Internet Penetration Leveling Off, Mediamark Research Finds

Regular use of the Internet by U.S. adults is leveling off, standing at 63 percent of the population, according to new research by Mediamark Research Inc. (MRI). The MRI research suggests that reversing the flattening trend will require convincing two groups of consumers to get online regularly--the "Unconnected," who represent 20.4 percent of the U.S. adult population, and "Resistors," who comprise 16.5 percent of all U.S. adults.

MRI, which began tracking Internet usage nearly five years ago, analyzes Internet access by geography to find that only 80 percent of those consumers who have access to the technology use it regularly, (defined as within the last 30 days). The MRI research found that only 63 percent of adults have used an online service or the Internet in the last 30 days.

"Some of those people [Resistors] live in a household with access, but they're not using it--and some may have Internet access outside the home at a school or library, and for any number of reasons, don't use it," says Andy Arthur, MRI's VP of client services. "Resistors know they have access, but don't use it," he adds.

"Unconnected" consumers have no Internet access and tend to be older, less educated, lower-income adults. Arthur says that this group has stabilized and is "getting tougher and tougher to convert as the Internet grows."

The MRI survey, which was fielded from March 1 to May 7, 2004, examined patterns among regular Internet users. The research did not address the issue of converting dial-up Internet users to broadband services. MRI's research methodology employs geographic sampling and in-person interviews.

MRI finds that Internet usage became a majority activity in the beginning of 2000, when more people in the United States used the Web regularly than did not. Growth rates for Internet usage have dropped steadily from a peak of 19.4 percent in 1997; they now hover around 1 percent, as of MRI's spring research. Arthur notes: "The Internet is still growing but at a slower pace; it's getting down to barely growing at this point. I think a lot of people will be surprised by this."

In the 12-month period ending in April, Internet and online users increased by just 1.7 percent of the adult population over the same period a year earlier. That's compared to an 11.3 percent increase in 1999 and 2000, according to MRI.

Should marketers be alarmed? Increasingly, advertisers are shifting media dollars from network TV to cable and to the Internet. "The demographics of the online population are still very attractive," Arthur says, continuing: "The problem is that [the Internet's] claims of being a mass medium may be falling a little bit short of expectations." He points out that online consumers are still relatively young, affluent, and well-educated.

Still, the MRI analysis suggests that the "Unconnected" and "Resistors" will need to be converted: "The nature of these Internet holdouts means that future Internet growth, if it materializes, will probably be driven by those who are lower-income, older, and more ethnically diverse," Arthur says. The median age for the general adult population is 43.9, while the median age of the "Resistors" is 51.5 and for the "Unconnected," 55.3.

The MRI research also notes that 16.1 percent of the "Unconnected" and 13.2 percent of "Resistors" are African-American, compared to 9.3 percent of Internet users. Consumers of Spanish or Hispanic origin comprise 8.8 percent of Internet users, 12.5 percent of "Resistors," and 21.9 percent of the "Unconnected."