The internet is not solely a young person's playground

In September, organisations including Age Concern and Ofcom are holding a series of internet taster sessions called Itea and Biscuits Week, aimed at bringing older people up to speed with the vast world of opportunity that awaits them online.

It is a creditable attempt to prove that the internet is not solely a young person's playground. But the fact that the term 'silver surfers' has been eschewed by the week's organisers in favour of this new play on words reveals a deeper trend.

Marketers who still refer to all internet users aged over 50 as silver surfers are not only in danger of appearing patronising, but they are also failing to differentiate between sub-groups of a demographic that includes some of the country's most affluent people.

While silver surfers was a neat way of labelling the older generations online, the picture in 2008 is very different. The variety of web use among 50-plus people means lumping them together in one homogeneous group is no longer a viable -- or profitable -- option.

The 50-plus set will make up more than half the UK adult population by 2020 and currently hold 80% of the country's wealth. When they finally reach retirement, they are more willing than ever to explore new leisure activities and embrace emerging technologies.

In association with YouGov, Equi=Media commissioned research into the online habits of several subsets of the over-50 population to give marketers a more in-depth appraisal of what they are using the internet for, and also what functions they would consider using in the future.

The results make intriguing reading. Respondents' primary reasons for logging on are researching and managing hobbies and interests, or keeping up with current affairs. Meanwhile, more than one third of men, compared with a quarter of women, indicated that these combined uses were their main purpose for logging on.

Some 35% of respondents aged 50 to 59 ticked this box -- more than double the next highest activity in this age group. The figures suggest that people in their 50s lead very active lives even outside work, with a keen interest in the world around them, compared with older segments where the numbers drop away.

It's also apparent that some 50- to 59-year-olds are happy to go online primarily to use internet banking, although perhaps surprisingly, it is the older internet users who said that checking their accounts and paying bills online is their primary reason to use the internet.

Around 16% of respondents in their 50s use the internet first and foremost to keep in touch with family and friends. However, a greater proportion of 60- to 69-year-olds (23%) and those who are 70-plus (29%) said this is their main reason for going online.

Overall, communication was women's joint top reason along with hobbies and interests, but it was only the third most popular selection for men, behind hobbies and then banking.

Discernment is a driver for this demographic -- in total, two thirds would consider visiting price comparison sites to get great deals. This desire for a bargain is supported by 56% of respondents keen on browsing auction sites such as eBay.

The second survey question was 'which online functions or programmes would you consider using?' Nearly half of men and women claim to be keen on using Skype, webcams and the like to keep in touch with family or friends.

Women over 50 are keener than men on social networking, but only 8% of those over 70 have any interest in the likes of MySpace and Facebook, compared with a fifth of 50- to 59-year-olds.

New online services such as Flickr could prove popular among the lower age group in this market, with 21% of people in their 50s considering signing up. Meanwhile, 6% overall claimed they will think about blogging their experiences online, embracing a new form of memoir.

These insights will enable marketers to reach affluent, time-rich consumers effectively with online advertising campaigns. No longer does this vast group have a tentative, arm's-length relationship with the internet. They want to save time and cost just as the rest of the population does, and are also embracing the web to enhance their lives.

Iain Dawson is director of insight at Equi=Media

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