Low-income Households Fastest Growing in Internet Use

While the number of US Internet users with annual household incomes under $25k has grown nearly 50%, outpacing the growth of total users, they still only represent 9.7% of the overall Internet-using population.

Media Metrix' clickstream Internet behavioral data shows the digital divide gradually narrowing as lower-income households increase their ranks online by a significantly wider margin than the total population. The overall composition of the web, however, still skews toward a higher-income user base.

If there is a marked digital divide today, it exists primarily in the distribution of household income level online. Early adopters of Internet technology tended to be those who could afford the requisite equipment, or who had access to the Internet in the workplace.

The Internet has changed dramatically since Media Metrix launched its measurement services in January 1996. Among the reasons for the gradual closing of the digital divide are the continued fall in computer prices, increased technological ease-of-use, and improved access to the Internet in professional, academic and community environments.

Lower-income web visitors (Higher-income users, often more experienced users with established preferences and more streamlined sessions, spend less time online – just over nine hours – and view fewer unique content pages.

Household income also appears to influence Internet category preferences with lower-income groups visiting career and auction sites, while higher-income audiences flock to hobby-leisure, auto, sports and travel sites. These usage habits, combined with evidence that purchasing power and financial security are linked to specific category and site preferences, suggest that channels of access to worldwide web users vary significantly according to household income.

Web visitors with a high annual household income (HHI) of $40k-$60k, the largest group in numerical terms on the web today, find themselves concentrated on a broad range of sites that represent the lion’s share of the Internet itself. From online public library IPL.org and retail haven Mall.com, to banking site Navyfcu.org and corporate technology site Dishnetwork.com, the wide distribution of these visitors is a testament to the diversity of online interests and priorities in a crowded income group.

According to Media Metrix, the worldwide web is largely comprised of HHI users, compared to the general US population. While those in lower income brackets, (The largest income group on the web, on the other hand earns between $40k and $60k per year, with a 27.3% share. Additionally, web users from the highest income break, $100k+, comprise close to 18% of the online population, while they represent just 10.5% of total US households.

A comparison of web demographics from June 1999 to June 2000 shows a similar household income configuration over time, with higher brackets comprising a much larger proportion of users compared to the general US population. Additionally, those in the $40k-$60k income bracket consistently anchor overall traffic to the web over the one year period.

The change in household income composition year-over-year does, however, suggest at least a subtle shift in distribution. The number of users within the two lowest income segments increased from 7.9% to 9.7% (HHI under $25k) and from 16.2% to 18.7% (HHI $25k-$40k). Higher income brackets ($40k-$60k), meanwhile, decreased from 28.3% in June 1999 to 27.3% during the same period in 2000. Users with incomes above $60k decreased very little since June 1999.

While users in lower-income brackets retain a disproportionately small stake in the web population, they did increase their ranks on the web at a higher rate than unique visitors overall from June 1999 to June 2000. The combined web population grew by 23.4% over the year, with unique visitor numbers climbing from 61.9 million to 76.4 million.

Those with a HHI under $25k outpaced the overall online population, increasing from 4.9 million to 7.4 million, a notable 49.3% rate of growth. web users with $25k-$40k also surpassed the overall online population growth with a 40.1% increase which drove their numbers from 10.2 million to 14.2 million unique visitors.

The remaining four income groups, meanwhile, grew at a much slower pace than the web population overall. The lowest rates of growth occurred among those in the highest HHI brackets of $75k-$100k and $100k plus: they increased their ranks on the worldwideweb by 12.9%, and 13.9% respectively, compared to the 23.4% year-over-year growth in the total online population.

While the rate of growth among previously under-represented income brackets suggests a slight shift toward a more balanced online population, there are nonetheless distinct web usage patterns among users with different income levels. These distinctions are evident in both usage and duration metrics.

The number of average minutes spent per usage month stands at 630.6 minutes for the entire web population, while those in the lowest income group, HHI under $25k, devoted a much higher 788.9 minutes to the web in June of 2000. By comparison, those in the highest income group, HHI $100k+, trailed at 566.7 minutes.

The difference in duration suggests the gulf between early and late adopters of Internet technology: while users in the high income brackets tend to be experienced surfers who focus on preferred sites and streamline their sessions, many users in the lower income brackets are still in an exploratory mode on the web, and thus may spend more time searching for content and establishing preferences.

Differences in household income appear equally determinative of the number of unique content pages viewed during the average user month. According to June 2000 data, web users with HHI under $25k view 701.4 unique pages on average, while their higher-income counterparts with HHI $75k-$100k view 589.5 unique pages, and those with HHI over $100k view an even lower 551.8 unique pages in the average user month.

The data suggest that those associated with an earlier entrance onto the web attach themselves to particular sites and engage in far less indiscriminate surfing. The only real exception to this trend along the income trajectory are users with $60-$75k, an above-average income group that still views a high number of pages and spends a significant amount of time surfing the Internet.

