"People's online behaviors are becoming more integrated into their offline interactions," said Jackie Anderson, Forrester analyst and author of the new report. "Engagement with the online channel has deepened, as evidenced by the widespread adoption of such activities as social networking."
The number of households that reported being online only grew slightly more than 3% between 2008 and 2009, while broadband adoption among Internet households grew slightly more than 6%, according to a survey conducted earlier this year of 53,668 U.S. and Canadian households and individuals ages 18 and older. This means that there are now almost 71 million households that report they have access to the abundance of activities on the Internet that are enabled by faster connection speeds.
Despite more households having broadband access, most media behaviors remained relatively flat year-over-year. Overall, time spent with the Internet, for example, remained static at about 12 hours per week. While the time consumers were spending with the Internet grew considerably between 2004 and 2007, the maturation of users, as well as the ultimately limited amount of time consumers have to spend with media, has resulted in a tapering of that growth, according to Anderson.
While many of the early-stage online activities like email and search are nearing saturation, there is a significant uptake of more advanced online activities like social networking and online media use. "Instead of meandering aimlessly in search of content, users can take advantage of tools like Google, companies' advertising of their Web pages, or even banner ads to direct them to content that interests them," Anderson said.
As users become more comfortable with the Internet, they also develop specific behaviors and interests, many of which mirror those in the offline world. For example, while one-quarter of online consumers are watching full-length TV shows on the Internet, these same consumers are still spending 13 hours a week watching TV offline.
Functions such as email and search are the mainstays of online activities. Regardless of what else they log on to do, most consumers will be engaging in these activities at some point in their time online. In response, companies continue to funnel a majority of their online marketing dollars into search engine optimization and email marketing campaigns.
Signaling the dawn of the mobile age, the percent of consumers sending or receiving picture messages jumped from 20% in 2008 to 29% in 2009. "These somewhat entry-level activities illustrate that consumers are gaining comfort with the additional options that mobile phones have to offer," said Anderson. "As the services improve, growth will follow."
As consumers' online behavior continues to mature, Forrester suggests keeping an eye several key demographics and trend-setters. For one, even as better economic times emerge, cost-conscious consumers should be a top-priority for most marketers. Indeed, while this group generally puts price over brand, its members hold more than $56 billion in annual online purchasing power.
Another group, brand loyalists, spend an average of nearly 18 hours online per week, but are not as inclined to spend their time on social networks, according to Forrester. "This can be a little disheartening, considering that these consumers are likely to be great advocates for a brand," said Anderson. However, brand loyalists can be found engaging through more traditional online channels. They use the Internet to find content on things they're passionate about, whether it's their favorite hobby or your brand. In fact, 30% read about their favorite hobbies online at least once a week. Understanding the full profile of brand loyalists will ensure that marketers know where to find them, Forrester suggests.