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Social Networks and Baby Boomers: Bonanza or Bust?

By John P. Mello Jr.
Jan 1, 2008 9:00 AM PT

There are an estimated 44 million Baby Boomers roaming the Net, and legions of marketers looking for ways to reach them. That's because, as a target market, Boomers have what it takes to make hucksters salivate: money.

Social Networks and Baby Boomers: Bonanza or Bust?

"It's a generation with wealth -- (US)$2 trillion in disposable income -- and they have an incredible appetitive to keep connecting, to keep learning and to keep graduating to new things," Linda Natansohn, senior vice president for strategic development for Eons in Boston, told TechNewsWorld.

Eons was one of the first Web developers to go after Boomers by creating an online social network for them -- a sort of "Facebook with wrinkles," as Matt Richtel, of The New York Times, put it.

"Boomers have been using the Internet, but they've been nomadic," Natansohn observed. "Until now, there hasn't been a destination created for them, which is what we set out to do when we created our company in 2005."

VC Money

Since that time, Boomer-oriented Web sites have mushroomed, and the coffers of venture capitalists, looking for the next MySpace, have opened to them.

In September, for example, VantagePoint Ventures reportedly led a $16.5 million round of financing for Multiply. In August, Shasta Ventures led a $4.8 million round for TeeBeeDee, a site that came out of testing in September.

Despite the enthusiasm of the money people, there are skeptics of the idea of bringing MySpace-style social networking to online Boomers.

Not Optimistic

"In our surveys and in our research, we see that Baby Boomers are much less likely than teenagers, for instance, to participate in social networks," Mark Best, an analyst with JupiterResearch, told TechNewsWorld.

He acknowledged, however, that "whether that's because the social networks are marketed toward teenagers or Baby Boomers are not interested in using a social network, that's up in the air."

Chuck Nyren, author of Marketing to Baby Boomers, published by Paramount Books, and principle in the Nyrenagency, of Snohomish, Wash., made a dire prediction about Boomer social networking sites.

"This is all going to cave in soon," he told TechNewsWorld. "I don't think people over 45 or 50 are that much into virtual socializing unless it's around a specific topic, like travel or health."

Different Outlook

Needless to say, Natansohn disagrees.

"What we've heard loud and clear from Boomers," she said, "is that while they do want information, they do want resources, what they really want to be able do -- and what the Internet is perfect for -- is letting them connect with each other.

"That's where we've found a sweet spot in the market, where there has been a great unmet demand," she added.

Why that demand was allowed to go unmet was because online Boomers were able to evade the crosshairs of marketers for a long time, maintained Terry Cochran, president of A2 Multimedia, of Ann Arbor, Mich., which counts in its stable of Web sites Boomernet, launched in 1995.

"There are certainly more sites today than when we started Boomernet," he told TechNewsWorld. "That's because more people finally decided that the Boomers have money that's worth trying to grab. They were ignored for a long time."

Untested Models

Boomer networking sites are afflicted with the same problem that's plagued all social networking sites, Cochran noted.

"I don't know that anybody has actually done well monetizing that market yet," he said. "I don't know if there's any economic success there yet for anybody, as far as I can tell."

In the minds of marketers, unlike teenagers, who tend to be fickle and financially challenged, Boomers are creatures of habit and flush with wealth, so if they're herded into a social networking site, they should be fat for slaughter.

That reasoning remains untested, though, according to Cochran.

"I don't know that there's been some special result proven so far that even though Boomers have the bucks, that they're willing to spend them any more than any other demographic would," he observed.


This story was originally published on Sept. 14, 2007, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.


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