There are a lot of preconceptions about the online usage of older adults.
All the way back in 2008, which is practically forever ago in Internet years, the Pew Internet and American Life project reported that over-65 Web users were “just as proficient as the young though less adventurous in the kinds of things they do.”
Boomers are a fast-growing online audience
Fast forward to 2014. In spite of the frequent jokes many younger people make about their parents on Facebook, older adults have been the fastest growing group on Facebook since 2009. [Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project Surveys, Sept. 2005-May 2010]
For many, it was their children or grandchildren who were the impetus for them entering the social media world. And though they’re busy, older adults are highly driven to maintain relationships with those who are important in their lives. Facebook helps them accomplish that.
It’s been shown that with aging comes a tighter social circle (more on that shortly), which plays out in both offline and online social networks. The average number of friends for someone 65+ on Facebook is about 10 percent of the number of friends for someone 18-29 years old.
How many friends are too many?
Evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar coined the “Dunbar Number,” which is the number of people with whom we can maintain a meaningful relationship, whether in a hunter-gatherer society or on Facebook.
The Dunbar number is about 150 people (153.5 to be exact, but the number is an approximation anyway). Those younger than age 50 average 200-300 friends—well over the Dunbar Number of 150.
In contrast, adults age 50+ average 75 or fewer friend connections. You may not think so right away, but that’s a good thing. (Stay with me, we’ll get to the explanation shortly!)
The silver lining of Boomers’ shrinking social circles
Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, said in a November 2013 interview with NPR, “Across adulthood we see social networks narrow. And for many years, people were very concerned and thought this would lead to depression and loneliness and all sorts of problem. And it turns out, what’s happening instead is that older people seem to be pruning their social networks; eliminating some of the more peripheral contacts from their networks but maintaining those people to whom they feel very close.”
“That inner circle is maintained into very, very advanced ages. So that doesn’t shrink, rather it’s the more peripheral part of the network that shrinks,” she said.
Think back to college, and what your close group of friends looked like in your senior year compared to when you started. Different, yes? It keeps happening as we age. Does this mean that older adults don’t form new relationships? No, but it does mean that on the whole, they are more discerning about the relationships they do form.
So what does a smaller, tighter social circle mean to marketers?
Two words: greater influence.
A tighter circle means stronger, more personal connections. And stronger, more personal connections create deeper trust.
Greater influence is derived from trust—a direct result of the closer relationships formed by the “paring down” of a social network.
Consider this statistic from way back in 2007: Boomers get asked their opinion about 90 times per year, and about 90 percent of the time they share it. Over half the time, they share that opinion online. [eMarketer, “Boomers Big on Word of Mouth,” March 21, 2007]
And that was 2007, well before older adults started entering social media in droves!
The point being, the picture is different these days. Much different. Older consumers are becoming more and more engaged online. We’ve seen great success for our clients in social media. For instance, for one client, we built an audience of over 240,000 on Facebook, primarily older adults. The page’s posts regularly get thousands of likes and hundreds of shares, as well as hundreds of deeply personal and meaningful comments.
The circle of trust
It stands to reason that an older adult with around 50 friends stands a greater chance at being heard than a younger person trying to be heard in the cacophony of 300 or more voices (over half of which cannot be meaningful relationships, according to the Dunbar number).
But if you can meaningfully engage an older social media audience, your brand stands to benefit from an informed consumer with great influence within their social circles.
Maybe they’ll even put your brand in their circle of trust.
In your marketing efforts, are you considering how to gain the trust of older consumers? I would love to hear your thoughts below.