The Web Is Flat: Why Time Spent Online Is Leveling Off

Forrester Survey Says Use of Internet Media Stayed Steady at 12 Hours a Week

By Published on . 19

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Time spent with the internet, as it turns out, doesn't balloon indefinitely.

That might sound obvious, but this is the year web surfing leveled off at 12 hours a week after growing from less than six hours a week in 2004, according to Forrester's annual survey of more than 40,000 American consumers' self-reported media habits. The report, released Monday, also indicates relative stabilization in other media channels, most notably newspaper and magazine reading.

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In a typical week, how many hours do you spend doing each of the following?

While there are myriad reasons why people's time spent with internet media stayed flat over the past year -- chief among them is faster broadband speeds and more experience with the web allows people to be more efficient consumers -- the trend has implications for media companies and marketers. Ad Age interviewed Forrester Analyst Jackie Rousseau-Anderson via e-mail to understand more about why we're seeing the stagnation and its implications for media.

Ad Age: You observe that despite more households having broadband access, media behaviors remained relatively flat year over year -- with time spent with the internet static at 12 hours a week. This comes after years of relatively interesting media shifts. What do you make of the "flattening" in web use?

Jackie Rousseau-Anderson: Originally the internet was a great "unknown." We saw marked increases in the time spent online as people began to try out this new medium and become acquainted with it. The amount of time people were dedicating to the internet grew significantly because it took people time to sit down and figure out how to use it and where they should be going. These were the days of "hard-core surfing"; people just floating through the internet, not really sure what they were looking for, but just spending time looking around.

Now people's use is more defined. People who have been online awhile understand how to use the internet sufficiently and can maximize the time they have to spend on it. They generally know which sites they are going to when they log in. For new people starting out, the proliferation of website advertising (i.e., websites listed in commercials, affiliated with brands, etc.) helps direct people to where they want to go. Similarly, Google and other search engines have become staples of internet use so instead of surfing around to find what you're looking for you can simply go to Google, type in your search terms, and all the hard work is done. The icing on top of all this is faster connection speeds. With broadband there is no waiting for pages to load and connections to happen.

Ad Age: Does it mean your average web business can't really count on people getting more addicted to their sites? After all, if time spent online flattens and new sites -- sticky sites such as Facebook -- crop up to steal people's share of time online, it's going to be a tougher fight for eyeballs, no?

Ms. Rousseau-Anderson: Not necessarily, it's just more targeted. The chance of random people floating by a site is lower but, by understanding who a site's target audience is, web businesses can advertise where these specific people are. So, by knowing your target group inside and out, companies can definitely get more eyeballs and more eyeball time. Since most all internet users are using e-mail and search, these can be great tools for targeted ads. Also, word of mouth is huge. A site can be passed around a particular group of cohorts simply by WOM, multiplying eyeballs quickly.

Ad Age: For years we've heard prognosticators talk about the internet's virtually limitless growth -- and the byproduct of that, the shrinking time people spend with non-internet media. Do you think this "stagnation" challenges the assumptions many people have about how we're moving to an all-digital world?

Ms. Rousseau-Anderson: People aren't giving up traditional media yet. Again, it's all about specialization. So there is still a lot of room for growth, but people are going to seek content that specifically speaks to them. Understanding target groups becomes the key to that growth

Ad Age: Some traditional media have actually shown less decline than what one might think, from the headlines. People reported no change in their TV habits from 2004 to 2009; they reported a 6% drop in magazine reading, although it appeared flat over the past year; and while newspaper reading has dropped 17% since 2004, it appears flat over the past year.

Ms. Rousseau-Anderson: Yes. Many people expected huge drops but as mentioned above, people aren't deserting traditional media and fully jumping to digital yet.

Ad Age: You note "general" online activities are steadying. What do you mean by that and what's the effect on where marketers should concentrate their efforts?

Ms. Rousseau-Anderson: Basic activities like e-mail and search are steadying. While these are great markets for finding people there won't be huge new growth numbers here. Instead, these should be considered the "steady eddies" of online use.

Ad Age: You talk about the internet as an extension of the offline world. What do you mean by that and what lessons should Ad Age readers take from it?

Jackie Rousseau-Anderson: People's use of the internet is an extension of who they are offline. The interests they pursue offline will be what they seek online as well. Marketers should approach online consumers from a holistic approach. Instead of thinking of just eyeballs looking at a computer screen, marketers need to understand the complete individual they're targeting. What do they like to do offline? What gets them jazzed? How do they look for information? What kind of media do they like?

By looking at the complete consumer, cross-channel messaging will be more effective. Since consumers don't like in online and offline silos, effective messaging will reach them across multiple points. In order to create these effective messages marketers need to understand their consumers across digital and non-digital channels.

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