Tailoring media to older crowd

John Erickson wants to go beyond his newspaper for retirees to using cable TV, the Internet and perhaps podcasts


John Erickson made his fortune building resort-like retirement communities for the aging, in part by promoting the properties through a publication that looked like a newspaper, but with no pretense that it was journalism.

He mailed the publication to potential residents of his Erickson Retirement Communities - people over age 50 in major cities where he had built or planned to construct one of his large campuses.

The Erickson Tribune included stories and tidbits on all the services offered at his communities, which boast their own health care system, restaurants and man-made lakes.

But Erickson, 62, now wants the publication to be more than a promotional tool and he has hopes that it can grow into a niche newspaper for the country's growing population of retirees.

Erickson said he realized early on that many of the seniors who lived on his properties were looking for more media options that targeted their age group. So he began adding articles to the publication on topics such as health care and financial matters. Promotions of the company grew fewer and fewer.

"There seemed to be a communications gap," Erickson said. "Nobody was reaching out to this demographic. The more content we put in the paper, the more it started to work."

Today the three-year-old Erickson Tribune is distributed by mail to about 3 million households around the country. Next year, the company plans to spend more than $20 million to produce and send the newspaper, which is published once or twice a month depending on the area, to 8.1 million homes. Gannett Co.'s USA Today in comparison has a circulation of 2.3 million each day.

It's the first piece in what Erickson envisions as a small media empire geared to retirees through print, online and cable television.

Erickson believes it's an underserved market that will help his company become an authoritative voice for America's aging population and further promote his retirement communities.

It could be risky, since media companies have struggled with declining customers and advertising dollars. But those familiar with Erickson said one thing on his side is knowledge of the senior population, given his two decades of building retirement communities.

"Certainly the demographic is an incredibly compelling one," said David Schless, president of the American Seniors Housing Association, which represents developers, financiers and operators of housing for seniors. "The population will soon begin to look like Florida. And certainly Erickson knows seniors and the issues facing them."

Erickson is in negotiations with Comcast Corp. to start airing this fall a daily, four-hour segment of cable programming aimed at baby boomers under the name Retirement Living TV. He hopes to build the content to a 24-hour stand-alone station. He then wants to move to the Internet and other technology such as podcasts.

Erickson has stuck mostly with traditional media so far because many of his seniors haven't embraced the Internet. He wanted to be on basic cable rather than digital to reach more of the older population.

Erickson said his motivations for the media strategy are the same he had for starting retirement communities: He saw a void in the housing market for middle-income retirees. There were government-funded programs for the poor and luxury accommodations for the rich.

Erickson, which has 18 campuses throughout the country, also thought seniors would live longer, more fruitful lives if they lived in sustained areas where health care services were accessible, meals were prepared for them, they didn't have to drive and they had a support group always in reach.

"What Erickson really did was he built retirement communities on a scale that was really very unique and built them into a community with a number of services and programs that really distinguishes them from much of the continuing-care retirement communities elsewhere," Schless said.

Erickson said he expanded the newspaper because he believes better informed retirees would also live better lives. And while he envisions providing a better source of information to an underserved population, Erickson also sees it as a profitable business venture.

Erickson joins the medium as there is a renewed interest from marketers and media companies in the older population. The first of the baby boomers - the generation born between 1946 and 1964 when there was a significant rise in births - turn 60 this year and are inching toward retirement. Advertisers who have spent the past decade catering to the 18-to-34 crowd are realizing the buying power of the baby boomers, which is $2.3 trillion for people in their 40s and 50s and $90 billion for those 60 and older.

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