How We Use the Web Today

A new study presents one of the clearest pictures of how people get their fill of Web-based media, especially at work

Just how do Americans get their news and entertainment over the Web? And how does the Web stack up against TV, newspapers, and other media when it comes to media consumption? Those are questions that advertisers have long wrestled to answer, with mixed results. Sure, you can give people a survey. But that doesn't always yield truthful responses. Ball State University's Center for Media Design came up with an approach they're hoping will provide a more accurate picture. They followed subjects for an entire day to find out for themselves.

The study, they say, gives one of the clearest glimpses of the Internet's media influence, especially during the working day. More than 60% of participants use the Web during the day, vs. 40% for newspapers, and about 30% for magazines, according to the study, commissioned by the Online Publishers Assn., of which is a member. And at work, the Web dominates media consumption, the researchers say.

People are spending a lot more time during the day on the Web, too -- on average about 120 minutes. That's less than they listen to the radio, but much longer than the roughly half hour they read newspapers or magazines. (TV is still the media king, gobbling more than 240 minutes of a viewer's day.) A decade ago, people were spending less than an hour on the Web, the study says.


  So what does all this mean for advertisers? For starters, though ad spending is shifting to the Internet, it has yet to catch up with consumers' habits. About 17% of the time spent using consumer media is devoted to the Internet, Ball State found. But the Net accounts for only 8% of advertising spending, say the researchers, citing figures by Veronis Suhler Stevenson, the merchant bank focusing on media.

Another finding: People in different age groups, and men and women, are spending approximately the same number of hours on the Web. Specifically, men aged 35 to 49 are spending roughly the same amount of time browsing the Web as men aged 18 to 34 and those over than 50.

Even more surprising, women aged 18 to 34, and women aged 35 to 49, are also online in similar amounts as men in the three age groups studied. "The notion that it's a young person's medium or that it's a male medium -- those [ideas] really don't hold up anymore," says Michael Holmes, associate director of insight and research at Ball State's Center for Media Design. Of course, those groups are using the Net in varying ways, he adds.


  Researchers spent an entire day with each of 350 participants in or near Muncie, Ind., keeping tabs on all forms of media consumption, recording data every 15 seconds. The method yielded results that can be considered more accurate than cases where respondents report on themselves, the center says. "There's a huge gap between what people say they do and what they actually do," said Pam Horan, president of the Online Publishers Assn.

Did the fact that the subjects knew they were being watched skew the results? "Every form of research has its trade-offs," says Holmes. "The trade off with this kind of research is you get very rich and very natural data, but there's always the possibility of the observer effect." Case in point: No researcher observed a subject viewing pornography. Still, Holmes is hoping the study paints an accurate picture of consumers' other, less unseemly, Web-use habits.

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