Technology

Boomers: A Web-Marketing Bonanza


Only a few smart Internet sites have figured out how to appeal to a large constituency with time to spend and money to burn

Jeff Taylor, who is 45, is obsessed with age 50. But it's not just his own half-century milestone he's thinking about—it's everyone's. Every day, some 10,000 people in the U.S. celebrate their 50th birthday. These baby boomers and their broader cohort are expected to live longer and more actively—traveling, working, hiking—than any previous generation.

Yet there are few Web sites catering to Boomers. To Taylor, the famed founder of jobs site Monster.com, that represents a huge business opportunity. "I think there's room for a big brand in this space," he says.

You have to be 50 or older to join Taylor's new Web site, called Eons.com. The site entertains and edifies its members with a panoply of brain teasers, a longevity calculator, special features to help users share their memories, and a database of 77 million obits. Taylor hopes the site will grow into a monster brand, to rival Monster.com's.

GOLDEN YEAR GOALS.

What's surprising is how few Web sites like Eons.com have sprung up to serve this market so far. One of the pioneers, MenAt50.com, debuted before many Boomers ever ventured online, and perished in the dot-com bust.

Today, baby boomers make up the Web's largest constituency, accounting for fully one-third of the 195.3 million Web users in the U.S., according to JupiterResearch. They also spend more money on online shopping than your average Web user. Advertisers understand that, and targeted boomers with close to $5 billion in ads last year, according to Jupiter, out of a total $13 billion spent in Web advertising.

Despite all that, boomers are arguably the most underserved audience on the Net, when it comes to special, customized destinations. Even where you would expect to see smart, age-related targeting—sites dedicated to photo- and video-sharing, for example—there is a surprising void.

Ditto social networks. College students have Facebook.com and MySpace.com. Professionals use LinkedIn. Some boomers do find their way onto such sites, but typically they discover little that's tailored to their sensibilities.

A NEW AESTHETIC.

But now there is a growing movement on the Web to give baby boomers the kind of experience they seek. Eons.com is part of that, and so is the all-powerful AARP, which plans to add MySpace.com-like features to its Web site in the first quarter of 2007, says Hugh Delehanty, editor-in-chief of AARP publications. The site will let people create their own home pages and form interest groups, focused on hobbies like gardening or taking care of elderly parents.

So what does this generation really care about? According to Jupiter, they're most interested in investing, finance, and health. Self-help and advice columns are also popular on the new boomer-centric Web sites, which tend to take an upbeat view of the whole aging process.

Eons.com is "a celebration of turning 50 and moving toward living to be 100," says Taylor. Instead of discussing aging, the new sites discuss living. "Our generation is still young and healthy and interesting and engaged. We are not seniors," says Nancy Fernandez Mills, a former NBC News producer who recently launched BoomersTV.com to provide a tailored video experience for midlife Web surfers.

Boomer sites have also evolved their own special aesthetic. "It's not as overwhelming. There's not as much going on [on the screen]," says Jon Giswold, a 47-year-old manager of health clubs in New York. Lately, Giswold spends a lot of time at SuccessTelevision.com, a rival of BoomersTV.com. "My attention isn't being pulled away as I try to get information."

A "SECOND LOOK."

For the first time since the dot-com crash, venture capitalists are taking a second look at this market. "In developing a new consumer brand, there's no better opportunity on the Web right now," Taylor says.

Eons.com has raised some $10 million from investors like Monster Worldwide's (MNST) Andrew McKelvey. And later this year, former staffers from an NBC affiliate in Orlando, FLa., have launched another boomer-video Web site, GrowingBolder.com, with money raised from two local companies.WEIRD TENSE, QUERYING THIS

In addition to producing video content that skews toward midlife events, the site features written articles that have a special, generational appeal. One recent article spotlighted a Men's Health magazine survey that found Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former Attorney General Janet Reno "strangely sexy."e

GrowingBolder, some of whose programming already appears on a local Clear Channel (CCU) radio station, also plans to offer video profiles of boomer role models, says Marc Middleton, CEO of Boomer Broadcasting, which produces GrowingBolder.com. One recent radio interviewee was a 96-year-old man who still pilots a plane and is writing his Ph.D. thesis.

GOOD BUSINESS MODELS.

Some of the people pouring cash into boomer Web sites earned their money in the first dot-com boom. Scott Purcell is a serial entrepreneur who launched WebBiographies.com in April.

The founder of an early Internet Service Provider, Purcell raised $100 million in venture capital and helped build several online music download businesses. Now his savings are flowing into WebBiographies.com, which allows users to build family trees, write biographies supplemented with photos, and print their autobiographies in book form.

Customers pay between $24.95 and $84.95 a year for the service, depending on how much storage they require. A note on the WebBiographies site points out that "charges end when you pass away"—but the site promises to preserve your biographies for posterity.

Will WebBiographies.com itself make it to posterity, based on this business model? Purcell believes his company will break even in the first quarter of 2007, based on user fees, advertising and consulting.

On Oct. 1 the site will launch a nationwide network of more than 1,000 agents (think college students). For a small fee, they will help older adults scan their pictures onto the site. It will also offer an interviewing service, allowing people to hire a consultant to go to a nursing home to interview an elderly mother for a WebBiographies.com page.

Other sites, focused on advice, hope to make money partly through revenue sharing with their advice columnists. BoomersTV.com, which started up earlier this year to promote a 13-part TV series called "Boomers! Redefining Life After Fifty," now offers advice from retirement coach Lin Schrieber. She provides up a monthly telecast, online quizzes, and brochures. In the coming months, the site will be adding more coaches and providing relocation and relationship advice.

MATURE MARKETING.

The majority of sites, however, hope to make it through advertising. That's the plan at SuccessTelevision.com, which launched this spring with an emphasis on self-help.

The site seeks to link its content with events covered in mainstream media. For example, if a local TV station is giving blanket coverage to a plant closing and layoffs in the area, SuccessTelevision.com might do an episode focused on helping laid-off workers find a job, says Helen Whelan, a former CNN staffer who is now the CEO of SuccessTelevison, owner of SuccessTelevision.com.

In July the outfit began distributing its content to Comcast.net. It's working with ad agencies to drum up advertiser interest.

Success for boomer ventures on the Net is anything but guaranteed. Programmers are still trying to figure out what types of content will fit the bill for the broadest audience. There are some encouraging signs: AARP says its Web site saw its ad revenues rise 23% last year.

But many sites are still struggling with their identities and have not yet hit their stride, says boomer advertising consultant Chuck Nyron, author of Advertising for Baby Boomers (Paramount Market Publishing, 2005) "Every site has happy, smiling faces of baby boomers and says: 'We want to inspire you'," he explains.


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