Visiting News Sites Becomes a Habit

By: Carl Sullivan

We’ve all heard that the Internet is increasingly interwoven in American family life. New research from the Online Publishers Association (OPA) seeks to confirm this conventional wisdom, and to show newspapers just how powerful their Web sites are.

After spending numerous hours with 44 people in 23 wired households, John Carey, a researcher with Greystone Communications, suggested that the Net is truly pervasive in consumers’ lives. “They’re using it out of habit,” he said at an OPA event in New York on Thursday. “It’s becoming part of the routine. A lot of people are using the Web first thing in the morning … with their coffee,” and even while they’re getting dressed for work. More than half of these homes had broadband access.

Carey compared the computer of today with the television of the 1950s. Family pets of that era typically hung out by the TV with the family after dinner. As evidence, he produced a recent photo of a cat perched serenely beside one of his study participant’s PC — tail no doubt occasionally blocking the screen. In short, the Internet shares many characteristics with television, Carey suggested. People enjoy it and they spend a lot of time with it.

Carey’s in-the-field research is a type of ethnography, the study and systematic recording of human culture and behavior. To back up his qualitative research, OPA also presented a quantitative study of nearly 26,000 users at 41 individual Web sites that are members of the association, including 15 online newspapers. The Web survey conducted by Frank N. Magid Research found that participants visit these sites not only to find news and information, but also because it’s become a routine — and even for fun and to relax. Who knew?

Sixty-eight percent of national news site visitors said they visit frequently to get national news, 64% to get breaking news, 52% for international news, and 44% because “it’s a habit.” Twenty-three percent said they visited frequently “just for fun,” 23% “just to relax,” and 21% to follow up on something they read in a newspaper.

The responses were similar among visitors to local news sites: 64% to get local news, 53% for breaking news, 38% for national news, and 38% because “it’s a habit.” The same percentage (23%) said they visit local sites frequently “just for fun.” By comparison, 39% of lifestyle and entertainment site visitors go frequently “just for fun” and 24% because “it’s a habit.”

All of this debunks the myth that consumers use the Net at set times, in fixed locations, and primarily to search for specific information, Carey said. He suggested the growth of the wireless Web will accelerate this trend. “The computer is now migrating around the house” and into Burger King and city parks, thanks to wi-fi hot spots that allow mobile Internet access.

Carey’s research also confirmed earlier work which showed that consumers trust quality brands for online news and information. The people he studied even said they were more likely to trust outbound links from quality content sites. (So be careful what you link to!)

OPA Executive Director Michael Zimbalist added that the overlap between online and offline media properties is high, though television tends to do a better job of promoting its Web sites than other media.

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