by David Weigelt
Since I’m not-yet-50, my friends like to tease me about attending AARP’s Life @ 50+ event. Regardless of what they say, AARP does certain things really well at its annual convention that I look forward to, one of which is their general session on the closing day.
Over the past several years, I’ve been immersed in conversations by the likes of Bill Cosby, Maya Angelou and Michael and Kirk Douglas. What I love is how AARP gives their speakers a topic and then cuts them loose in terms of where the conversation goes. This year I was especially excited for the closing session. It wasn’t because of the headliners, Whoopi Goldberg and Larry (I don’t need little blue pills to procreate at 70) King; it was a panel discussion themed “AARP’s Digital Experience.”
The panel was hosted by my friend, and the queen of boomer marketing, Mary Furlong, and included an interesting mix of voices from the past, present and future. Representing the past was award-winning director, Rob Reiner; representing the present was Chief Internet Evangelist for Google and “father” of the Internet, Vint Cerf; and, finally, representing the future was a little known professor from USC’s Center for the Digital Future, Jeffery Cole.
The conversation started with some general thoughts from each of the panelist on what the “digital experience” means to them. Their thoughts ranged from the fact that “every generation has talked about the pace of change as never having been faster — but this time it’s true” to “the future is the Internet of things.”
But after the monologues were over, an interesting theme emerged led by the person I expected to get the least from – Rob Reiner. What struck me about this theme was that it highlighted where I believe AARP has gone wrong when it comes to interactive media – focusing on the digital experience instead of the user experience.
It started with what was clearly intended to be a provocative comment from Rob Reiner in which he said, “We don’t engage like we used to.” He illustrated his point by sharing some facts about TV viewership. He said that his hit show, All in the Family, used to pull together 44 million Americans every Saturday night back when our country’s population was just 200 million. Now, just 30 years later, we’re a country of 300 million that celebrates American Idol as a hit for reaching 20 million viewers. The real difference (beyond the numbers) he noted is that, back then, we would all gather around the television as a family on Saturday nights to watch (and later discuss) – it was a shared experience. Now, thanks to the multiple ways that we can consume our entertainment, we’ve lost that shared experience. Vint pushed back suggesting that the Internet has opened new means for us to connect, but, even he ultimately conceded to the point Mr. Reiner was trying to make – it’s different.
The conversation landed with agreement on several key points that I think are great takeaways for anyone marketing to boomers or seniors:
- The biggest change we’re seeing is empowerment. (A trend that’s ageless, but one for which boomers and seniors increasingly “get it”– marketers be prepared to beware.)
- Going forward, the Internet can be used for good or it can be divisive. (I would argue that you don’t have to be someone with ‘malintent’ to deliver on the latter. I see plenty of brands whose use of the Internet is unintentionally divisive in their attempts to connect with their constituents – especially when it comes to older adults.)
- The future is where technology becomes transparent, and
- Technology (well done) will enhance our offline life more than it does our online.
These last two points would serve AARP particularly well. As the conversation went on, one thing was clear by the response of some 10,000 attending AARP members…their interest isn’t in a digital experience. What they’re looking for is more meaningful and shared experiences for which the technology is transparent and the value add is greater to their offline life than their online.