Q&A: Furlong Connects Investors With Boomers

SAN FRANCISCO Mary Furlong is not the typical face of Silicon Valley. Yet, the 58-year-old tech entrepreneur, Santa Clara University professor and author is courted by top venture capital firms and corporate investors for her connections and expertise in a market they envy: consumers over 40.

While most marketers are wooing the 18-34 market, her constituency knows the real money for the next 10 years is in the pockets of their parents. Her book, Turning Silver Into Gold, was published in early 2007, and Mary Furlong and Associates hosted the annual Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit on June 26, acting as matchmaker between venture capitalists and start-ups that target boomers.

Fresh from that event, Furlong reveals to Adweek‘s Joan Voight what new industries are forming, what the Boomer potential is and marketing missteps to avoid.

Q: Some marketers talk about boomers—when they talk about them at all—as a niche market. Do you consider them a niche?
A: It is too large of an elephant to think of as a niche. There are actually niches within the market. boomers are a powerful group for new business ventures because, in addition to their own large consumption of products and services, they influence the decisions of their parents and their teen and grown kids.

Is there a hike in private investment money in businesses that serve boomers?
Let me put it this way, most of the time you have trouble getting a venture capital investor to return your call. But I have these VC people making the time to come to dinner and breakfast with us because they see the potential. Companies like Verizon and Microsoft are participating in our summit because they are also looking for ways to serve this market. In 2005, the early VCs were interested in boomer consumers. This year, mainstream investors are asking us, “What can we invest in over the next 10 years?” The strategic longevity funds are going into developing diabetes solutions, obesity solutions, healthcare solutions, technology solutions and transportation solutions. When you see money going into new medical devices or biotech companies, [that money is] a response to the size and potential of the boomer market. It is the reason why technology corporations Philips, Intel, Microsoft and Intuit are adding healthcare to their corporate [portfolios].

Would other products that are touted as easy to use, such as the iPhone, be indirectly aimed at the Boomers?
Absolutely. All Mac products are strong among older consumers. [With] the iPhone [the company shows it] understands the boomer sensibility that they want to be hip. So Apple positions it as a cool, hip product.

How about other product categories with big potential?
All good design that is elegant and functional appeals to this group. Boomers want their products to be positioned as mainstream, not things for older people. For instance, they like furniture that is easier to get in and out of. Better home lighting is very important. You and I could be millionaires if we just did boomer-friendly lighting. Also, there need to be concierge services, such as drivers and personal assistants. Boomers will demand these products and services. Besides existing categories, new marketplaces are forming. There will be a home-care marketplace, also transit and wellness marketplaces. These will be new industries for us.

When it comes to marketing and branding in these boomer marketplaces, what is important to remember?
Realize these consumers are online. They make purchasing decisions based on online information. They spend half their day on the Internet. Also, know that technology is central to how boomers stay connected to family. For instance, I call my mom on her cell phone; I e-mail my older son and text message my younger son. Don’t underestimate how educated they are. They get data from experts they trust and from friends, so user-created content is key. Recognize the role of women as the chief medical officers of their families. Boomers also like humor, music and a little sass.

What marketing strategies work for this group?
Play to their aspirations. They have not lost their desire to be players in society, so you need to talk to them as players. Let them participate in the process [of marketing]. For instance, my financial advisor recently asked me my opinion about my financial portfolio. That had never happened before. My consultancy is working with a company that is developing a bank for older consumers and it asked boomers what they wanted. A woman said she wanted to know if they had automatic doors so her elderly mother could get in easily. Then the woman said that if the bank could pick up her mother and bring her to the bank and back home, she would switch the family accounts to the new bank immediately.

What marketing missteps should companies avoid?
Don’t call this group “seniors.” Don’t say, “We will take care of you.” Talking down to them and saying we will do this for you is not appreciated. Don’t use broadcast TV or radio ads in big markets to reach them. Instead, connect with them through customized partnerships, events, PR and word of mouth. For instance, AARP sponsored the Tribeca Film Festival. That was a successful idea.

No TV ads? What about all those ads for drugs and financial services for older people on broadcast news shows?
Those advertisers are not far enough down the path of the new ways of marketing to boomers. Maybe I see this first because here in Silicon Valley I’m in the heart of the media revolution. I think the people who do those [ad campaigns] will be looking for new jobs pretty soon.

What have you learned working with start-ups aimed at boomers?
That the entrepreneurs who are building businesses for this market range from age 19 to 72. Many have retired from professional careers, such as a retired pharmacist who started a business that delivers online ads that are medical reminders. They know what customers in their fields need.

What have you learned personally about being a boomer?
That we are not really prepared for taking care of our parents. I found this in caring for my mom recently. I needed to get her a walker and it turned out it was very important to her which walker she got. Fortunately I had bought the Cadillac of walkers, but I didn’t know that. In this situation there is a lot to do and a lot to know, and you are writing checks very quickly—from hundreds of dollars a day for at-home care, to tens of thousands of dollars for a year at a care facility. This experience is showing me firsthand that there is a real need for trusted environments and trusted intermediaries to provide leads, advice and products.