The rapid aging of the Earth’s population is the most important demographic shift in the history of mankind. In the 20th century we gained 30 years of life expectancy, an increase that exceeds what we achieved in the previous 5,000 years. It’s a scientific fact that the population is aging, it’s a truism that no one wants to get old, and it’s a marketing mystery how to reach this segment of our customer base.

Even defining what a “senior” is has become an area of contention. When senior discounts first became popular in the 1960s a senior was someone 65 and older. Today most casino seniors programs and discounts are for customers age 55 and over. Many groups, most notably the AARP, define a senior as someone 50 and over.

The reason for expanding the age parameters makes sense from a business standpoint because if we can broaden a program to include even more members of our data base then it will be more successful, right?

Unfortunately, businesses are finding out that when it comes to seniors we really don’t understand the market. There have been some notable failures that you may remember. Did you ever buy Kellogg’s “40-Plus” cereal? It was removed from grocery shelves after about six months of dismal sales. Surely you remember the Life Alert commercial with the old woman lying on the floor moaning, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” It was pulled after a backlash of protests complaining that it depicted seniors as helpless victims. A more recent product campaign offended the other end of the advertising spectrum. Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” featured nearly nude females complete with wrinkles, cellulite and false teeth. Other than being featured on “Oprah” the campaign wasn’t successful because older women aren’t ready to accept that much in-your-face realism.

Researchers aren’t very far up the learning curve in studying seniors, but we do know more than we did even a decade ago. Compared to younger consumers seniors are more heterogeneous. The older we become the more different we are from our peers. The unique aspects of each individual become more pronounced with age, so seniors aren’t likely to buy a product or try a service because it’s trendy or popular. Seniors are a more difficult market because there is such diversity in their attitudes and behavior.

Yet, segmenting seniors is critical in marketing effectively to them. Some researchers define 50- to 64-year-olds as the “Young Olds”; 65-79 are the “Middle Olds”; and 80 and over are the “Old Olds”. Another way of segmenting is simply to divide them into two groups: “Baby Boomers” (people born between 1946 and 1964) and “Matures” (people born before 1945). Each of these groups probably qualifies for your seniors program, but they have profound differences. Baby Boomers were brought up questioning authority while Matures were raised to respect it. Baby Boomers borrow and spend freely, and Matures were taught to save for a rainy day.

The most defining life experience for any of these segments is retirement, and (before the current recession started to change all of this) people were retiring at earlier ages, so even this distinction can become blurred across age lines.

More complex segmentation focuses on “gerontographics,” the study of age groups that taps into a person’s biophysical, psychological and social circumstances in life and determines the impact of key events. On one end of this scale are “Healthy Indulgers,” who are closest to the Baby Boomers except that the Indulgers are no longer trying to “make it” and are focused on just enjoying it. At the other end are the “Frail Recluses,” who are isolated by ill health, loss of a spouse or other debilitating life events.

Just understanding that these differences exist in a seniors market is a step toward more effective marketing. From the early days of “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” to the nearly nude Dove campaign of 2008, marketing to an aging population has been trial and error. The trend in seniors marketing will continue to shift toward more subdivisions of age categories and finding different marketing messages that resonate with these smaller segments. The 50-and-over seniors program that clumps together a customer base that ranges in age by 30 or more years is as illogical as expecting an ad message targeting 21-year-olds to appeal to their grandparents.

Casinos have a critical interest in finding out more about their senior customers since they comprise so much of our gaming revenue, account for the vast majority of leisure travel and can be counted on to visit during non-peak days and times.

The one thing we do know for sure about our senior customer group is that sooner or later we’ll all be members.

READ MORE COLUMNS