Content is still important

CONSUMERS ARE SPENDING NEARLY TWICE as much time online than they did four years ago, and eMarketer predicts that online ad spending will more than double in the next few years – jumping to $44 billion by 2011. It’s no surprise that ad dollars are following the eyeballs – but the critical question for marketers is, what exactly are those eyeballs spending time looking at?

For the last four years, the Online Publishers Association (OPA) has closely tracked consumers’ time online. The OPA Internet Activity Index (IAI), conducted by Nielsen//NetRatings, provides a monthly gauge of the time being spent with the Web’s four key activities: Content, Communications, Commerce and Search. The data provides a valuable look at online activity trends, and in doing so, reveals that a dramatic transformation has taken place — with Content now dominating the time people spend online.

When we began the IAI in 2003, Communications was the leading online activity, accounting for 46% of the time people spent online. It remains an enormously important activity, but Communications’ share of time has dropped to 33%. Social networking, along with the rise of instant messaging – which offers a more efficient, less time-consuming means of communication – have played roles in the decline.

It’s important to note that, even while Communications’ share of time has dropped, the actual amount of time consumers are spending with all four activities has increased over the last four years. So in fact, this change may be less about how people are using Communications and more about the increasing dominance of content viewing.

In the last four years, the share of time devoted to viewing Content online has experienced the greatest growth, increasing from 34% to 47% of time spent, outpacing all other activities. There are a number of factors contributing to Content’s rapid rise.

More and more traditionally offline activities – from getting news, to finding entertainment information to checking the weather or traffic – are moving online. News and information sites see a consistent pattern that helps drive the growth: major news and seasonal events lead to traffic spikes, but traffic remains consistently higher even after the events have passed.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana two years ago, Americans were driven to online news sites for breaking news, in-depth reports and compelling images. And when the water receded and the rebuilding began, they kept going back to the content sites they came to rely on during the crisis.

When March Madness comes around each year, and legions of basketball fans turn to sports sites to get every game detail and every score – they don’t simply disappear from these sites when April rolls around.

News and major events are clearly driving consumers to engage more deeply with online Content, but the proliferation and popularity of video is another factor contributing to Content’s rise. The important role of video is evident in the fact that, according to a June 2007 OPA study, 44% of online video viewers are watching on at least a weekly basis, up from 24% in 2006.

Consumers are also now spending considerable time with social networking sites, which offer a wealth of content and a unique platform where users can connect with one another. It’s worth noting, however, that while social networking is a relatively new phenomenon, Content’s growth has been fairly steady for the last several years — growing 10% from 2003 to 2004, remaining even between 2004 and 2005, growing 13% from 2005 to 2006, and growing 13% from 2006 to 2007, for a total growth of 26% from 2003 to 2007.

And finally, as search has become more efficient and accurate, consumers are better able to find the exact content they are looking for. Search itself has seen a 35% growth in share of time, but it still accounts for a relatively small (5%) piece of the total online pie. Even still, it has a considerable impact on Content – when consumers can easily access what they are looking for, they are likely to spend more time with that Content.

With four years of data compiled and an ongoing monthly survey, the IAI allows us to analyze the trends taking place online. Nielsen//NetRatings’ recent introduction of the “Total Minutes” metric underscores the importance of looking at time spent to help define engagement and complement other key measures. This can be crucial for advertisers as they seek to be where online consumers are — and right now, it’s clearly with the Content.

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