MEDIA: WEB SITES FOR 50-PLUS - Are 'silver surfers' an untapped market? PROs have been slow to act upon research that internet take-up among the 50-plus age group is exceeding expectations

As Gordon Brown recently discovered to his political cost, the old idea of the elderly as a passive group of grateful consumers is rapidly dying out.

As Gordon Brown recently discovered to his political cost, the old idea of the elderly as a passive group of grateful consumers is rapidly dying out.

In media terms this has usually meant that a couple of advertising agencies pay lip service to the so-called 'grey market' in a low-cost report and then do pretty much nothing about it.

With the internet, however, the old rules no longer apply. In the US, which is still leading the UK by a good three years, sites like thirdage.com have been pulling in users and advertisers in huge numbers, helping coin the phrase 'silver surfers' to describe the increasing numbers of over 50s who are regular internet users.

In the last few years, UK organisations have noticed this level of activity and a variety of domestic equivalents have been set up.

Broadly speaking, these divide into three main groups - the charity sector, existing grey companies and the newcomers.

The charity sector, where organisations like Age Concern replicated certain parts of their services on a variety of web sites, was up and running pretty quickly after the American experience. The existing grey companies, such as travel company Saga, and the newcomer web sites, such as Seniority.co.uk and the pan-European group Vavo.com, have all been set up over the last year or so.

Recent research by the consulting group Forrester Research points out that retired people have both time and money on their hands and that in Britain they are picking up the internet much faster than originally anticipated.

'We predict that by 2005 there will be more than 3.2 million retired people on-line,' explains Forrester analyst Caroline Sceats. 'These break down into addicts, who use the net every day; adopters, who spend maybe four days a week on-line; and experimenters, who go on for one or two days a week and represent the hardest group of consumers to reach on-line.'

Sceats points out that silver surfers don't like being patronised and could turn into profitable customers.

Conversely, the PR industry appears to be lagging behind. While it's easy to find youth specialists, it is next to impossible to find anyone who specialises in the grey market.

There is only one grey advertising agency in London - Senior Agency - and no PR specialists listed. With the size of this market rapidly increasing, this is starting to look like a serious oversight.



SENIORITY.CO.UK

Mike Cheney

Position: Director and co-founder

Target audience: 50-plus

'Our motto is 'Your scene. Your site. Your say'. That's because 90 per cent of the site's editorial is provided by users.

'If you added up all the founders' ages, you'd just get to retirement age so we don't profess to know what our users want. We let them provide it themselves.

'We're not a forum or a chat room, we're a regular site, it's just that our users submit articles and then we apply as little editing as possible, convert it into HTML and put it on-line.

'We're keen to do content deals with other companies, but we're wary of putting stuff on to the site that deceives our users. We get about ten companies a week offering us products and travel and services, but we have to be careful.'



AGE RESOURCE

Sandie Huntington

Position: Manager

Target audience: 50-plus

'Age Resource is part of Age Concern's active age unit. We're concerned with the positive side of ageing - what you can do, how you can keep playing sports, enjoy travel, and follow an active social life.

'We've recently had a huge burst of funding and we're in the process of redeveloping the whole site to make it run smoother and to start providing more than simply chat rooms.

'We now plan to get lots of professionals on to the site to give advice, whether it be on finance, health, family matters or travelling and having fun.

'We'd like to talk to people who feel their representative could come on-line to talk to users, but as a charity we have to make sure they're the right people.'



VAVO.COM

Pat Gerber

Position: Editor-in-chief

Target audience: 45-plus

'The thing about the site is that we're aware there's a new generation who are redefining what it is to be 'old'. We're the generation that protested as students, who hitchhiked across Europe in the 1970s and who are well-educated and well-paid.

'We like to include the users whenever we can. We were approached recently by a marketing agency with some ideas for stuff they wanted to do with us and some of our younger staff thought it was OK, but the older staff just found it really offensive.

'We're happy the way we are and we want to drink and have sex and do all of those things that we always used to do. It's just that sometimes people in marketing and PR are really uncomfortable with that.'



SAGA

Michael Pritchett

Position: Head of digital media

Target audience: 50-plus

'We set up in 1998, but we've been adding to it ever since. Now we've got general interest editorial, e-commerce, motor and health insurance e-commerce, travel and we recently launched a live streamed radio station. It plays easy listening from the 1950s to today.

'We're planning to set up an on-line travel booking site. I think our site will be primarily funded by e-commerce as a result, partly because our consumers are willing to spend, but also because I'm not sure advertisers recognise the value of our audience yet.

'We've seen a real upswing in the number of over-50 users, but we haven't necessarily seen an equivalent upswing in interest from commercial companies.'



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