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TREND WATCHER

The Geeks Are Graying

Why businesses shouldn't treat technology as a young person's game
John Gerzema


Christian Northeast

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Ninety percent of technology marketing targets 10 percent of the population: the young, the cool, the perceived digerati. A few niche companies address the senior market with products so simplified your cat could use them. What almost everyone misses is how the growth of mobile, social, and local applications is colliding with two decades of Internet acumen to create a new social phenomenon: the long tooth of technology.

Technology once divided the generations. Now it brings them together—and not in a patronizing, "let's get Grandma on Flickr so she can see photos of the kids" way. Instead, the old and young are converging over shared interests. Adafruit Industries sells kits and parts for customers who enjoy doing electronics projects. It also runs online Maker Faires at which people 40 years apart in age collaborate on such projects. "There is this interesting community of Millennial-aged electronics enthusiasts who are mentored by retired engineers from Boeing," observes Phil Torrone, Adafruit's co-founder.

Grannies Inc. is a hot British start-up whose cross-generational platform is based on commerce rather than collaboration. This company, a kind of Etsy meets Lawrence Welk, sells scarves and mittens custom-knit with loving care by real grandmothers. (You can even choose which granny does the knitting!) Grannies's slogan, "There's wisdom in the wool," reflects the company's shrewd mashup of respect for the skills of maturity with the convenience of e-commerce and mass customization.

Even businesses that cater exclusively to a white-haired audience are increasingly marketing with technology. Mark Shuey uses social media to advertise Cane Fu, his rehabilitation and self-defense system for seniors.

The consulting firm Gartner Research outlines five stages of technology adoption in what it calls a Hype Cycle. In this model, early adopters are the heroes: typically young males, your classic geeks. When the masses were presumed to be ignorant and fearful, we needed these geeks to work out the bugs and make sure the technology was OK to use. Their labors lowered the barriers to entry, along with the price.

Today, those early early adopters are going gray, and the Hype Cycle is becoming hypercompressed. I oversee the world's largest database of customer attitudes and behaviors: My company polls 16,000 people each quarter in the United States. According to our data, 51 percent of Facebook users are over 40. For YouTube, the number is 49 percent, and for Twitter 45 percent. Moreover, 47 percent of people in that age bracket believe they are innovative, and 49 percent feel they're "up to date on the latest technology." In the business-to-business realm, 47 percent of over-40s describe themselves as "highly involved in the technology decision-making process" at their companies.

With age no longer a barrier to technology adoption, all those things delivered by technology—ideas, popular culture, new forms of social interaction—now tip into the mass market much more quickly. Companies can prosper by studying the less-dewy segments of this wider audience and learning to cater to their needs. At the very least, companies must show respect. Older technology users expect recognition of their growing sophistication. Increasingly, they are part of every conversation. Youth-obsessed businesses would do well to remember it.

This column is about trends, but first and foremost it is about values. Customers' values are changing, for technological, economic, and cultural reasons we all know well. In coming months, I'll be examining those changes, using my company's data and examples of businesses that care about how people live and what they want from a world in which there's less money and more mistrust.

Peter Drucker advised us that the only purpose of a business is to have a customer. Druckerism is back, as companies realize they are not marketing to mindless consumers but rather to thoughtful, complex customers. Trend Watcher will illuminate what those customers want and introduce you to the smart entrepreneurs who are already giving it to them.

John Gerzema (jgerzema@inc.com) is executive chairman of BrandAsset Valuator Consulting. Follow him on Twitter: @johngerzema.

From the June 2011 issue of Inc. magazine




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