Social platforms are still in their Precambrian era, with new services emerging and consolidating large audiences almost faster than they can be tracked. Meanwhile the social category as a whole is on the cusp of becoming the dominant form of online content, accounting for 16.6 percent of Internet minutes spent as 2011 drew to a close.
A wide-ranging report from comScore found that while leader Facebook continues its impressive growth - reaching three out of four U.S. users - relative newcomers like Tumblr, Pinterest, and Google+ are evolving and growing at a steady clip.
Twitter held the no. 2 spot in the category as of December, when it drew 37.5 million unique visitors. Throughout 2011, it had vied with LinkedIn for second position in social, but appeared to put distance between itself and the career-driven site by year's end, when LinkedIn's audience was 33.5 million.
And then you have the upstarts. In six short months, Google+ reached 20.7 million U.S. visitors in December (it claims more than 90 million accounts), while Tumblr hit 18.8 million. Perhaps most impressive of all is Pinterest, which has drawn 8 million visitors - many of them female - without the promotional power of Google's network of products. The site had barely shown up as a blip on comScore's screen last summer.
Image source: comScore
ComScore expects social activity to overtake portals as the most engaging online activity in 2012.
Facebook, as everyone knows, is the category leader, but its audience size only tells half the story. "The more significant growth trend…was in average user engagement, which jumped 32 percent in the past year to just over 7 hours per visitor in December," said comScore.
The "2012 U.S. Digital Future in Focus" report also touched on trends in digital display ads, video, search and other areas. A few of the juicier bits:
Dramatic Rise in Video Activity
The U.S. online video audience cracked 100 million in December, 43 percent higher than one year ago. The number of video streams grew as fast, rising 44 percent to 43.5 billion in December.
YouTube commands half of this burgeoning market, and many of its content channels displayed significant user loyalty. That bodes well for its big investment in premium channels.
Meanwhile, the volume of in-stream video ads grew 20 percent to 7.1 billion in December 2011.
Image source: comScore
Google Becomes a Top Advertiser
Many familiar brands graced comScore's roll call of biggest online advertisers. AT&T continued to hold the top spot, delivering 105.8 billion impressions last year. Verizon was also huge, as were brokerage Scottrade and its parent Experian Interactive.
New on the list was Google, which delivered in excess of 40.4 billion display impressions for its own products, including Chrome, Offers, and Google+.
The year also saw more brands deliver a billion or more impressions. ComScore says 145 did so in Q4, a rise of 38 percent compared with the year-ago period. The number of advertisers delivering 3 billion or more impressions also grew - from 26 to 46.
Bing Makes Gains
Bing finally surpassed Yahoo's search market share, claiming the no. 2 spot among search engines. Its market share is now about 15 percent, and it powers about the same percentage for Yahoo.
The year saw a big, and by now well documented, bump in e-commerce spending. U.S. travel and retail online spending rose 12 percent to $256 billion. In the fourth quarter alone, retail e-commerce spending reached $50 billion.
Webmail, IM Decline
As social gained popularity, other categories lost. Instant messaging fell 40 percent year over year; online personals dropped 40 percent; and job search sites declined 21 percent, says comScore.
Web-based email also suffered notable declines among certain age groups. Its use was down 31 percent among teens age 12 to 17, and down 34 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds.
"While the significant decline among teens represents a continuation of a similar trend observed last year, that 18-24-year-olds are now moving away from webmail suggests a larger and more permanent shift in email usage may be occurring," stated the report.
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
March 19, 2014