The Web’s Going Grey. Is Your Health Care Marketing Program Ready?
For many years, health care marketers have operated under the assumption that seniors, especially
those over the age of 65, do not use the Internet. Whether because of an unfamiliarity with
technology, a lack of Internet access or a simple reluctance to change, this group has been
notoriously difficult to reach online.
As a result, the majority of health care communicators targeting seniors have neglected their digital
marketing program, preferring to rely on more traditional methods like direct mail and television.
But the habits of the over 65 market are rapidly changing. In fact, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings,
this group is the fastest growing demographic on the web. Research indicates that over a third of all
people ages 62 and older are now online—with the percentage of web savvy seniors rising to more
than 50 percent when the age range is narrowed to those between 62 and 71.1
The bottom line? If you haven’t already begun to ramp up your digital marketing efforts, you’re
about to get left in the dust.
Portrait of a Web‐Savvy Senior.
Overall, the seniors who have made the leap to the web are a very desirable group from a marketing
standpoint. These people tend to have more education, spend more money and have higher
household incomes than their still unconnected peers.1
And they make good use of the resources the Internet offers them. They email, read the news, shop
and research, just like their younger counterparts. More than 70 percent of adults over 50 make
purchases online, and, in fact, studies have shown that, in some categories, they are just as likely, if
not more so, to buy goods on the web as anyone else.2
Their most frequent online activities include:1
• Using search engines
• Staying connected with family and friends
• Gathering information
• Staying current with news and weather
• Planning travel
• Keeping track of finances
• Playing games
Even more telling for health care marketers, more than 60 percent of them routinely look for health
information on the web, conducting research on both search engines and general, health‐related
web sites. In fact, the web comes second only to health professionals as a primary source of
They’re also more likely to notice treatment‐related banner ads than other consumers, and click
through to advertisers’ sites more frequently. The majority of these searchers then ask their doctors
about the information they found.3
The Driving Force Behind the Silver Explosion.
The biggest reason for the rise of seniors on the Internet? The aging of America overall. Over the
next 15 years, the over 65 population will grow by 32 percent—and it will double by 2030. Even
now, someone turns 62 every seven seconds.4
That’s because the Baby Boomers—the largest generation to ever live in the United States—are
beginning to hit their senior years. All told, there are 78 million of them, with the first boomers
turning 65 in 2011.1 That makes them the web’s single largest constituency, accounting for more
than one‐third of the total Internet‐viewing population.5
And unlike previous generations, boomers are, if not comfortable with technology, at least familiar
with it. In fact, many of them were among the first cyberspace pioneers, and have been logging on
for more than ten years.
A study by TV Land suggests that this acceptance of new technology is at least partially because they
grew up alongside the media industry. They were the first to have TVs in their homes, and were in
large part responsible for making television the pervasive cultural phenomenon it is today.
So while they don’t take technology for granted, as most young people today do, they are willing to
embrace it—even regarding a thorough understanding of the latest innovations as a badge of
honor.6 And because this generation is reluctant to let go of its youthful identity, it’s important to
them to be able to keep up with kids, and to seem in‐the‐know and up‐to‐date.
The Boomer Effect on the Web.
Not only are Baby Boomers the largest potential web audience, they’re also the wealthiest.
Together with the Golden Generation, they possess more than 75 percent of the nation’s assets and
control 50 percent of its discretionary income. In fact, they wield more than $1 trillion in disposable
income and spend more per capita each year than any other group, including $7 billion online.5
What’s more, the majority of boomers cite the web as their most utilized source for information
gathering when they’re researching a major purchase—health care included.5 And they are quite apt
to share the knowledge they gain with family and friends.
According to a recent Third Age study, most boomers are asked for advice about products or
services at least 90 times each year—usually by their peers. And while only 45 percent of those
recommendations are given online, many are based on information gleaned from the web.7
That makes sense when you consider how this generation typically uses the Internet. Although
they’re often attracted to the same kinds of sites as younger consumers, they tend to be more
passive in their consumption.
For instance, many of them read blogs, but only 7 percent of adults over 50 actually write blogs of
their own. And while boomers and other mature adults are slowly adopting social media—more
than 50 percent of the total adult population will become part of a social network by 2011—they’re
far more likely to stay in the background than to actively post information of their own.5
This same passivity can be seen across the digital marketplace. Boomers will often visit a site for
research purposes, but prefer to call rather than click to take the next step. Likewise, while they
often forward emails they find valuable to friends and family, they’re unlikely to take action based
on that marketing piece.5
The Snowball Effect and Digital Marketing to Seniors.
