Article: Selling to Silver Surfers – Seven Rules for Selling on the Web

by Jennifer Schiff

The teen and twenty-something market may get more attention from advertisers, marketers and the press, but the demographic with the most potential growth and opportunity for e-commerce businesses is adults aged 65 and up and their Baby Boomer children and/or caregivers.

While estimates vary, there are now more than 10 million older adults (who consider “senior” a bad word, though use it to search out products and services online) surfing the Internet, looking for information, products and services targeted just for them — and analysts expect that number to soar as the Internet-savvy U.S. population continues to age.

“The mature market is really an immature market,” explained Connie Hallquist, the CEO of Gold Violin, a thriving multichannel business that provides “helpful products for independent living.”

“Never before in the history of mankind have we had so many people living so long. This is virgin territory,” said Hallquist. “There are zillions of companies that have been marketing to teens forever. But we’ve never had so many old people, [people] with distinct or unique needs — and companies and marketers and brands are [waking] up to that fact.”

To help you capture a piece of this online market, we asked several experts to share their experience and provide some golden rules on how to market to today’s “Golden Girls” — and Guys.

  • Rule 1: Know who you are selling to
    “Younger folks enjoy razzmatazz — bells and whistles — on Web sites,” stated Jim Gilmartin, the president of Coming of Age, an interactive marketing firm devoted to Baby Boomers and seniors. “But Boomers and older folks are looking for information. And they want [their online experience] to be simple, efficient, very convenient, with easy interaction.”

Another important point: Just because someone is 65 or older, don’t assume he or she is retired or inactive or on a ventilator.

“One of the things about marketing to seniors is that they don’t view themselves as old,” said Nataki Clarke, the director of online marketing at AARP, the leading nonprofit membership organization for people age 50 and over. In fact, she said, they often see themselves as 10 or 15 years younger, “and they don’t want to be treated as old. There are still many people who are active and vibrant into their sixties and seventies.”

Also keep in mind it’s not just the 65-plus crowd that will be visiting your site; it’s their children and their caregivers, too.

  • Rule 2: Show you are trustworthy
    Gilmartin says “Trust and credibility are huge issues to older online shoppers. While they often look for trusted brands, brands that have existed for a while and have a good reputation or positive word of mouth, you can create trust in other ways.”

One of the leading ways to create a sense of trust with consumers is by displaying a secure site certification on your home page, such as the Trust Guard or Better Business Bureau (BBB) seal. Similarly, if you have a partnership with or are a preferred provider of a well-known organization, such as AARP, make sure to feature that affiliation prominently. [Note: AARP rigorously vets all potential Web sites that apply for the AARP Privileges program, so its seal really means something — and the partner program offers a lot of invaluable perks for member sites.]

Another way to build trust with the over 60 crowd is by explaining, if not on your home page then on an easily found “About Us” page, who you are, your values and your mission.

“Tell people a story about yourself, how you got started and what your vision and mission are, so they get a sense of who you are,” said Gilmartin. “Research has shown that the older we get, the more we respond to stories rather than expository information… facts and figures.”

That strategy has certainly paid off for Gold Violin, which tells the story of how and why Hallquist created the company on its “About Us” page.

In 1993, Connie Hallquist went looking for something special to give her grandmother, who was 87. She did not want to give her yet another box of chocolates or a bottle of perfume, and the items she found marketed for women her grandmother’s age depressed her. What she wanted was something practical yet stylish and colorful, like her grandmother.

Unable to find what she was looking for, Hallquist bought a wooden cane and painted it herself, to make it unique. Her grandmother was thrilled — and six years later Hallquist created Gold Violin.

Of course, the best way to build trust is to always deliver on your promises. That means providing a pleasant online experience for customers (see below) and making sure orders arrive on time and in good shape — and that you have live operators on hand to answer phones when things go wrong or customers have questions.

  • Rule 3: Offer products and services that provide value
    Who doesn’t like to feel that they are getting a good deal? But for seniors in particular, good value for the money is particularly important, and it doesn’t mean you have to offer low prices or cheap goods.

“Value isn’t always monetary,” explained AARP’s Clarke. “I think that the value can be how you help enhance lives. It doesn’t have to be ‘receive five dollars off this product or service’ [though the Home page of AARP’s MarketPlace, which is in the process of a being redesigned, states that AARP offers “a collection of world-class brands provided at significant, members-only savings” and will refund shoppers if they find the same product elsewhere at a lower price].

The bottom line, said Clarke, “They don’t want to waste their money. They want to make sure they’re getting the best bang for the buck.”

