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AARP Adapts its Marketing Channels

When my late grandmother used to visit, the biggest threat to world peace was the strength of the wireless signal which, if it went down, cut her off from her online stock portfolios. At which point, the entire household had to drop what they were doing to reboot the router before grandma escalated to DEFCON 2, affectionately known in my family as “getting a bee up her ass.”

Though perhaps an extreme case, my grandmother was one of the many elderly Americans whose collective Internet use has recently spiked. A June study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, “Older Adults and Internet Use,” found that, as of April 2012, 53% of adults in America ages 65 or older, used the Internet or email. “After several years of very little growth among this group, these gains are significant,” the study noted. And similar to the rest of the online populace, the Internet is addictive for older users: Among the senior digerati, 70% use the Internet on a daily basis.

Pew’s study also noted 150% growth in social networking between April 2009 and May 2011 among Internet users at least 65 years old. As of February 2012, 34% of online seniors were using social networking sites, according to the study. This is one of the reasons why AARP, which has more than 37 million members, has been enhancing its digital presence in recent months. In October the organization drastically revamped its YouTube page. On Veteran’s Day the nonprofit also posted its first Facebook offer, giving a 30% membership discount and stating it would donate 10% of membership dues to the USO’s Warrior and Family Care program.

AARP isn’t a newcomer to digital media; it launched its basic website, newsletter, and email marketing long before the seven-year tenure of Tammy Gordon, the organization’s director of social communications. “But from what I’ve seen, the biggest growth over the past two years is the evolution of social and mobile,” Gordon says. “Everything we build needs to be viewable and interactive, no matter what device [members] access it on.” Tablet computers in particular are well represented among AARP’s more device savvy members. “In addition to building everything we do in HTML5, so it’s mobile viewable, we’re moving to this concept of one audience.”

Seniority and diversity

Ultimately, AARP’s marketing goals are threefold: pushing content that members value; keeping members engaged in conversations on a variety of topics; and convincing prospects to join or members to renew, as well as enticing them to participate in advocacy movements around areas like Medicare and Social Security.

But considering that AARP has already acquired a little under half of its target market—there are 77.5 million adults ages 55 and older as of the most recent census—this represents not only a wide variety of device types, it also represents an array of viewpoints and lifestyle priorities. Though AARP’s digital audience is large, it’s not uniform by any means.

Simply from an age standpoint, AARP members comprise of up to four generations, from Baby Boomers who’ve been using mobile devices throughout their careers—now becoming the bulk of AARP’s membership—to nonagenarians who are tentatively beginning to plug into Facebook to stay in touch with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Moreover, some older Gen Xers are beginning to find themselves skirting the borders of AARP’s age demographic.

“We have Republicans and Democrats,” Gordon says. “We have 50-year olds and 100-year olds. The gap of what people are looking for is huge.” Offering diverse content and messages, but organizing it in a way that makes sense, is what keeps AARP’s audience feeling connected and renewing their memberships. And AARP wants to help the entire arc of its diverse membership engage through digital means.

Despite research like that presented by Pew, there remains a misconception that older generations aren’t tech savvy. “They may not be high on producing content,” Gordon says, “but they are consuming content.”

For AARP this means engaging with the right person through the right channel at the right time. Traditional channels like direct mail still have considerable influence for AARP, especially among members who are 80- to 100-years old. But direct mail is actively declining, Gordon notes, wondering out loud if Facebook will eventually fill the void. Ultimately, digital gives AARP the ability to hit its niche audiences in ways that print mailers cannot. Depending on the situation and the marketing goals, Gordon says, “you can spend $30 on Facebook marketing and be more effective than a $3,000 mailer campaign.”

And it’s not necessarily age that dictates AARP’s messaging, Gordon says. “It’s less ‘Are you 50 or 60?’ and more ‘What are you looking for in life?’ and ‘Do you still have kids in the house?’” she explains.

PBS minds in an MTV world

Even though age isn’t the sole factor determining the content of AARP’s messaging, it is by necessity a consideration for AARP’s online aesthetic. Cognitively, seniors function significantly differently than younger demographics, says Caroline Winnett, CMO of Nielsen subsidiary NeuroFocus, which studies the effect of marketing on the brain. The age of 55, she says, is where the brain begins to change. “What we’ve found is that there aren’t these neurological cliffs where you turn 55 and your brain is doing new stuff,” she says. “It happens over time. But it’s at that stage where those changes become apparent neurologically.” These changes include increased difficultly processing distractions, movement, on-screen clutter, and scene-switching—all prominent characteristics in an online world largely built by and for a Michael Bay generation.

