Challenging the demographic myth of the web: Why ‘silver surfers’ should be part of your customer ba

The Saga catalogue has been a long running joke within my family and is often presented to family members on their 50th birthdays, normally with lashings of sarcastic comment. The very idea of a special holiday scheme for those over 50 seems hilarious. However as a disclaimer, I am in my thirties and reserve the right to change my mind at a later date!

My own prejudice aside, whenever we bring up the inevitable question "where are you going / did you go this year?" then even with older relatives, the answer is less likely to have come from the Saga brochure and more likely to be based on online research.

Old, but racing online

The press seem to have a fascination with older internet users. The Daily Mail for example continues to use the fairly predictable description, "silver surfer". Whichever way you want to label this demographic there is a tendency to associate it with technophobia or a general lack of interest in the online world.

However, while stories of the world's oldest Twitter user, Ivy Bean aged 104, are presented as hilarious exceptions, the facts simply don't stack up. The over 60s demographic continues to be the fastest growing online presence. A survey undertaken by AXA reveals online activity is the most cited hobby for British pensioners with DIY and gardening being knocked back into second place.

Looking at Facebook alone, if you search on www.insidefacebook.com for "growth" and "age" you immediately see some impressive stats. For instance, the second and third fastest growth categories are male and females aged 55 - 65!

The logic to the trend

So it's clear the silver surfer isn't a passing fad, in fact as our population cumulatively grows older we can expect the trend to accelerate.

Given the increasing physical limitations that come with age, it is highly rational that older people would be greater users of the web. After all, their days of playing football, skiing and mountain climbing are usually behind them.

In this case, and rather unusually the Government could be seen as a leader, as more services than ever are abandoning their expensive physical presence and moving to the online channel. NHS Direct is the classic example, not surprising since it's fundamentally cheaper to provide information online.

NHS Direct gets the seal of approval from my grandmother; she is in her 80s and regularly uses the web. In fact NHS Direct seems to have thought ahead; it's easy to personalize by changing the background colour or altering the font type and size. However, thinking about the needs of the elderly, it's really important that the information is accessible, regardless of capability.

Not too old to play

Staying with my grandmother, I'm still surprised to tell you that she has a virtual Farm on Facebook! She points out the navigation is clear, it's easy to use and saves her time. And clearly those crops won't be harvested if she is sat waiting for her GP -- another reason to use NHS Direct.

The profit motive

Supporting senior surfers is also extremely lucrative. I was talking to an online merchant recently who decided to branch into a specific product range for the 60+ bracket. He reports the cost of customer acquisition is lower and cart values are generally higher.

Young designers, older browsers

Conducting my own, unscientific, research at my company's annual customer conference, I realised that almost every designer I know is under the age of 50. I would even go so far as to say the average age is probably in their early 30s. This isn't particularly surprising; it's still a young industry. The key point is that designers must remember that they are not typical. There is a massive proportion of the web browsing world that doesn't have 20-20 vision or precise motor control. Factoring this into a site design is essential. If you are interested in learning more, the W3C has published a fairly comprehensive overview, available at http://www.w3.org/WAI/guid-tech.html.

In designing the user experience, it's also important to remember that many elderly web users retired before the internet, or even the PC was used extensively in the work place. Indeed, my own experience with my family confirms this. For this reason it's a good idea to stick to conventional methods when designing sites. If you confuse the visitor they are more likely to become frustrated and abandon your site.

The last great prejudice?

Silver Surfers, The Gigabyte Granny, or whatever terrible term we use to describe the senior citizens that access our sites is really a terrible generic insult. In writing this piece I found it fascinating and surprising to understand how the web is used, and now relied upon. The question is whether you are keeping your web designer under appropriate control. The test is to look at your own web site: are you missing an opportunity, or are you maximising the profit potential of the older demographic?

Written by Ben Dyer, director of product development at Sellerdeck. Originally published on BusinessZone.

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