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Same Old Story?

In A Rush To Get the Word Out to Older Adults About the Importance of Exercise, Many Health Clubs Are Inadvertently Sending the Wrong Message

In 1996, the first of the baby boomers started turning 50. They will continue to do so for the next 20 years, at a rate of one every 7.5 seconds. According to the Alliance for Aging Research, 86 percent of these maturing Americans - and their parents - believe that exercising regularly is very important or essential to staying healthy as they grow older. Yet, we have not seen a swarm of boomers materialize at the front doors of most fitness-oriented facilities.

Why haven't we? Is it the programming? The equipment? The staffing? Or the facilities we've spent millions to build?

It's quite possible that none of these is to blame. After all, many organizations have invested in age-appropriate equipment, trained their staffs appropriately and redesigned their facilities - all with minimal success in attracting seniors. Maybe it's time, then, to take a step back and look at the messages we as an industry have sent, and whether these messages have appeal for the older adult.

Understanding that new market forces are at play, and that what has worked with younger adults will not work for mature adults, is the first step. Consider, for example, the world of advertising. According to David Wolfe, author of Ageless Marketing, "Research indicates that older people consider sex as important in intimate relationships as younger people, yet they tend to be turned off by crude treatment of sex [in advertising], while younger people can be titillated by it. Think about those Calvin Klein ads." Think about what represents fitness on newsstands, and you'll see that this applies to our industry, as well.

To see whether gaining your share of the active-aging market is at all possible, ask yourself four simple questions:

1. Do I have a complete understanding of the market, its needs and its wants?

2. Do I know how and what to say to get older adults to walk through my door?

3. Do I have the ability to address their needs once I get them to come in?

4. Am I prepared to invest the resources and time necessary to grow this part of my business?

If the answer to any of these is no, any investment you make in the areas of advertising, public relations or direct mail will be for naught.

We have all read the research showing that, as we age, regular exercise offers benefits across a wide range of health conditions and problems, from cancer to heart disease to diabetes. In addition, a recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that elderly people who start a regular exercise program felt so good about their progress that 80 percent of them stuck with their program at the end of a year. The study's findings indicated that programs targeting older adults should emphasize improved physical fitness, weight loss, energy gain and healthier eating habits, and offer regular feedback and support.

All well and good - but how do we get them to buy into our message. The following ten tips will make sure your message is appropriate - and heard.

1. Know your market. In the same way that every restaurant isn't a McDonald's, every member of the mature market isn't a "senior." Those over 50 are part of a multi-segmented group, with each segment having its own wants and needs. Plus, each age segment can be defined further by income, ethnicity, health status, discretionary time and more. Is your target market in its early 50s, possibly with children still in college and likely still part of the workforce? Are you talking to those in their early 60s who face impending retirement (and, inevitably, health concerns)? The point is, when it comes to the mature market, one size does not fit all. It's important that you identify the segment to which you are marketing, and take the time to incorporate the needed elements and message into your marketing plan.

2. Stick to the facts. "Been there, done that" may well be the mantra of the over-50 set. The most effective sales messages to this group may be to simply explain in a clear and straightforward way exactly why they should be interested in what you have to offer and exactly what benefits they will receive.

3. Use life-stage marketing. Life-changing events (a child's marriage, retirement, a change of residence, health problems) are defining moments for this market. Use these events to create connections. For example, focus on the parents' free time now that the kids have moved out, or focus on prevention of health problems.

4. Educate the market. Some of the most successful campaigns educate the market about real-life concerns while subtly slipping the product message between the lines. This is all part of a whole-person wellness program - in which you use elements (other than physical fitness) to get a person to see your facility and hear your sales message. For example, create a seminar series that each month deals with a different chronic condition, such as osteoporosis. By educating customers, you're showing that you care about them and speak their language. What facility will they choose to belong to now?

5. Design with their eyes in mind. No matter how young they may feel and act, diminished vision is a fact of life for most people over the age of 50. Set ad copy in a readable size (12 point minimum is recommended, depending on the font) and use plenty of white space, bold headlines and subheads to make ads a pleasure to read, rather than a chore. Similarly, consider column width when designing. While long copy is acceptable to this group (which overall prefers a detailed rationale for buying), shorter columns are easier to read than type set across an entire page width. In photography and graphics, full color is preferable to black and white. Choose models with some sensitivity to your market. Clearly, today's over-50 group is not confined to rocking chairs or the golf course. Use photography and art that reflect the lifestyle of the people to whom you are speaking.