When formulating a digital marketing plan, it’s important to keep these behavior preferences in
mind. Instead of focusing solely on completed transactions and click‐through numbers, think about
the bigger picture. That is, the cumulative effect of your advertising.
In other words, it’s imperative to implement a multi‐faceted plan that crosses a broad spectrum.
• Engaging banner ads
• Content‐rich web sites
• Blog and social media posts by experts
• Email blasts filled with relevant information
By establishing a pervasive web presence and making your advertising materials both informative
and relevant to seniors, you’ll become one of those top‐of‐mind marketers who benefits from the
vibrant world of word‐of‐mouth marketing that this generation participates in.
Are You Speaking the Right Language?
Studies have shown that when it comes to reaching seniors, most current advertising is missing the
mark. More than one‐third of boomers are dissatisfied with the marketing landscape, feeling that
only one in four ads are aimed at them.8 This is a problem, because if this group doesn’t think a
marketer is addressing its needs, it tunes out—and your message is lost.
The problem is twofold. First, most marketing still focuses on the ever‐coveted youth market. But
even those messages intended to speak to the mature audience often fall short. That’s because
today’s seniors are a different breed—and many marketers have not yet learned to speak their
For the most part, these seniors don’t see themselves as old. Even people in their late 60s think of
themselves as being middle‐aged.9 So any message that refers to them as elderly automatically
turns them off.
Because of these attitudes, addressing the aging issue with humor is often a big faux pas. Quite
simply, this generation doesn’t think getting old is funny. They’re also put off by scare tactics.
Advertisements using these strategies often backfire, making seniors less likely to pay attention to
future efforts by that marketer.
So what does work for this audience? Messages promoting youthfulness and independence. Focus
on how your product or service can help seniors continue to live happy, active lives for years to
come. In addition, keep in mind that this generation tends to see themselves as 10 years younger
than they actually are, so target your imagery accordingly.
Making Sure Seniors See Your Digital Message.
Despite their youthful attitudes, boomers and their older peers do have certain limitations when it
comes to navigating the web. Whether because of age‐related issues or simple inexperience with
the Internet, sites that don’t follow certain guidelines tend to lose this important audience.
Consistent, logical information architecture is key. Items to include are:
• Easy‐to‐follow navigation—Use clearly labeled buttons, and keep the order consistent
throughout. Also, keep your navigation bars in the same place on every page, and when
possible, include more than one way for seniors to click through your site.
• Hierarchical page structure—Use consistent design elements across all pages to clearly
delineate content areas and help seniors find the information they’re looking for quickly and
• Organization—Group pages into logical categories, and try not to go more than three levels
• Use large type—Fading eyesight means more difficulty seeing small type, so use at least a 12
point font whenever possible.
• Use the right imagery—Forget nostalgia. Use images that show seniors where they are
These simple guidelines will go a long way toward ensuring your audience sees—and heeds—your
Get Online or Get Left Behind.
With the aging in of the Baby Boomer generation, the world of health care marketing is going to
have to change. For the first time, the senior demographic is heading online in record numbers—and
to reach them, marketers will have to follow suit.
To do otherwise would be to neglect the most powerful group of consumers this industry has ever
seen. While they are currently fairly passive Internet users, they are increasingly relying on the
information they find there to make decisions in every aspect of their lives.
This makes it essential for health care marketers to have a substantial, content‐rich presence on the
web—one that keeps the unique needs of this audience in mind. By doing so, they can set
themselves up to become a force to be reckoned with for decades to come. And that’s exactly
where every health care communicator wants to be.
1. “Matures 62+ on the Internet: An Overlooked Audience,” Focalyst, April, 2008.
2. “50+ Facts and Fiction,” Immersion Interactive,
3. “Online for Health: The Impact of Online Behavior on Healthcare Decisions Breakdown by
Age,” Harris Interactive, September 2007.
4. Kim, Gary, “Boomer Broadband: Boom!” IP Business News, November 19, 2008.
5. Boehman, Jonathan and Weigelt, David, Dot Boom: Marketing to Seniors Through
Meaningful Online Engagement, 2008
6. “Baby Boomers Uniquely Positioned to Embrace Emerging New Media, TV Land’s Joy of Tech
Study Finds,” TV Land, January 2, 2007.
7. “Boomers Big on Word of Mouth,” eMarketer, March 21,2007, www.emarketer.com.
8. “TV Land Focuses on Baby Boomers: Affluent Demo is Hard to Reach,” TV News, February 3,
9. Tooker, Richard, “Capturing the Exploding Senior Market: 23 Rules for Targeting Seniors,”