Digital MarketingStrategiesTen Years, Ten Trends

Ten Years, Ten Trends

A new study sheds light on the decade of change the Web has wrought on users -- and consumers.

The Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future just released its study “Ten Years, Ten Trends,” outlining a decade of trends it’s identified since it started studying online behavior. Considering the dearth of good long-range research about how consumer behavior has changed since the Web really went mainstream (as well as the credibility and objectivity of Annenberg’s studies), I thought it’d be interesting to examine the trends it’s identified and how we marketers should react to them.

Trend 1: “In America, the Digital Divide is closing, but is not yet closed as new divides emerge.”

Annenberg finds the so-called “digital divide” is changing. Right now, 75 percent of Americans have access to the Internet somewhere, though fewer have access at home (approximately two thirds). What does this mean for marketers?.

It means assuming your audience doesn’t use the Internet is ridiculous. Even if they don’t use it at home, most likely they use it at work, in a library, or at school. Traditionally underrepresented groups: Latinos, African Americans, and the elderly, are the fastest-growing online user segments. It’s safe to assume most consumers, especially those with money to spend, are reachable online.

Check that budget — where’s your money going?

Trend 2: “The media habits of the nation have changed and continue to change.”

The report also states “the more experience users have with the Internet, the less television they watch.” That’s another profound implication for anyone trying to reach consumers via traditional broadcast media. Consumers take time from TV and spend it online, a trend that’s held up over the past 10 years.

The report sees this continuing, “probably affecting every aspect of American culture, the economy, politics, and social behavior.” What will you do with your media mix to address these changes?

Trend 3: “The credibility of the Internet is dropping.”

Although increasingly more folks go online, they have problems believing the information they find there. The most trusted information comes from sites consumers are familiar with, especially established media outlets and the government (a finding confirmed by Consumer Web Watch).

Brands matter. If people are familiar with your company or organization, they tend to believe the information you put on the Web. Interestingly, Annenberg’s study also finds the least trusted information is posted by individuals, a finding that seems at odds with blogs’ popularity as information sources.

Trend 4: “We have just begun to see the changes to come in buying online.”

The report also finds 46 percent of consumers report being “extremely concerned about privacy of information while buying online.” This should be music to the ears of anyone selling online. They’re buying more frequently, 30 times per year in 2004, as opposed to 11 times in 2001.

Clearly, e-commerce is here to stay. Consumers are getting over the initial fear of coughing up credit card data. If you’ve been looking to move sales online, the tide has turned.

Trend 5: “The ‘geek-nerd’ perception of the Internet is dead.”

One particularly fascinating finding is “Internet users are often more socially active than non-users, and are less alienated from others.” The Web doesn’t isolate people, it brings them together. Provide opportunities through your site to take advantage of Internet users’ gregarious nature through community features, feedback, and user-supplied content. People expect to be able to contact you and your company when they’re online. Anything seen as a barrier to this runs counter to Web culture.

Trend 6: “Privacy and security: Concerns remain, but the high levels are changing.”

People are concerned about their personal security but are more concerned about being tracked online. Spyware; adware; and aggressive, intrusive user tracking are used at the peril of your company and its brand. California enacted a new anti-spyware law last week. Similar bills are working their way through Congress. Though some of these methods have been shown to “work” short term, they certainly don’t make consumers happy. And you can bet there’ll be broader legislation against them in the not-so-distant future.

Considering the importance of brand, ongoing fears about privacy, and credibility problems, why would a legitimate marketer worth her paycheck even consider intrusive measures? Your brand rests on the answer.

Trend 7: “The Internet has become the number one source for information for Internet users.”

Widespread adoption of home broadband and its near-ubiquity in the workplace makes the Internet the place where consumers turn for information on everything, from jobs to travel to entertainment. This behavior means there’s a rapidly growing assumption that information consumers need to make buying decisions should be available with a few keystrokes. Marketers must realize getting people to their sites is half the battle. Users must be able to find what they’re looking for once they get there. Search engines are, and will continue to be, vital to the marketing mix.

Finally, the trend points to the importance of URLs as brands: If people can’t get the information they need from you, they’ll go somewhere else that’s easier to remember or find.

Trend 8: “The benefits — and drawbacks — of the Internet for children are still coming into focus.”

Annenberg’s study finds parents are increasingly worried about what their children find online and what they do there. Although plenty of legislation protects kids, rest assured more is to come as bottom-feeders find ways to skirt existing laws.

Marketers who sell to a youth market must be increasingly vigilant about how they use the Web to market to children, protect privacy, and make sites fun for kids while reassuring for parents. It’s safe to say a major opportunity exists for companies to build their brands by emphasizing safety and privacy.

Trend 9: “E-mail: E-Nuff already?”

The study finds users are “tired of email defining their lives.” Experienced users tend to respond to email more slowly than new users, and everyone’s concerned about spam, viruses, and other email irritations. Unless something changes, email will continue to decrease in effectiveness as a marketing tool. For direct consumer contact, technologies such as RSS or even on-site blogs or newsletters may be better alternatives.

Trend 10: “Broadband will change everything — again.”

Finally, broadband’s always-on “will have broad effects on Internet use, creating change for users that is almost as great as the difference between Internet access and not having access at all.” This has already begun to play itself out in behavior differences between broadband and dial-up users. With broadband, the Web is a resource, not an event, and is integrated into consumers’ lives.

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