Overall, however, the high-income web users operate in a much more focused, narrow online environment, visiting fewer pages and spending less time on those pages that they do visit.

As web users of all income-brackets establish a new and/or more distinct presence online, they likewise establish preferences that draw them to particular web categories and types of websites. While there are offerings on the Internet that provide value to virtually all users – such as portals, web services and search engines — there are also a number of vertical content areas on which certain demographic groups are more highly concentrated than they are on the web overall.

Ranking categories and sites with respect to percent composition of users from various household income breaks thus provides a readable map of consistent online preferences within income segments.

Online enthusiasts with incomes under $25k represent 9.8% of the worldwide web overall. Yet their percent representation is proportionally higher for sites in the career category, to which they contribute 12.7% of all unique visitors. Given the vast number of sites that fall within most categories, even a minimal compositional difference is statistically significant and reflects proportionally high traffic patterns to several sites within the category.

The lowest-income web users capture their smallest audience share on travel sites, where they comprise just 8.6% of user traffic. Their counterparts with $25k-$40k comprise 18.7% of the web population and claim their highest audience share of 20.2% on auction sites and their smallest share is on travel sites, with 16.8% of the audience composition. Those with $40k-$60k, the largest web population with 27.3%, are best represented (27%) among the ISPs that grant online access for this relatively larger income segment. In contrast, they capture their lowest audience share on career sites, with 24.6%.

Moving into the higher income brackets, those with a household income of $60k-$75k comprise 12.7% of the web overall and achieve their highest audience share, 14.7%, on both hobby/leisure sites and sports sites. By contrast, they are least represented on portals, with 13.1%.

Their higher-earning counterparts with $75-$100k (and a 13.8% share of the web overall) are most heavily represented on automotive sites, with 15.2%. By contrast, they are least represented on sites devotes to careers and to health, where they comprise just 13.2%.

And finally, those with the highest household income of any users, $100k and above, constitute 17.9% of web users overall, and contribute a proportionally higher 20.2% of all traffic to travel sites. Their lowest audience share is on community sites, where they constitute 15.2% of all unique visitors.

With regard to specific site preferences, users in various income brackets have established proportionally larger audience share along a number of clustered content areas, many of which appear to reflect users’ purchasing power and financial security. Web visitors with under $25k have established themselves on a range of incentive sites such as Valuepay.com, Desktopdollars.com, Net4Biz.com and Getpaid4.com, which offer cash payouts to users for surfing the web, reading e-mail advertisements, and referring their friends and families.

Those in the slightly higher income bracket of $25k-$40k represent a large audience share on retail sites such as Avonorder.com and All-yours.net, as well as on sites like Hud.org and Movingcenter.com that serve as resources for those looking to purchase a home or apartment.

Web visitors with of $40k-$60k, the largest group in numerical terms on the web today, find themselves concentrated on a broad range of sites that represent the lion’s share of the Internet itself. From online public library IPL.org and retail haven Mall.com, to banking site Navyfcu.org and corporate technology site Dishnetwork.com, the wide distribution of these visitors is a testament to the diversity of online interests and priorities in a crowded income group.

Users with $60k-$75k, by contrast, are most concentrated within education sites K12.il.us, UCDavis.edu, and Uiowa.edu, as well as among business/high tech sites such as Oanda.com, Informationweek.com and Computerworld.com.

Web users in the two highest household income brackets find greatest representation on a similarly focused group of sites. Those with $75k-$100k maintain a high audience share on corporate and financial sites such as TI.com, Wamu.com, National.com and SBA.gov.

Meanwhile, the highest-income users online, those with of $100k plus, achieve their greatest percent representation on financial and new-economy news sites such as MSDW.com, Upside.com, Corporate-Ir.net, the Street.com, RedHerring.com, and Marketguide.com.

With online preferences clearly defined by demographic segments, advertisers, marketers and others looking to do business on the Internet have the ability to narrowly target their desired online user base.

The Internet, while smaller in size than the general US population, clearly looks more like the mainstream population than ever before. Yet its disproportionate number of users in high-income brackets indicates greater opportunity for online businesses to target those with potentially deeper pockets.

These high-earning Internet visitors exhibit usage patterns that not only reflect their specific income level and financial circumstances, but also create a viable demographic profile that suggests how and where they may be accessed by marketers, advertisers, and content-providers.

Income distribution on the web may indeed come to more closely mirror income distribution in the offline population, but evidence points to household finances as a continued determinant of online behavioral patterns and of specific channels of access to targeted consumers online.

Media Metrix, Inc., with over 900 clients, is a source for comprehensive, reliable, and timely audience ratings, e-commerce, advertising and technology measurement services. Media Metrix’ AdRelevance division, through its superior ad tracking technology, provides clients the most comprehensive data on where, when, how and how much web marketers and their competition are advertising online.

The company has a sample of more than 100,000 people under measurement worldwide, yielding monthly, weekly, and daily data collection and reporting. All data contained in this report are based on Media Metrix’ sample of over 55,000 people under measurement in US homes and businesses.

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