“Motion in the periphery in general always attracts a great deal of attention,” Winnett adds. “The younger brain might find that more fun and entertaining, but the senior brain is going to get distracted and have trouble going back to the main message [at the center of the screen].”

These factors informed the recent redesign of AARP’s YouTube site, says Bryan Boettger, chief creative officer at The Buddy Group, the interactive agency that works with AARP both for its YouTube presence and Facebook offers.

The new YouTube page focused on clean lines that present AARP’s diverse and copious content in an easy-to-process way. “Certain things you could get away with in younger demographics, you have no choice but to pay strict attention to with this audience,” Boettger says. “High-contrast colors, font size, uncluttered content—those types of things we had to make sure were being taken care of.”

As inspiration, The Buddy Group looked at websites of major newspapers, such as The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post. “Newspapers manage a large amount of content and a large variety of content,” Boettger says. “And newspapers are what [AARP’s] audience is very much used to.”

Boettger and his team took some of the common elements they found in online newspaper layout and applied it to AARP’s YouTube page to better transition the organization’s target audience. For instance, the navigation structure of AARP’s YouTube site lists major categories in a prominent menu bar. Additionally, the layout of page content recalls a newspaper’s gridlike structure: Headline, photo, and the beginning of the article. “If you take some of the paradigms from the newspaper field and apply them to the YouTube world, we can create a transition for [AARP’s] audience,” Boettger says.

Cross channeling all departments

As one might expect from an organization as large as AARP’s, there are numerous departments, each with different marketing initiatives that need to be promoted—from providing health and wellness information to lobbying Congress on Medicare and Social Security. As director of social communications, Gordon makes sure the messaging across departments and channels is consistent. AARP uses enterprise social network and recent Microsoft acquisition Yammer to coordinate among various teams. “We have over 300 people opted in, because they’re part of a social marketing team or are looking at social analytics,” she says. “We share training opportunities and crowdsource problems. One of my favorite moments of last year was looking at Yammer and seeing other people solving problems and not relying on me.”

This cross-departmental collaboration is necessary, especially because online forums have to satisfy numerous customer needs. For instance, a branded Facebook page can’t function solely as a marketing channel; it must also enable customer support. A study published by business technology vendor Oracle, “Views of Live Help Online 2012, A Global Perspective,” found that while 46% of North American consumers don’t expect customer support on Facebook and other social networks, those who do expect a response to a customer service query within a day. Worldwide, more than 40% of consumers using social networks value it as a customer service channel, and one third of consumers expect social channels to be a direct line to customer support or subject matter experts.

These statistics are not lost on Gordon, who ensures that AARP provides customer support across its social outlets. “Social customer service is a subject for a whole other article,” she laughs. Gordon’s crew works with AARP’s customer service team to respond to social media queries within the first hour, and tries to ensure they respond well within 24 hours.

“It’s something I had to learn a lot about,” Gordon adds, “to be responsive to customers on this platform.” This is because initially she anticipated using AARP’s social presence as a forum primarily for pushing out information, coordinating messages mostly with colleagues on the Web team and magazine teams, but not necessarily customer support. “We have a zone defense team that covers customer issues, and an engagement manager to talk to members,” she says.

Likewise, designing AARP’s YouTube channel presence required input from numerous departments, in addition to input from the Buddy Group.

The Buddy Group began working with AARP in January 2012, focusing initially on its YouTube page. “We did a deep dive, doing interviews across the organization so we could make one channel that worked across all divisions,” Boettger says. At the time AARP was using YouTube mostly as a video repository, so the Buddy Group spent a few days building a spit-and-bailing-wire interim YouTube page—essentially just prettying up the website page before constructing a more sophisticated presence. “It’s one of those projects where you definitely need to invest the time in stakeholder interviews because [AARP] is such a massive organization,” Boettger adds.

The final structure of AARP’s YouTube page allowed different departments to have administrative ownership of its respective sections—from health and money to entertainment and travel to politics and retirement. The page construction also allows subpages to host different ads and widgets. As of this writing, the home page has an ad commemorating Veteran’s Day. However a page devoted to comedienne Betty White—whom the AARP uses to help spur recruitment—opens a Twitter feed and ads prompting membership sign-ups.

