Older Adults and Social Media, Part II: Talking with the Experts

In my last post, I asked you to think about the ways in which your organization’s social media strategies might be affected by the growing number of users over age 50.  While age diversity is just one of many factors to consider when thinking about your organization’s online audience, it can be used as a point of departure in order to examine broader ideas about how to foster audience engagement through social media. To learn more, I asked three experts to answer five questions about what the rise of older adults using social media might mean for arts organizations.  Below, you'll find insight from Ron Evans, Principal of Groupofminds.com Arts Marketing Consultants, Brian Reich, Managing Director of little m media and editor of thinkingaboutmedia.com, and Maryann Devine, founder of smArts & Culture and a host of tomorrow's webinar, "How to Make the Most of Your Facebook Page".

When you first began advising arts organizations in their social media strategies, how strong was the tendency to appeal to specifically younger audiences?  How did that translate into the content and tone of an organization’s social media identity?

maryanndevineMARYANN DEVINE: At that time, the desire to reach a younger, new audience was usually the primary reason for branching out into social media.  Most groups assumed that their older, traditional audience wasn't online, much less using social media, and that belief is still prevalent today.  However, most groups didn't get that social media spaces demand a different voice -- more personal, more human -- than the marketing and advertising materials they were used to producing.  They were reaching for a fun, hip tone; but in most cases, like your parents trying to be cool, they weren't very convincing.


RON EVANS:  Reaching younger audiences has always been the initial main focus for the arts organizations I've come in contact with.  I can't say that organizations were specifically writing content in a style to reach a younger audience (although that would be interesting).  For the most part, the content I see today is not age-specific at all.  And oftentimes the tone is still very institutional, where it should be conversational.  David Dombrosky just had a great quote over at the arts marketing blog salon that I agree with:  “When social media sites are used with a motivation for engagement rather than self-promotion, they often lead to those desired marketing outcomes of increased sales and brand awareness.”

brianreichBRIAN REICH:  The age of the audience has never mattered as much to me, and the people I advise.  Everyone's lives are influenced by technology -- and now the Internet.  Adoption was consistent across different age groups, but the usage patterns were very different, and that was where my focus has always been trained.  Rather than look at younger audiences and their willingness to do certain things online, I wanted to identify what opportunities were available in terms of engaging any audience and then advise organizations on what that means to their work, online and offline.

Do you find that organizations are beginning to understand the implications of strong social media engagement across demographics, or does it continue to be largely seen as a way to reach younger audiences?

B.R.: Yes and no.  I think there is significantly more willingness to experiment and explore what is possible online, and through social media, but most organizations still lack a deep commitment to what is required to fully engage and fully leverage what is possible.  Using the tools is not enough -- its how you use them that's important.  Most organizations still don't share enough.  More organizations still don't listen enough, or well enough.  Most organizations don't engage enough.  We have seen organizations integrate social media into their marketing and communications mix without changing the way they operate, organize, their staffing, etc.  I would argue that we need to shift and reset the way we do everything to make the kind of advances that are possible.

R.E.: Only now am I seeing that they are realizing that there are other segments who are using Facebook. The often-quoted statistic is that the fastest-growing segment on Facebook is women over 60. That's probably true -- Facebook is where all the photos from the grandkids and such are located now. But that may be all the people are doing -- they may not be playing Facebook games, writing on the walls of arts organizations, or even updating their own status. The statistics are still being gathered about their true activity, but since that age range has traditionally been great at supporting the arts, it makes sense for arts organizations to start talking to them too.

M.D.: My experience has been that most arts organizations, whose traditional audience skews older, still assume that they're not using social media. We haven't been effective in communicating to them research findings to the contrary. The Pew Internet & American Life project found that social media use by U.S. seniors doubled last year, and 13% of people 65 and older log onto a social networking site on a typical day.

Do you find that different age groups have different needs and wants from social media?

R.E.:  If you take email as the main form of communication as the base, you can look outside of that to see what people are doing. Email is still the primary way of communicating for business purposes. Some folks are just using it for that (sending an occasional email) and are mainly using Facebook for all peer-to-peer communications. Some people use Twitter for that as well, but of course, your messages tend to be much shorter.

