Age is just a number—but it’s an important number for advertisers

Fully understanding your customers might require any number of details and data points—but customer age is always one of the first questions in mind.

It’s certainly one of the first to come up at marketing conferences, where anyone (and everyone) will hurriedly summarize their customer avatar with a tidy age range towards the top. And if someone doesn’t give their customer age in numbers, there’s an excellent chance they’ll name a generation instead (like “Millennials”), which has the same effect for anyone listening.

Psychologically speaking, our brains are always looking for simple ways to understand complex things. Customer age is one of the first questions we ask because (arguably more than any other data point) it feels like a reliable “shortcut” for understanding a complex group of people. Which sounds great until you realize that the previous sentence is barely different from the literal definition of prejudice, whose perils are widely known—and potentially far more disastrous at the scale of marketing.

But statistically speaking, age is a good predictor for many consumer behaviors—and this is where multi-generational marketing can become challenging. You can’t possibly ignore age in the math and marketing strategy, but at the same time, your marketing creative has to handle any age-sensitive topics with a light touch.

Quick review: Baby Boomers were born from 1946 to 1964, Generation X from ‘65 to ‘76, Gen Y or Millennials from ‘77 to ‘95, and Gen Z from ‘96 to the early 2000s (still not nailed down). Since everyone has the stereotypes in mind already, let’s stop long enough to shoot down each generation’s biggest marketing-sensitive misconception:

Boomers are not (still) as tech-illiterate as they’re made out to be. Even if you feel like a tortoise could text faster, Boomers “get” this stuff now—and they’re buying stuff online much the same way their kids (and grandkids) did before them. Data from marketing-data company V12 indicates that 85% of Boomers do product research online, which stuns us because we didn’t think 85% of any group of people did product research—and because Boomers hold about 54% of U.S. household wealth, it’s definitely unwise to dismiss them as potential customers.

It’s actually Gen X, and not Boomers, who are the most brand-loyal consumers. This surprised us because—digging into stereotype—Gen X is streaked with cynicism and nihilism (we think Gordon Gekko, the original yuppies, American Psycho, and grunge bands like Nirvana). Gen X has a consistent presence on Facebook and Twitter, but they’re a tricky bunch: they’re most resistant to the advertising lure of unfamiliar brands, yet also likelier than anyone to stay your customer if you win them over.

Millennials are the most cautious and conscientious consumers. Despite their popular characterization as flighty, entitled children (it’s fine, we’re not bitter at all), Millennials are likeliest to think responsibly before they buy online. Because Millennials are the first generation of digital natives, they’re the first to intuitively connect with reviews and online social proof—which a full 50% of Millennials consider “major factors” in purchase decisions. Millennials are also (for better or worse) the generation likeliest to follow influencers, who then pull followers deeper into specific niches and oblige the marketing to follow suit.

True, Gen Z doesn’t have nearly as much money to spend—but that’s a terrible reason to ignore them. For one thing, Gen Z’s spending power (whatever amount) still represents marketing opportunity. For another thing, Gen Z is super tech-savvy, to the point that frictionless online transactions are second-nature to them—so if you make something they want easy to buy, they’ll have some of the lowest barriers to sale. For one final thing: trite as it sounds, they do represent the future and where it’s going, so marketers would be wise to watch the kids as they grow into adult consumers with adult money.

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