A big question before any company puts up a pay wall online is just how many users -- conditioned to free, ad-supported material on the Internet -- will end up as paid customers. And how much will they be willing to pay? A new study from the Pew Internet & Life Project offers new insight on the topic, showing that nearly two-thirds (65%) of U.S. Internet users have paid for some form of online content.
Among the 15 categories the study asked about, music and software were the most commonly purchased types of content, with one-third of users having paid to download or access each online. Those were followed by mobile apps (21%), digital games (19%), newspapers, magazines or articles (18%), videos, movies, or TV shows (16%) and ringtones (15%).
E-books, which have gained popularity with the emergence of Amazon's Kindle and other e-reading devices, have been bought by one in ten Web users to date. A quarter of Web users have bought only one type of content and a majority (61%), three or less.
Because Pew has not surveyed people on paying for online media before, it doesn't have prior data to compare the findings to. But the two-thirds of content buyers roughly matches the proportion that pay for tangible goods online like books, CDs or clothing. It also equates with the roughly 66% of American adults who have broadband connections at home.
"For publishers and other media makers, the good news is that the size of the crowd that is willing to pay for at least some digital online content is quite large," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project. "The big question hanging over all these businesses in 2011 is going to be which combination of revenue streams generate the income they need."
He added that the rise of apps, the arrival of "metered" online access for top publications, and spread of mobile connectivity will make next year a pivotal period for sorting out winners and losers in the new media ecosystem.
The Pew study found that among those who have paid for content, most are spending about $10 a month. (Maybe that explains why Cablevision's $20-a-month subscription fee for Newday.com bombed and Netflix priced its new online-only service at $8 a month?) In any case, the majority are paying for subscription services (23%), compared to downloading an individual file (16%), or accessing streaming content (8%).
Not surprisingly, there's a correlation between income level and paying for digital media. With wealthier consumers, many more are likely to be purchasers. But there was little difference between men and women and among whites and non-whites when it came to buying online content. The only glaring difference was that men tended to be bigger software buyers than women -- 40% to 26%.
In terms of age, people 30 to 49 were the most likely online content buyers, followed by those 18 to 29. While people in the younger age bracket are typically the most active digital consumers, they're also more accustomed to not paying for anything online. The results of the Pew study were based on a survey of 755 Internet users interviewed by telephone and cell phone between October 28 and November 1, 2010.