Has Tech Forgotten Boomers?

Mark Lowenstein / August 26th, 2016

Even for those who never watched The Brady Bunch, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” is a well-known meme. When it comes to consumer tech, I think we can invoke a similar meme: “Millenials, Millennials, Millennials”. A huge amount of attention, as well as many new products and services, are focused on this admittedly large and amorphous segment comprised of people currently aged 15-25. Barely a day goes by without seeing something in my inbox akin to “Marketing to Millennials”, “Understanding Millennials”, “Why Millennials Aren’t Buying Houses”. Investors seem to love anything with good prospects for success in the millennial market.

But what about Baby Boomers? Even though millennials overtook boomers in 2015 as the largest group in the U.S., there are still around 75 million boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). Some 10,000 are retiring every day. This is the group that drove email, the early days of the Web, AOL, the late 1990s internet boom, the early days of cellular and e-commerce, played a big role in the success of Blackberry and the initial iPhone, and even got comfortable with online dating (Match.com understands this).

Whether it’s Mary Meeker’s seminal “State of the Internet” report, or the hottest Silicon Valley companies, products, and apps, boomers don’t seem to be a big part of the conversation or the focus of product development. Yet, this is a fascinating group, currently aged 50-70, going through important life stages — mid-life issues, empty nesterdom, downsizing, and retirement. I think tech companies are missing some opportunities, given the disproportionate focus on millennials and the up-and-coming Snapchatting, Cord Cutting, Pokemon Go–ing Gen Zers.

What are some of the wants and needs of this group and what product development opportunities might match up? First, this is a group that wants tech to be easy. They don’t want to have to do a lot of self-provisioning and troubleshooting. They over-index iPhone to Android, they buy AppleCare, and they still have cable. I think this is a segment ripe for what Apple is planning for TV. Millennials are cutting the cord because they are comfortable with the perambulations of what’s needed to do it. They think on-demand when it comes to entertainment (what time? what channel? Who knows/cares?). But if Apple or somebody else can make cutting the cord and the whole search/discovery process easier, there is real potential to shake up the traditional pay TV space.

Boomers are also a segment that want some level of human interaction when it comes to customer service. Older boomers want someone to do it for them (make sure my phone is set up before I leave the store), while younger boomers might be prepared to do some self-service but will want a human being on the other end of the [phone!] at a certain point. Younger boomers are now reaching a stage where their teenagers, AKA, VP of Technology for the Household, are leaving for college. So they are going to be on their own when it comes to tech. GULP!

A great case study here is Fitbit. They have achieved dominance in the fitness tracker segment and basically created this market for boomers because top sellers such as the Flex and HR do three things: address a growing area of interest for the segment (health and light fitness, not super geeky or competitive which is the target market for folks like Garmin); are easy to install and configure, with a limited but vital set of functions; and an easy company to deal with (lots of help resources, good customer service). They’re the Apple of the fitness tracker space. On the other hand, boomers are not unlocking some of the real value of these products because product and feature extensions are hard or cumbersome. Try to configure and connect a scale? Works out of the gate, but often breaks and hard to troubleshoot. Track nutrition? Gotta be easier. Integrate with other apps? Not a lot of standards yet.

We also recognize the boomer segment is moving through different life stages. At the younger end, they are becoming empty nesters, starting to downsize, moving back to the city, divorcing at higher than the average rate, and spending time thinking about what’s next, with more leisure time on their hands but also with aging parents to worry about. The older segment is retiring but has the active lifestyle of those ten years younger a generation ago. They are worrying more about health issues and costs.

