According to recent analysis by the Online Publishers Association (OPA), more people than ever are spending their time online visiting content sites which provide news, information, and entertainment. Despite the emergence of social networks, and in particular the rapid growth of Facebook, it’s content sites which engage web surfers’ attention the most these days – time spent on these sites is up 88% from only five years ago. That’s not to say social networking community sites haven’t grown too, it’s just that their growth hasn’t come at the expense of content. Instead, people are using traditional communication sites and services (think webmail, IM, and discussion groups) less and less and choosing to use Facebook and other social networks instead.
Email and IM Decline Thanks to Social Networks
In 2003, people spent 46% of their time online using sites which fall into the “communications” category – that is, sites whose core capabilities are email and instant messaging. By 2009, that usage dropped to 27% or a 41% decline in overall use.
Although “community” sites like Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn weren’t measured back in 2003 when the first analysis was performed, OPA introduced the new category in 2008 at which point they were able to see the impact the social networks had on the habits of online users. While obviously it’s not just Facebook which is to blame for the declining use of email and IM, there’s no doubt that the world’s largest social network plays a more significant role than the others here.
Why Social Networks are Replacing Email
As to why social networking sites have led to declining use of other communication tools, Pam Horan, president of the OPA, speculates that it’s because people can conduct the same activities on the social networks as they did before via email, IM, and other communication properties, but now they can do so more efficiently.
While we would argue that in the business world, emailing is still an essential, “can’t live without it” tool, it’s not so far-fetched to say that Facebook and the like have changed mainstream users’ online behavior. Want to share a funny video? Post it to your profile. Have new pictures from your vacation? Upload them to an online album. These are precisely the sorts of online activities that only a few years ago took place primarily via email messages. Social networking has undoubtedly changed that.
And Gen Y Hates Email, Right?
Then there are the constant news stories about how the younger generations, specifically Generation Y and Z, don’t use email. “Email is unfashionable and outdated,” claims a recent ZDNet headline pointing to a recent story about Boston College’s decision to stop handing out email addresses to incoming students. These types of stories are barely even news anymore as the common perception is that communication among these younger groups takes place via social networks (and, of course, text messaging).
Oddly enough, the belief that Gen Y hates email seems to be somewhat contradicted by the late-breaking news that, out of all other demographic groups, it’s Gen Y which is most likely to opt-in for email marketing messages. Still that doesn’t show that email is their preferred medium, only that they’re more open to using it for less-than-personal types of communication. That trend makes sense as they probably don’t even think of email as the place to connect with friends and family – that’s what social networks are for – so why not use it for collecting coupons instead?
OPA’s research also revealed that visits to content sites have increased over the past five years – up 24% since 2003. Time spent on these sites has increased dramatically, too, with an 88% increase since 2003. Today, Internet users spend an average of 6:58 hours on content sites per month. Search and Commerce round out the categories OPA studied with search seeing an increase from 3% to 5% and commerce seeing a slight decline from 16% to 13%.
OPA’s Internet Activity Index (IAI), as the research is called, is conducted by Nielsen/NetRatings. It tracks usage across all the above mentioned categories but excludes .gov and .edu domains as well as adult-oriented sites.
An interesting side note here is that the IAI shows the time spent using communications sites is 4:54 hours per month while community sites are at 3:01 hours. That actually contradicts Nielsen’s earlier findings from March of this year which claimed that social networks and blogs were now more popular than email based on time spent. This discrepancy in data means we’re taking these latest findings and those that came before it with the proverbial grain of salt and you should too. However, what we can take away from both reports is that, numbers aside, email is definitely being impacted by the social networking trend.