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The Roundup May 2-3: Kindle edition

Kindle is a huge hit with the wrong demographic. It’s the first Baby Boomer tech toy!

What surprised Cnet and what should surprise anyone who looks at the results is that 50% of the people who use Kindles are over 50 years old. Twenty-seven percent were over 60.

Since the Kindle qualifies as “new technology”, it is supposed to find its initial market among the young and impressionable. The opposite appears to be true. People who should have fixed habits including reading physical books using reading glasses are buying an electronic book reader instead.

(“Amazon Kindle Users Are Older Than You Think,” Time, May 1) Let’s start with the C|Net survey itself. Because it’s a voluntary, online survey, as a market research I can assure you that there are damfulls of sampling error making these results science fiction without the science. That being said, folks who are 50 and older are far less likely to voluntarily fill out an online survey (and also much less likely to fill out any survey whatsoever). Based on volumes of sampling statistics, you can reliably conclude that folks 50 and older are significantly underrepresented in this survey. And that folks less than 35 are substantially overrepresented. So, although the confidence interval on this survey is enough to drive a good-sized town through, you can probably safely bet that the proportion of Kindle users over the age of 50 or 60 is much farther north than the numbers C|Net found in this survey.

That’s simply stunning.

It represents the first time, in my experience, that baby boomers have been the overwhelming early adopters of a consumer technology. Typically, the early adopters of consumer technology haven’t been Earth-based carbon forms for more than 35 years. Now, we know from an earlier blog post, that baby boomers are unlike any other consumer demographic in history. Not only have they remained differentiated in tastes and consumer behaviors as they’ve aged, they’ve actually widened their interests and purchasing behaviors (previous generations homogenized and narrowed their lifestyles and consumption as they aged). They have, in other words, become more diverse as consumers the older they get.

So there’s little surprising about the popularity of the Kindle in the My Second Half Century Club. The first is the price point. Just shy of 400 bucks, the Kindle is a major chunk of change for anyone under 30 to shell out. Baby boomers, of course, are overtopped with disposable cash.

But, if price were an issue, why aren’t boomers snatching up iPhones at the same gotthaveit rate that their age-challenged fellow travelers are? iPhones, in keeping with the Apple business strategy, are meant to hoover up money more ruthlessly than the competition. Surely, burning a 300 dollar hole in your pocket is reason enough for young folk to opt for the LG camera phone while boomers barf out money for the pricier Apple product?

Not really. Younger consumers are not buying the Kindle because they have a much less expensive alternative that meets all their somewhat thin reading needs: books. The first requirement for liking a Kindle, of course, is liking books; book reading has fallen off a cliff generation after generation after the boomers. Until publishers start offering steep discounts for Kindle books, there’s no technological “plus” for young consumers to buy a Kindle to read the whopping two books they read each year. Which they can buy, of course, for a sawbuck in the Gutenberg technology format.

But why would boomers bite? There’s no technological plus for them, either, is there? Why not just keep reading books the old-fashioned way?

Because the Kindle, as a technology, solves some practical problems for older readers. Like readability. Age, alas, brings vision problems to even the best of readers and the Kindle can resolve those issues easily.

Second, older readers have acquired a library of reading experience. Ask a 20-year old what their favorite books are and you’d be lucky to drag 10 titles out of them. No. You’d be lucky to drag 1 title out of them if you disqualified anything having to do with Harry Potter or that abominable, heavily-sedated Twilight series (isn’t there a stone-you-to-death law in Leviticus that specifically forbids reading anything by Stephanie Meyer?).

Ask a baby boomer, and you’ll easily get 10, 20, 30 or more book recommendations (and, thankfully, nothing by Stephanie Meyer). Ask them about magazines and newspapers and you’ll find — mirabile dictu — that they actually read them. The Kindle, like the iPod with music, allows readers to carry that library around. The library of beloved books and the library of must-reads and the library of if-I-had-time reads. If you get tired of this month’s Kindle download of Forbes, you can just fire up The Brontes Went to Woolworths for another enjoyable read-through. Boomers not only bring book-reading habits to the Kindle, they bring books they like to read.

How successful would the iPod have been if people under 35 didn’t listen to music or buy CDs? If the average college-age kid listened to one or two CDs per year — and I mean listened only once to one or two CDs per year — would any of them have bought the iPod? Not only did iPod buyers bring the habit of listening to music, they brought the music to the technology, as well. As Tommy Lee Jones says in Men In Black, “I’m going to have to buy The White Album again.” Well, boomers are going to have to buy Slaughterhouse Five again.

In other words, the Kindle is, to the surprise of their developers, one of the first consumer technologies that directly addresses the needs of a boomer audience. Readability. Book storage. Convenience. The Kindle fits a part of the boomer lifestyle and consumer habits and enhances that lifestyle. Rule one for product development.

Remember what I said earlier about boomers:

What this means, as Don Potter beats into us on every page, is that the boomer market means tons of money for anyone who figures out how to market to them. It means that there is just as much opportunity developing niche products for a 45+ market as there is for a 20- market (something totally improbable twenty years ago).

The Kindle will not make people into readers. Reading will make people into readers. And they need to achieve that plateau before the Kindle offers them anything of value.

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