So, what does this mean for the tech sector? I think there are some really interesting opportunities here. A few particular areas:

Kids Going to College. One thing boomers will miss about their teens is the in-house tech support. An opportunity for a fresher, more contemporized version of Geek Squad. Maybe even house calls?
Downsizing/moving back to the city. Zillow is a great one-size-fits-all web site/app but there could be a better resource to help those 55-70 years old optimize where to live, type of dwelling, and lifestyle for their next life stage
Mid-life crisis stuff. All of a sudden, boomers have more time and disposable income. They want to do new things, have different experiences, meet people again, re-engage with their community. There could be some interesting products and apps that help them do these things. Facebook could do more for them here. Or is there an opportunity for a boomer-centric social network?
Travel. Related to the above point. Travel sites/apps are monolithic and have become a virtual monopoly. They’re adequate for finding the cheapest airfare/hotel/car. But there are some great opportunities that fuse the old (i.e. travel agents) with the new. A guy who seems to understand this is Paul English, founder of Kayak and now founder of Lola, which is a new kind of travel company that provides on-demand, personal travel service through a smartphone app. And boomers are willing to spend. Just look at the success of high-end active travel company Back Roads, which has morphed from bike tours to walking/hiking/intergenerational (and does great in the boomer segment).
Health Care. There are lots of health care sites, apps, and a growing number of ‘connected’ health devices. But other than fitness trackers, there aren’t as many breakout products or services here. Boomers are an important segment in the connected/digital health care space. It was telling that Apple recently bought Gliimpse, a three-year-old startup that helps patients make sense of their medical records. Health Kit has huge potential but has been a disappointment so far.

Finally, as some of the large boomer segment ages, there are lots of little things that could be done to make products easier to use. This is not ‘products for old people’, but minor features and UI elements like bigger buttons, larger fonts, better guidance out of the box, and more hand-holding. Thinking about boomers will certainly be important in the burgeoning IoT segments if companies want to sell connected home and connected car products or services to anyone over the age of 50.

Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.
  • Glaurung-Quena

    The reason the tech sector is ignoring older demographics is simple. Most of the hottest and biggest tech companies are fueled by advertising, and so startups have all flocked to that tiny corner of the potential range of business models, since they are basically using the duckling method of picking a corporate strategy.

    That would be the model where you mindlessly follow whoever is in front of you, regardless of how foolish their destination is for your needs.

    And older demographics are of very little interest to advertisers because their brand tastes have already been established. They have also learned, by long experience, to ignore ads much more effectively than younger demographics. Younger demographics are catnip to advertisers because they are still relatively naive and their tastes are still malliable.

    Basing your business on advertising is incredibly limiting, because it means you are serving two masters, the people whose attention you need to procure and the advertising clients who pay you. And because you must acquire people’s attention, it severely limits what kinds of business you can go into. Attention is a limited and fickle resource, so you are constantly scrambling for more of it, while a more direct, one-master business model means you only have to obtain customer satisfaction and loyalty to succeed, and they never need to pay attention to your product, merely be well served by it and happy with it.

    Apple and Amazon are the big outliers in the tech field, in that their business models don’t rely on advertising. However, few companies seem interested in following their lead, and yet fewer seem able to do so, since the social skills and empathy required to create a product that is easy and fun to use and that people will like and care about and be willing to pay for seems to be beyond the skill set of the typical tech nerd.

  • davebarnes

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge%27s_law_of_headlines

    On the other hand, where is the app to get kids off my lawn?

  • Gary Kaye

    You delineate the very subjects we cover every day at Tech50+ (www.tech50plus.com). You can only imagine our frustration as we try to disabuse potential advertisers and marketers about what the 50+ generation really wants. While things like smartphones are still high on the list, the most successful post we’ve ever done was about family camping gear. Go figure. Ironically, one of the most popular brands for the 50+ crowd is Apple, which serves many of our needs, has great accessibility features, but won’t market to us. Are they embarrassed?

    • Thanks for the post. Apple is popular with this group for many of the reasons cited in my piece: they provide excellent support, tutorials, lessons, you can talk to a human being. Compared to Google, which is ‘on your own’ land. What other tech companies do a good job with this?

  • mattpieper

    Overall a decent article, but you have the incorrect age range of ” millennials”. That range should extend to at least age 32.

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