M.D.: I think the one desire that unites people of all ages using social media is connection. Younger people are more likely to be creating and publishing original content online, and that likelihood goes down with age. Across the board, the people Forrester Research calls joiners -- those who join social networks, for example -- and spectators -- people who read blogs but don't comment, for instance -- are most prevalent.

B.R.: I think different people have different wants and needs from media generally, online and more traditional forms -- but it goes beyond age.  When looking at different audience groups there are four things that help to determine, from my perspective, what people want and need.  Demographics (which includes age), psychographics (what people read, watch on TV, the car they drive, etc.), technographics (their comfort with different types of technology or expectations when using a particular platform or channel) and behavioral info -- specifically what they have done in a certain context before.  Yes, age does impact how people get/share information and what they expect, but there are other factors that help to create a more complete and more interesting profile of an audience that we can use to consider how an organization might communicate.

Have you found that certain social media techniques are more effective for users of different ages?

M.D.:  Sure. As I said, different age groups use social media in different ways, so, for instance, it might be effective to connect to your boomer audience through Facebook or get them to join a private social network because they're likely to be joiners. But getting them to post comments, photos, or come up with a creative entry to a contest might be a stretch because on the whole, they're not big on creating and publishing original content.

R.E.: Currently, I know of no arts organization that segments to different age groups, because Facebook and Twitter do not make it easy to do this. You could set up multiple accounts of course, but that's pretty cumbersome to manage. I think this capability will be coming though...

B.R.:  I don't think it’s about the technique, but rather how the target audience gets/shares information, what their expectations are in a particular situation, etc. The same techniques will work, or not work, on the same audience depending on what the conversation is about, or the time of day or location of the interaction.  Its common for organizations to look to the tactics, or the tools, as the solution to a communications challenge - but that is a mistake.  The tools and tactics are what facilitates the engagement - and they are flexible enough to adapt to any situation.  What organizations need to really understand are their goals (and how to measure their desired outcomes/impact) and the strategy for meeting those goals -- how they need to approach the challenge.  What we do know is that every audience, in every situation, is fundamentally looking for the same thing: little m media... which I define as timely, relevant, compelling INFORMATION, meaningful EXPERIENCES that they want to share, talk to people about and similar, and/or STUFF that people value and want to have as a part of their lives.  If you can provide good information, experiences and stuff, the mediums and tactics can always vary and you'll still find success.

Are there any tools or methods that can help us target our various demographic bases effectively?  Any tips on how we can tailor our communication to specific audience segments while still maintaining brand consistency?

B.R.:  Again, you have to look beyond just demographics and really start to appreciate the psychographic, technographic and behavioral information.  There are lots of studies available, lots of free data that you can look at... and if you take different pieces and parts and mash it up you will find a pretty compelling profile of your audience form which will help you to make some choices about your communications efforts.  Pay attention to how people act.  Consider what people want.  Ask questions. Build deeper profiles of your targets, and members and supporters, and everyone else, by collecting information and determining WHY someone took a certain action or favored a particular opportunity.  If you can do that the rest will turn out to be much easier.

R.E.: Perhaps I can answer this best by telling you what's missing from Facebook. Facebook needs to offer a way to segment messages based on whatever grouping of people you want. As a patron, I should be able to be a part of different "clubs" that are connected to an organization's Facebook page, so I can segment myself into a club of my choosing. That club would have it's own status updates and leaders who would help the communication to happen around a shared sub-interest, such as "Opening Night Singles Club" or the "Matinee and Coffee" club. Right now, the one-size fits all of Facebook pages doesn't allow a whole lot of flexibility. I think this will get here eventually, and I think the capabilities to manage a social media presence inside an organization will also grow to be able to accommodate this new capability.

M.D.: Forrester Research makes a number of tools free and available on their site, including the Social Technographics Profile tool.  I think that, in tailoring your communications to specific audience segments, you should picture yourself personally talking to real people in each of those segments in different situations. For instance, you'd use a different tone in talking to your grandmother than you would in talking to your daughter's college roommate, but you'd still sound like yourself. It's the same with the voice you use as an organization -- you can adjust for the context of the conversation while still sounding authentically like you.