How older consumers have come of age on social media

The next blog from the GWI Trends team, written by Shauna Moran, looks at the rise of older consumers on social media.

In the past, Gen X and baby boomers have been described as a “promising demographic” for social media marketers. But right now, this statement doesn’t really do them justice. 

At the end of 2020, we noticed that traditional differences between “young” and “old” were becoming old-fashioned in a digital sense. 

Our coronavirus research tracked behaviours during the crisis, and as initial lockdown spikes in online activity quickly settled down within younger groups, engagement continued to flourish among older ones. This change also bridged generational gaps on the social media side of things; yet, many wondered whether it would stick. 

Luckily, we’re able to give you the latest update; and a year on, this trend is still going strong.

Mobiles have increased the potential for commercial activities on social media.
In closing the age-related digital divide, the pandemic added fuel to the fire. 

At the time of lockdowns, baby boomers passed a major milestone. Q2 2020 was the first time they considered mobiles to be more important than PCs/laptops. Plus, the gap between this group and Gen Z/millennials, in terms of saying they favour this device, has almost halved since 2015. 

In the past, when we spoke about the rise of the mobile, we often had to mention age differences as a caveat. But today, whatever impact smartphone usage is having on our online lifestyles, it’s being felt across the age spectrum. 

Given popular apps like Instagram and WhatsApp were developed with the smartphone in mind, heavier reliance on this device is associated with higher levels of social media engagement. For Gen X and boomers, the pattern holds: they spend over an hour more using their mobile on a typical day than they did in 2015, and nearly half an hour extra on social media. 

With digital participation no longer as powerful a factor in generational targeting today as in the past, social media marketing tactics can start looking more at differences in how each group consumes.  

Rather than just scrolling through updates, older groups tend to use social networks in a more purposeful way than their juniors. For example, they’re less likely to say they mainly use these platforms to fill up spare time (32% vs 40%).

Online shopping is also very relevant here. Older consumers are more likely to have made an online purchase in the last week (41% vs 39%), and just as likely to have made one via mobile, which acts as a word of caution for ecommerce sites currently prioritising the needs of younger groups.

It’s true that older consumers worry more about personal privacy when shopping online, which acts as a barrier to the wider adoption of social commerce. But the above aspects of their online profile reinforce the scale of the opportunity they present to marketers. The challenge for companies is getting across the steps they’ve taken to protect their information. 

On the whole, older consumers shop online more regularly than the average, often log on with a particular action in mind, and are (by their own admission) more tempted by offerings like free delivery, discount codes, and loyalty points. The potential is clear; brands just need to ensure they have a good handle on what their ideal online social experience looks like.  

Some apps and groups offer more chances for brand engagement. 
It’s not just that Gen X and boomers are spending more time on social media; they’ve expanded their footprint within this space. Their average number of accounts is 5.8, which is proof their social media presence is no longer synonymous with Facebook – if it ever was in the first place. 

More importantly, they tend to do more online research before buying a product and look to companies on these sites for help when making purchase decisions. Overall, 3 in 10 follow brands on social platforms, which is just a few points behind Gen Z and millennials.

While they’re slightly less likely to use various apps, they’re often keen to get B2C discussions going on there. Among Pinterest users, baby boomers are the most eager to get information about brands and products; whereas younger Pinners are generally less clear about their reasons for logging on.

On top of fashion and travel, Pinterest is a natural place for brands to help older groups make decisions about home-related purchases and prep for the next stage of their lives. For many, the COVID-19 crisis strengthened the urge to plan ahead: 30% of Gen X and boomers say that saving for retirement has become more important to them in the last year, for example. So, brands that are able to offer ways to organise or simplify their lives stand to do well. 

On the other hand, businesses need to approach marketing on a site like Instagram in a different way if their target audience is baby boomers, as these consumers use it more to share or find entertaining material. This doesn’t mean brands shouldn’t market products to them on this platform; but in this case, content should be the conversation starter. 

Seasalt, a fashion brand that caters to older fashionistas, has filled its Instagram account with information about the inspiration behind its products, recipes, and clips of the company’s team bonding activities. In contrast, H&M’s Instagram account, which targets younger shoppers, succeeds by being a very clear, shoppable virtual storefront. While every brand is different, certain layouts resonate better with younger/older audiences. 

Platform engagement figures are useful, but they don’t tell us why different generations log onto certain apps. Our research covers this blind spot by helping us understand which age groups are eager to engage on a commercial level, and on which platforms. This gives us a more detailed picture of current generational nuances on social media. 

Many older adults don’t see themselves reflected in marketing campaigns.
The global population is ageing, and it’s important for marketers to get their messaging right. But our data shows they’re generally missing the mark. 

Globally, just 15% of this group feel represented in the advertising they see, rising to 20% among those who follow brands or influencers on social media. While this score needs improvement across all age brackets, Gen X and boomers score well below the average.

Unsurprisingly then, they’re more likely to describe ads on social media as excessive or intrusive than their younger counterparts; and a perceived lack of adequate or accurate representation inspires these opinions. 

There’s a lot of research to back this up. A study of British magazines revealed four groups based on their portrayals of older consumers: frail and vulnerable, happy and affluent, mentors, and active/leisure-oriented. Being an incredibly diverse lot, many experience a disconnect between how marketers portray them and how they see themselves.

Older groups report feeling younger than their age and seem to enjoy better health than their predecessors once did. It’s therefore easy to see why several of the adjectives they use to describe themselves don’t fit into the four basic categories outlined above. 

In the last couple of years, there’s been a rise in the number of 50+ influencers, who are making a big impact across lifestyle, fitness, and fashion sectors. This shift in the influencer landscape reminds social media users that people of any age can be young at heart, and brands have ample opportunity to celebrate this.

AARP, an interest group that empowers consumers to live their best life as they age, has filled its Pinterest account with advice on how followers can find their best hair colour at 50+, ways to live stronger, and tips on hosting elegant dinner parties. And these kinds of posts reflect the various ways older adults see themselves – such as outgoing, creative, and adventurous. 

At the end of the day, this group doesn’t want to feel as though it’s being left out on social media. Making adjustments based on how this audience wants to be seen and which platforms have the most commercial potential will help businesses keep their messaging age-appropriate.