising efforts. When Your Lights Have Gone Today's aging consumers are living longer, more active, healthier lives compared with older consumers 20 years ago. Still, they're understandably concerned with healthcare and healthcare issues. Physical changes we experience as we grow older like changes in eyesight, hearing, mobility, and strength affect consumer choice. Marketers must familiarize themselves with these limitations and craft ways to accommodate them. "You need to design products that make time stand still, so that [products are] as easy to use for a person in that age group as they were when he was 20 years younger," Conroy says. Take the design of marketing collateral as an example. For most people, at about age 40 the eye begins to change, which can alter ease-of-readability, according to 77 Truths About Marketing To The 50+ Consumer, coauthored by Kurt Medina, president of Medina Associates, a direct marketing consultancy specializing in the 50-plus marketplace, and John Migliaccio, Ph.D., president of Maturity Mark Services. The eye's retina begins to yellow, making it "harder for older persons to distinguish between blues, greens, and purples, and easier to see reds and oranges," the authors state. Glare also becomes a problem, causing "the mature to have difficulty reading a message on a high-gloss paper." Whether using paper-based or online marketing materials, remember to keep the design and content simple. Effectively servicing older consumers can require other practical adjustments. The Hartford Financial Service Group is one of the largest investment and insurance companies in the United States and has provided auto and homeowner insurance to AARP members since 1984. (The nearly 200-year-old company insures more than 2 million U.S. drivers 60 years old and older.) The Hartford Group's voice self-service system features a low-pitched male voice, which can improve the ability in some elders to hear words more clearly. Another tweak relates to phonetic system design. Several years ago The Hartford Group incorporated speech recognition into its touch tone system. Maureen Mohyde, director of The Hartford's corporate gerontology group, combed through the system, reworking it so that people with hearing impairments can understand the system better. For example, "the consonant combination of s-t is a little bit harder for all of us to hear," Mohyde says. "We don't want people getting stuck thinking they heard date instead of state or [something else]. So whenever we can we substitute words that we know phonetically are easier for people to hear clearly." Indicate Precisely What You Mean to Say The way to avoid blunders like hard-on-the-eyes-and-ears initiatives is to get to know and understand customers--essentially, the lesson learned in Marketing 101. This is especially important as most of today's marketers haven't reached their golden years yet, and base pitches on distorted assumptions. Medina--who sees the 50-plus market as preretirees, usually those between 50 and about 62; active retirees as between about 62 and about 75; and seniors as 75 and older--says, "What you as a marketer have to do is put your head inside the head of your target audience. If you can do that, you will discover their real needs and their real desires." Interact with the target base and conduct lots of research. The Hartford, for example, surveys its customers and holds focus groups to better understand customer needs, wants, and expectations. It also provides classroom- and computer-based training for employees, including its call center staff. The Hartford's newest addition to its training initiative is Mature Market Excel, which includes programs and seminars on topics pertaining to the mature market like hearing impairment, dealing with customers with dementia, and trends in aging. At the end of the program employees take an exam and if they pass they get a certificate. The company also has nine gerontologists on staff to advise The Hartford on everything from service to product design to marketing. Operating based on stereotypes is "totally unacceptable," Mohyde says. The objective is to "help people understand from a factual point of view who our customers are," and not to function based on "the kinds of stereotypes and myths that most people hold very strongly about" older people. One common--false--theory is that older consumers are married to brand relationships they established early in their lives. "Our research has shown that that's absolutely untrue and that up to 90 percent of people over 60 are actively shopping, actively looking for a better value for their dollar, and are very willing to make brand selections different from what they've selected before, as long as they feel that there's a substantial value proposition." Another old-school notion is that these consumers are completely clueless when it comes to technology. According to Focalyst, half of all Americans over age 60 use the Internet. The comfort level with using the Internet for purchasing decisions or using Web or phone self-service varies from consumer to consumer. But to assume that most older consumers dislike technology can substantially stifle a company's ability to connect with this consumer base. The War Generation didn't grow up with a computer like Gen Yers, but many of them did use PCs in their professional lives. "This particular generation...[is] much more Internet or tech savvy than you might typically think," Conroy says. "They do quite a bit of research on products and services. They are a very educated and discerning buyer." A byproduct of the they're-tech-adverse assumption is the stereotype that older consumers avoid self-service because they are, well, not tech savvy. But the reasons why some older consumers shy away from self-service mirrors the reasons why some consumers, regardless of age, prefer to sidestep automation: poor ease of use, no option to connect with a human, and lack of personalization. A Web site "needs to be very easy and user friendly and you need to be promoting that to the audience," says Anna Burke, director of corporate marketing at Talisma. "If they are on the phone and they're frustrated with a wait time," suggest going to the Web site. Burke also recommends offering chat. "If someone is on a Web site and he or she is trying to fill out a form for making a purchase, that would be an area where there could be some frustration from someone that isn't as familiar with the technology," she says. "One of the options would be, in a very kind way, to proactively offer a chat, so an icon would pop up and say 'Notice you're having difficulty filling out this form, would you like live assistance?' Then have that agent walk that customer through the process." Don't try to force customers to use the Web by not making more expensive service options like live phone reps as accessible. Not providing a seamless escalation point lessens the chances they'll opt for inexpensive online self-service again. Like Web sites, many touch-tone IVR systems aren't designed with older users in mind. When IVRs are well crafted consumers will use them. But the main sources of IVR frustration are age neutral: poor design and no option to escalate to a human. Speech recognition applications can be more effective and efficient than their touch-tone counterparts; they can help callers bypass circular prompts by allowing them to say naturally what they'd like to do. But speech recognition tools must work on improving their usability appeal for older consumers. Take, for instance, a caller who suffered a stroke and now has a speech impediment. Speech recognition wouldn't be the best option, so consider providing both touch-tone and IVR capabilities for customers to choose from. But whatever you do, don't hide the option to connect to a live person. Better segmentation is essential to delivering more personalized experiences. "The typical way that marketers right now look at any of the populations is to segment by age," Irwin says. "To the degree that they can instead look at segmenting by life stage and life events, those are the real drivers that will help them customize delivery of information as well as delivery of products and services. If they can tailor qualifying questions more around those kinds of subjects they'll find that they can...really appeal to them a great deal." Contact Associate Editor Coreen Bailor at cbailor@destinationCRM.com DESIGNINGWEBSITES {for the War Generation} Make text size at least 12 points by default and offer a button to increase text size for the site.
  • Write for the users.
  • Present information clearly and in a way that's easy to scan.
  • Differentiate between text used for linking and text used for headings, but be consistent throughout the site.
  • Use static navigational menus and avoid using moving menus.
  • Make search results visible on the page without scrolling and if you use pop-up windows, make the default size big enough to fit all or most of the information so users don't need to scroll.
  • When graphical elements appear close to a text link, make those elements part of the working link.
  • In search results, always clearly repeat the user's query. --C.B. Source: Nielsen Norman Group Report "Web Usability for Senior Citizens: 46 Design Guidelines Based on Usability Studies with People Age 65 and Older" DESIGNINGSPEECHAPPLICATIONS {for Older Consumers} Evaluate word choices for confusability.
  • Slow down the pace of the application slightly, more so when reading out unknown information.
  • Put longer pauses in prompts when reading out information that will be written down.
  • Increase the timeout length when collecting long utterances, especially digit or alpha strings, and specifically those with natural groupings (like SSN or phone numbers).
  • Accommodate longer key presses (over one second). --C.B. Source: Nuance's Professional Services Organization
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