As one of the richest and fastest growing segments of the population, the over-50's have become a hot target audience for many companies, according to Adam Fulford, strategy and planning director for creative engagement agency Rufus Leonard, who here examines why it could be that two out of five over-65's think businesses have little interest in their needs. This article is copyright 2013 The Best Customer Guide.

The answer to this apparent conundrum is actually relatively simple, Fulford argues. The disparity comes about because of the basic customer-centric approach that brands have taken to product development and targeted communications with that consumer demographic.

As marketers, we pour vast budgets into developing advertising for very specific age groups and demographic profiles (think Kids, Tweens, Teens, Yuppies, Mummies and Guppies) and yet we frequently lump anyone over 50 into one group - a group whose needs change at least as much as those of a first time family, and within which there is a great deal of diversity.

For example, in the UK, some 2 million people over 75 live alone, while nearly 1 million people aged 65+ provide unpaid care for someone else, and there are 1.5 million grandparents under the age of 50. As you can see, the problem is really that they're an audience of extremes, making them difficult for marketers to get a handle on. Older and younger, moving and staying put, in families, couples and living alone, more active than ever and predominantly obese, richer as a whole but with pockets of extreme poverty, technically illiterate but increasingly digital. So what's the answer?

The opportunities of digitisation
This last trend is perhaps our greatest opportunity as marketers. Over the next ten years or so, this audience will be transformed by a tidal wave of 'digitisation'. The effects of ageing and the simple fact that no-one becomes less digital as they grow older means that there will be far fewer people without broadband, a smartphone, a Facebook account or a predilection for online price comparison and shopping.

The ability to create a data driven relationship with this audience online should make it possible to apply the principles of classic direct response marketing in a far more dynamic way. Indeed, by taking time to get to know users, capture their data, using it intuitively to add value and tracking their responses, we should be able to understand them more than ever.

The best companies are already doing this. Saga's foray into the over-50's social community was undoubtedly an effort to listen to and understand the needs of this audience. Similarly, digitally native brands such as MyLovelyParent.com are springing up and proving that success doesn't have to come from radical; they've simply tailored traditional offer to the needs of an older audience. By allowing sons and daughters to introduce their older parents to the world of online dating they show they understand the market's potential reticence to engage in such things.

Don't try too hard
When it comes to best practices, the best brands don't try too hard, and they don't shout about it. They simply design products and services around the needs of specific segments of this audience (not the whole 22 million). Whether it is financial services, travel, luxury goods, or online dating, one thing's for sure: no one likes to be called 'old' or be referred to as over a certain age. Signposting a product in this way will never work.

Brands must start by going back to basics and 'putting themselves in the customer's shoes'. As a result, Fulford suggests, they should:

  1. Understand their audience, what it is they like about the product or, perhaps more importantly, what it is that's stopping them from buying it. Immersive research and product trial in qualitative environments is potentially valuable here in understanding all the nuances, just as much as quantitative surveys.
  2. Clearly define the target audience with more precision than simply 'older people'. Design the product or service specifically for this audience and ensure it is based on a clear need.
  3. Design communications to sell the product, not as a plea to appeal to the audience. For example, we've found that 'Insurance that rewards your driving experience' is far more effective than saying 'Insurance for the over 50's'. For me at least, anything that says it's designed for the elderly conjures images of flowery wallpaper and wipe-clean materials.
  4. Be open to engaging the audience through new and less used channels. eMarketer projections for penetration of Facebook usage forecast growth to 37% of over 65's by 2017, and growth in digital video viewer penetration to 46%. This means there's a prime opportunity to target through less saturated channels (i.e. not through daytime TV).

"This shouldn't be too tricky if we can alter the way that we all too often approach the problem. This industry has a tendency of looking at how it can sell more to the consumer, rather than looking at what it can do for them: a subtle but important difference," concluded Fulford. "Perhaps this is why 3.9 million people in the UK think we have little interest in their needs."