The Graying of the Web

The Graying of the Web

By MATT RICHTEL

Published: September 12, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 11 — Older people are sticky.

Darcy Padilla for The New York Times

Robin Wolaner, who founded Parenting magazine in 1987, has started a Web site for older people.

That is the latest view from
Silicon Valley. Technology investors and entrepreneurs, long obsessed
with connecting to teenagers and 20-somethings, are starting a host of
new social networking sites aimed at baby boomers and graying computer
users.

The sites have names like Eons, Rezoom, Multiply, Maya’s Mom, Boomj, and Boomertown. They look like Facebook — with wrinkles.

And
they are seeking to capitalize on what investors say may be a
profitable characteristic of older Internet users: they are less likely
than youngsters to flit from one trendy site to the next.

“Teens
are tire kickers — they hang around, cost you money and then leave,”
said Paul Kedrosky, a venture capitalist and author of the blog
“Infectious Greed.” Where Friendster was once the hot spot, Facebook
and MySpace now draw the crowds of young people online.

“The older demographic has a bunch of interesting characteristics,” Mr.
Kedrosky added, “not the least of which is that they hang around.”

This
prospective and relative stickiness is helping drive a wave of new
investment into boomer and older-oriented social networking sites that
offer like-minded (and like-aged) individuals discussion and dating
forums, photo-sharing, news and commentary, and chatter about diet,
fitness and health care.

Last week, VantagePoint Ventures, an
early investor in MySpace, announced that it had led a $16.5 million
round of financing for Multiply, a social networking site aimed at
people who are settled.

In August, Shasta Ventures led a $4.8
million financing round for TeeBeeDee, a site coming out of its test
stage this month. The name is short for “To Be Determined” (as in: just
because you’re not trolling for a mate on MySpace doesn’t mean your
life is over.)

Also in August, Johnson & Johnson
spent $10 million to $20 million to acquire Maya’s Mom, a social
networking site for parents, according to a person briefed on the deal.
The site has been in existence about a year.

Social networking
has so far focused mainly on businesspeople and young people because
they are tech-savvy and are treasured by Madison Avenue.

But
there are 78 million boomers — roughly three times the number of
teenagers — and most of them are Internet users who learned computer
skills in the workplace. Indeed, the number of Internet users who are
older than 55 is roughly the same as those who are aged 18 to 34,
according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a market research firm.

TeeBeeDee’s
founder is Robin Wolaner, who in 1987 created Parenting magazine. That
year, at least seven magazines focused on being a parent were started,
and Ms. Wolaner said she was seeing the same sudden recognition of a
need for Internet publishers to respond to the demands of older
Americans.

She came up with the idea for the site, she said,
“when I was sitting around with friends and we said, ‘We’re not going
to hang out at the AARP
site. What is there for us?’ ” (Plus, she said, she wanted to find a
community where she could discuss her interest in getting an eye lift).

“There’s
a recognition that this generation now uses the Internet just like
younger people,” she said. “The one thing this generation hasn’t done
yet is network online.”

The question is whether they’ll want to
network in large enough numbers to justify the tens of millions of
dollars going into the space. Indeed, the interest from entrepreneurs
and venture capitalists has led to a mini-boom in sites that cater to
baby boomers, creating what they say is both critical mass and a likely
falling out.

Some of the older users of the sites say the
experience feels more comfortable to them than when they tried MySpace,
Facebook or Friendster.

“I’ve discussed my divorce, my medical
issues, and when do I dare go dating again,” said Martha Starks, 52, a
retired optician in Tucson, who spends an hour or two each evening on a
site called Eons. “I sure wouldn’t discuss that stuff with a
20-year-old.”

She says she talks about lighter things, too, like movies and music, with an audience that gets what she is saying.

“They don’t even know who Aretha is — she’s the queen of soul!” she said.

Meg
Dunn, 38, who is raising three children in Fort Collins, Colo., said
she had tried MySpace and Facebook but had found that the short
attention span of users didn’t suit her either. She now uses Multiply,
where she shares family photos with her relatives, and gets into
discussions on substantive topics, like health issues and illnesses
affecting elderly people.

“I feel like I’m putting down roots,
building relationships,” she said. “My feeling on MySpace is that
people give you a poke, and then they’re gone and you never see them
again.”

Peter Pezaris, president and chief executive of Multiply.com
Inc., based in Boca Raton, Fla., said he believed that older customers
were stickier than younger ones, but said the evidence so far was
anecdotal. He said 96 percent of the company’s active users returned
each month, a statistic that he said impressed the venture capitalists
who considered investing in the site.

David Carlick, a managing
director with VantagePoint, which led the latest investment round in
Multiply, said he believed that social networking sites in general had
a bright business future as advertisers start to gravitate to them. He
also said he believed that targeted sites, like those focused on an age
demographic, could be particularly effective.

He said he had some concern that sites focusing on younger users could be vulnerable to the whims and caprice of fashion.

“That was on our minds when Murdoch came in with an offer,” he said of the decision to sell MySpace to the publishing tycoon Rupert Murdoch for around $550 million.

But
venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have been slow to embrace the
interests of older Internet users, said Susan Ayers Walker, a freelance
technology journalist for AARP and founder of SmartSilvers Alliance,
which offers consultant services to businesses looking to connect with
older consumers.

She said that Silicon Valley investors have seen
themselves as eternally youthful, and identified with ever-new gadgets.
But they are starting to accept their age — and to invest in it.

“They’ve all got high blood pressure,” she said. “They’re starting to understand their age group — they’re living it.”

Peter
Ziebelman, a partner at Palo Alto Venture Partners, joked that the
interest in sites aimed at aging Americans represented the end of a
state of denial for venture capitalists.

“Perhaps there aren’t
many V.C.’s who want to be in the newspaper saying they’re backing the
5o-and-over population,” he said. “They’d rather say they’re attending
the next keg party.”

(Mr. Ziebelman is an investor in www.agis.com,
which is not a social networking site, but focuses on delivering
information and services to people who need help with elder care.)

Ms.
Ayers said that the investors are learning that social networks aimed
at older users are a big draw for investors, consumer products and
services companies. “Not only do we have a lot more money, we pay a lot
more attention to advertisers,” she said.

The advertisers on Eons include Humana health care insurance, Fidelity Investments and the pharmacy chain CVS.
Lee Goss, president and chief operating officer of Eons Inc., which
received backing from the venture capital firms Sequoia Capital and
General Catalyst, said that the sites aimed at an older audience may
not grow as quickly as MySpace, but could have longevity.

“Our audience, while it is harder to attract, is more durable and sticky over time,” he said.

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