Marketers Adapt as Social Networks Attract Older Users

Increasingly Popular With the 35-Plus Set, Facebook, MySpace Become Mainstream Marketing Vehicles

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Sometime in 2007, the recent grads that made up the core of Facebook came to a doleful realization: Yup, mom and all her friends are on Facebook. The following year it got worse: The once-exclusive club of the young was completely infiltrated by colleagues, bosses, neighbors and others who might not be amused when little Johnny gets tagged in a photo getting totally ripped with his pals.

What's Mama up to? The college set may be alarmed to see relatives in news feed.
What's Mama up to? The college set may be alarmed to see relatives in news feed.
Social networking is no longer a youth phenomenon. As Facebook marches toward 52 million U.S. users (170 million worldwide), the site is beginning to look like, well, America. Which is to say, it looks a lot older. As of January, more than 50% of Facebook users and 44% of MySpace users in the U.S. were over 35 years old, according to ComScore estimates. The single biggest age demographic in the U.S. on both Facebook and MySpace is now between 35 and 44. Indeed, Facebook says its fastest-growing demo is 55-plus.

That's to be expected, and largely due to the fact that both Facebook and MySpace don't have a lot of growing room left among the younger set. According to Pew Internet and American Life data, 75% of online adults 18-24 already have a profile on a social network. "For those to grow, they'd have to have aged," said Deep Focus CEO Ian Schafer. "It's from growth and expansion to ubiquity."

Generally, somewhere between growth and ubiquity is when uncool usually starts to set in. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg backpedaled fast over a privacy flap last week, but the story, which broke on the Consumerist blog, made the NBC Nightly News, a sure sign that Facebook's niche status is over.

With the cool kids
So far, Facebook's aging demos haven't turned off the college set: It's the most popular website on campus above Google and Yahoo, according to an Anderson Analytics poll of college students last fall. MySpace has taken a bit of a tumble in the eyes of college students, falling to No. 4 this year from No. 2 last year school year and No. 1 during the 2006-2007 school year.

Even as Facebook ages, users are still exposed to the activities of their friends, and Facebook has added features such as Facebook Connect to encourage users to take those connections with them as they move on to other sites. "Social networking is so engrained into the lifestyle of college students that it wouldn't be any less cool because their parents and grandparents are there," said eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson.

So what does it mean for marketers that social networking is getting older? For Facebook, the upside is they're now being considered for a wider array of marketing budgets. "A year ago, they thought about it as a place to reach people in college or high school; now we're talking about moms, or reaching families looking to go on vacation," said Kevin Barenblat, CEO of ContextOptional, which has implemented Facebook campaigns for Guinness, Microsoft and the Los Angeles Times.

Because of its entertainment focus, marketers still see MySpace as primarily a youth play. Facebook has more users with incomes above $60,000 than MySpace, indicating an older, wealthier audience, according to research from Hitwise. "MySpace has evolved into an entertainment portal with a social-networking component to it," said Scott Symonds, executive media director at AKQA.

But as social networking becomes more ubiquitous, age demographics become a less important filter than stated interests and other factors. "We don't care if a person is 42 or 24; if they are friends with a band I am sponsoring, that's an opportunity," Mr. Symonds said.

Just as social networks become more of a mainstream marketing vehicle, marketers are watching to see if the phenomenon ebbs, particularly with the young. "There are too many examples of things that were totally cool, became commercial, and then became totally uncool," said Chad Ciesil, president of WhittmanHart Interactive.

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