The Web audience
There have been a number of surveys of the Internet or Web audience, including the periodic surveys by the Georgia Institute of Technology, the HERMES Project consumer survey, and the CommerceNet/Nielsen demographics study. Comparing the findings from these, which sometimes agree and sometimes conflict, I think we can conclude that there are some 25 to 30 million regular users of the World Wide Web, with the 60-70% predominance of Americans in that audience slowly shrinking. Canada has the second largest user population; going on for 3 million of its citizens have Web access.
The character of the Web audience is also undergoing a transformation. Today it seems that one-third of Web users are female and the ratio is quickly moving towards the ratio in the general population. This is in part due to the growing number of students and educators in the Web audience.
On the other hand, the median age of the audience is fairly stable, around the mid-30s, and lower than the general population, while the average income is higher than that of the general population. No surprises there.
The number of hours people are spending on the Web is growing and, although casual surfing remains the principal activity, entertainment- or education- focused uses are growth areas. By contrast, online shopping remains very low down the activity list. This has caused some business consultants – who appear to think that commercial purposes are the be-all and end-all of the Internet! — to predict an imminent end for the Web. Their speeches have been reported in the media under headlines such as: “Internet commerce deemed dead” and “World Wide Web called house of cards”.
Rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated. They derive from tunnel-vision and short-term perspectives. Once the field trials for the Secure Electronic Transactions project are completed, we can expect to see a revival of user confidence in the Web as a shopping vehicle. Sure, consumer activity will only build slowly. And, sure, there will inevitably be a shakeout among online businesses as it becomes clearer what types of products people are prepared to buy online. There’s no profit in providing consumers with online ordering and payment systems for products that don’t interest them. But those who stick it out and have the right products, good marketing, and pay attention to customer relations, will make enough money to warrant a Web presence. Technology itself is not the magic wand for conjuring up a buck online. A viable business strategy is what’s needed.
We can expect a mass audience, with a profile closer to general demographics, to come online within a couple of years. Those museums that have had time to acclimatize to the environment and capture an audience share, should find themselves well-positioned. At present we lack information about the particular subset of Web users who are visiting museums’ home pages, but the general surveys of Web users indicate that the profile is similar to that of the traditional museum-visiting audience. Similar in terms of educational levels, income, and interests in a mixture of entertainment and education. Dissimilar in that they tend not to operate in family groups, and their computers are their window on the world (whereas for traditional museum-goers, visiting is partly a social experience). And I might add that, although the median age of users is in the mid-30s, prominent in the Internet audience is the ‘teens and early 20s generation, which is a generation missing from the museum-visiting audience. This is an audience we hope to cultivate, through our Internet service, which should stimulate their interest in visiting the physical site of the Museum.
As the audience grows and the demographics are better understood, museums will be able to develop more narrowly focused, niche services, targeted at particular groups. Whereas today Web users are disinclined to pay for access to individual sites that are only of casual interest to them, it will become possible to deliver targeted services for special audiences on a subscription or pay-per-use basis. And certainly this approach is inevitable, if museums are to continue to invest in online services. In essence, those services will move closer to the narrowcasting paradigm of Pay-TV specialty channels.