Can Older People be Influencers?

Older people are on Facebook. Are they stoked to be social media influencers too?

This is a graphic by Francis Scialabba. It depicts a megaphone poking out of the screen of a smartphone. The  graphic suggests that phones use devices to be attention grabbers.
Credit: Francis Scialabba. Calling all Influencers!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I liked the career advice for the teen who wanted to be a social media influencer, but what about older people?! I am in my late seventies and am tired of those ads on TV where famous people with gray hair pitch drugs for aches and pains or reverse mortgages. Can’t I be an influencer too? I am on Facebook almost every day. Vera, Tiburon

Dear Vera: You are absolutely right that influencer marketing is aimed towards younger people, mostly those under age 30, while TV ads target “pills” and “poopers.”

Posting on Facebook falls in a different category, even though it is media and you said you check it regularly. Chances are your account is private, and you have a circle of friends and family that you post for. You are connecting with them, but not trying to get unknown people and strangers to also interact through messages or photos. Facebook is the most commonly used social media by people over 60. Pew reports that 37% of the Silent Generation and 60 percent of the Baby Boomers had accounts, and that was before the Covid Pandemic. Facebook is good for keeping up social connections. Think of it like the newsy Christmas Card that keeps coming all year!

Influentials vs. Influencers

There’s a modern-day distinction between influencers and influential older people. There are many older people who make headlines and do important things (think Dr. Fauci, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oprah Winfrey, Maye Musk). These famous names will show up in a list when you search for seniors who are/have been influencers but they do less “pitch” on social media.

They are not influencers, in the social media sense of the word. A social media maven creates content, and a brand, say ‘Warby Parker’ or ‘Toyota’, then associates with them because it draws in like-minded people they would like to reach. BTW, there is probably a marketing agency in the middle of this transaction, holding the marriage together with contracts and revenue. Just this week, there was an announcement that some brands will try to initiate the content and post it on the influencer’s site, after getting their permission. That could corrupt the influencer process, as it stands today.

Quirky TUrkeys

When I searched for older, senior influencers, I was a struck by two things. There are lists of older people who are ‘top ten’ online. But, many of these are quirky older people who are experienced with attention-getting from their former careers as models or fashion designers. They struck me as odd birds in their psychedelic outfits and feathered costumes. They defied my stereotype of age, but not necessarily in a good way. Second, these leaders did less connecting ‘your brand to their content’– the way that modern kids do through a daily vlog or diary. These influencers seemed more like narcissists trapped parroting a campy narrative to copy youngsters. Many were not displaying that cool “authentic voice.”

My concern is that younger people, and those in charge of the advertising machinery, view these older influencers as a curiosity. They are something to be oogled, not because their content is a shared slice of daily life, but because the jarring images covertly reinforce a young person’s game, a hip image-based culture.

REFOCUS THAT IMAGE, Please!


More specifically, older people are not shown showing their strengths. In the words of MIT author/researcher Joseph Coughlin, they control up to seventy percent of the nation’s consumer spending, and are a trillion-dollar component of the economy. Older people have untapped consumer power. They also have a lot social media savvy, but it’s trapped in static messages on Facebook and captured less on video. Only the outspoken have jumped to younger platforms like Tik-Tok, Snap, and YouTube, perhaps because each site begins with cameras and a steep learning curve.

Stay in Touch Not by Phone

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A cartoon (originally from Shutterstock) of two older people getting a message on their phone.
Staying in touch with parents?

Dear Ms Smartphone: How to stay in touch outside of phones? My kids are in their thirties, mostly grown up and have good careers.  At least once a day one of them sends a group text from their smartphone with a picture or a joke. The pictures are typically of a great meal, pretty scenery, or funny pets. Sometimes there are jokes.  I enjoy the texts and our group exchange. It’s a nice way of dropping into their adult, daily lives. But, since they do not live very far, I suggest on numerous occasions that we get together and set up a regular family visit. There is extreme resistance and I am continually told that they have busy schedules.  For me, this smartphone communication is not enough. Mimi, Boston

Dear Mimi: Your question is really “Why has this smartphone become our primary means of interaction?” Families that live far apart or are stationed overseas have to depend on voice and, more recently, video calls to stay in touch. But, when we live closer together, why is the phone substituting for meeting in-person with each other?

