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In the past, Gen X and baby boomers have been described as promising demographics for social media marketers. Today, this statement, positive as it is, doesn’t really do them justice.

By the end of 2020 we’d noticed that traditional differences between “young” and “old” were increasingly out of date.

Our coronavirus research tracked behaviors during the crisis, and as initial spikes in online activity among younger consumers quickly settled down, older groups kept these habits up. This bridged the familiar generation gap on social media, with many onlookers wondering if this unexpected change would stick. 

Now we’re able to give you the latest update; and a year on, this trend is still going strong. Our research suggests a number of reasons for this.

Smartphones have changed the game on social media

The pandemic helped close the age-related digital divide. Put simply, social for boomers is now a thing.

Around the time of the first lockdown, this group passed a major milestone. Q2 2020 was the first time a majority of boomers considered smartphones to be more important than PCs/laptops. Plus, in terms of favoring the smartphone over other devices, the gap between boomers and Gen Z/millennials has almost halved since 2015. 

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

Chart showing how central mobiles are to the online purchase experience of Gen X and baby boomers.

Given that popular apps like Instagram were developed with smartphones in mind, they’re naturally associated with higher levels of social media engagement. This pattern certainly holds true for Gen X and boomers: they spend over an hour more using their smartphone on a typical day than in 2015, and nearly half an hour extra on social media. 

New considerations for social media marketers

With digital participation no longer a top factor in generational targeting, social media marketers can focus more on differences in how each group consumes.  

Rather than just scrolling through updates, older demographics tend to use social networks in a more purposeful way than their younger peers. 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 highly relevant here.

39-64s are more likely to have made an online purchase in the last week (41% vs 39%), and just as likely to have done so via smartphone.

Ecommerce sites that currently prioritize the needs of younger groups may need to rethink their game plan.

Older consumers worry more about personal privacy when shopping online, a concern that’s slowing their adoption of social commerce. Given the scale of the opportunity this group represents, companies will benefit from finessing their data privacy strategies with this age group in mind. 

The reasons for catering to older people are clear. They tend to shop online more regularly than average, often logging on with a particular objective. They’re also more tempted by offers like free delivery, discount codes, and loyalty points. 

To make the most of this opportunity, brands need a detailed picture of what the ideal online social experience looks like for older groups, then deliver it flawlessly.

Apps and groups offer more chances for brand engagement. 

Gen X and boomers aren’t just spending more time on social media; they’ve also expanded their footprint within this space. They have an average of 5.8 accounts, proof their social media presence is no longer limited to Facebook – if that was ever the case. 

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

Bar chart showing which social media platforms are most commonly used to find information on brands and products.

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

In addition to fashion and travel, Pinterest is a great place for brands to help older consumers make decisions about home-related purchases and prepare for the next stage of their lives. For example, the COVID-19 crisis strengthened the urge to plan ahead, with 30% of Gen X and boomers saying that saving for retirement has become more important to them in the last year.

Brands that offer older consumers ways to organize or simplify their lives stand to do well. 

On the other hand, businesses targeting boomers need to approach marketing on a site like Instagram in a different way, as these consumers use it more to share or find entertainment. That doesn’t mean brands can neglect marketing products on these platforms; simply that relevant, high quality content should be the conversation starter. 

Seasalt, a fashion brand that caters to older fashionistas, has filled its Instagram account with the inspiration behind its products, tempting recipes, and clips of the company’s team bonding activities. In contrast, H&M’s Instagram account, which targets younger shoppers, succeeds by offering a very clear, shoppable, virtual storefront. 

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

Many older adults don’t see themselves reflected in marketing campaigns.

The global population is aging, and it’s important for marketers to get their messaging right in order to reflect this. Unfortunately, our data shows they’re generally missing the mark. Rightly or wrongly, aging consumers feel neglected.

Globally, just 15% of older consumers feel represented in the advertising they see, rising to 20% among those who follow brands or influencers on social media.

While many groups say something similar, Gen X and boomers score well below average.

Unsurprisingly then, they’re more likely to describe ads on social media as excessive or intrusive compared to their younger counterparts, with a perceived lack of adequate or accurate representation underpinning their response.

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

Chart showing the personality traits Gen X and boomer brand/influencer followers consider themselves to have.

Older groups report feeling younger than their age and tend to enjoy better health than previous generations. It’s therefore easy to see why they don’t see themselves reflected in the four basic categories outlined above. 

In the last couple of years, there’s been a rise in the number of 50+ influencers making a big impact across lifestyle, fitness, and fashion sectors. This shift shows that people of any age can be young at heart, and brands can tap into this dynamic.

AARP, a group that empowers consumers to live their best life as they grow older, has filled its Pinterest account with advice on how followers can find their best hair color, live stronger, and host elegant dinner parties. These kinds of posts reflect the ways plenty of older adults see themselves – as outgoing, creative, and adventurous. 

At the end of the day, this group doesn’t want to feel 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 brands keep their messaging age-appropriate and reap the rewards.

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