Grassroots and the pre-senior wave

Grassroots is changing. Big time. The collision of social networks, such as Facebook, with the 50+ generation will revolutionize the influence and impact of grassroots at the ballot box ... and the retailer's cash box.

Grassroots is changing. Big time. The collision of social networks, such as Facebook, with the 50+ generation will revolutionize the influence and impact of grassroots at the ballot box ... and the retailer's cash box.

Grassroots, as a PR and public affairs practice, is no longer limited to dinner-time phone-banking by empty nesters or marshalling seniors as volunteers to canvas neighborhoods and distribute brochures on behalf of a candidate or issue. Grassroots today is a sophisticated interplay of digital and traditional strategies that identify and bring together individuals with an affinity for a product, cause or candidate.

The next step is engaging those individuals through meaningful, personal communications that lead to authentic, credible commitments for (or against) social issues, consumer goods, and political campaigns. Grassroots is now ripe for the online set of consumers who are socially conscious and politically interested.

Right now, the most watched, most used and most influential cultural medium is the social network (including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube). This is a community controlled by young people and under-represented by the senior set. According to the Pew Research Center, 93% of 18- to 32-year-olds use the Internet, while only 38% of 65+ Americans are online. 

Yet, this same youthful generation is inversely represented when it comes to the ballot box. That's where seniors command a sizeable domain, with 72% of them voting in the 2008 election versus 48% of 18- to 24-year-olds who cast a ballot.

This generational divide in the digital space is changing … fast. The pre-senior set, people ages 50+, is embracing social networks in droves, and is on track to bring into balance their generational share of the most powerful communications medium in the US.

In the last 10 years, the number of pre-seniors online has jumped by 40%; the 65+ crowd more than doubled their online presence. Last year, there was a 513% spike in Facebook users ages 55+, while college and high-school users dropped by 20%. Clearly, pre-seniors (and seniors) are “in a relationship” with Facebook and the digital space.

Add to this online trend an additional 20 million or so people who will age into the senior ranks in the next 5 years, and suddenly we'll see a voter/consumer base dominated by people ages 50+ who are both high-propensity voters and equally (or nearly equally) influential on the social networks. They will be active in the places where questions are launched, opinions are forged, and decisions are made about political contenders, social issues, and consumer goods.

All this means our entire approach to grassroots campaigns must evolve with the times. We need to increase the size and value of grassroots engagements and marketing programs and reflect the public policy and social preferences of older Americans, balancing the online voice of their younger counterparts.

We must prepare for a shift in the social media culture from “predominantly progressive” to “center-right” and expect that pre-seniors online will increasingly aggregate Facebook updates with Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., building larger, richer, and deeper followings. Finally, we need to prepare for the rise of online senior influencers who will gain near-celebrity status as their expanding networks convert to consumer and political capital.

Bill McIntyre is SVP at Grassroots Enterprise, a division of Edelman. 

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