On the Cover

While the wired senior trends are being set by the UK and US, SA`s silver surfers will lag behind the rest of the world until internet prices come down YOU WOULD EXPECT your 11-year-old daughter, who`s practically born with a PC mouse in hand and who would "just die" if something happened to her iPod, to represent the internet`s fastest-growing demographic group. Not so, says the local Online Publisher`s Association (OPA). Your silver-haired mother is a more likely candidate.

“`Silver surfers` are becoming the fastest growing [internet] demographic group," according to the OPA. "Eschewing their technophobic tendencies, and coaxed online by their grandchildren, 65-year-old and older wired seniors are getting so hooked on the internet that many of them consider cyberspace their second home," noted Matt Buckland of the OPA earlier this year.

Definitions of the so-called silver surfers vary, but generally it refers to seniors 60 years old and over who have bridged the final digital divide - the age barrier.

While silver surfer trends are being set by the US - where 22% of over 65s use the internet (a jump of 47% between 2000 and 2004, notes the OPA) - and the UK, they are only just starting out in South Africa, where high broadband costs have been reigning in widespread internet use.

"Until South Africa`s prices come down, our wired seniors will lag behind the rest of the world, denying online advertisers the chance to connect with potentially lucrative retirees with money in their pockets and shopping time on their hands," said Buckland.

"[Silver surfers] are a big sector in the US, but let me put that in context: 70% of the US population is connected via broadband. In South Africa, the total internet community is only 8% of the population. Besides, the internet user base here is focused on the SME market, not the home-user market, and the reason for that is cost. Only this year saw the cost of internet connection drop below R200 for a one gigabit cap," elaborates of technology researcher .

He maintains that, at present, no cognisance is taken of the silver surfer market in SA. "Recognition of this sector would only happen in mature markets, not in a country like South Africa where the internet environment is still developing. We`re too far down the growth curve to differentiate on the basis of age-related demographics," he maintains.

That may be true for some, but , MD of online florist NetFlorist, has a different story to tell.

"When we launched in 1999, we had almost no silver surfers - it was the early days of e-commerce and only young `early-adopters` were responding to our brand. That has changed over the years and silver surfers now make up around 5% of our base - not a huge number, but certainly a growth area for us over the last few years."

He admits, though, that silver surfers generally need more telephonic support than younger surfers. "As a result, our silver surfers will often transact with us for the first time telephonically and then migrate to the website once trust is built." Needless to say, NetFlorist is "certainly interested" in growing this market, Bacher says.

One of SA`s leading internet service providers declined to comment on the issue for fear of revealing too much of its strategy to the , by the sounds of things, but had noted in the past that while it would like to offer a service for pensioners, the cost of such a service is currently beyond the means of the average SA pensioner.

Nonetheless, some ISPs, one would suspect, tailor their all-in-one e-mail, internet and PC bundles - including installation - for the more technophobic `older` segment of the home-user market.

Albert Bredenhann, MD of Jump Shopping, which claims to be SA`s biggest online shopping search engine, makes another valid point when he says that he`s never measured the age of its users because "everyone shops, and with our product range of more than 3.8 million products, I guess there`s something for everyone".

He`s of the opinion that segmentation of the local internet market is a product/service offering issue, and that measuring and surveying user age groups is something only applicable to websites offering products related to certain age groups. "The internet is a medium for all ages and all users should be treated equally."


What is interesting, though, is that Bredenhann admits to using his over-60-year-old father as a guinea pig whenever launching a new product. "We always say that if he is not coping or understanding something, there is a chance that other users might not get it.

"All websites - including their navigation, usability, colours and layout - should be built and adapted for the less-internet-savvy users," he explains.

There is abundant research to support his theory, such as that by the Independent Consumer Panel for the UK communications watchdog Ofcom, which has in the past found that older and lower-income people feel alienated from digital life. In particular, they felt that technology companies were not looking closely at their needs, and older age groups felt frustrated when it came to information they were given about technologies.

To this end, the UK goes as far as holding a Silver Surfers` day, which gets support from the European Union`s social fund, to ease 10 000 "digitally excluded" older people into a digital life by showing them how technologies might add to their lives.


And internet technology adds to their lives in several ways. "Whether new to the Web or ageing internet-loving baby-boomers, they are becoming avid online researchers, seeking information on every subject from theatre and travel reviews, hobby tips and weather reports to medical facts and financial data. Reading the news is also as important to this emerging stereotype, as maintaining family ties (via e-mail) and managing their health," says the OPA`s Buckland of the uses of the internet for silver surfers.

Silver surfers are savvy online shoppers too, according to a more recent survey by the European Interactive Advertising Association (EIAA). It found that 38% use price comparison sites and nearly three-quarters have shopped online. Over half now do their banking and bill payments online.

And, says the EIAA, don`t for one moment think that the silver surfers aren`t embracing Web 2.0 and other internet tools. The number of them signing up to forums is up 113% in the last two years and 18% frequent social networking sites, such as Bebo and MySpace, at least once a month.

One would expect much the same interests back home, but one cybergran`s comment to me was: "I don`t surf the internet: I e-mail and I do internet banking. Everything else is just too confusing - just when I get used to something, it changes."

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