Web Nets the Masses

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It seems that the demographics of the World Wide Web have moved to mainstream America. According to a new study by The Interactive Solutions Group, a division of Market Facts, 62 million Americans surf the Web, or 30 percent of the U.S. population age 16 or older.

With more people on the Internet, it seems the medium has moved from the stage of early adoption to near-critical mass. Netizens up to now have been perceived as innovative, creative, and have considered themselves "leaders." However, the study results indicate that most buying habits, behaviors, and attitudes of Internet users increasingly mirror those of the general population.

ISG surveyed more than 3,000 households on more than 30 pyschographic categories, use of consumer products, eating and shopping habits, car ownership, and employment status. In most cases, there were no major differences between those with Internet access and those without.

In terms of eating habits, the survey revealed that Internet access did not impact attitudes towards food and eating, including feelings on food preparation, baking, nutrition, and prepared foods. There were few differences between Web users and the general population in the use of health-and-beauty products and food products. Internet users didn't even record fewer shopping trips, compared to non-users.

In terms of health, 80 percent or more of each group said their health was at least "good." Each group said they exercised an average of two days a week. Internet users didn't distinguish themselves as world travelers. They also weren't different from average Americans who traveled to theme parks or took vacation trips in general.

The survey also says that while Web users own more technology-related products, the belief that they are also early adopters in other categories is incorrect.

There were some differences between Netizens and those who don't surf the Web, especially in logical areas such as feelings about technology. Netizens tend to rely more on the printed word for information and less on television. Netizens are also more likely to read national newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today than their non-Internet-savvy counterparts. One interesting fact: male Netizens are significantly more likely to own a Japanese/Asian-make sports utility vehicle, compared with the general population, which purchased more American sub-compact cars or SUVs.

While some Netizens may view the changing attitudes as the "dumbing" of the Web-since early Web-sters showed high income and education levels-marketers see it as finally seeing a potential return on their "new media" advertising budgets.

One of the critical drawbacks of the Web for marketers has been the lack of a standard measurement tracking surfers. In early October, Media Metrix and RelevantKnowledge, two leading Web measurement companies, announced plans to merge and create a single standard. A few weeks later, mass media measurer AC Nielsen and Internet ratings company NetRatings joined their Internet audience measurement teams, which consolidated the industry further.

"It's important to have a standard measurement where data is reported in a consistent way," said Mary Ann Packo, president of Media Metrix. The Media Metrix-RelevantKnowledge combination will have a sample size of 40,000 and draw on RelevantKnowledge technology that sample panelists download to track which Web sites they visit. The Nielsen-NetRatings deal leverages Nielsen's ability to pull together a strong sample and NetRatings' tracking software.

Web-oriented advertising agencies agree that there needs to be a standard measurement system in place to attract ad dollars. "There isn't a company like Nielsen that is able to look at everything," said Fran Diamond, director of research at Giant Step, an interactive agency of advertising firm Leo Burnett. "People don't have the same comfort level in the online world."

Sharon Katz, media director at interactive agency ModemMedia.Poppe Tyson, believes marketers had several misconceptions about the Internet in terms of tracking when it first developed. "Advertisers are spoiled in the traditional media world," she says. With the Web in its infancy stage, RelevantKnowledge and Media Metrix are able to formulate one standard and solve the flaws that appear in other media, Katz said. Media Metrix's Packo believes the Web tracking firms are trying to reach that level. "We need to ensure that marketers get the information they need," she says.

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