In with the old: over 50s-focused media company GrownUps grows up

Cigna has recently acquired GrownUps, and three new faces have joined the business. Pictured left to right are Aisling Wait, Rich Poole, Brook Sparks, Garth Hill and Fleur Jenneson

Grey, old and ignored. This is the perception Richard Poole fought against when he founded his online magazine dedicated to those older than 50. And now ten years on, the job isn’t done, but the industry is starting to notice that he might have been onto something with GrownUps.

Advertising can be brutally exclusionary. One need only look at the 25-54 demographic segment to know that something as arbitrary as a birthday could condemn someone to the pit of undesirables. One year too old or one year too young, and you simply don’t make the cut.   

Some might argue that not being targeted by advertising is good thing, that ads are nothing more than an excuse to take a quick bathroom break or to turn the page. And this might be true. That is, until it becomes apparent that all commercial media is developed specifically to attract a key demographic group—meaning that the content running alongside the ads often overlooks the outliers.

Ten years ago, as the digital revolution was taking shape across the Kiwi media landscape, entrepreneur Richard Poole came to the realisation that those on the older side were in risk of being excluded.

Richard Poole
  • To see what GrownUps' 50+ readers are buying this Christmas, check out the results of its research here
     

Websites were quickly sprouting like grey hairs all over the place, but few, if any, were dedicated to the older generation.      

“I noticed that my parents didn’t know where to go online to find a trusted source of information in one place,” Poole says.

“At the time, they were just learning about the internet, but there wasn’t really much out there for them.”

A marketer by trade, Poole saw an opportunity and quickly responded by starting the website Grownups along with entrepreneur Shane Bradley, who at the time was starting to generate some good momentum with his website Finder.

“We didn't even look around the world to see what else was out there,” Poole says. “We just knew there isn't anything like this in New Zealand.”

Over the next year, the pair worked together, building a website targeted specifically at the 50-plus market. Things started ticking along, but the entrepreneurial bug still had its teeth firmly wedged into Bradley and he moved onto other ventures, leaving Poole to steer the fledgling business into the future. 

An early partnership     

As any digital publisher will tell you, simply building something does not necessarily mean that the audience will come. And this was particularly true of an audience that was only just coming to grips with what the internet offered.

From the early days, Poole knew that he had to find an organisation that had a strong connection with the target market, as this would provide a means by which to increase awareness of GrownUps.   

“We looked at organisations around the place who were in that kind of space and SeniorNet were teaching people, at that stage, how to turn on computers and where to go to from there. It was really basic stuff.”

While SeniorNet’s role in familiarising users with the internet was certainly an added bonus, it was actually the organisation’s massive database that presented the biggest opportunity to GrownUps.  

“They had about twenty or thirty thousand members at that time,” says Poole.

This provided a great starting point, from which the website was able to grow a loyal readership.

“GrownUps became an online lifestyle magazine, social club and brain training hub,” says Poole.

Alongside a steady stream of articles on issues relevant to readers older than 50, GrownUps also arranges social meet-ups, runs free classifieds and publishes annoying addictive brain-training puzzles on a regular basis.

Over the decade, GrownUps has stockpiled over 6,000 articles, many of which have retained their relevance and can be republished when certain topical issues arise.

Poole says that GrownUps also has a very active community, which guides the editorial team toward stories they’d like to see covered.    

“A large part of our job is getting feedback from the readers to see what interests them and what they’d like to see more of.”

This approach has certainly proved successful, with the website pulling in between 80,000 to 100,000 unique readers on average every month. 

Challenging Advertising

Strong readership doesn’t always translate into commercial success. And in the early days, Poole quickly learned that ad agencies weren’t all that interested in running ads on a site targeted at the older generation.   

“The advertising agencies were filled with people aged in their mid-20s and when we presented the concept, it was like, ‘Yeah, but people over 50 aren't on the net and it's just not that cool.’"

Sometimes GrownUps would squeeze into mainstream consumer campaigns by virtue of including readers on the cusp of the 25-54 demographic, but a significant portion of the ad business came from brands looking to specifically target older folks.    

“We got a lot of interest from companies selling incontinence pants,” Poole says.

“We needed the money so we took the campaigns, but soon we just had these ads all over the site.”

While profitable, this approach wasn’t great for readers or, for that matter, clients—especially given the vast majority of readers weren’t necessarily users of incontinence pants.

So instead, Poole switched the strategy and started developing content marketing campaigns with clients. Not only did this approach improve the overall appearance of the site, but it also meant those interested in incontinence pants could choose to access more information about the available products.

“Since then, content marketing has always played an important role as part of our overarching strategy at GrownUps.”

Shifting perceptions 

Over the last decade, our perceptions about age have shifted significantly. People are living longer than ever before, and they’re staying active for longer. All of which in turn has caused many to question the continued relevance of the 25-54 demographic.

One of the most vocal critics of this advertising segment is the Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman, who has questioned why marketers insist on targeting younger people when so much of the financial clout rests in the hands of those older than 50. 

“Almost everyone you see in a car commercial is between the ages of 18 and 24. And yet, people 75 to dead buy five times as many new cars as people 18 to 24,” says Hoffman on his blog

Arguments like these aren’t going unheard. Over the last year, both the local television and newspaper industries have questioned whether or not we should still be focusing as intently on the 25-54 demographic.

Netflix vice president of product innovation Todd Yellin also told Warc that demographic data isn’t all that useful from a targeting point of view: 

"Everyone's instinct was, 'Yeah, if you find out their age and gender data, that's fantastic’. But what we learned is: it's almost useless … Because, here's a shocker for you, there are actually 19-year-old guys who watch Dance Moms, and there are 73-year-old women who are watching Breaking Bad and Avengers."

Age is becoming an increasingly inaccurate indicator of how healthy people are, what they do and what they like to watch. And Poole says the growing awareness of this has made it much easier to sell his website to potential advertisers.

He says commercial partners also see that the boomer generation has an important link between the older and younger generations.

“These are the people who are looking for retirement homes for their parents, while also looking to buy cars for their kids at uni. They’re important decision makers in virtually every Kiwi family.”

New commercial horizons

These changing perceptions have presented some new opportunities for GrownUps.

Recognising the importance of New Zealand largest growing demographic sector, Cigna Insurance purchased GrownUps earlier this year.  

“Cigna acknowledges the increasing importance of the over 50s community and the role GrownUps plays in engaging in a way that is relevant and rewarding to its members,” says Poole.

“It was our vision of ‘not living life in the rear view mirror’ that they wanted to support and help develop, as an extension of their commitment to New Zealand’s health and wellbeing.  

“It's a new environment for me,” says Poole. “Until now, the site has very much been run on the smell of an oily rag. But what we have now is some real opportunity to grow the business.”

However, other than a change in ownership Poole says it is business as usual and the GrownUps team continues to do what they do best. And with New Zealand’s population ageing, what he does is becoming more and more relevant to more people with each passing year.  

  • This story is part of a content partnership between Tangible Media and GrownUps.