Angst and the Art of Selling to Seniors

by Dean Rieck

There's a moment you dread. You know it's coming. You know you can't do anything about it. You want to think you'll be calm and rational when it happens, but the cold shock of reality will almost certainly catch you off guard.

Of course I'm talking about the day you get your first "senior" mailing. It could be an invitation to join AARP. It could be a catalog of pain relief products. Or maybe it's a free issue of Modern Maturity. But the point is that it's something for seniors and you're not happy about it one little bit.

At first, you assume it's a mix-up. That mailing can't be for you. Not yet. No way. But it's addressed to you. And a quick glance at the birth date on your driver's license confirms that you're not exactly a teenager anymore. That's when you feel a twinge of anger. "How dare they mail this to me! Do I look old or something? I'm not old. And even if I am, they don't have to throw it in my face like that."

And you wonder if the mailman noticed. Or any of the neighbors. I mean, it's not like that wretched thing arrived in a plain brown package. It's out there screaming your age to the whole darn neighborhood. Talk about embarrassing!

So you cram it into the wastebasket, shoving it way down to the bottom so that it's hidden beneath the trash. Then you just walk away, trying to forget the whole incident. "Maybe it was a mistake. That's it. Just a big mistake."

Why all the angst about a silly little mailing? Because seniors today aren't like the seniors of yesterday. They don't like to admit that they're seniors. But it's more than just denial. Seniors really are fundamentally different than a generation or two ago. More and more come from a youth culture that started in the 50s. While they may be a little more conservative and a little less active now, they refuse to accept the idea that age is defined by the number of candles on a birthday cake.

So when you're marketing to seniors, the first thing you have to remember is that you don't call them "seniors." And that goes double for terms like "old" or "elderly." In fact, any direct reference to chronological age is a big no-no. People know how old they are. Trust me, you don't have to remind them.

And it's not just the words you have to watch out for. You have to be careful with the visuals too. Nix the blue-haired ladies in rocking chairs. Forget about images of bespectacled grandpas playing checkers. Many seniors are active, independent, empowered, successful, and highly satisfied with life. And even if they aren't, they like to think of themselves that way. So your pictures should reflect that.

In addition to all this psychological tiptoeing, remember that seniors have plenty of experience with people trying to sell them things. They've seen it all. They've heard every pitch. Read every ad. Opened a million pieces of mail. So you're better off being direct. Really direct. Go easy on the hard sell and scare tactics. Just get to the point, solve a problem, make a promise, and present your offer. Advertising has been a central part of the culture for a long time now, so today's seniors are smarter about advertising tricks than ever before.

And forget all the nonsense about only using short copy because people don't read anymore. Not true. People are probably reading more now than ever before. But because there's so much more to read, people are picky about what they read. Seniors especially. People will read amazing amounts of material if it's interesting and personally relevant.

The trouble is, many of today's young copywriters don't know the difference between being entertaining and being interesting. And they assume that if the subject is boring to them, everyone else finds it boring too, so they think they have to do a song and dance to keep people's attention.

Spend the time to educate seniors on the unique nature of your product and the value you offer. Establish your credibility because who you are is as important as what you say. Remove the risk because seniors tend to be more careful with their money. And for goodness sake, provide good customer service. Seniors have long memories. And they will never, ever forgive you for treating them poorly.

And just remember, if you're not a senior now, you will be. The mailman's on the way, my friend. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

Copyright © 2001 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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