Healthcare Marketing to Seniors: How to Create and Distribute on-Target Messaging

By Stewart Gandolf
Chief Executive Officer

Older caucasian couple smiling with bridge in the background

Is your “marketing to seniors” an audience turn-off? Are you inadvertently alienating the mature audience that you want to attract?

Many people get genuinely upset—insulted, really—for a simple reason. This audience doesn’t like being included in the advertiser’s image of a “mature audience.” It seems to portray them as nearly over-the-hill, which is strongly contrary to their younger self-image.

Collectively, this is the most affluent segment of our society. Nearly half of all US purchasing dollars are from senior citizens. It’s no wonder that the marketing floodgates open when would-be marketers discover a 50th birthday and attack.

Is 50 a senior age? Is 50 the new 30? In some instances, the off-course message is about healthcare. It may be from a hospital, medical system or provider group. But quite often, the audience is bombarded with retail sales pitches—tons of them—for the likes of AARP, pharma brands, Medicare Advantage, hearing aids, wellness devices, retirement communities, life insurance, cosmetics and many others.

It feels like an early push toward obsolescence. Based upon the age-related avalanche, you would think consumers over 50 have no other interests besides things like hemorrhoid creams, pharmaceuticals for every imaginable ailment, chairlifts, and electric mobility scooters.

How to Market to Seniors: Rethink Your Creative and Media Perspective

Broadcast media, direct mail and social media may be faulty if the message is taken as derisive. Regardless of the chronological age, they (meaning all of us) self-identify with a younger age/image. Sometimes that’s a lot younger, and the message comes across as patronizing or outright insulting.

Many people don’t appreciate being labeled a “senior citizen” or seeing an audience picture that’s an “old and gray” individual. The unintended but unflattering translation rubs against their younger mindset. To them, it announces: “You are aging, elderly, over the hill, old-timer, geriatric, wrinkly, and/or downright ancient.”

Was it a 25-ish young gun in the office who created the ad? Experienced marketing professionals and healthcare communicators recognize and avoid this classic mistake. But for freshmen communicators anxious to tap the buying power of mature Americans, this is a cautionary tale.

Here’s how to safeguard against this creative mistake and how to market to seniors.

How old is old? Define “senior citizen,” and then avoid using that term.

Depending on your source, a typical generational breakdown lists society as five slices:

  • Gen Z, iGen, or Centennials: Born 1996 – 2015
  • Millennials or Gen Y: Born 1977 – 1995
  • Generation X: Born 1965 – 1976
  • Baby Boomers: Born 1946 – 1964
  • Traditionalists or Silent Generation: Born 1945 and before

But for marketing minds, SENIOR most often means the BABY BOOMER cohort. “As the largest generational group in US history (until the millennial generation slightly surpassed them), baby boomers have had—and continue to have—a significant impact on the economy. As a result, they are often the focus of marketing campaigns and business plans.”

Baby boomers hold $2.6 trillion in buying power. They’re credited as one of the wealthiest generations to date and are still economically powerful despite their old age.”

A broader criterion for human age comes from the World Health Organization (WHO), based on average health quality and life expectancy:

  • 0 to 17 years = Underage
  • 18 to 65 years = Youth or young people
  • 66 to 79 years = Middle-aged
  • 80 to 99 years = Senior
  • 100+ years = Long-lived Elderly

Redefining the Persona: “I Don’t Feel Like How I look.”

But wait. We said it’s confusing. It’s the age that you feel. Marketing professionals need to consider the age that people hold in their brain as their self-identified age. It’s a challenge, but research tells us that the age you feel is more important than your birth year.

Studies show that: “People who report feeling younger tend to live longer and healthier lives — and they don’t tend to have as much of a pattern of decline.” In most cases, people say they feel about 20 percent younger than they are, according to a Michigan State study of more than 500,000 people. This keeps ramping up as folks age. Beginning at age 50, many say they feel about 10 years younger.

Respected Pew Research plots the gap between “actual” and “felt” age. “The gap…widens as people grow older. Nearly half of all survey respondents ages 50 and older say they feel at least 10 years younger than their chronological age. Among respondents ages 65 to 74, a third say they feel 10 to 19 years younger than their age, and one-in-six say they feel at least 20 years younger than their actual age.”

Various studies have shown that your subjective age can also predict various important health outcomes, including your risk of death. In some very real ways, you are ‘only as old as you feel’. Given these enticing results, many researchers are now trying to unpick the many biological, psychological, and social factors that shape the individual experience of aging – and how this knowledge might help us live longer healthier lives.”

How to Frame Your Marketing Message to Seniors

Devise an on-target creative message, without the snub. Nearly every creative message needs to begin with an awareness that the target audience is likely to have a lower/younger self-image.

It’s essential that marketing to seniors and advertising allow for a “subjective age,” or the degree to which people feel younger (or older) than their birth-year age. Subjective age influences their physical and mental health.

