The Great Internet Time Machine

The magic of the Internet may not be the incredible amounts of information it provides to millions of people. No, it seems recent research may indicate the Internet (mostly the Web) is really a time machine.

I’m not talking about the Wayback Machine hosted at Internet Archive. Though it’s lots of fun (and the Recall text search with its popularity graph is pretty cool, too), I’m talking about research into the amount of time saved, and wasted, by the Web.

In terms of time saved, a new study by Yahoo and Starcom MediaVest Group indicates moms are “essentially squeezing 38 hours of living into their 24 hour days.” In effect, by being able to multitask and get a lot of chores (such as trip planning, banking, and shopping) done over the Internet, busy moms are able to get more done in less time than they could before the Web.

On the other hand, another recent study, this one by Websense and Harris Interactive, reveals employees spend between two and six hours per week doing personal surfing on the job. And nearly half of those surveyed (49 percent) told the researchers they’d sooner give up coffee than give up personal surfing. I don’t know about you, but that’s one choice I hope I never have to make!

So people save time using the Web and waste time online at work. What’s new about that? On the surface, they’re just some cheap stats to toss out at meetings or cocktail parties. Dig deeper, and these two studies reveal some interesting patterns and new ways of thinking about how to communicate with people online.

Both groups use the Web to bend time to their wills. Moms (and other busy people) use the Web to gain time, to get more done between waking and sleeping. Workers who slack off are using the Web to gain time back from their employers, though their employers may (and probably do) view that as time taken from them. Both follow a trend Yankelovich research has talked about for years: Consumers use the Internet and information they find there to feel more in control of their lives.

To take a macro view of Web populations, look at the two studies in terms of identifying two main Web marketing audiences. One audience is time savers, those who go to the Internet to get more done. The other is time wasters, those who turn to the Net for escape or entertainment. In reality, these audiences are usually the same people. A person surfing at work may be taking care of personal chores, and a person looking for information may do so partly for fun. The trick, when it comes to looking at these two audiences in a marketing context, is not to mix them up.

Time savers are busy people. They need to get in, find the information they’re looking for, perform the transactions they need, and get back to their lives (or work). Sites that cater to these folks should be optimized for busy lives. They should contain minimal graphics, a broad and shallow structure, killer search tools, and highly focused content. These sites must be easy to find and no-brainers to operate. Think of Travelocity, Amazon.com, and Google, all good models for talking to time savers.

With online marketing geared toward time savers, streamline your pitch and create messaging that immediately emphasizes benefits. “Click here for help NOW” is much more effective than a pitch based on breadth of content or entertainment value. Though they’d probably get a chuckle out of it, I bet not too many moms were hanging out at the Subservient Chicken site testing what commands worked. They don’t have the time.

On the other hand, that chicken is the perfect marketing vehicle for time wasters. The Subservient Chicken is safe for work, immediately funny, and easy to pass around to the other wasters. Like other sites tailor-made for time wasters (such as Pogo and Salon.com), it entertains by providing an escape from the everyday. Marketing to time wasters (or, to be fair, those in search of a quick escape) means offering an escape, if only for a minute or two, and the promise of a quick diversion. People in this category will respond much better to funny, outrageous, or just plain weird marketing than the highly focused time savers.

If all this sounds relatively obvious to you old hands out there, it is. Look around at commercial Web sites, and you’ll see people often mix the two audiences together and end up with a muddle.

Think of all the hand-wringing and debate that goes into the development of a typical business-to-business (B2B) home page. The marketing folks (especially the ones coming out of a “traditional” marketing background) are extremely concerned about “making an impression” on the home page with something that “grabs the attention” of visitors. In reality, most folks visiting B2B sites probably come because they are already customers or already know about your company. In either case, they’re probably visitors in the time-saver category. If they’re trying to make a buying decision, they need information… fast.

They obviously should have a positive impression of your company, and that should be communicated through good design. But if they’re busy professionals, they must be respected as such and directed to the data as quickly as possible.

Those people more in a browsing mode who are partially looking to escape from their jobs (or lives) by doing a little Windows shopping need to be treated more carefully. If they’re in the beginning stages of the buying decision process (or don’t know they’re even in the process), more entertaining, visual stimulation is important. Humans are visual creatures, after all. That initial “I want that!” reaction is more often driven by image than specs.

Of course, neither group is ever so cut-and-dried. There’s rarely a situation when a person is entirely in one mode or the other. The popularity of blogs may be partially based on the fact they actually can serve as time savers for time wasters — fun to read but predistilled for quick enjoyment. RSS also plays into this model, serving as a quick way for Type A personalities to sort through interesting news when indulging their slacker sides.

One new service worth looking at in this context is Real Simple Shopping, a new service that sends hot merchant offers directly to RSS feeds. On the one hand, it’s highly entertaining to view the offers coming in. On the other, it’s incredibly time saving for those looking to buy.

Who do you market to, the wasters or the savers?

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