But do they know the territory?

by Louis on December 8, 2014

I was entranced by The Music Man as a kid. The story is great. The music is wonderful. I love the opening scene with the ‘clickety clackety’ of salesmen rhythmically complaining about a guy who “doesn’t know the territory”. I was reminded of it the other day talking to two entrepreneurs at an Aging 2pint0 networking happy hour, organized by our great DC Aging2.0 ambassador, Carrie Gladstone. These guys both have great product ideas and the requisite enthusiasm. But….they don’t know the territory.

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They don’t have basic knowledge about marketing, selling and serving older consumers. This came to view when this really nice and pretty savvy guy described his basic Lean Startup customer discovery process learning about senior customers. At first I was impressed how textbook he used the process. I was nodding because I agreed with what he learned…then it occurred to me I was nodding because I already know this stuff.

There is a body of marketing knowledge that predates the internet, tech boom and nascent recognition of the aging demographic. It comes primarily from the senior housing industry. My background came from working with the active adult building industry in the National Association of Home Builders 50+ Council. The theoretical granddaddy of this thinking is the late David B Wolfe  My first edition, 1990 copy of Serving the Ageless Market  is always close at hand. I count additional significant insight from the late Dr. Gene Cohen, author of The Mature Mind. To my thinking these are the textbooks of marketing and selling to older consumers.

These books, these ideas, are not hocus pocus. They contain basic information about the consumers. Nothing different than what marketing people always want to know… the purchasing triggers, patterns and habits of targeted customers. This info is available but for some reason…. it may be related to the pace or nature of technology development or the web….. but is certainly part of the fast paced startup culture (see  * below)….. I see too many folks working to occupy this space who, though focused on solving legitimate needs, do not pay enough attention to how older consumers make buying decisions.

What is different about selling to older consumers? They make more thoughtful, complex buying decisions.  Don’t mistake your inability to reach your target as the target’s fault, stupidity, denial or an intention to frustrate you. It is more likely your ignorance about your target. Mature buyers bring their years of experience to decision-making. Marketing must appeal correctly and the sales cycle must match the decision pattern or…it just won’t work. But the answer is not just to expect a long, slow sales cycle, it is much more subtle and complex.

Hints in a nutshell: Don’t sell products and certainly not features. You can try to sell benefits but more to the point…sell lifestyle. And now for the difficult part. Lifestyle cannot be defined…it is individualistic. I say it is “what ‘s behind the individual mind’s eye”.  Lets take housing for example. An ad directed at a younger consumer may refer to the windows, kitchen or materials. An ad for 50+ housing shows social amenities, nature walks or smiling couples enjoying life. What the viewer actually thinks does not matter to you, and is in fact unknowable, as long as what they see gathers their interest.

It is very exciting to see new entrepreneurial and investor interest in senior products and service. But the new wave of startups, products and investors should pay closer attention to already learned basics about marketing to older consumers or their disappointment may retard this round of advance. We need new products and services to match new longevity but there is no need to invent the marketing and sales wheels. Get to know the territory to find the smooth rails to success.

* See a related Washington Post article on ‘failure porn‘  Our emphasis on risk and failure – a younger person’s game – makes it too difficult to include the valuable experience of older hands in developing new products and services. Older folks have value, not just as targets, but because of their wisdom.





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