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When you hear AARP, you might think of grandparents and gray hair—not spoken word poetry, jet fighters, or laugh-out-loud stand-up. But the nation’s leading advocate for older Americans is on a mission to change that perception among both marketers and the broader public. The strategy? Digital brand campaigns that grab attention through surprise and authenticity.

I spoke with two AARP leaders—Barbara Shipley, SVP of brand integration, and Jeffrey Eagle, VP and executive producer of AARP Studios—to learn more.

1217 Inline Update

Oren Fliegelman: Many of the recent AARP marketing campaigns have been heavily video-based. Why is that?

Barbara Shipley: One of the goals of our marketing is to explore and document people living life to the fullest, to debunk the myths about growing old. We’ve got some amazing stories to help us do that, and in many cases video is quite simply the best format for bringing them to life.

Jeffrey Eagle: To echo Barbara, one of our recent YouTube series follows jet pilot Art Nalls on his journey to buy one of the rarest planes in the world. It’s so much about the visuals and the sounds of the jets that I can’t think how else it could have come alive other than through video.

Telling these stories through video also helps us reach viewers on the platforms they’re already using. That’s how we’ve managed to rack up almost 5 million views on YouTube for just the first video in that series.

The 50+ audience is much more tech savvy than a lot of marketers give it credit for.

To that point, YouTube isn’t necessarily a platform you associate with a 50+ audience. If I’m a brand targeting this demographic and I’m not investing heavily in digital marketing, am I making a mistake?

Shipley: Yes, the 50+ audience is much more tech savvy than a lot of marketers give it credit for. Most people don’t realize how multichannel and multi-device this audience is.

We take it as our responsibility to lead the way in showing marketers that this audience is online and wants to be reached that way. If marketers don’t understand that, they’re missing a big opportunity to build relevance with a demographic that accounts for 51 cents of every dollar spent by people over 25 in the U.S.

Eagle: And this is only going to become truer in the next few years. Take Gen Xers, who everyone knows are engaged online. What most marketers may be forgetting is that the oldest Gen Xers are 53.

Have digital platforms replaced or added to your traditional marketing strategies?

Shipley: We’re looking for ways to bring the online and offline worlds together to get more views, more shares, and more chatter. So this is not about replacing analog with digital. We’re instead attempting to blend the two so they reinforce one another.

For example, after this year’s Super Bowl, we worked with Grey New York on creative and Mediacom on media to run a 30-second spot featuring Grammy-winning spoken word poet J. Ivy. We wanted an ad that would surprise people and really challenge some of the stereotypes of aging. The spoken word approach was perfect for that.

But what we really loved was the flexibility it gave us to try out new lengths and varieties of creative. We dedicated a full day to shooting made-for-digital creative, which gave us six-second and 15-second versions we could experiment with.

We’re already seeing the approach pay off. For example, our six-second and 15-second AARP ads on YouTube have combined to deliver a 13% lift in brand favorability and a 22% lift in ad recall among people age 45–64.1

What advice do you have for other marketers looking to appeal to an older demographic with a digital brand campaign?

Eagle: Take the things you’re hearing from your customers in the real world and apply those to the online one. That’s what we did with our “Dinner with Don” series, which paired Don Rickles with younger peers like Amy Poehler and Snoop Dogg.

It’s not who you’d expect to see together—a 90-year-old comedy icon alongside a rapper—but we knew from listening to our customers that they don’t want to spend time only with people their own age. We thought it could be interesting to apply that multigenerational approach to our online marketing.

Marketers make assumptions ... because they’re thinking of their grandma. Soon they’re going to realize, “Oh wait, I’m marketing to myself.”

And it worked. It gave us two trending videos and amazing completion rates. Plus, we saw a first-week average view duration of 4:26 minutes—more than half of the roughly eight-minute-long episodes. Likewise, a quarter of the first week’s organic viewers who started the episode with Billy Crystal watched all 10 minutes.

Since revamping our video line up with “Dinner with Don,” “Badass Pilot,” and other new content, we are now garnering over 500,000 organic views a month across our YouTube channel, almost double the organic engagements from a year ago.

Shipley: I would add two other tips. First, get the language right. Don’t refer to them as “mature” or “senior” audiences. They don’t think of themselves that way. Second, recognize that they’re in an exciting, dynamic time of their lives. It’s an optimistic crowd.

Sometimes marketers make assumptions about this audience because they’re thinking of their grandma. Soon they’re going to realize, “Oh wait, I’m marketing to myself.”