There are some exceptions, of course. But the overarching perspective is that this group is not simply one large, “everyone-is-old,” homogeneous block. To the extent possible, identify the target audience sub-sections. Are you addressing, for example, active/retired, still-working…or perhaps inactive or physically challenged? (Be sure to remember family member influencers as well.)

Some of the things your creative message should consider when marketing to older adults:

Error on the side of younger, not older. For reasons outlined above, “elderly” is a powerful negative that can quickly alienate your audience. Your creative content can imply—and offend—the mature audience. Carefully construct a target audience/buyer profile that considers a subjective age at least 10 years younger than the chronological age.

Retirement is a place without clear borders, according to Pew Research. Fully 83 percent of adults ages 65 and older describe themselves as retired. But just three-quarters of 65-plus adults have completely left the working world. An additional eight percent say they are retired but are working part-time; two percent say they are retired but working full time; and three percent say they are retired but looking for work. The remaining 11 percent describe themselves as still in the labor force, though not all of them have jobs.

Work on building trust. Mature individuals have enough life experience to value trust when it’s earned. Personal data and product assurances reinforce a welcome sense of security.

Mature buyers take their time. This consumer group is less likely to jump at “limited-time-offer,” or similar language. They tend to have less concern for implied urgency.

Senior minds want straight-forward marketing facts. They don’t like broad generalizations about products or services. Simplicity is good.

These consumers shop for affordability and value. They have less concern about the straight-up price tag. They want to feel there is substance and value in their purchase decision.

Be direct and speak their language. Friends and family may be influencers, but older adults make their own purchase decisions. Marketing to seniors should include straight/honest talk.

Make it simple and easy; seniors are distinctly different from millennials. The younger audience grew-up in a rapid-fire, multi-click computer world. Your mature audience may be pretty computer-savvy, but they want a clear and direct language and purchase process step.

Personalize, personalize. Older Americans appreciate excellence in customer service. Digital media, in particular, can present messages that are directed to the audience with individual precision.

Loyalty counts. When marketing to older adults, it may be a long road to attract, educate, inform and convince. But ultimately, older customers are likely to remain loyal and regular consumers.

The Media Tools to Reach the Mature Audience

Because the senior cohort is large and has many faces, (a) it’s best to refine the target audience as much as possible, and (b) this is not a digital-traditional “either/or.” An appropriate solution will likely be a well-rounded, multichannel marketing plan.

Multichannel Marketing. Perhaps surprisingly, the 50-plus crowd routinely uses various communications channels, both traditional and online. A select combination of mediums (for example, Facebook, Twitter, AdWords, Direct Mail and Broadcast) can be precision focused when marketing to seniors.

Traditional media. What is the best way to advertise to seniors? Newspapers, broadcast, direct mail, out-of-home, etc.—all existed before digital arrived. Hence, older audiences use these familiar resources often. The Boomer group routinely watches more TV than other generations. In addition, they use print media as they have throughout their lives.

Digital media. These are the online resources. Digital provides near-real-time advantages of analytics, tracking, campaign versatility, and audience-specific, targeted messages. This age group has time to browse the Internet via various devices—laptop, iPhone and/or iPad. What’s more, senior Americans are increasing their use of social media.

Business News Daily reports: “Many marketers reported that Facebook was the most useful platform for reaching an older demographic. According to Pew, 62 percent of Internet users ages 65 and older use Facebook, and 72 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds use it. Facebook has the highest number of users in these age ranges.”

“YouTube and Facebook continue to dominate the online landscape, with 81 percent and 69 percent, respectively, reporting ever using these sites,” according to the Pew Research Center.

Baby Boomers and Marketing

Older Americans—sometimes labeled as Baby Boomers or (perilously as) Senior Citizens—are a vital target audience for healthcare marketing. Instead of attracting, the wrong choice of words or image in advertising can inadvertently be offensive and an instant turn-off. This is an economically powerful demographic group, and sensitivity and awareness can help avoid a classic faux pas.

Instead, excellence in marketing and advertising can communicate your brand message, educate and win a new and loyal (mature) audience group. For this target audience, we often integrate traditional with digital media for maximum ROI.

If it’s time to expand your market share of Senior Citizens effectively, please connect with us. Let’s explore how to leverage your message ahead of the competition.

Stewart Gandolf

Chief Executive Officer at Healthcare Success

Stewart Gandolf, MBA, is Chief Executive Officer of Healthcare Success, one of the nation’s leading healthcare and digital marketing agencies. Over the past 20 years, Stewart has marketed and consulted for over 1,000 healthcare clients, ranging from practices and hospitals to multi-billion dollar corporations. A frequent speaker, Stewart has shared his expertise at over 200 venues nationwide. As an author and expert resource, Stewart has also written for many leading industry publications, including the 21,000 subscriber Healthcare Success Insight blog. Stewart also co-authored, “Cash-Pay Healthcare: Start, Grow & Perfect Your Cash-Pay Healthcare Business.” Stewart began his career with leading advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson, where he marketed Fortune 500 clients such as Wells Fargo and Bally’s Total Fitness.

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