Internet fever has swept through Britain during the past two years.
With 25 per cent of homes in this country now connected to the internet, according to Oftel, there is no doubt that consumers' patterns of media consumption and sensitivity to the online experience has been affected.
The question is exactly how adults, still the most valuable demographic for marketers, are dealing with this new medium.
Studies published over the past few months have started to put some flesh on the bones of previous data on internet use. Oftel used MORI to research 2,070 adults in May, discovering that adults spend an average of six hours weekly on the net. However, this data has been skewed by a relatively small number of heavy users. The majority of individual users tend to spend just over an hour on the net each week.
Three in five surf the internet with 'no specific purpose' - good news for banner advertisers. However, the 'killing time' motivation for net use seems fairly limited to groups that marketers may be less keen to target - 15- to 34-year-old C2DEs in large rented households, who make up the vast proportion of the 'heaviest users'. Within this group, those classed in the DE socio-economic group surf the longest. However, it would be rash to write this group off, as it is likely to consist of a high proportion of students.
In terms of penetration, it is still those with a higher income who have shown most enthusiasm for the internet: 56 per cent of them are online.
In fact, the typical internet user is still the classic 35- to 54-year-old man with children, living in the south.
The study throws up some interesting regional variations in net use.
While those in the south are the biggest internet fans (34 per cent penetration), only 11 per cent of those living in Northern Ireland are logged on. The Welsh and Scottish have been similarly cautious (or computer-less), with just 12 per cent and 16 per cent respectively online.
Oftel also uncovered what people are up to on the net. Predictably, nine in ten used it for e-mail. Educational research, looking for travel information, indulging hobbies and shopping are all also popular reasons to use the internet, as borne out by our two case studies (right).
A surprisingly high one in three consumers now use the internet for banking and the same amount use it for job hunting.
Nearly half of Oftel's respondents claimed to use the internet to keep up with the news, with fewer people using it for finding information on health, sports and business.
Research by the media agency CIA, in conjunction with the consultants The Added Value Group, provides more detail on where people access the net. Like Oftel, it discovered that consumers are more likely to use it at home but also found that 30 per cent of people were only using the net at work.
The higher proportion of consumers online at home helps to explain the diversity of activities that many people indulge in while online.
A quarter of the 1,178 people CIA polled listen to the radio. Younger users are even more likely to do two things at once, with 31 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds combining the radio and the net.
David Fletcher, CIA's planning director, cautions against assuming that this means people are listening to more radio. 'Radio is the classic secondary medium, and it is especially suited to combining with internet use.'
But the combination of radio and the internet has offered an opportunity for media planners. 'It's no accident that there has been an explosion in the number of radio ads for websites over the past six months,' Nigel Sheldon, a managing partner of MindShare Digital, says. 'Many people have argued that the growth of internet use means we should pull money out of traditional media but this is a great example of why that shouldn't happen.'
A similar, although less pronounced, effect is shown with TV. CIA found an average of 22 per cent of net users switch their attention between TV and the internet, rising to 28 per cent of the youngest adults. This has benefited information-rich websites like BBC Online, offering people the chance to discover detailed information on a subject that they have heard a mention of on TV.
The extent to which consumers combine internet use with other activities is governed to a certain extent by the time of the day, and the day of the week, they use it on. The Californian habit of logging on before breakfast appears to have some way to go in this country, with less than a fifth of surfers claiming to be online before 9am. Most of these are among the heaviest users.
The CIA study found that weekday late evening is the most popular time, closely followed by weekend evenings. Older adults favour morning use.
However, the data only shows this group as 45+, so it will contain pensioners.
Banner ads emerge in less than glowing terms from the CIA study. The sample was asked to rate the usefulness of various methods of tracking down new sites. Top of the list, unsurprisingly, were search engines.
Forty three per cent of people rated search engines at nine or ten out of ten for user friendliness. Links from other sites were given a high score by 31 per cent of the group, but only a measly 5 per cent gave banner ads a nine or ten for usefulness.
Perhaps the biggest question for campaign planners is how internet use eats into consumption of other media. The received wisdom is that net users reduce their TV watching and spend less time reading papers, replacing their 'media consumption' time with net use.
At first glance, there appears to be some truth in this - 33 per cent of the net users polled by Continental Research for its 1999/2000 Internet Report said they watched TV less as a result of the internet. Likewise, 27 per cent and 19 per cent respectively reported that they were not spending as much time reading papers and magazines. This 'replacing' was far less pronounced for radio, the medium requiring the least amount of focused concentration.
But the media industry is beginning to discover that the picture may be far more complex. Some argue that total media time has increased with net use. 'Use of the internet doesn't necessarily inhabit media consumption time,' Fletcher claims. 'It can affect time spent on other activities. Shopping time has been, and will continue to be, reduced.'
