Lovin’ Life on Both Sides of 50? Eons Removes Age Limit in Bid to Spur Social Networking; More Big Changes Coming

Eons, the web portal for aging Baby Boomers with the famous slogan “Lovin’ Life on the Flip Side of 50,” removed its age limits last week as part of a bid to remake itself—and revitalize the business—by becoming a more general social networking site. It was a dramatic and controversial action for the company “as we turn the business inside out,” founder and CEO Jeff Taylor told me over the weekend. The new slogan reads simply, “Lovin’ Life on the Flip Side.”

Just what that means is a bit obscure without the “over 50” part, but the over-arching question for Eons is whether the flip in its age policy will put the company on more solid footing or turn out to be a flop. Early observations have not been kind, with many user comments on our site, its site, and elsewhere running against the move, and the blog TechCrunch putting the Boston, MA-based Eons in its deadpool.

Taylor, who founded Monster.com and built Eons with $32 million in venture funding from giants such as Sequoia Capital and General Catalyst (most of it in a $22 million Series B financing that closed last March), says the change is needed because it reflects human nature. As the company shed its professional editorial content, obituary and travel sections, and other aspects of its resources-oriented origins and ramped up its social networking focus, which was increasingly driving its traffic, he says it made no sense to have an artificial age limit because people don’t set age limits on their friendships and interactions. “You have a 53-year-old person who’s in the social network, and their 48-year-old best friend can’t join,” he observes. “The idea of having a kind of invisible gate didn’t make sense.”

But despite the big turnaround—and despite being derided by some constituents and outside observers for ostensibly opening up the site to teenagers and other young people—-Taylor insists that the company will retain its focus on baby boomers. “Our brand positioning is not changing at all,” he told me. “I have no intention of marketing the site to teenagers or 20-something or 30-somethings.” He also maintains that the business is “solid and healthy.” The company is “adding to staff now,” he says. “We have at least two years of runway with our current cash, and that doesn’t count sales—and sales are good.” And he says that more big changes are imminent to position Eons even better in its transformation to a social networking site.

So far, most Eons users don’t seem to be buying it. Taylor says Eons dropped the age gate officially last Tuesday, but didn’t put up a notice about the move—here’s a letter he wrote—until the next day. “And we started getting the comments from people,” he says. That prompted a second notice, “A Message From the Eons Team,” which went up on Thursday. “I had more names called at me, directed toward me, in the last 72 hours than I’ve probably ever had in my life,” Taylor told me. Yet, he says, before the changeover, the “number one complaint at the help desk was ‘I’m a boomer, but you don’t let me in.'” (That from the big batch of boomers born between 1947 and 1964 who haven’t yet hit 50.)

Still, Eons’ two letters together had generated nearly 700 comments by Saturday afternoon. Many of them, Taylor acknowledges, were against the move. “There’s a spirited kind of massive pounding happening at the site right now, which I think is fantastic,” he says, presumably because it means people care deeply about the site. “There’s a passionate group that is angry. You can read the posts. And I think there’s general anxiety about change.”

Here’s a sampling:

“You’ve perpetrated a classic “bait and switch” scheme on all of us baby boomers … your dishonesty is disgusting.”

“Your members were lied to and no matter how you try to present this, it was insulting.”

“Nice try but, no dice. As they say down here in the south, ‘that dog won’t hunt.'”

More than a few were more kind though:

“Change is scary. We love eons and don’t want to be let down. Thanks for letting us know what’s happening.”

“I guess we will wait and see…Eons has been a great venue for Boomers and truly hope it stays that way.”

Despite the criticism, Taylor, a master of salesmanship, is persuasive in defending his cause. But before I dive into a bit more of his thinking, here’s some quick context. As we reported at the time, in September Eons laid off approximately one-third of its staff to focus better on the social networking part of its business.

More details emerged in late October, when I visited the company’s headquarters in the Charlestown Navy Yard for an interview with Taylor. He explained that the expensive original news and feature articles Eons had been producing hadn’t gotten a lot of traction, but that the company had seen phenomenal growth in its user groups, where people met around subjects like “50+ Singles,” “Bookoholics,” and “Growing Old is Mandatory; Growing Up is Optional.” To focus on what was working, he said that the company was spinning off its original bedrock Obits section (we didn’t talk about travel at the time, but it was also being spun off) as a new business—Tributes.com—and that the Eons site would relaunch in January as something like a Facebook or MySpace tailored for the baby boomer crowd. But he didn’t hint at all that the site would remove its age limit, which despite his intended ongoing focus on boomers means at least a partial departure from the core “over 50” premise behind its creation.

On Saturday, he elaborated further on the changes, saying that over 70 percent of activity on the site was now related to social networking. “The [original] idea that we would have content and portal-wide information really was eclipsed,” he says. Somewhat ironically, Taylors says he focus-grouped social networking before Eons launched—and it wasn’t popular. His theory is that boomers might have started slow, but they are moving quickly to the cutting edge of social networking, “kind of like India skips telephone poles and goes right to wireless.” In his view, there’s “much more awareness about social networks than there was, and it’s encouraged this generation to move faster.”

Unlike sites such as Facebook, which are popular among teens and those in their early 20s as gathering spots for groups who already know each other, Taylor says, “Most people that come to Eons don’t come with their friends.” By removing the age limit, he says, “What I’m trying to do is encourage people in larger groups.”

Taylor says that with some 7 million unique visitors last year, Eons is poised for future success, and that more big changes are afoot to help bring it about. “We have another huge release which is coming out, which is imminent, over the next couple weeks.” He would not elaborate much on the forthcoming changes, only to say that they involve “turning the entire business inside out, so that when you come to the door of Eons.com, you’re actually coming to a social network, and [we’re] delivering information about health, finance through the channel–basically through the social network.”

This change will likely be accompanied by the spinning off even more aspects of the original business. Taylor also says the revamping will include a new set of search tools and features designed to enhance social networking.

“The 78 million baby boomers have the ability to redefine social networking,” he says. To the extent that’s true, one looming unknown is whether they will try to do it under the Eons umbrella or somewhere else.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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