Social Media Marketing: Is There A Generation Gap?

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I recently had the opportunity to attend my high school reunion; a rare and, as it turned out, a delightful chance to reconnect with people who, by and large, haven’t seen each other in decades.  Some of you might grimace at the thought (was your high school experience really that bad?) or fondly recall those formative, hormone-infused years.  From my view, I couldn’t help but think about how this cross-section of classmates was either tracking with today’s social media world, or skimming the social surfaces like so many CEOs (still) pondering whether there is any ROI to be had in social (yes, there is, if you are willing to let us show you how to do the math.)

It turns out that my fellow classmates had relocated, changed career paths and adopted new lifestyles so many times over the years that traditional address books were no longer relevant in the near yearlong effort to bring us all together for another (but hopefully not the last) hurrah.  The reunion organizers smartly turned to social media to get the word out and track down people, relying especially on Facebook with its 955 million-strong member database.  After months of networking, updates, postings, email outreach, cajoling and even some moments of desperate pleading, we managed to enlist about 70 reunion revelers, out of a class northwards of 430 original students.  Hundreds of people couldn’t be found.  Others had geographical issues or prior commitments and couldn’t attend.  Probably some just didn’t care to reconnect.  And a few, sadly, were no longer with us.

Facebook works well for people who want to be found.  But how do you use Facebook — or any social platform for that matter — to uncover a generation of people who were raised on the proto-Internet, when email cost 50 cents a message and we put up with clunky social services such as CompuServe and Prodigy as well as the early iterations of America Online (which survived because it wisely adopted HTML over its initial kludgy graphical interface)?

In many respects, the traditional high school reunion is perhaps a perfect metaphor for marketers targeting an audience already predisposed to a conversion event: The shared experience (we were classmates for many, many years) reflects a common ground, shared values and built-in layers of trust.  But the challenge remains: How do you find and target a generation still sitting on the fence when it comes to connecting via social media?  Luckily, if you rely on statistical watchers such as eMarketer, the trend is going against the laggards.  eMarketer reports 1.43 billion social network users in 2012, a 19.2 percent increase over 2011.  And while we often take it for granted that the under-30 set are totally plugged into social, research from the Pew Research Center continues to showcase increasing numbers of Baby Boomer generation members gravitating to social networks.  There are plenty of young people not ready for Facebook, while the marketing folks at Facebook HQ recently trotted out Facebook’s oldest recorded user, 101-year-old Florence Detlor of Menlo Park, Calif.

As it turned out, the successful reunion did spur a number of classmates to join the social grid (at least starting with Facebook) and begin sharing in a community beyond the safety of email.  What’s probably more important is these new connections are more than social: many a business card was exchanged at the event and business referrals (remember, these are trusted sources) will undoubtedly lead to sales.  There’s a secondary lesson for social marketers trying to convince fence-sitting clients or companies to incorporate social business tools: think incremental steps.

I recently spoke at an Austin, Texas conference of automation industry sales and marketing professionals, where one senior executive confessed he just didn’t know where to begin with social media.  I recommended the company convert its existing printed monthly newsletter into an email marketing vehicle with unique, trackable links driving customers back to the corporate website.  No Twitter.  No Facebook.  Not even Pinterest.  This simple step would not only create important, new inbound events, but it also would enable the company to better measure the effectiveness of its sales mailings and deliver a means of calculating the ROI of at least the monthly customer newsletter.  Facing generational pushback, baby steps are the path to social business growth.

As marketers, we constantly talk about the concept of reach, or extending our markets to new, potential customers as a further source of conversion potential.  High school alumni reluctant to join the social grid and CEOs understandably overwhelmed by a deluge of social platforms and tools have a lot in common when it comes to social media adoption.  In the race to embrace and proselytize every new shiny thing, sometimes a more measured marketing strategy might help overcome the many obstacles in our path and lead to a higher degree of successful outcomes.

What do you think?  Are social media marketers in such a rush that they may be overwhelming business prospects?  How do you set the pace with your company or a new client prospect?  Go Huskies!

Joel Don
This monthly Social Business Trends column is contributed by Joel Don. Joel is principal of Comm Strategies, a consultancy that leverages public relations strategies, reputation enhancement and social media tools to maximize business success. Joel has worked for several PR and marketing agencies, and previously served as a public information officer at UCLA and UC Irvine. He also directed business and financial communications at a Fortune 500 computer manufacturer. Formally trained as a journalist, he has written for daily newspapers and national magazines throughout the country. In addition, Joel developed a digital solution for measuring the readership of company news prior to the advent of today’s link-tracking systems. +Joel Don
Joel Don


Community manager + social media/PR consultant helping you leverage the right strategies & tools. Skier & PADI scuba instructor
The flip side: What It Feels Like When Your Mentee Becomes a Star via @serwer @JBoorstin - 4 hours ago
Joel Don


  1. says

    Funny I have somehow managed to avoid the formal high school reunion events, but did get invited to – and attended informal reunions via Facebook.  I like your approach of starting simple, in some cases, and asking the basic question – where can your audience be found?  No need to rush to social media for marketing / business, or any specific network if your customers are not there.

    • says

      Bob, it reminds me of a theme (which also was turned into a book)…Small is Beautiful. Perhaps a simple, measured approach is the right strategy for a lot of companies intimidated by the social deluge — not to mention the musical chairs game played with social platform and ranking system algorithms.

  2. N Manoraj says

    But the rush is uncontrollable …every organization is rushing to have an Facebook fan page…even though they might not need it… similarly company might not need an pinterest page , but they have it as other companies are having it…this diverts the marketing focus off the company…facebook is now more business sharing… than peoples sharing…..

  3. says

    Joel, my agency’s national study of “Social, Silver Surfers” definitely shows that generational pushback. Worries over privacy/intrusion — what one called the “fifth grade science partner” effect — loom large with social networkers over 50. But their #1 pet peeve about social is exactly in line with your post: “It is tedious and time consuming for marginal return.” (Their words, not mine.)

    I help our clients set the pace with a focused, smaller stream of relevant items … Less time, more offers/insider info. Because that’s what the baby boomers told us they want from social engagement: discounts, convenience, VIP status. This generation still sees the web as more of a tool than an extension of breathing, more a way to achieve goals than entertainment.

    I really like your rec to drive customers to the corporate website. It’s measurable AND it gives baby boomers two things they like: a feeling of trust and an ability to control the relationship with your brand.

    (If you or your readers are interested, research and related marketing tips are in the eBook:

  4. says

    Erin, thanks for your comments and pointing to your study of “Silver Surfers.”  Need often prompts action and my reunion experience suggests that perhaps lack of interest and/or fear may be overcome by simple word-of-mouth recommendation from a peer (vs. prodding or cheerleading from a card-carrying social media advocate). If we emphasize incremental adoption, we might find more acceptance and participation.  But the justifiable need still has to be there and that’s a good focus for our work in marketing and PR.

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