Senior surfers grab Web attention

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Because of you, my grandchildren respect me," an 84-year-old living at Merrill Gardens, a Washington senior home, recently told Brian Deutsch, Sageport.com president-CEO.

The Internet portal taught her how to use the Internet and e-mail through a company-created program that places volunteers, many of whom are tech-savvy seniors, into senior living communities to teach residents how to use a computer mouse and the Internet.

HELP ON THE WAY

A growing percentage of 50-plus adults e-mailing, surfing and shopping online has sprouted a flurry of Web companies that want to reach them, as well as their still offline friends.

Other portals use computer classes to reach seniors not yet online. Examples are SeniorSurfers.com and SeniorNet, a not-for-profit computer training group.

SeniorNet has put 185 computer-training centers in libraries and community centers across the U.S. since it opened in 1986.

The number of baby boomers and seniors online grew by 18.4% in 1999, making them the fastest-growing Internet demographic group, according to Media Metrix. They now comprise 20% of total online users, more than the 18-to-24-year-olds, at 17.5%

Jupiter Communications research shows that 14 million people older than 50 are now online, and that number is expected to double in the next three years. In 1999, adults older than 50 spent $2.3 billion online, compared with $11.7 billion spent by adults age 19-50.

Upscale marketers such as Nordstrom hope to tap into that spending through banner ads placed on senior sites. Nordstrom's Web ads, which were designed in-house, were created to make people aware of Nordstrom.com's selection of apparel, shoes and jewelry, according to a spokeswoman. "We try to place [banner ads] in inspiring environments to help people find their individuality."

POTENTIAL IS CLEAR

The Internet and e-commerce habits of seniors are all indicators of the online market potential of this growing adaptable demographic, says Bill Burkart, president-CEO for consultancy Age Wave Impact.

Older adults "are spending more money [online], so it's a very, very compelling notion," he says.

This cash-flush, Internet-savvy market has been the catalyst for companies creating a number of boomer and senior-specific Web sites including Seniors.com, Senior.com, Townspring.com and Thirdage.com.

Most of the mature market sites are content providers, which can be expensive to produce.

That's something Thirdage.com, which launched a $30 million multimedia ad campaign in February from Citron Haligman Bedecarre, San Francisco, learned the hard way. The week of May 29 it laid off 30 of its 130 staffers.

Recognizing the risks facing innumerable dot-coms this year, Sageport.com has devised a new business plan that will better meet the demands of seniors in years to come, says PR Director Bill Kennedy.

SPECIAL KEYBOARD

In addition to launching its redesigned site this fall with an e-commerce template, Sageport's plan includes designing a senior-specific appliance, complete with an ergonomically designed keyboard.

"They put [the computer] in their house, and we take care of it," says Mr. Kennedy. "We hope to be the AOL for seniors."

Sageport.com selected Sandcastle Group, Minneapolis, in May to create its advertising. Sandcastle's President-Creative Director John Nielson, says Sageport's business plan is strong with "very serious backing" and would most likely be marketed through various online and offline media.

Sageport banner advertiser Travelocity, which advertises on a broad range of sites, pays its Web partner sites a commission for tickets sold.

Travelocity recognizes the senior market's potential, says Michael Stacy, VP-consumer marketing, and is interested in strategies that will better serve the demographic as more baby boomers near retirement.

"As [baby boomers] purchase more tickets online, they will definitely become a segment we will be going after," he says.

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