6. Avoid scare tactics. Scare tactics and discouraging news about aging won't motivate this group to act or buy. Direct marketers who recognize the joys of aging stand a much better chance of reaching this market than those who use fear (like the insurance industry sometimes does).

7. Don't call them names. Probably the quickest way to turn off the younger members of the over-50 group is by offering them "senior" discounts, or products designed for "seniors." When speaking to those over 65, it pays to avoid labels such as "old" and "elderly." About the only label this group likes is "grandparent."

8. Penetrate the medical market. Recent research findings indicate that any promotional campaign worth its weight will try to capitalize on the important relationship that already exists between physicians and their patients. These findings show that midlife and older consumers already see physical activity as a health issue and that they want clear recommendations about how much exercise they need. They also indicate that consumers trust their doctors to guide them in designing a safe and effective physical activity routine.

Local physicians can be enlisted to advise their patients to exercise, and to help them develop exercise routines that are appropriate for their physical condition. But adults over 50 must also be encouraged to seek, and rely upon, their physicians' advice in this area. As long as physicians are reinforcing the messages that their patients are receiving through a variety of media, it will be far easier to change sedentary behaviors and improve the target population's overall health.

9. Demonstrate your credibility. If your company has been in business for 25 years, say so. If you're new on the block, emphasize your commitment to customer service. Testimony from satisfied clients, research results and professional endorsements are all key copy elements. Potential members may have a credibility issue with your organization if you minimize or ignore this area.

10. Remove the risk. Offer a money-back guarantee, free trial period or lifetime warranty. Reassure a potential customer that there are real human beings on the other side of the front desk. Use names in your copy as you talk about the people who will be providing the services you offer.

Your marketing plan is ready to carry the message. Now it is time to examine the message you use.

To understand how people over 50 feel about exercise and how it fits into their daily lives, AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons), with help from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, launched a research effort in 2001. Through that research - which included numerous focus groups and two national surveys - AARP learned that certain key events usually trigger a person's interest in physical activity. Turning 50 is one of the most significant triggers. Declining health is another. AARP also learned that to be effective, promotional messages for physical activity must assume that the target audience already knows the health benefits of exercise, but for various reasons has not taken advantage of those benefits. The message, then, must focus on inspiring audience members to get off the couch, all the while being careful not to alienate them or turn them off.

Focus groups, which reviewed and commented on a number of fitness-related print advertisements, helped AARP identify messages that are likely to be successful in motivating adults ages 50 to 79 to adopt and stick with a physical activity regimen. The groups also provided valuable insight into what messages will stand in the way of efforts to promote increased levels of physical activity among midlife and older Americans.

Messages That Work

1. FEATURE ORDINARY PEOPLE DOING ORDINARY THINGS. Adults over 50 responded best to promotional messages when they could identify with the people - and the activities - featured in ads. Focus group participants preferred ads that showed real people (and preferably, older people like them) taking part in realistic activities. For example, both men and women identified strongly with a smiling female jogger, whose positive attributes included the fact that she was physically attractive without looking like a model, was doing something that most of them could do and didn't look old, even though she had gray hair. Many participants commented that the jogger looked like someone they would like to have as a friend.

On the flip side, male participants in one focus group couldn't identify with one ad featuring a man who, they said, looked more athletic than they would ever be. Likewise, when focus groups were expanded to include 45-year-olds, the younger participants said they were turned off by ads featuring older people because they could not identify with old age.

2. PROVIDE CONCRETE INFORMATION. While audiences need motivation and encouragement to get moving, they are also hungry for specific directions and guidance. Focus group participants always appreciated being directed to other resources - like web sites or telephone numbers - where they could find more information. This group, in general, has a thirst for keeping their mind stimulated, whether as a means of staving off Alzheimer's disease and dementia, or as a need for intellectual growth.

