Older people are flocking to new technology, and marketers need to keep up.
The young are the internet's natural audience, responding instantly to new ideas and technologies. But it is their parents and grandparents who have the cash to spend - and, as they join the party online, marketers are scrambling for their attention.
Last year saw the emergence of several community sites that cater specifically to the needs and interests of the over 50s,such as finance, health, retirement hobbies and travel. Now the emphasis is shifting to shopping: online portal Easypeezy.com, aimed at the over-50s, will launch later this year and the veteran over-50s magazine Saga recently announced it will expand its site.
Older users can also choose from a growing range of specialist sites, such as gardening service Crocus.co.uk, and Sexhealth.co.uk, which offers alternative remedies for libido loss.
In the US, 'silver surfers' are growing rapidly. A recent survey by Wired! Merrill Lynch, revealed that 15% of the country's 50 million internet users are over 50, compared with 5% a year earlier. Around 40% have bought online, spending [pounds]90 on average.
Age doesn't matter
Companies are wising up to this. DirectLine's TV advertising, for example, featured a middle-aged man disappearing into his den to sort out his finances online rather than show the typically youthful figure of most internet advertising campaigns.
In the UK, IDC recently pegged the number of 50-plus internet users at 900,000. However, Vavo, a thriving community site for this age group, says it has been getting visits from 1.3 million individuals.
It's a market worth pursuing. Grey market specialist Senioragency points out that the over-50s have a disposable income of [pounds]166bn a year, and spend freely on premium products. They account for 80% of the luxury car market, and typically buy around [pounds]80 of CDs at a time, compared with the average youth spend of [pounds]15-[pounds]20. Not only do they have more money; they have the time to spend it and to think up creative ways of doing so.
"There is a stereotype of older people going on cruises, but they will just as soon go fly fishing in Alaska or trekking in the Himalayas," says executive director Neil Jenner.
The combination of wealth and diversity of interest makes older consumers natural users of the net as an information and buying channel. However, as Jenner says: "They want it in a concise and clear way. They demand high levels of service: if you don't deliver you won't get another chance."
But get it right and you will benefit, argues Maria Morris, a partner at investment company Alberdale and Co, which is financing Easypeezy.com. "Young people are fickle and hard to reach, so you have to spend a lot more money trying to attract and keep them," she points out. "The over-50s are more loyal. They have more time to sit and learn about things."
One service popular with the over 50s online is ticket purchasing. Two-thirds of theatre tickets sold by Firstcalltickets.com are bought by 45-to 65-year-olds, according to the company's recent research. A focus group it runs suggests that older users have a grip on the web that far surpasses that of 18- to 25-year-olds, particularly when it comes to their social life.
"Booking tickets online is second nature to them, and they know all the money-saving tricks," says marketing director Bob Willmott. "Perhaps it is the extra time that many older people have that makes the difference."
"Once people get online, they tend to become hooked, no matter their age," agrees Guy Stainthorpe, marketing director at mail-order catalogue Classic Direct, which targets the over-45s. Although so far only 10% of its subscribers have internet access, its new web service has gone down well and is expected to grow.
Hooked on chat
E-mail and the opportunity to chat are just as significant for older people as for other age-groups. …