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Facebook or Just Face-Look? Are People 55 And Older Really Using Social Networking Websites?

Facebook is estimated to have 70.2 million unique visitors per month in the United States according to comScore.  Social networking is booming, everyone is friending, following, tweeting, tagging, and grandma and grandpa are getting involved too.  Wait a minute, did I just say grandma and grandpa?  That’s what some recent Facebook research has shown.  It seems the fastest growing demographic on the social networking giant is women 55 and older.  That segment grew by 175% in February 2009, while men 55 and older grew by 137%.

I was definitely excited to see the data.  I’m a big believer in social networking and love to see people in that age group join a site like Facebook.  That said, reality set in a few days later.  I ended up speaking with someone 66 years old who needed my assistance with their email account.  Like many of you reading this post, I usually end up being the point person for technology-related questions for friends and family.  I had an interesting few minutes on a phone call with her.  Here’s a quick transcript:

Her: I can’t seem to find some emails I’ve written.
Me: Did you check your sent items?
Her: I’m in my email already. Where are my sent items?                             
Me: It’s the folder labeled “Sent Items" in Microsoft Outlook.
Her: I don’t think I’m using Outlook…
Me: What are you using to check your email?
Her: The e with a circle around it (AKA: Internet Explorer)
Me: OK, so it’s web-based mail.
Her: No, it’s on my computer.
Me: Yes, but you are accessing your email on the web.  I can help you.  What’s your email address so I can send you some instructions?
Her: I’m not sure, hold on.
Me: Jumping off roof now. 🙂

That conversation reminded me that not everyone is as tech savvy as the readers of Search Engine Journal.  We come with computer chips built into our brains.  Our kids instinctively know how to text and have built in wi-fi.  But, we also grew up using computers on a regular basis.  People that are 55 and older didn’t…  We were typically the ones introducing computers and explaining how to use them. Needless to say, there’s a big difference between the various age groups and how they utilize new technology.

My 3 Degrees of 55 and Older

After the phone call, I started thinking about people 55 and older and the data I saw about Facebook.  I’ll be honest, I started having doubts that many people 55 and older are jamming on Facebook, tagging photos, using apps, providing status updates, and grabbing their vanity URL’s.  So, why was I skeptical?  My parents are in that age group, and all of their friends.  My in-laws are in that age group, and all of their friends.  In addition, all of my friends’ parents are in that age group, so on and so forth.  So, I like to think I have a pretty good feel for that demographic, based on interactions I’ve had with them over the past few years. 

They Are Signing Up, But Not Coming Back…

The initial data I read showed that people 55 and older was a fast growing segment for Facebook (with women over 55 being the fastest growing).  But, recent data revealed that although they were signing up, they were not returning to Facebook.  Unfortunately, that did make a lot of sense to me.  I can only imagine someone 65 years old hearing about Facebook from their children or grandchildren, signing up, and looking at their blank profile thinking, “What the heck is this??”   


Getting My Own Data

Although reading all of this data about people 55 and older was great, it wasn’t sufficient for me.  I wanted to know more. So I decided to collect some of my own data!  I reached out to my network of friends and family with a quick Facebook questionnaire.  I came up with five simple questions to try and understand how people 55 and older were using Facebook.  I sent an email to my network and waited patiently for the data to come in.  It didn’t take long to start receiving responses.  Some of the emails cracked me up, others surprised me, and most reinforced what I thought.  Here are the five questions I sent out:

1. Are you currently on Facebook?
2. If yes, what do you use it for?
3. How often do you visit Facebook per day, week, and month?
4. Do you enjoy Facebook? Why or why not?
5. Do you plan to join other social networks like Facebook in the near future (over the next 6 months to year?)

I ended up receiving 57 responses from people 55 and older.

A quick disclaimer before I reveal the data.  This is obviously not a scientific study, nor was it meant to be.  I just wanted to receive feedback from a trusted group of people that were 55 and older to see if and how they use Facebook.  Let’s see what they had to say.