In fact, many consumers on the lower end of the demographic, the fifty- and sixtysomethings, have lots of disposable income and are willing to pay a premium for a really good or useful product or service, instead of something that looks cheap or poorly made.

At Gold Violin, Hallquist and her team are constantly researching or creating new product offerings that will appeal to seniors and Baby Boomers.

“We’re constantly updating the product mix,” she said. “In the early days… it was very challenging to find high quality, well designed products. Today, there’s much more innovation going on. Companies are finally waking up, saying ‘here comes this demographic tidal wave,’ which is the aging of the population, and we need to start getting products that people want out there.

“We try to focus on those products that address the common conditions of aging,” continued Hallquist. “So whether it’s hearing loss or vision loss, mobility loss, memory loss, [we offer] products that are well designed… award winners, [but that] don’t make you feel like you were just discharged from a hospital,” said Hallquist, who also sells games and books and electronics.

  • Rule 4: Optimize your site for an older audience
    Unlike e-commerce sites that are trying to attract younger audiences, sites that are trying to attract an older demographic need to be “simple, clean and uncluttered,” said Gilmartin.

    • Include a welcome greeting or welcome page. Whether it’s right on your home page or on your “About Us” page, “show your appreciation for them visiting you,” said Gilmartin. That can make a big difference, he said, in how customers perceive you.
    • Allow users to choose the font size. As we age, our vision declines, and 10- or even 11-point type can be difficult to read. Yet you don’t want to put off visitors by having all text appear in a very large font. Instead, include a widget on your home page and/or on landing pages that allows them to choose their font size as AARP does on its MarketPlace page.
    • Use dark colors for text that contrast with the background. Black text on a white background may not be sexy, but it’s very easy to read — and older consumers like to read about products. Above all, do NOT use reverse type, that is, white on a dark background.
    • Do not underline text or use special effects. Both may confuse or put off visitors.
    • Use positive imagery. As Clarke stated, seniors often view themselves as 10 or 15 years younger than they are, and are often active into their 70s or even 80s. So it’s good to feature images of active or happy older people, in addition to product photos.
    • Make it easy to navigate. Be sure to include back buttons, links to other pages or categories, as well as a link to your home page on every page. Clearly label buttons, tabs and menu items and make sure they are large enough to be read by someone whose vision is no longer 20/20. Lastly, help shoppers find what they need — and checkout — in as few clicks as possible.
    • Use pop-ups sparingly. They can confuse older shoppers.
  • Rule 5: List a customer service number on every page
    Per the experts, listing a customer service phone number on every page is a must-have if you are selling to people 50 and up. And forget about automated answering systems. These shoppers want and expect a live person to talk to.

“We have members who call us just to tell us they received their package and wanted to say ‘thank you,'” reported Clarke. So an avenue for live communication is very important.

At Gold Violin, there’s a toll-free customer service number on every page, so if at any point in the purchase process a customer gets confused or has a question she or he can just pick up the phone. “You have to do that with this target customer,” explained Hallquist, “otherwise they’ll get frustrated and you’ll lose the sale.”

  • Rule 6: Make checkout easy
    While people disagree over whether to make checkout one page or to break up the information into chunks, everyone agrees the process should be quick and easy and as non-frustrating as possible. Gilmartin says that means:

    • Give easy to follow directions and include prompts (buttons or arrows combined with written cues), especially if checkout is more than one page.
    • Give customers plenty of space to type in their information.
    • Clearly state shipping costs.
    • And be careful about those security words. Many older people have difficulty making out blurry or fuzzy text, which could easily result in a lost sale.
  • Rule 7: Don’t forget SEO and traditional marketing
    Lastly, Gilmartin says don’t forget that just because you have an e-commerce site that caters to seniors that they will find you. As with any site, you need to optimize it with key words (“senior” being the most obvious, and most used, one) and phrases the search engine bots and crawlers will latch onto.

You may also want to invest in paid search on AOL (considered very senior friendly) and Google or take out ads on or include links to sites that provide free information to seniors, like well-regarded health/medical, travel and financial services sites.

Other good sources for leads are print catalogs (if you have one) and/or magazines (your own or someone else’s).

“Right now we’re circulating about 3 million catalogs a year, and catalogs are a very familiar medium for seniors,” said Hallquist. “They like to shop via catalog… and we call out in our catalog that there are even more products online. So we try to use those types of tools to get people to migrate from the print tool that they have in their hand to look online for more products.”

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to


  1. This is a great article that focuses on how to market and better serve the baby boomer generation. There is so much information available on the web that this audience does not access because of poorly designed sites or poor customer service.

Leave a Comment