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Who's Really Online?

Trying to get a handle on the size of the Internet and who's actually on the Net is an enormous challenge. Rapid growth, different definitions, the organized-anarchy that is the Net's structure (remember, it was built to withstand nuclear war) makes analysis akin to crystal ball-gazing.

But that doesn't stop people from trying!

While the number of people signing up each day makes projections little more than guesses, there are some observations we can make based on two credible surveys. Read on. Do you see your members here? Or your customers?

Age and Gender

A hotly debated issue, the average age seems to be mid-30-something. The Georgia Tech Research Corp. (GVU Survey) just completed its Fourth WWW Survey, where the average respondent was 31. In the Third WWW Survey, the average age was 35; in the Second, 31. The important point is that the average user would be a very late Boomer.

The most hotly debated issue: are there women online? Well, the fact that I'm writing this column should say something about that! Humor aside, recent surveys show that slightly less than one-third of the people on the Net are female. These statistics vary by country, with the US having a greater percentage of women than Europe, for example.

How valid are these surveys? The GVU surveys are respondent-driven. That is, the survey is online, you have to be online to complete it, and you have to be moderately sophisticated to even find out that a survey is ongoing. The GVU survey yielded 23,000 self-selected responses.

Neilsen, on the other hand, recently completed a telephone survey of 280,000 people in the US and Canada, generating more than 4,000 completed surveys in the process. This one was statistically designed.

Income and Location

Internet users are upper-income, upper-educated consumers. The Georgia Tech Surveys show an average income in the mid-$60,000s (US$). Neilsen reports that "WWW users are clearly upscale compared with the population as a whole." A quarter of the WWW users have household incomes greater than $80,000, but only 10% of the total US and Canadian population achieves that income level.

However, widespread Net access and use is a North American phenomena, with three-quarters of the GVU folks reporting US citizenship. About 10% were Canadian or Mexican, with the remainder split between Europe, Asia, the South Pacific, South America and Africa. Given the socio-economics involved, this finding should surprise few.

The Neilsen survey suggests that 17% of the total population of the US and Canada aged 16 and older have access to the Internet and that 11% have used the Internet in the previous three months. This means that approximately 37 million people in the US and Canada have Internet access, and 24 million have been online recently. Just goes to show that small percentages can still be large markets. What percentage of your members/customers have computers and modems?

Attitudes and Usage

What information can we glean from these surveys that help us design technology-based solutions to association challenges? Almost one-third of the respondents adamantly state that they will not pay for access to Web sites. The fact that magazines and newspapers are flocking online in droves, putting all or parts of their current issues up "free," suggests that a subscription-based model may be doomed for all but the most specialized (esoteric?) content.

This implies that our members may not be willing to pay a premium for this service. This is not an unreasonable attitude, since distributing information electronically can be far more cost-effective (and labor-effective) in the long run. Ah, but those short-term costs. That's another story.

Well, what do these people *do* online and how might that relate to association technology? About three-quarters of the "regular" users (my term for the Neilsen folks who logged on daily) use their browser (Netscape, Mosaic, etc.) every day to access the WorldWideWeb. A superficial comparison of the two surveys suggests that the Neilsen regular user may be the same person as the GVU respondent. Two-thirds of this group sends or receives electronic mail (e-mail); one-third is downloads software; and an amazing 19% use real-time audio or video.

These numbers, and ratios, dropped significantly for the Neilsen respondent who had not logged on within the past 24 hours. E-mail moved to the number one use, followed by WWW access. Slightly more of these users also participate in non-interactive discussions (43% v. 36%).

Perhaps, then, one of the first services an association might provide is an electronic discussion group using e-mail as the medium. This is a fairly simple and inexpensive technology, and it is possible to have lists "closed" so that those not in the association do not have access. It's non-threatening to all involved but provides an extended "water cooler" for issues discussion.

Another statistic to bear in mind as we develop Web sites for our organizations: the most widely cited problem with the Net is the time it takes to download pages (69.1%). Web page design today is not unlike desktop publishing 10 years ago -- everyone has access to the software and becomes a self-made publisher. Consider download time for everything you do -- most people still have a 14.4 baud modem. Please don't let an art director design your site (unless you are Coke and want a really snazzy, cool, Gen-X appeal).

A Request

Last July, there were 23,500 web sites, according to data collected by an automated Web agent, the Wander. The projection as the clock turned to 1996 was that there would be 90,000 web sites. (Most recent projections of Web growth have fallen short rather than being optimistic.) Half of those were commercial, but a significant percentage are for organizations.

While it is still early in the Internet game, it is not too soon to begin assessing how this technology can help us deliver services to our members more efficiently or less expensively. The first step -- an informal member survey. Let's take a page from the GVU book: to anyone who is online and reading this column (to the very end!), please send me an e-mail to Tell me about your computer/modem/any lists or Net usage. I'll report in a later column--and I won't give your address away. : )

circa 1st quarter 1996


This paper is part of the Tips & Tools portion of the dotParagon web site.
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Copyright Kathy E. Gill, 1996 and 1997. Comments?

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