Marketing to Seniors

If I were to sum up in a single phrase the way to produce successful direct mail programs when marketing to seniors, it would be, “cool it.”  From the envelope to the order card, seniors (loosely defined as people over 55 years of age) require more thoughtful approaches in a variety of areas.

While many of the elements of effective direct mail for regular consumer marketing also apply to seniors, some require greater emphasis and other less when selling to the 55+ market.

Think people, not markets.

The very first step to take is to lose the very idea of “market” when selling to seniors. As with all direct mail, your letter should be written to a single person, not a group or market. This is especially true of seniors who object to being herded into the “senior,” “golden age,” or similar categories, so you want to be careful not to let that attitude creep into your copy and design.

Soften the sell

Unlike much consumer mail where the three most important elements are “sell, sell and sell,” seniors are hyper-sensitive to being “sold.”  Rather, invite them to consider your offer. As with all direct marketing, translate product features into benefits but stress those benefits that speak to connection and community, to self-actualization and longevity, self-fulfillment and well-being.

A little rhyme I have used in seminars and my book to help dramatize key benefits is, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise.” One way or another, we all want to be healthy (physically, mentally, spiritually, and socially); wealthy (make money, save money, project wealth); and, most of all, wise (smarter; more productive; more professional; a better leader, mother, father, lover, housekeeper, bowler, etc.). While my couplet has application generally, it seems to me especially apt for appealing to seniors. Just be careful to select the appropriate images for your market. Perhaps “wealthy” can be back burnered, at least in the sense of getting rich. By this time in life, we have what we have – we just want to hold onto it. Clearly, health and wisdom will have great appeal for folks who have lived a while. To these you can add the concepts of safety and security. Indeed, whole markets are built around those concepts, largely for seniors.

Simplify the Structure

As opposed to some direct mail campaigns that seek reader involvement through multiple enclosures, seniors have less patience with our so-called “involvement devices.”
Direct mail is famous, or maybe I should say infamous, for using a variety of devices such as tokens and peel-offs, stamps and tear-offs, packages jammed with lift letters, 4-page sales letters and so on.  Here’s where the old K.I.S.S. principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) needs to apply. Try to keep your package to a 2-page letter, a color brochure, if necessary, and an order form and reply envelope with no gimmicks.

Direct marketers have a variety of strategies they can apply to the corner card on an envelope (the return address portion in the upper left) ranging from simulated handwritten names to elaborate logos to leaving it blank. For seniors, be direct. Spell out the name of the company offering the product or service with the street address (vs a P.O. box).  A magazine logo could be an exception for subscription efforts, since that’s what they will recognize best. You want to start building trust right from the envelope.

If you decide to use a teaser, avoid hype (a simple R.S.V.P. is reliable and telegraphs “response”). No elaborate claims, but “free” is always acceptable — if it’s really free, and not tied a purchase. Check the FTC’s rules on the use of the word “free” and stick to them.  Seniors especially do not take kindly to “Free” offers that have strings attached. You may be able to justify it legally, but it’s the appearance of honesty and fairness that matters.

If at all possible, personalize the name and address. The added cost will more than pay for itself in increased readership and response. Try to use regular stamps
instead of printed indicias and meters. This is all designed to make the recipient feel special. As I said earlier, these elements are good strategies for any kind of marketing, but they’re especially effective in the senior environment. What you don’t need is a lot of replies from older folks who eagerly read all their “junk” mail and feel obliged to answer the nice people who wrote to them.

The letter: invitation to a relationship

For most direct mail letters, we emphasize writing in short sentences, short paragraphs, using words of one syllable as much as possible. This often produces a somewhat staccato presentation that can be effective for some markets, but may be off-putting to a senior. As we suggested earlier, older folks seek connection and require some degree of trust in order to interact with another person, especially a stranger. That means writing conversationally, not in sales lingo. Be personal. Let the sentences flow, but keep the paragraphs short. They’re easier to digest that way.

Another common no-no in standard dm letters is the use of the first person “I.” We keep direct mail letters in second person — “you”– as much as possible. However, to help establish that all-important connection and trust in this market, the “I” word, used prudently, can help.

Find the connection and trust elements in your product and bring those out in copy. Some years ago, I wrote direct mail packages selling world tours and cruises to a mainly senior market. The company’s very successful theme, repeated often in letters and brochures, was “everything is taken care of.” It provided reassurance that, despite traveling to unknown places, they would be safe because this professional group knew how to take care of them.

Likewise, in writing for a bicycle touring company, we placed great emphasis on the technical assistance and guides that accompany each group. Brochures showed pictures of the tech fixing a wheel, of picking up cyclists in the van that followed closely behind, and so on. The letter stressed testimonials from previous tour members praising the young guides and techs for their friendliness and expertise.

In marketing a retirement newsletter to retirees and almost-retirees, the primary effort was to personalize the letter’s publisher. To make him credible, expert, friendly – and trustworthy. Most points regarding such issues as retirement income needs, asset allocation, risk assessment, etc. were all couched in terms of the letter’s publisher. I stressed his views, his background and experience in these areas, so the reader felt connected to this trustworthy individual.

To an even greater degree than in typical direct mail letters, provide heavy proofs of claims. Use testimonials freely, both from users and appropriate experts in the field.
Testimonials, especially from “folks like me,” give your prospect permission to take your proposition seriously.  Show the results of tests, where possible. If appropriate to the product, provide photos of the manufacturing or testing process. Show shots of the staff at work or whatever will help personalize the offering and make you, your company and your product come alive for your reader. Work to become more inviting, more credible, more friendly.

Keeping words simple is still a good idea. Avoid negative words like “can’t” and don’t” and repeat key points throughout the letter and brochure. Also, use the proven formatting methods that make letters quick and easy to read.  These include short sentences, short paragraphs, words of one syllable, bulleted lists of features or benefits and occasional subheads to draw attention to key points.

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Copyright 2004-2012, George Duncan, All Rights Reserved. George Duncan is a national award-winning direct marketing consultant and copywriter and author of “Streetwise Direct Marketing,” (Adams Media 2001).  He can be reached at 603-924-3121 or through his Web site at

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