To some extent this is a generational issue.  Many younger people feel that the technology- smartphones- are a means of staying in touch with each other. If they change jobs or move to a new community they can maintain a “persistent relationship” with the people they left behind. They may perceive that the “persistent relationship” also applies to their immediate family circle. 

Locked DOwn?

Although DearSmartphone, by definition,  puts devices at the center of relationships, it is necessary to ask, in an old-fashioned way, if your kids have other issues that keep them apart. I am not a therapist, but this one (link here) asks all the right questions about hidden resentments, hurt feelings, and neediness. If you follow the therapist’s advice, you will probably be having those difficult discussions….over your phone!

Keep in mind that smartphones with cameras and text are new- most families probably didn’t have them ten years ago- so it is hard to know how they change our personal lives and interpersonal dynamics. Much has been written about the risk for human communications: the lack of emotional, face-to-face conversations; the ability to be bored; the accelerating quest for new stimulation.  In face to face conversations, we have eye contact, we react to the tones of another person’s voice, and we sense their body movements. We lose that on our devices, even with Zoom or Facetime.

Perhaps using our phones to replace human interaction has happened faster than we ever thought……

Look Forward

Do your best to make a case for visiting with each other:  explain that you miss the spontaneous interactions, the sense of touch and smell, being able to share physical things (a book, a meal, a gift) or ask for their hands-on help with software. If your children were teens or pre-teens, you, as a good parent, would be actively regulating their digital lives and how much time they spent online. As the parent of adult children, it’s more difficult, but you have the advantage of having grown up with a time BC (before cell phones) and experiencing wholesome family-time across generations. Press on, for over an extended period, excluding real-life contact and non-verbal cues will harm your relationships even further.

Voice Calls on Phone

Talk…talk…talk. ! It feels so wholesome to connect with friends near and far.

An infographic from AT&T called Network Insights. It compares a day in late April, 2020 with average calling and wifi use. The pandemic has surged network use.
More phone traffic during pandemic (2020)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: During the pandemic my phone started to ring more often, and I got nice voice calls from my family on the other coast, from my college roommate, and even from relatives overseas. Now it seems like I am getting less real calls and more fake ones, like robo-calls. I enjoyed catching up with friends on the phone and having long conversations. But, is that over now? Rachel, New York

Dear Rachel: Hopefully people will emerge from the pandemic with a greater appreciation for how to use their phone to renew and sustain relationships. Going forward, you must be willing to initiate those personal calls, as well as receive them. It’s a revival of that old AT&T slogan, “Reach Out and Touch Someone.”

But first, you are spot-on about the frequency of voice calling during the pandemic. 

Network Gains:

 AT&T reports that between mid-March and May 1, wireless calls (for home and business) peaked at 44% above typical levels and Wi-Fi calling more than doubled.  In the same period Verizon experienced about 800 million daily calls, double the number they traditionally handled on Mother’s Day, the busiest calling day of the year. 

The pandemic makes us all more aware that relationships are  fragile and precious. We worry. And, we seek more direct knowledge and experience by checking in with people from other parts of the country. The sound of a familiar voice is comforting and human.

Voice calls can also fill a vital need, someplace between the digital world and the personal one. 

People Gains:

During the pandemic more people are  at home and fewer on- the- road, so, to coin another telco slogan, they ‘Let their Fingers do the Walking.’  Lots of family members share a single slow Internet connection, so voice communications is more dependable. Also, people are tired of being online so much so voice calls provide a break. 

But, now, as things open up- how do you make the phone calls keep happening? It may depend, in part, on your age group.

Ringing forward…

If your friends are Boomers or older, maybe set up a regular time or routine for a call, say at a fixed time each week. But if that doesn’t suit them, text your friends first, and set up a time to talk, maybe the next hour, or the next day. These days people can answer a phone call anywhere (at the beach, in their car, in the bath) so it makes sense to text first, in advance of a voice call.

Second, if you have younger friends, or kids, think of a different strategy. Perhaps when you call, start with Facetime or a similar video program. But then, as the conversation proceeds, ask if you can switch out to voice. That way you stay current with their technology, and they stay current with you. The pandemic has helped younger people become “less allergic” to voice calling, or maybe just more familiar with it.

Whichever method you find for maintaining voice calls, do not get in the habit of placing these from your car. First, these are vital connections so they deserve your time and attention. And, if it’s meaningful, and life is, don’t risk the cognitive distraction. It’s important to preserve the strong relationships we have developed during the pandemic and do so safely.