Marketers Ignore Fastest-Growing Area

According to the Census Bureau, 76 million U.S. residents are older than 50. The group is growing at a rate of one every seven seconds and is projected to be 115 million in 2020. So why is this segment virtually ignored by U.S. marketers?

Whenever I ask this, I usually get the same protests: “We include everybody in our marketing plans.” But with all the emphasis in the trade media on marketing to the 18-34 crowd, I decided to find out the truth.

My company, Wooden Horse Publishing, offers a media directory to use after the mass-distributed press release has gone out and publicists work with magazines one-on-one. Since we focus on data, not mass-fax and e-mail services, we have more information in our magazines database than you will find anywhere else.

U.S. magazines are dumbing down at an alarming rate. Using this data, we learned what age groups really are targeted in magazines launching today and whether this has changed over the years.

Of the more than 2,000 U.S. and Canadian consumer and trade magazines in our database, we pulled 630 for which we had complete reader age and launch information. These included magazines from major publishers, like Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science and In Touch, as well as smaller and local publications like Vermont Business, Small Farm Today and Georgia Backroads.

We took a wide sample of old and new magazines. Our oldest was Saturday Evening Post, founded in 1728, and our most recently launched included Female Entrepreneur, Rich Guy and B, the Bloomingdale’s Magazine – all first published in 2003.

Our first discovery was an eye-opener in itself: The average reader ages reported by magazines in the United States and Canada today are 32-51. These are actual reader ages as measured by subscriber/reader surveys, not targets set by publishers.

In other words, the editorial material in North American magazines – articles, columns and departments – attracts few older than 50. At first glance, ignoring 76 million Americans seemed an incredible blunder by U.S. marketers, but as we dug deeper into the numbers, things got even worse.

We hoped that publishers, and the advertisers who influence them, had discovered this incredibly rich, large source of consumers and that newer magazines were being launched to capture their interests. We divided the magazines by the decade they were launched (1950s through 2000s, as well as a large group designated “before the 1950s”). We found a lemming-like movement toward targeting ever-younger audiences. The newer the magazine, the younger the readers.

Whereas readers of magazines first published in the 1950s and 1960s are ages 36-55, the readers of magazines launched in the 2000s are only 28-45. And this drop in reader age seems to be no accident. The gradual skew to a younger audience is clear in the intervening years. As each decade saw the emergence of new magazines, their readers have become younger.

Magazines first published in the 1970s today attract readers closest to the average: 33-51. However, in the 1980s the trend toward younger readers seriously began. Magazines launched in that decade attract readers today as young as 32. The youth trend took off in the 1990s as readers of these magazines are on average as young as 29, with the average oldest age of 48. And though we are not even halfway into the decade of the 2000s, the average reader ages have already plummeted to 28-45.

These numbers must reflect a deliberate attempt to attract younger readers, ignoring the huge segment of older ones.

But does that truly mean magazines are “dumbing down” to gain that audience, as they have been accused of? The answer is an unqualified yes.

Because “dumb” is sort of in the eye of the beholder, we used a more quantifiable measure: word count. Most magazines use freelancers, and we performed the same decade-based analysis on the word count published by the magazines in their writers guidelines. We figured that the length of the articles requested reflects the complexity of the article subjects: Shorter articles force writers to propose easy-to-understand subjects and to avoid in-depth analytical writing.

We found that on average for all magazines read today, publishers request articles from 635 to 2,300 words. Magazines of the 1970s still request articles close to these numbers of words but newer magazines increasingly request shorter articles. Magazines of the 1980s want articles 3 percent shorter, and 1990s publications’ requests are for articles 14 percent shorter. And, to our horror, we found that for magazines launched in this decade, articles are requested to be 25 percent shorter.

A disturbing trend, and missed opportunities for marketers. Our study proves that magazines indeed target younger readers and dumb down their content. Are you satisfied with this trend? Are your clients? As the group of 50+ grows, won’t clients eventually wonder why your advice is to ignore this ever-increasing audience?

Even if you don’t care what kind of magazines are published in the United States, can you really continue to close your eyes to this group? Maybe it is time to find out whether the old excuse of “they’re set in their ways” still holds water.

Yes, you may have to stretch creatively and devise different campaigns. You may have to address an audience that requires a different approach, whose members don’t consider shopping a hobby.

And as our bottom lines increase, maybe we can all read more complex, stimulating and entertaining magazines.

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