Rakuten Mobile’s school for smartphone-shy seniors

Welcome to smartphone school! This is where Japan’s legions of smartphone-shy seniors can learn to touch, tap, flick and pinch their way with ease through multiple mobile devices.

For mobile carriers such as Rakuten Mobile, which launched in 2014 and is now Japan’s leading mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), Japan’s 60-and-over demographic represents fertile ground. According to Mobile Marketing Data (MMD) Labo, mobile phone ownership in the 60-79 age bracket is near saturation point at 94%. But, opportunity exists in the fact that members of this age group are only now making the switch from old-school feature phones to smartphones. Whereas younger generations in Japan quickly flocked to smartphones – 94% of people in their 20s were using the new devices by 2014 – older users were considerably slower to jump ship. The percentage of all people aged 60-79 who had switched to smartphones by June 2015 was just 27.8%, though that percentage had grown to 38.5% by June 2016, according to MMD Labo.

Rakuten Mobile smartphone school
Participants at Rakuten Mobile’s smartphone school

And thus, to nudge this transition along even more, Rakuten Mobile in late May welcomed members of the senior community to its Futakotamagawa, Tokyo, office. The aim of the company’s inaugural smartphone school was to not only teach seniors about the devices, but also hear from them directly about their thoughts and experiences.

It soon became apparent that the hesitancy many seniors feel towards smartphones stems in part from a low level of desire to do more than talk and text on their phones.

This finding correlates with MMD Labo’s research, which also suggests that 58.9% of feature phone stalwarts aged 60-79 are satisfied with the functionality those phones offer.

Thus smartphone school instructors focused their tuition on the sheer range of services available in smartphones, demonstrating to the assembled seniors everything from internet browsing and GPS navigation to games and instant messaging.

The instruction also included explanations of payment plans offered by Rakuten Mobile, but, judging from participant feedback, sales talk was kept to a minimum.

“This course has taught me a lot about smartphones without the pressure to buy one today. It makes me want to learn more,” commented one participant.

Japan’s trend of sluggish smartphone uptake by senior citizens is visible in other countries, too – though perhaps to a slightly lesser extent. According to Pew Research Center, just 27% of people aged 65 and older in the United States owned smartphones in December, 2014. That’s the same percentage level as ownership in Japan of people aged 60 and older in that same year, although the slightly younger pool is also likely to be pushing up that ratio.

Still, seniors’ smartphone usage rates are on the rise in the US – as they are in Japan, too. The 27% usage rate among American seniors in December, 2014, was 8 percentage points higher than at the beginning of that same year. (Though there is still a way to go before American seniors catch up with the 18-29 age-group in that country, 85% of whom use smartphones.)

Smartphone school is not Rakuten Mobile’s only strategy to attract over-60s. To help ease anxiety about smartphone operation and troubleshooting, the company has also started offering Remote Support, which allows customer service staff to view a user’s device remotely to offer live guidance.

The company also recently launched Visit Support, by which Rakuten Mobile staff actually visit customers at their home or place of work to guide them through the sign-up process – a service that is not limited to seniors but that is proving popular among them.

And, with the aging of Japan’s population set to continue for many decades to come (by 2060, 40% of the population is expected to be over the age of 65), further efforts by Rakuten Mobile and its competitors to woo senior citizens seem bound to follow.

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