Eight Tips for Mailing to Baby-Boomers

With leading-edge baby boomers (born between 1946-55) well into their 50s and early 60s and trailing-edge boomers (born between 1955-64) on their heels, the rules of marketing to boomers are constantly being rewritten. For decades, marketers had been chasing a desirable 18- to 49-year-old boomer prospect. “For the last 40 years, 50-plus were old people. Well, 50-plus isn’t old anymore. Boomers are changing what it means to be ‘old,’” says Matt Thornhill, president of The Boomer Project, a Richmond, Va.–based marketing research company.

Boomers have more time and money and are more receptive to print communications than most younger prospects—making them prime candidates for direct mail solicitation. To achieve success within this market, experts recommend appealing to the shared cultural values and following the key creative guidelines detailed below.

1. Don’t stereotype.
One of the first and biggest mistakes a marketer can make is to place a boomer in an age stereotype. “You really do have to segment out who you’re talking to and why you’re talking to them,” warns Thornhill. Boomers are elastic in their life stages—they could be empty-nesters, parents of small children or grandparents, just as easily as they could be retiring or starting new careers, having triple bypass surgeries or running their first marathons. “Boomers are all over the map … so using age as a shortcut is just a big mistake,” Thornhill warns.

2.  Sell experiences, not just products.
“The boomers are not seeking products in and of themselves today. They basically own a lot of stuff and what they’re looking for are experiences,” says Brent Green, president of Brent Green and Associates, a Denver–based marketing and communications firm. One example Green gives is a travel company selling not just a high-end luxury vacation, but also an engaging learning experience.

3.  Make an emotional appeal.
Avoid the tendency to sell to the rational left brain and go for an emotional appeal instead. “Baby boomers probably don’t need what anybody is selling, they can only want it. What are the emotional triggers that are deeply rooted behind the marketer’s offering?” Green asks. He advises his clients to begin with an image-driven emotional message to trigger
interest, followed by several layers of copy further detailing the product or offer.

4. Go easy on the eyes.
For many aging prospects, eyesight and perception are changing, and direct mail designers need to make layouts legible. “You have to have larger type, but not such large type that it looks insulting, and the single biggest graphic mistake that’s made is putting text over an illustration which is very difficult, especially for an older person, to read,” says Kurt Medina, president of Rose Valley, Pa.–based Medina Associates, which specializes in boomer direct marketing.

5. Personalize the effort.
“The older group looks to the letter as a personal communication … as opposed to the COMPANY writing,” Medina shares. To make the letter more personal, he suggests indenting paragraphs, moving the signature block and date to the right, and using a less promotional voice. Medina adds that lift notes and testimonials also help create a more one-to-one message.

6. Incorporate new media.
It is a myth that because boomers are older, they are less literate to new media. “The current breakpoint for use and acceptance of computers is about 70 years old,” Medina says. With computers on their desktops since the ’80s, boomers are responsive to online channels. “People will use the print direct mail to get into the idea of the product or service, but then they’ll go online to look at it from a more detailed point of view and order,” Green explains.

7. Don’t rely on hype.
Boomers who have “been there and done that” won’t believe marketing hype or follow a herd mentality. “Big starbursts saying ‘Only available next week,’ or ‘The first 40 people in will win,’ those techniques are fine for younger folks, but the older people know that frankly, if they miss Macy’s one-day sale, there’s going to be another one next week,” Medina asserts.

8. Help start a legacy.
“Another area of development is a desire for relevance and legacy,” says Green. If you are marketing a diamond-
encrusted watch, it may have appealed to a boomer’s sense of status and luxury several years ago. Now, he suggests the best approach for a luxury product is to position it as an heirloom—for example, “Something beautiful to leave your granddaughter”—to renew the item’s value in the boomer’s eyes.

There is a short span of years remaining in which to target this generation. To capitalize on this moving target, marketers must become educated about baby boomers’ desires and lifestyle changes. “Marketing departments and ad agencies are peopled with folks who are in their 20s and 30s, and people tend to market to themselves. That’s a natural instinct … So, one of the future challenges for companies is being able to put their head inside the head of the boomer prospect,” Medina concludes.

(Originally published in Inside Direct Mail, March 2008)

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