One way of getting them to visit your facility is through continuing-education programs. The Houstonian, ranked among the top 10 health clubs in the United States by Fitness Magazine, offers such an educational program. The club's 60-Plus Luncheon Series offers members and nonmembers the opportunity to hear renowned speakers such as former President George Bush and 87-year-old fitness guru Jack LaLanne. The cost of lunch (and proof of age) is the price of admission. These educational events have proven so effective that they attract approximately 400 to 500 attendees to each luncheon - 50 percent of whom are nonmembers. This innovative approach won Fitness Management's 2001-02 Nova7 Award for best innovation in promotions, sales and marketing. The club also gained 49 new memberships (some of them joint memberships to couples), totaling $249,000 in initiation fees. The entire 2001 Luncheon Series cost $80,000 including speaker's fees and transportation costs, resulting in a net profit for the club and a stimulating intellectual experience for attendees.

3. MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS THAT ARE CLEAR AND CONSISTENT. Two exercise recommendations were tested. One suggested that people over 50 take at least a brisk walk every other day. The other recommended exercisers get their heart rate up for at least 30 minutes on most days. Focus group participants preferred the second recommendation, but found the phrase "most days" to be too vague. In response, the message was changed to a more specific "at least five days a week." This guideline reflects the recommendations for moderate exercise distributed through the "Healthy People 2010" initiative, a set of health-related recommendations developed by leading federal agencies.

4. RECOGNIZE THE OBSTACLES THAT PEOPLE FACE. A significant number of focus group participants identified strongly with messages that acknowledged the busy lives that audience members lead. For example, one ad introduced Terry Watkins, a 53-year-old Ohio resident who was pictured taking a brisk walk in a park, even though he had many other responsibilities that demanded his time and attention. "Terry Watkins takes the kids to practice," read the ad copy. "He takes his dad to therapy. He takes on a full-time job. And he takes time to stay fit at least every other day. Because Terry knows taking care of himself gives him the power to do it all better." Focus groups found Terry Watkins' story inspiring. They liked the fact that, despite the demands on Terry, he was trying to be more active and doing it for himself. Because Terry looked like a nice guy, focus groups found it easy to believe that taking time out of a busy schedule for physical activity is neither selfish nor uncaring.

Focus group members felt that Terry Watkins was using physical activity to take control of his life. They liked this message, which was communicated through the slogan, "Age on your own terms."

Messages That Don't

1. DON'T MAKE EXERCISE LOOK LIKE WORK. Researchers discovered quickly that fun is much more inspiring than hard work. Images of grimacing, sweaty, straining exercisers won't entice many members of the target audience to don sneakers and get moving. Study participants were not comfortable with ads that showed a male biker exercising at a level they felt was far too strenuous and potentially dangerous. Instead, they liked seeing people who were smiling and chatting with their exercising companions.

2. DON'T CALL IT EXERCISE. Focus groups associated the word "exercise" with hard work. "Exercising" meant going to aerobics class, working on a treadmill or playing softball. On the other hand, participants equated being "active" (or "physically active") with walking to the subway or to a restaurant for lunch, taking the stairs on the way to a meeting or picking up after the children. Thus, "physical activity" was viewed as a non-threatening term that let audience members choose how they would get moving.

AARP also tested words like "moderate" and "vigorous" to see whether participants understood them in relation to exercise. The latter meant nothing to people in terms of physical activity, but they understood "moderate" to mean pacing a little harder - turning a leisurely walk into a brisk walk, for example.

3. DON'T PLAY THE AGE CARD. Since older adults tend to think of themselves as 15 years younger than they actually are, reminding them about their age doesn't necessarily motivate them to exercise. One sample ad that tried to convince people that "you can make time move backward" brought a number of objections within the focus group.

4. DON'T BE CONFRONTATIONAL. Exhorting ad viewers to get off the couch isn't likely to get results, according to AARP's research. Instead, successful messages give people positive reasons to be more active. In one highly rated print ad, 72-year-old George Bowman tells readers, "I stay active because she deserves a dance with grandpa." The ad features two pictures of George - in one, he's waving at friends as he walks down a suburban street; in the other, he's dancing with his granddaughter at her wedding. Ads like this, which play on family-centered emotions, appealed to both male and female focus group participants. "It may be sappy," one man commented, "but it works."

The media continues to nudge aging boomers (and their parents) toward a healthier lifestyle. This continuous media bombardment has created visibility worth billions. However, the older adult needs to be targeted with care. The most successful messages don't necessarily reflect what the experts want a person to hear or how they want that person to change. Rather, the right message is always the one to which the person will respond. Recognizing the barriers people face - and encouraging them to overcome those barriers - could lead not only to social change, but also a change in how well your business does with this market.

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