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No matter how hard SEMs and other online guru’s work to finally kill the myth, it seems to remain stuck in the minds of traditional marketing departments and the budgetary choke-point of middle management: “Silly Rabbit, Social Networks are just for kids”. There seems to remain a persistent feeling that somehow despite mounting evidence to the contrary, no one over the age of 30 uses the internet or social networking sites, and even if they do, it’s only for trivial things like looking at pictures of your kids/grandkids/friends and playing Farmville. Just recently, an acquaintance in a management position at a fairly large medium-sized business complained in contemptuous tones to me about the new girl in marketing at his firm and how all she did all day was sit on Facebook instead of doing “real” marketing. The irony here being that he made the comment to me during work hours on a social news aggregation and discussion site. From which he gets the majority of his news. And from which, I know for a fact, he has taken the recommendations for product purchases he’s made in the last year.

Social Media Boom

The truth is, Baby Boomers have embraced the social media craze with open arms. As a generation, Boomers are flocking to social media platforms, especially Facebook, faster than any other generation, according to an eMarketer study released about a year ago. The numbers have only gone up since then. Enough so that Vibrant Nation, a social networking community dedicated to specifically to Boomers, has managed to do quite well unlike many other targeted social networking sites.

They also provide some very interesting corollaries to the increased social media use by Boomers. For instance, in a study released by Carol Orsborn, Ph.D. and Stephen Riley, CEO of Vibrant Nation, they find that among upscale/affluent women over 50, nearly 90% rely on “Referrals from other people” to make purchasing decisions, and over 80% rely on topical background information such as sales brochures and web sites. This is a huge market with a very high ratio of disposable income to total income, in other words the kind of customers that marketers dream about. It’s also the kind of customer that online marketing departments have been ignoring and passing over, instead spending the vast majority of their budgets either on younger demographics who, while traditionally well off are now set back severely by a crippled job market and carrying the burden of huge student debt. Boomers, meanwhile, are much less likely to become victims of the recession and the shrinking job market, maintaining an unemployment rate almost 2 points below national average for men and nearly 3 full points for women, are much more likely to have paid off their own home, have significantly higher salaries, and are increasingly turning towards social networks to help them make spending decisions.

The Follies of Youth

So was my friend wrong in criticizing the time usage of the girl in marketing? Well, not entirely. The problem with the Silly Rabbit myth is that it’s not just bought into by the old-guard and the aging management brigade. How many times have you over-heard a younger employee, colleague, or acquaintance complain that “People over 30 just don’t get the internet”? It is, unfortunately, a fairly common battle cry among marketing professionals of my generation. So many younger Internet and computer users have a biased perception of the clunky, middle-aged co-worker who asks for help printing a Microsoft Word document that we tend to discount outright the possibility that the guy who can’t set up a plug-and-play printer in the next cubicle could possibly have figured out Facebook. This perception is strengthened by the usage statistics of social networks like Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Flickr, which all overwhelmingly skew younger (less than 15% of social network users aged 50+ use Twitter, for instance, and less than 20% use LinkedIn).

This is as huge a fallacy coming from the younger generations as it is from older ones, though it manifests in different ways. Thus instead of simply cutting all social media spending out of the marketing budget as an older marketing exec might, the younger generation will gear their social media spending and campaigns towards a younger crowd, whether it is appropriate or not. Instead of building reliable social networks of satisfied customers, they will focus on the meme-of-the-day celebrity friend or on pure friend numbers, missing out on the main reason that older adults use social media: to network with similar people that they trust and feel a bond with. Or they might spend a disproportionate amount of time and money on a Twitter campaign for a product that would sell significantly better to older customers, not recognizing that Facebook, though it is quickly becoming like kryptonite to the tech-savvy consumer, is still the de rigeur social network destination for the majority of the country, and especially older users.

So What’s It All Mean?

The bottom line here is that the age-old adage “The more things change, the more they stay the same” is as true now as it has always been. Social media and social networks are not redefining the power-balance among generations, nor are they fundamentally changing the nature of human relationships. Instead, they are simply moving existing relationship and networking conventions to a new and more convenient medium. So younger generations, as in times past, still focus on the cool, the new, the fleeting, meteoric, blinding rise and fall of minute-to-minute trends and celebrities, while older generations focus on building deep, meaningful relationships with similar people and reconnecting with relationships from the past, using these networks to bond rather than mob. And in fact, as I suspect we’ll see more in the future, social network sites overwhelmingly present advantages to older users, who may have moved further from old friends, to be able to spend less time making new friends or going out to meet existing ones, or have physical limitations to spending more time out and networking.

So don’t discount the power of social networks to reach an older audience, nor ignore said audience in your social media campaign. Know the market for your product, and adjust accordingly. And remember: like sugary breakfast cereals, social networking sites aren’t just for kids.

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