The Internet’s Newfound Seniority

I’m writing from Naples, FL, where I’m on a much-needed respite from the frigid weather plaguing New England. For you unfamiliar with this Southwest Florida city, take my word for it: This place is a gem. It’s got all the balmy beauty of the state’s East Coast towns, with considerably more peace and quiet. Why so tranquil? In addition to attracting vacationers, Naples is a haven for retirees.

Though I’ve seen the occasional teenage local during my downtown travels and young families aren’t completely unheard of here, the majority of Naples residents fall squarely between the ages of 70 and 74. The 75-79 and 55-59 age groups are also amply represented. Collier County, to which Naples belongs, is one of the fastest-growing regions in the U.S.; it had just over 200,000 citizens in 1997 and is expected to gain over 100,000 more within the next few years.

Aside from bringing to mind another Floridian city with a similar citizen demographic, does the pattern represented in these statistics sound familiar? If you’re a media buyer on top of your game, you should be thinking of the Internet.

According to a 2003 Nielsen//NetRatings report, the fastest growing online population comprises consumers aged 65 and up. From 2002 to 2003, this demographic surged over 25 percent to reach 9.6 million, the equivalent of 7 percent of the total online population. Compare this with the growth of the tech-savvy 18-24 age group during the same period; though it represents the second largest increase in active Web usage; this audience grew only 13 percent.

The largest boost in Internet use in the senior set was among women. They increased the time they spent online by two hours (or 6 percent) overall. Both male and female seniors spent more time online, logging over 40 hours per month.

A similar report by Jupiter Research (a unit of this site’s parent corporation) substantiates this growth pattern among adults aged 50-64 and 65-plus. In 2003, 50 percent of these “older adults” and 23 percent of seniors were online. These figures are expected to jump to 65 and 37 percent, respectively, by 2006.

As one might expect, the most common online activities for these age groups are shopping and email. Both are convenience services, perfect for weary or physically impaired consumers. A 2000 survey of Web users 55 and over from Greenfield Online found 93 percent shop online, and 95 percent send and receive email.

Seniors aren’t the high-rolling 18-49 demographic coveted by marketers online and off-, and these statistics aren’t intended to convince you otherwise. Nor are they designed to suggest you modify existing media plans that include community newspaper ads, content-rich direct mail packages, and the like. In spite of the progression, these channels may remain ideal vehicles for reaching a market deeply ingrained with a trust of the tangible.

What these data ought to do is serve as a wake-up call for the last conventional, conservative, anti-Web-ad business owners who continue to ignore this burgeoning industry. It should speak to all the marketers clinging to contracts for floundering media because they’re convinced online advertising is a passing fad.

If the success of preceding advertisers, shifts in media consumption patterns, and overall increased Web usage aren’t enough to make you change your tune, look to the last consumer demographic frontier. Seniors may have been a little slow out of the gate, but as others before them, they’re connected now.

I’m here in Naples in part to visit my grandmother-in-law, a “snowbird” with a home here that affords an escape from winters in New York. Right now, she’s at her condo upgrading from an MSN Companion to a laptop.

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