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Varsity targets baby boomers on the cusp of retirement

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Kristen Heisey was skeptical when the idea was first kicked around: Use Facebook to advertise the educational program at Messiah Village, a retirement community in Upper Allen Township, Cumberland County.

Messiah Village was hoping to reach the young at heart with ads for its Pathways Institute for Lifelong Learning, designed for people 55 and older. But the social networking site is considered a popular destination more for the young of age.
“That was definitely a question: Is this really going to work?” said Heisey, Messiah’s vice president of marketing and communication.

It did. Messiah recorded 300 hits from its Facebook ads for Pathways in 2009 and 2010, Heisey said. The cost was about $200. Best of all, she said, Facebook allowed Messiah to target people older than 55 within the geographic reach of its programs.

It’s a target — baby boomers on the cusp of retirement — that companies of all sorts are striving to reach, said Michael Pavone, chief executive officer of Varsity, a boomer-focused offshoot of his Harrisburg-based ad agency, Pavone Inc. Messiah Village hired Varsity about two years ago to help market Pathways Institute.

“The boomers have changed everything along the way. We’ve heard that over and over again,” Pavone said. “They will continue to do that through retirement.”
Fresh advertising approaches are part of the change, and Varsity aims to deliver them, Pavone said.

Retirement communities, in particular, need a new look, Pavone said. Many ads rely on the same stock images and phrases.

“Any marketing can get stale until someone comes in and tries to shake things up,” he said.

Varsity operates out of an office in Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County, and employs about 10 people. Founded about five years ago, it shares some resources with Pavone, which employs roughly 45 people.

Varsity’s name reflects a later, more mature life stage without using the term “senior,” he said.

In addition to Messiah Village, Varsity has worked for retirement communities in other parts of the state and country, including American Standard, Delta Health Technologies and Sodexo Senior Services, which provides food to retirement communities.

Ads for boomers, for example, will need to emphasize wellness, a buzzword that rarely rolls off the tongue of anyone born before World War II. “They’re going to want to do yoga. They’re going to want to take care of themselves. They’re going to worry about their nutrition,” Pavone said.

And they will want to keep learning, which is why Messiah Village is promoting Pathways Institute, Heisey said. The program offers courses in everything from local history and world events to photography and bird-watching. Sessions are available at Messiah Village and at other locations around Central Pennsylvania, including Adams and Lancaster counties.

Pathways is one of several services Messiah Village offers to nonresidents, a market the community wants to emphasize, Heisey said.

Messiah Village has been providing services beyond its campus for 25 years, but the retirement community wants more people to get the message, Heisey said. The Facebook ads helped.

When the ads started, about 40 percent of the people attending Pathways did not live in Messiah Village. The ads increased participation among both residents and nonresidents, Heisey said. “I would say we have tripled or quadrupled the number of new members coming in from the community.”

Other ad agencies in Central Pennsylvania haven’t started new companies to fine tune marketing to baby boomers. Nonetheless, they are adapting their strategies for clients aiming to reach that market.

One key is not to see boomers as stereotypically old, said Susan Matson, an account manager and brand specialist at North Star Marketing Inc. in Manheim Township, Lancaster County.

“They are not our grandparents’ generation,” Matson said. “In many respects, they’re a sandwich generation. Boomers are still dealing with their parents as well as their children and their grandchildren. They may or may not be in the workplace anymore, but they are far from kicking up their heels on a park bench.”

Advertising should reflect that sense of life yet to be lived and things yet to be done, advertising execs said.

“This has been really something that’s been relevant for quite a few years, but it’s especially true of baby boomers moving into the quote, unquote senior market,” said Barry Carbaugh, president of York-based Barry Group Inc.  “They don’t see themselves as older and certainly not senior.”

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