In other words, different pages within the YouTube framework have different calls to action, depending on the target audience. “That’s being controlled by AARP,” Boettger says. “They can have different admin rights so different people can manage different content.” Like Google’s search interface, the AARP’s YouTube site has a simple interface that masks a complex back end designed to enable the organization to capitalize on different marketing opportunities.

Though AARP’s YouTube page was intended as a content portal for the organization’s numerous initiatives, there was one area The Buddy Group advised AARP to split off: advocacy. Though vehemently non-partisan—Gordon tweeted during the heated presidential campaign that the organization doesn’t endorse either parties or candidates—AARP by its nature is an advocate on issues that have become politicized. “We made the strategic recommendation that advocacy should have its own channel,” Boettger recalls. “No matter how nonpartisan you are, [certain issues] will still rile up the audience.” Consequently, educational and entertaining content were relegated to its own channel, and advocacy was split off to a wholly separate page.

The maturation process

YouTube and Facebook are not traditional marketing channels, even in a digital world where nearly everything can qualify as “new,” and especially for a demographic whose members are all past 50 years of age. Yet both social channels are core parts of AARP’s push into new marketing initiatives.

In fact, Facebook’s format is well suited for seniors. “One of the great things about [Facebook] is it standardized and simplified the format,” NeuroFocus’s Winnett says. “When it got started, people said it wasn’t interesting looking. But part of its success is that it was so clean and simple. It’s information-rich, but there’s not a lot of movement on the page.” And because there isn’t significant font, text, or layout variations from one Facebook page to the next, users don’t constantly have to acclimate to a new graphic layout—a particular advantage for online seniors.

While AARP currently tracks social metrics including reach, activity, engagement, and joins or renews, the non-profit ultimately wants to convert Internet activity into real-world movements. “We want to take that online action offline,” Gordon says, “whether it’s renewing membership or showing up to volunteer at a hunger event in our community, or calling a member of Congress. We want to drive traditional actions via Facebook,” she adds.

Growth within the social network, she says, has been exponential. Though AARP has maintained a Facebook presence for a few years, increased member interest coincided with better engagement practices. “If you look at the growth pattern,” Gordon says, “that’s when you see hockey stick growth, once we had staff managing and engaging with fans.” Another spike happened once AARP started actively marketing its Facebook page to its demographic.

That engagement is also crucial for a successful YouTube presence, says Phil Farhi, group product manager at YouTube. “The biggest misconception is that the strategies on TV, which is pushing a message out, will work on YouTube or will work online,” he says. “The model is fundamentally different. You’re not buying 30 seconds of forced connection. You’re buying an invitation to engage. Don’t think that’s an opportunity to force a message. Once you get past that and the idea that you’ll have a two-way conversation, a successful outcome almost always flows from there.”

The organization’s YouTube presence is evolving from a video dumping ground to a full-fledged online channel with YouTube-specific programming. For brands with similar agendas, Farhi recommends that marketers look at what’s popular, test content, and respond to viewers—either by engaging in the comments or by uploading fresh content based on feedback or viewer watching trends.

AARP is so involved in its YouTube presence that it even has budgeted to produce memes—videos and images intended to go viral and become embedded in popular culture. Gordon mentions, almost coyly, that AARP is producing a video parody of Gangnam Style, a South Korean single that somehow became explosively popular in the U.S.

Though views are a first step toward assessing the success of video content, both Farhi and the Buddy Group’s Boettger emphasize that marketers need to drill deeper, looking at viewer demographics and habits.

“How much did [viewers] watch?” Farhi says. “You can tell which parts of your content were most engaging. You can look at audience retention and look over the course of your videos where people are dropping off, where people are rewinding.” Though marketers should expect drop-offs over time, consistent exits at the same place in a video indicate spots where the message gets less compelling.

As the organization’s YouTube strategy matures, Gordon anticipates more series and less one-off videos. Jeff Yeager, a personality known as The Ultimate Cheapskate who advocates extreme cost-savings techniques, is one of AARP’s most popular YouTube presences. “He was in our top five, without even a marketing campaign,” Gordon explains. “We’re looking to build on that [popularity].”

Correction made Jan. 11, 2013

The original article stated that AARP began its email marketing and its website seven years ago. In fact, the non-profit’s strategies in each of these channels began well before then; Tammy Gordon, AARP’s director of social communications, started with the company seven years ago.

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