The AARP has a unique window into the wants, needs and media choices of older Americans. WARC’s  US Commissioning Editor Cathy Taylor talks to AARP CCMO and EVP Martha Boudreau about the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice and the upcoming presidential election.

In the US, getting a membership invitation from AARP is a rite of middle-aged passage, a moment which signals you have turned 50. The biggest organization catering to older Americans – with nearly 38 million members among the 120 million 50-plus US residents – AARP is also one of the country’s most significant advocacy organizations with a mission “to empower people to choose how they live as they age.” (The organization shortened its name from American Association of Retired Persons in 1999, acknowledging that many of its members still work full-time.)

AARP is also a marketer, partnering with companies on a wide array of goods and services, and a media company, publishing digital and print content. Even as digital properties grow in importance, it also publishes two ad-supported print publications that go to all members – the AARP Magazine, publishing six times per year, and the AARP Bulletin, publishing ten times per year and focusing on policy issues. Its scope gives AARP a unique window into the wants, needs and media choices of older Americans, especially as they face a pandemic, racial injustice and an upcoming presidential election.

This interview with AARP CCMO and EVP Martha Boudreau forms part of WARC’s series with the CMO Growth Council.

Q: Since COVID-19 is of particular concern to older adults, how has it changed AARP?

A: We are a social mission organization. Our role is to enhance quality of life for people, so they can choose how they want to live as they age. It was clear what we needed to do immediately, which was taking all of our resources and focusing on health and well-being for our members, those they love and the broader 50-plus community. March 11 was the day the World Health Organization termed the coronavirus a pandemic. Our magazine was going to the printer, and the centerpiece was travel. We pulled six travel pages and related advertising in recognition of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new travel guidelines. Then we took extra resources from the print side, moved them over to the digital side to create a Coronavirus Newsroom structure, with two shifts a day, seven days a week covering news for The goal was, and continues to be, making sure site visitors have the most recent information through the lens of the 50-plus.

We also created an internal Coronavirus Task Force to speak on behalf of the organization with one voice. It coordinates communications across the entire organization, including through our advocacy and policy staff.

Facebook created its Coronavirus Information Center and they identified AARP as a credible source of information to be included. That has driven enormous volumes of traffic to our website. In May, we had 26 million unique visitors to our website – the highest level ever.

Q: There’s a lot of misinformation online that older people are particularly susceptible to. What’s your role in helping people concerning that?

A: This is a big concern for us, especially as we enter the election cycle. People need factual information about how they can safely vote, which includes physical safety as well as accessibility. With the evolving nature of misinformation on COVID, we rely heavily on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and on the public health community to provide the most current, reliable information. We use headlines and linking strategies to make sure credible information is percolating right up to the top. Unfortunately, research has shown the 50-plus tend to share more misinformation. We are working with MediaWise, a program of the Poynter Institute, to develop and deploy a special curriculum for older people on how to identify misinformation. We promote the training to 38 million members and more broadly to the 50-plus community through tele-town halls, webinars and partnerships with other organizations.

On July 23 we held a webinar on misinformation, how to identify it and the consequences for spreading it. It was one of our most popular events with 96,000 listeners who stayed on for an average of 25 minutes. They learned tips on how to spot false information and validate sources.

Q: How do you use non-digital channels for that?

A: We have our beloved print publications, which are the leading reason people join AARP. While we have significantly ramped-up our digital capabilities in recent years, we have no plans to move away from our print publications anytime soon. They are incredibly effective tools for informing our members and they have extremely high satisfaction scores. We also have two podcasts. One is called The Perfect Scam, which is focused on identifying and avoiding fraud, particularly scams that target older people. We have another called Take on Today, which is a weekly news show. It's the public interest stories behind policy and issues that affect our membership. We also have an app which has been downloaded millions of times. It provides news to members and gives them location-based tips of where they can use their membership benefits.

During the pandemic, we have held nearly two dozen national Tele-Town Hall meetings with national experts and government officials. This format allows ordinary Americans to call-in and ask their questions directly. More than one million people have called-in or joined these Tele-Town Hall meetings via Facebook or YouTube. We have offices in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and these offices have also produced hundreds of local Tele-Town Halls with state and local officials providing information on the coronavirus and steps being taken locally to combat it. We know that people are stressed out during the pandemic and, as a result, we have produced a number of lighter Tele-Town Hall events. These evening events have featured celebrity chefs and home improvement experts to help people cope with lifestyle issues during these difficult times.

