More on Internet Dropouts - Maybe It's the Gateways

by , Apr 23, 2003, 12:00 AM
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I've enjoyed the examination by my colleagues Seana Mulcahy and Tom Hespos on the recently released Pew Internet Report, which provides a statistic that 17% of Internet non-users were connected and using the Internet at one time. Tom, especially, examined the case of dropouts through his parents, something which resonated with me, since I have long been tech support and chief Web evangelist for my own 'rents.

This past week, I spent some time on my folks' computer and it became something of an object lesson for me. If I can assume that most of us who read MediaPost are interactive marketers or in related industries, I'd like to start with three other assumptions:

  • That we log-in directly to the Web with our own homepages and not through one managed by an ISP;

  • That we predominantly do so with high-speed connections of at least 100 bpi; and

  • That we have accessed or downloaded at least one kind of protective software to prevent intrusions such as pop-ups or spam, or that we have deleted cookies and/or .exe files that marketers have dropped on our hard drives.

    Let's say that 80 percent of us meet these criteria. It's important to accept that we represent one constituency at an opposite pole of a digital divide from the vast bulk of American Web users over the age of 25. The majority of people who use the Web have absolutely no idea what those three bullets imply, let alone how to make them happen. If we move the age threshold higher, say, to 65 years of age to the Silver Surfers that get 25% AARP discounts on their AOL service contracts, those bullets may as well be in Greek.

    Getting back to my object lesson, the computer my parents were kind enough to let me use is a year-old Celeron PC with an AOL account and 56K dial up access. I've struggled to discern why these two highly educated, voracious readers have largely rejected my attempts to get them on the Web out of hand and why they only even check their email once every two weeks or so. Ten minutes on their system gave me my answer.

    When is the last time that any of you reading this have accessed the Web in a manner like this, with long waits for screens to appear and pop-ups arriving before any desired news copy? If 17% of Net Dropouts were connected and "users" at one time, then my response is that the number is surprisingly low.

    Think about the reasons why people who are not like us use the Internet. Studies indicate that email is first. On the Web itself, news is important, hobbies and special interests too, as well as professional/career sources. While people like us, and maybe younger users, also use the Web a lot for entertainment, I would assert that the vast majority of older users do not. (Leaving the still growing porn industry out of this entirely, thank you) I'm reminded of the term Information Superhighway. (© Al Gore) If your chief use of the Internet is information, and you're used to getting your information a certain way, such as through a daily newspaper, then building your own way through the Web may seem more of a burden than a benefit.

    Indeed, according to the study, "while Net Dropouts describe the Internet in a variety of ways, they see it more as a tool for specific needs, rather than a resource with broad applicability to their lives."

    "A general dislike of the Internet was another oft-cited reason for dropping out. These Dropouts found the Web unhelpful and uninteresting." So, they're after specific information and they have to not only pay for it through their ISP, their experience is probably not nearly as favorable as what we generally enjoy.

    "Problems with online content and design issues were less important to Net Dropouts than problems of access and preference." For most ISP users, the ISP IS their Web.

    "Sixty-three percent of Net Dropouts think that they are probably or definitely likely to start using the Internet or email again someday." Many of these Net Dropouts have lost their jobs or had to move. Perhaps there is a portion of them who will gain jobs that provide them with the kind of access that many of us in the industry have learned to almost take for granted. After my own experience last week, I have to admit that if my own Web access were limited to what my parents and much of America experience, I'd certainly be less committed. As my friend Brian Quinn of CBS MarketWatch recently told me, the best thing about his job can also be the most difficult thing - the evangelizing. Our experience is an easy one to evangelize - it's also not the one that most consumers get to enjoy.

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