By Mark Miller
Silicon Valley has seen the future of social networking — and its face looks a little wrinkled.
Venture capitalists are betting that Baby Boomers will take to online communities as their kids have adopted Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and other Web 2.0 sites. The money flow started with Eons, the brainchild of Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor. Eons has raised a total of $32 million over the past two years from heavyweight venture capital firms including General Catalyst Partners and Sequoia Capital, Charles River Ventures and Intel Capital.
More recently, media veteran Robin Wolaner launched TeeBeeDee with $4.8 million in backing from Shasta Ventures. Other recent investments include a $16.5 million round for Multiply, a four-year-old site that started out as a photo-sharing site but has evolved into a social networking site for the grown-up market. The cash infusion came from VantagePoint Ventures, which was one of the early investors in MySpace.
Outside these venture-funded companies, Boomer-oriented social networking sites springing up include Boomj, Boomertown, Rezoom and NABBW.com, the website of the National Association of Baby Boomer Women.
And perhaps most notably, AARP — the 800-pound gorilla in the 50+ space — will add social networking at AARP.org early in 2008 as part of an overall site redesign.
There’s no doubt Boomers are online in a big way. Sixty-five percent of Americans age 50-64 use the Web, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The percentages are higher among younger Boomers, and older web surfers will account for a growing share of Internet traffic in the years ahead as more Boomers pass 50.
Grownup social networking is shaping up as an interesting business opportunity for entrepreneurs. For marketers, networking sites offer an attractive way to reach the lucrative Boomer demographic target in categories such as financial services, travel, health and real estate. Indeed, a recent survey for the Society of New Communications Research of 260 marketing professionals indicates that marketing spending on social media and “conversational marketing” will outpace allocations for traditional marketing by 2012.
Social networking also offers unique advantages as a media business model:
- Users generate most of the content, keeping a lid on expenses for publishers.
- Users help build site traffic by recruiting friends to join — a viral marketing benefit.
- Site owners don’t have to worry much about content relevance, since users drive site content around their own interests. In fact, 50+ networking sites can provide a useful window on Boomer interests for anyone studying the market. Eons, for example, publishes an annual ranking of the most popular member search topics that’s worth a look.
- User engagement is much higher than average. For example, the average visitor to Eons stuck around for almost 27 minutes per visit in September 2007, and viewed an average of 47 pages, according to Compete.com. Both of those numbers are off the charts compared with industry averages, and help the company monetize visits through advertising.
Will Boomers find social networking sufficiently compelling to drive these businesses to profitability? Some observers are skeptical.
“The most compelling reason that young people use these sites is to hook up,” says Susan Ayers Walker, who writes about computers and technology for AARP’s website. “Older people already have their social networks set, so what is the compelling reason they will use sites like these?”
But TeeBeeDee’s Wolaner argues that hooking up is no less powerful a motivator for Boomers. “A lot of the traffic on TeeBeeDee is around sex and relationships,” she says. “There’s really no place online for people at this age to talk about those things.”
One key challenge will be building traffic to levels that will generate meaningful advertising revenue. According to Compete.com, Eons had 788,000 unique visitors in September 2007; MySpace had 67 million unique visitors that month, Facebook 24 million. Already, there are signs of growing pains; Eons laid off about a third of its staff last September.
TeeBeeDee is short for “to be determined,” a reference to Wolaner’s belief that Boomers are embarking on new adventures in life. TeeBeeDee is a place where they can do what she calls “purposeful networking” — comparing notes, getting ideas and inspiration.
“There is a fork in the road at mid-life,” Wolaner says. “Some people can’t take the steps to reinvigorate their careers and relationships. But the mindset of the person joining our site is, ‘I’m in pretty good shape, I’ve got a couple decades ahead … I’m going to make the most of things.’ ”
Will that be enough to make TeeBeeDee and the wave of other social networking sites thrive? That’s … TBD.
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Mark Miller is president of 50+Digital LLC, a multimedia publishing and consulting company focused on the Baby Boomer market. The company produces editorial content for the 50+ market, and publishes a blog focused on Boomer business and marketing trends at www.50plusdigital.com. Mark also writes the 50+Lifestyles column that appears monthly in the Chicago Sun-Times.