Along those same lines, we have increased the amount of entertainment content we produce. For instance, when the Global Council on Brain Health released a report on the importance of exercise in keeping people’s brains healthy so we decided to see if we could get people moving. Earlier this summer, we held a virtual dance party on a Saturday morning with an organization called Daybreaker. Eleven thousand people attended and danced for two hours. As part of the virtual event, we had people hold up pictures of loved ones they miss and that was a poignant moment. In addition to the dance party, we have many virtual events that focus on health and well-being, including mental health and social connectedness, during these tough times.

Back in April, we launched a website called Community Connections, which is an online aggregator of Mutual Aid groups around the country. It enables people to put in their zip code and find others near them who are willing to help with very local needs, such as grocery deliveries. We are marketing it across all of our channels, so that if people need help or want to give help, they can do it through this tool. It also includes a tool called Friendly Voice where, if you need to talk to someone, you can request a call from one of our trained volunteers. About 440,000 people have gone to the site to give or get help and about 4,500 conversations have happened.

Q: AARP has a unique insight into what the channel mix is for the 50-plus market. What shifts are you seeing?

A: We have seen enormous change. According to an AARP Research study from May, nearly a third of the 50-plus have tried a new digital technology during the pandemic. There are 120 million people in the US over 50 so that's a serious number. Things they used to do, like going to the grocery store, are changing. Now they've learned to order online.

There’s also increasing use of online banking tools. That one surprised me because it happened so abruptly. People have been forced to try technologies out of necessity. So, yes, there's been a huge adoption of new technologies. Will those trends reverse? I don't think so.

Because of the increased adoption of technology among older generations, AARP has launched technology trainings with a group called Senior Planet. For the first training on Zoom we thought we’d only get a couple of thousand people, but we hit 10,000 registrations, and then we went to 15,000 registrations. As you would expect, we ended up doing multiple sessions.

Q: How would you advise marketers on approaching the channel mix?

A: Our founder, Ethel Percy Andrus said, “What we do for one, we do for all.” In today’s world that means we need to have a big presence in both print and digital. Although the vast majority of 50-plus & 60-plus people are reached through digital channels, reaching the 70-plus requires print channels as well. 

Besides accounting for age, we cannot disappear from people's mailboxes because there are vulnerable populations who cannot afford technology or don’t have access to it. For example, as we push out COVID information to our vulnerable populations we use print channels. Beyond our publications, we use flyers and postcards.

When it comes to the appropriate channels to use, we are reacting to the demands of the 45-plus segment so that when today's 50-year-old joins and logs into, they will find a user experience consistent with what they expect from Amazon, Zappos, American Express and Costco. At the same time, we are following the requests and needs of the older segments. We’re in all channels, which is a challenge but also an opportunity to have our voice find its way into all people’s homes.

Q: What is the AARP's approach to diversity, inclusion, and Black Lives Matter?

A: Our members are very focused on issues of racial injustice, and they want AARP to be involved. So much of racial injustice is based on historical disparities in health, wealth and opportunity. For decades, we have been working to address these disparities across the country. We want to make sure we are addressing the root cause of disparities which is essential for the path forward.

Part of the conversation is playing out inside of organizations as diverse audiences internally want their voices to be heard more clearly. At AARP, we’ve created forums for what we call “courageous conversations” where people can speak their truth based on their life experiences. Our Diversity and Inclusion Council has three pillars: the workforce, the culture of the workplace, and also the marketplace.

Q: What data do you not have that you wish you had?

We have lots of data but I think we need to look at it differently. We need data that can show us what consumers want in this moment of their lives.  It’s less of a transactional lens and more about understanding their life stage.

We have a call center where we handle about 3.6 million calls and contacts annually. One of our key tools for driving good consumer experiences is what we call our Voice of the Consumer (VOC) listening function. The tool pulls information from social posts and our call centers as well as from website comments. The VOC provides real time insight into the issues front and center for our members and the general public.

As an example, we have a program through our foundation called Tax-Aide, where qualifying people get their taxes done for free. Because of COVID, we had to shut down all of these Tax-Aide sites nationwide. We saw a spike across the VOC about people’s concerns surrounding tax filing. That was a trigger to push out more information about that issue and to offer tax services online. We want to be seen as a brand that is relevant to people's lives and responsive to their needs. The only way we can do that is by listening and taking action across all of our channels.

Q: How does the industry come out of this better than before?

This is a transitional time from a diversity and inclusion standpoint. The communications, advertising and marketing disciplines are not diverse enough. We have to have more voices at the table. In addition, the creative industries need to help their clients determine how to authentically connect with a country, and a world, that is wracked with change. Deeply understanding what people are facing in their daily lives and knowing how to connect with them in this moment is essential to brand relevance in the long run.