If you’ve been selling to seniors for any length of time, you already know that many of them seem to think and act surprisingly like their younger counterparts. The fact is, most mature consumers are being dragged into “old age” kicking and screaming.

They’re not your grandparents anymore — they don’t feel old, they don’t act old, and they simply don’t fit the stereotypes that many people apply to their segment of the population. Nor do they all act alike. The senior market is made up of multiple segments, each with their own unique view of the world, and that makes the market complex. It is also growing. Between now and the year 2025, an American will turn 60 every seven seconds.

You don’t have to be a senior yourself to relate to those varied segments. But you do need to understand their influences and motivations and develop your marketing programs — and communication skills — around that knowledge. While it is difficult to generalize about such a large and diverse population, there are some consistencies among the individuals in the segments that can provide practical understanding and guidance.

What, exactly, is a “senior?” Most demographers have settled on the following segments:

The World War II Generation — born before 1933, age 75 and older today.

This generation is defined by growing up in far simpler, less affluent times. Most of them remember the stock market crash, the Great Depression and bread lines. They listened to radio serials, experienced the invention of black and white television, read books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and remember Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic as vividly as they do the moon landing.

They are patriotic, thrifty (because they’re concerned about holding on to what they’ve earned), and generally more willing to defer personal gratification than other consumers. They’re also the generation that worries most about being a burden to their children.

The Swing Generation (sometimes called “Ikes”) — born between 1933 and 1945, ages 62 to 74 today.

These were the last children of “stay-at-home” moms, and the women were the first to enter the workforce in significant numbers. It is a relatively small but very influential generation, producing most of the leaders of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They created the pop culture typically accredited to the baby boomers.

They remember the cold war and still remember practicing “duck and cover” at school. As a result, some of them still don’t quite understand how the Russians can be our friends now. They witnessed the birth of the space race when Sputnik went into orbit. They listened to music by Sinatra, then Elvis, and went to movies starring Marilyn Monroe, Rock Hudson and James Dean. They respect authority, wish everything would just stay the way it is, and have a “don’t rock the boat” mentality.

They were entering the workforce when economic prosperity began its decades-long run in the U.S., and have accumulated more wealth than any previous generation.

Leading Boomers — the baby boomers born between 1946 and 1954, making them between 53 and 61 today.

Leading Boomers embrace youthfulness, freedom of choice and a “live for today” mind-set, a penchant for self-gratification that often causes them to spend, borrow and live beyond their means. For many, their job is their life. They want to be in charge, believe they know what is best for themselves, usually are self-confident, are willing to take independent action, and see themselves as non-conformists.

They remember the Great Society and the New Frontier, they listened to the Beatles and had their lives changed when The Pill became available.

Defining events in the lives of the Leading Boomers were the first man on the moon, the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, and of course the Vietnam war.

Trailing Boomers — baby boomers born between 1955 and 1964, ages 43 to 60 today.

This is the generation that the word “consumer” best describes. They are consumption-oriented and status-seeking. Trailing Boomers are into instant gratification, are comfortable with debt to acquire the “stuff” they want, and will often keep spending even when they shouldn’t.

They remember Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, gasoline and unemployment lines, and Three Mile Island. Many of them are either apolitical or politically conservative but socially liberal. They grew up on rock & roll, went to see the first “Star Wars” movie, and watched “All in the Family” and the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” on TV.

Boomer power

To give you an idea of the size and importance of boomers, consider the Leading Boomers and Trailing Boomers collectively. This is the largest-ever generation of Americans, making up 42 percent of the population.

They control more than 77 percent of U.S. assets and 50 percent of discretionary spending, more than $750 billion annually. They have more than $7 trillion in wealth and more than $2 trillion in annual income. Seventy-nine percent are homeowners, they have 40 million credit cards, buy 41 percent of all new cars (48 percent of the luxury cars), spend $610 billion on health care, and buy 71 percent of all prescription drugs.

Financially, the mature market is where the money is. Income peaks from the mid-40s to around age 65, but wealth continues to build even after income starts to diminish. Assets continue to grow until around age 70 and then begin to decline only slightly.

Know the rules

If you want to reach seniors and successfully communicate with them, there are some very important “Rules of Engagement” that you need to follow:

Target females. Women control the buying decisions in senior households, especially when it comes to financial and health care matters.

Don’t stereotype. Trailing Boomers are different from Leading Boomers, both are different from the Swing Generation. Treat them accordingly.

Don’t use humor about aging. Getting old is not funny, and they’re in denial anyway. Similarly, don’t use scare tactics. Discouraging news about aging will not motivate them to respond or buy.

Don’t use pictures of old people in promotions and communications. As a group, seniors see themselves as seven to 10 years younger than they really are. A recent, large-scale research study asked consumers over the age of 75 whether they saw themselves as young, middle-aged or old. Twenty-six percent of them responded that they were middle-aged. Think of it this way — 60 is the new 50, and 70 is the new 60. Use words in copy that hold out the promise of youthfulness and independence. Both are concepts that seniors will identify with.

Use large, high-contrast type. The minimum size in a direct mail piece should be 12- or 14-point type, and the best color combination is black type on a white background. The same rule applies to the pages on your Web site.

Don’t be overly friendly. Personalization is fine, but don’t call them by their first names until you have met them and they have gotten to know you. Be respectful.

Key your communications to life stage events. These include instances such as retirement and milestone birthdays.

Target wealth, not just income. There are many seniors who have no income at all but have plenty of money.

Use the experiences of real people to make your points. Trust is a major issue for seniors. That’s why referrals are always the best source of leads.

Don’t talk to them like children. They won’t appreciate it.

Seniors go online

There are some additional rules of engagement that specifically relate to reaching seniors via the Internet. If your Web site is an important communications channel for you, you need to consider the following:

Focus on speed and content. Today more than 60 percent of seniors still use dial-up access to go online. Some researchers place that number as high as 72 percent. That fact has significant implications for the (usually young) people who design Web sites. Designers trying to reach seniors need to forego the idea of using Flash, high-density images and gimmicks that can cause Web pages to load slowly. Seniors may be diligent and even obsessive researchers, but as a whole, they’re not very patient. They really don’t care about bells and whistles anyway; they just want information.

Strive for Clarity. Easy-to-understand information and easy navigation are also very important to seniors. Of course, these are important considerations for reaching consumers of any age, but for seniors, it’s imperative.

Make navigation easy. The navigation elements that take the visitor to the next page and step in the sale should be very visible and easy to understand. Large arrows that are labeled “next page” and “go back” are examples.

Deliver on the promise of a click. Don’t label a navigation element “get a quote” and then take the user to a page that requires him to download a PDF, print it, fill it out and mail it via snail mail. The vast majority of them won’t do it.

Be gender-specific. If the target is male, organize Web pages to look like a newspaper layout with lots of white space, black type, lists and menus. Men bore easily, so focus on relevant content and fast navigation. If the target is predominantly female, use lots of color, present relevant information in an uncluttered format and build communities in which they can participate.

Use age-appropriate testers. Before deploying a new Web site or microsite targeted to seniors, have someone in your target audience test it thoroughly. It really doesn’t much matter what the thirtysomethings who typically design Web sites think.

Seniors are a large and diverse population. If you continually strive to increase the depth of your understanding about what really makes them tick, you’ll dramatically increase your chances for success.

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