Lots of No’s, But There is Hope

As I started receiving responses, I saw a quick trend.  NO.  That’s the overwhelming response I received to question one (Are you currently on Facebook?)  It ends up that 80% of the respondents were not on Facebook.  When someone did choose to elaborate, I received some funny responses.  For example, I found out about one man who isn’t on Facebook and also refuses to upgrade to broadband.  I think the exact quote was, “Dial-up is fast enough!”  I laughed out loud and couldn’t help but think that his response was something right out of an episode of Seinfeld. 🙂  Another comment that cracked me up was, “I think I was there once.”  Wow, Facebook made such a big impression on her that she didn’t even know if she was on the site!  Although I was hoping to see more people from this group on Facebook, I had a feeling this would be the case.  Then I opened a few emails that gave me hope… 

Wait, Facebook Can Be Helpful!

Sprinkled in with the no’s were some great responses supporting Facebook.  These enthusiastic responses made me think there is hope.  The first one that struck me was from a friend’s mother-in-law.  Her enthusiasm about Facebook jumped off the page. Literally, if she could friend me, tag my photo, challenge me to a trivia game, and become a fan of my Facebook page, I think she would.   She explained how much she loves Facebook, how she keeps up with her children and grandchildren, and loves seeing everyone’s status updates, photos, video, etc.  She logs in a few times per day.  Yes, she was the exception, but she got it (big time).

After reading her story, I received a few more no’s and then another great response came in.  This time from a friend’s father, who logs in a few times per week to see what his kids are doing, he searches for people he went to college with, connected with some of them online and offline, etc.  It was another great example of someone using Facebook in smart ways.  He seemed to really like it. 

Then there were a couple of responses from people that were on the fence, not knowing whether Facebook was really for them.  There were several people who log in just a few times per month, explained that they don’t have time and don’t really know how to use Facebook.  Personally, I think that’s a big problem for Facebook, Twitter and other social networking websites (at least for this age group). I don’t know if there’s anything more frustrating for people than signing up for something you don’t understand.  And if you don’t know much about Facebook, you might end up just staring at a blank page wondering what the big deal is.

A Typical Bell Curve

I’m sure many of you have visualized this already, but my data ended up creating a typical bell curve, with a majority of the people not on Facebook, some loving it, and some on the fence.

No More Social Networks, One Is Enough…

My fifth question was, “Do you plan on joining more social networks over the next 6 months to a year?”  Almost all of the respondents that are currently members on Facebook said they probably won’t be joining other social networking websites.  To be honest, I’m not exactly sure they could name another one.  So, if Facebook can get more people 55 and older to join and actually use the website, they can probably retain those members. Better training and education would be a smart move for Facebook.  Heck, send out a team of people to 55 and older communities across the country.

A Note About When 40 Year Olds Become 55 and Older

One point I kept hearing from friends was that although their parents weren’t on Facebook, their aunts and uncles were (and their aunts and uncles are currently in their 40’s.)  So, many of them will already be members on Facebook when they become the 55 and older demographic (that’s if Facebook is around in 5-10 years).  As fast as things are moving, chances are Facebook will be something completely different by then.  Twitter might be linked to a chip in our brains, and BisKotti, the social network built on interactive TV, will take over our lives.  Never heard of BisKotti?  That’s because I just made it up, but it very well could be the next big thing. 🙂  {BTW, don’t even think about it, I just registered the domain name!}

My Final Thoughts About People Currently 55 and Older and Social Networks

Although I wish the numbers were better, I think 80% will never adopt social networking.  I think 15% will be interested, but run into barriers and be confused with the best way to use social networking sites like Facebook.  Then I think 5% will truly get it and benefit from its power.  They will connect with friends, use it help organize events, keep up with their children and grandchildren, and yes, probably grab their vanity URL’s while they’re at it.  There’s no doubt there will be some great stories from the 5%, but it unfortunately won’t make up for the 95% that never come back. 

That’s my take.  What’s yours?

Glenn Gabe is an online marketing strategist and focuses heavily on SEO, SEM, Social Media Marketing, Viral Marketing and Web Analytics. You can read more of Glenn’s posts on his blog, The Internet Marketing Driver and you can follow him on Twitter to keep up with his latest projects, news, and updates.

Category Social Media
Glenn Gabe G-Squared Interactive

Featured SEO Writer for SEJ   Glenn Gabe is a digital marketing consultant at G-Squared Interactive and focuses heavily on ...

Facebook or Just Face-Look? Are People 55 And Older Really Using Social Networking Websites?

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