Could 60 million Americans be wrong?

Up-ie A brand new Pew Research Center survey shows that 21 percent of the American population doesn't use the Internet at all. That's  60 million people!

And, it's not just the old 'digital divide' that's causing folks not to tune out, turn off and power down. According to Pew, the 60 million plus, non-tech heads stay away because:
– They don't have a computer (OK, fine, a digital divide)
– It's too expensive (Fine. The damn divide again, but wait….)
– It's too difficult or frustrating
– They think it's a waste of time
– They don't have access (Fine. Divide.)
– They're too busy (That response fascinates me. The Web's a huge time saver for this blogger.)
– They don't need or want it (Put that in your social media pipe and smoke it)
– They're too old to learn (So much for these old dogs learning new tricks)
– They reported having a bad experience with Ed Moed's 'MeasuringUP' blog (Now, that makes sense).

Simultaneously, Pew reports the Internet's explosive growth has finally slowed. Sixty-six percent of respondents reported having a high-speed Internet connection at home which is up just marginally from the 63 percent saying the same thing last year.

So, here's my question: knowing that some 60 million Americans aren't using the Internet at all, why are we not seeing opinion pieces on the subject? PR Week, PR News, Holmes and the other industry trades are filled to the brim with the latest, greatest, social media case studies, features and announcements. And everyone's arguing about which marketing discipline deserves to lead the social media discourse. But, what about the huge market that doesn't want or need the Internet? Don't our journalists owe us thinking on the subject?

Lost in the social media land rush mentality is the reasoned approach a person such as our very own Sam Ford takes. He's never suggested the Internet is the ‘be-all end-all’ for each and every client. Instead, he urges they first LISTEN before acting. Listening would enable clients and agencies alike to uncover the 60 million non-Internet users who, I guarantee, are a core constituent audience for lots and lots of organizations. And, once one has listened, one can determine the best strategies with which to engage.

So, the next time you're in a new business pitch and the prospect asks about your firm's social media strategy, turn the tables and ask what her organization's plan is to reach the 60 million Americans who aren't using the web. Ask her if she's taken the time to listen to the non-Internet users. If nothing else, it will differentiate you from every other agency in the pitch who, I guarantee, will do nothing but wax poetic about their digital capabilities.

12 thoughts on “Could 60 million Americans be wrong?

  1. Thanks, Steve. I’m very glad you wrote this post. Four years ago at MIT, a very smart person asked me what the world would be like in five years when wireless Internet was prevalent everywhere you go. I couldn’t help but marvel at his question, especially after I had spent the summer of 2006 while MIT was out of session working at weekly newspapers back in Kentucky. Amanda and I were visiting with family, where both sets of our parents had the money and interest to have high-speed Internet but no viable, consistent, and appropriately priced options for getting it. And neither of them lived miles from civilization. However, BellSouth was only slowly expanding their DSL coverage, the local cable company was not offering cable Internet services, and so on.
    The infrastructure just wasn’t there. And a few years later, while we see great strides being made, we’re far from Internet everywhere. Wireless internet is spotty at many places in Boston or New York, so you can imagine that it’s even less the case in less densely populated cities. And, while we’re getting high-speed Internet further developed, there are still particularly rural areas where there are few affordable options aside from dial-up. For many, then, iPhones or BlackBerries are the better options for the time being.
    Beyond that, there are the people who just aren’t interested enough in the Internet to have it, a portion of the population who have just rarely or never used a computer (including not just the elderly but a good number of others), etc.
    But I think we have to look not only at the gap in access but what many have called the “participation gap.” Having Internet access does not actually give people equivalent access to online communication. There are many social and cultural pressures that shapes how people use the Internet and who the majority of online content is geared toward.

  2. I agree with Peter; the PR aristocracy probably thinks those 60 million folks who aren’t plugged in aren’t in their target demo anyway, therefore, they don’t exist.

  3. Spot on, Frank. There’s too much focus on the latest App and too little on the latest learning. Taking the time to listen and learn about a constituent audience’s preferred means of communications is elementary, but too many communicators overlook it in their rush to engage in social media.

  4. Great post, Steve. It confirms why some marketers are taking a very go slow approach to social media. Sam is right. Only getting down in the trenches will enable companies to understand who they’re trying to influence and how. No surprise there. Our largest client has many non-techie, no-Twitter, and forget-Facebook customers. True, it’s a lot of Luddites. Regardless, it’s our job to figure out how to reach them effectively.

  5. Sorry, I think you misunderstood. I’m referring to opinionators at PR Week, PR News, Holmes and the like that you mentioned as being uninterested in those audiences. Actual, hands-on marketers like Wal-Mart and McD will always depend on those audiences.

  6. I must say I’m really surprised at your POV, Peter. Brands such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s have pinpointed marketing campaigns aimed at non-Internet users who probably also qualify as the underclass you say ‘don’t know, don’t care or don’t make enough money to be worth marketing to through social media.’ Regardless of their income status, people buy necessities, whether that’s a cholesterol-laden Mickey D’s ‘meal’ for four, generic-label clothes and rugs or TV sets.

  7. Thanks for the thoughts, Lunch. I agree and disagree. The App is the future (and god knows the world could certainly benefit from a LunchBoy iPhone App). That said, large numbers of respondents to the Pew surveys used words such as frustrated, angry and indifferent when asked to describe their web experiences. My gut tells me there’s still millions of Americans who want nothing to do with digital, regardless of whether it’s web or mobile based.

  8. The answer to your question, RepMan, is that most of the PR industry isn’t interested in those 60 million Americans because they think “those people aren’t like us.” Meaning that they’re relying on tv, radio, print and traditional WOM for their information.
    The fact is that there are some people who don’t know, don’t care or don’t make enough money to be “worth” marketing to through social media. It’s not pretty or PC to say say so, but that does exist to some extent.
    But that’s only part of the answer. As Lunchboy astutely points out, apps may be getting us to the point of not needing the internet per se. I don’t agree with everything in the WIRED article (perhaps my dislike of Michael Wolff is a factor), but we may now be reaching another point of change. Internet access in 2010 may be about where having an AOL dialup was, say 7-10 years ago.

  9. great piece and insight offered by Sam. It makes sense.
    I would argue, but not guarantee, that there is likely a large number within that 60 million that are iPhone, iPad or Droid owners…you almost don’t need a dedicated internet line anymore. What’s more, and Wired recently touched on this, is that the browser is dying (supported by this Pew research) and the app is gaining ground. The web is a melting pot of everything from politics to porn, but so much of it is ignored by those who still surf. That’s why, and I tend to agree with him, that Anderson and others have offered that the app is where the digital community is headed. I agree with him and happen to be seeking out designers for the Lunchboy app at present.