This is supported by Continental Research's findings, which compared the figures above with similar questions asked of an American sample group.
Given that the UK's e-commerce industry is still catching up with that in the US, it is interesting that 16 per cent of Americans say they spend less time shopping now that they are online. In the UK, only 13 per cent of consumers have replaced shopping time with net use, although this can reasonably be expected to rise as our exposure to and comfort with e-commerce rises.
Hopefully, British adults will be able to resist some of the more socially worrying 'replacing' effects of internet use exhibited by Americans. Continental Research found that 10 per cent of them admitted that they socialised with friends less as a direct result of being online, and 12 per cent thought they had less sleep. Eleven per cent of Britons said they had cut back sleep time, with only 5 per cent saying they spent less time with friends.
Internet users may have reduced the amount of time they spend watching TV or reading newspapers, but this hasn't necessarily lowered penetration of TV or individual sales of papers. They are simply using the media in different ways. Newspapers are the chief example of this, Fletcher thinks.
'There's been a lot of talk about the internet killing papers,' he says.
'But I don't think it's going to happen. I like to read The Guardian on the way home from work, for example. Although I could get TV listings information easily from the internet, I like to know what their reviewer has said about a programme, to help me choose whether to watch it.'
There is also a gender divide that dictates whether people surf the internet for information or entertainment, Fletcher says. 'Anecdotal evidence shows that women like to use it in a functional way, whereas men view it as a leisure medium.'
Fletcher refers to what he euphemistically describes as the 'content heritage' of the internet to explain this split.
Although 'sex' is no longer the most popular word typed into search engines (it has been replaced by 'MP3'), it still fuels a good proportion of online activity, at least for our American cousins.
Dr David Greenfield, from the US Centre for Internet Studies and Psychological Health Associates, told last month's American Psychological Association conference that 40 per cent of 'average' adult internet users admitted spending 90 minutes each week viewing porn, with an even greater number (42 per cent) conducting online affairs.
No-one yet knows if adult Britons are indulging their fantasies online to such an extent. But at least it would explain the 11 per cent of the British online population cutting back on sleep to surf the net.
MOST POPULAR SITES WITH 25- TO 55-YEAR-OLDS
Rank Total digital media Average
1 AOL PROPRIETARY 295.6
2 ICQ APPLICATIONS 216.9
3 AOL INSTANT MESSENGER 79.0
4 YAHOO! MESSENGER 62.4
5 EGROUPS.COM 55.4
6 EXCITE.COM 37.8
7 MSN.MESSENGER SERVICE 35.9
8 III.CO.UK 34.7
9 EXPO.2000.DE 30.2
10 SUPANET.COM 28.2
Source: MMXI Europe, May 2000.
MY NEW-MEDIA LIFE: ELAINE STURMAN, 45, PHYSIOTHERAPIST
I work from home and use the internet during the day and in the evening, both for personal reasons and work research. On average, I suppose I'm on the net for about five hours per week.
I've found it invaluable for tracking down research papers on the latest advances in medicine. Much of it comes out in American or even Russian publications: the internet means I can easily access up-to-date information from anywhere in the world.
But about 70 per cent of my time on the internet is spent checking on my shares and researching future investments. I find dljdirect.com and motleyfool.com the best for this - fun to use but also informative.
The rest of my online time is taken up shopping. I have no qualms about the security of the net, having bought flight tickets, books, CDs and groceries via various websites. I'm planning to buy a new car soon and am about to start researching that on the internet. I hate going to the shops so it's ideal for me.
I use Amazon quite a lot, and found e-bookers via the front screen of AOL. I don't mind following those links as long as they offer me something I'm already interested in.
My only gripe is that some of the e-commerce sites haven't sorted out their technology or delivery. I started using Tesco Online but had problems with the software, so I stopped.
I signed up for cable TV when Telewest connected up my road but found that I wasn't watching the new channels enough to justify it, so cancelled it after two months. I love the idea of new technology as an investor, but I'm not really a good consumer of it.
I might be interested in upgrading my mobile phone into a WAP version, but not until the next generation of technology comes out.
MY NEW-MEDIA LIFE: MARK SMITH, 30, DESIGNER
I use the internet for about an hour and a half each day, for both personal and work reasons. I do some website design myself, so find sites like coolhomepages.com and netbabyworld.com useful for inspiration.
The internet gives me an easy way of indulging my hobbies. The Liverpool FC site is probably the site I visit most often but I also like soccernet.com for catching up with football trivia. I also tend to look at record label sites, travel sites through Yahoo!, and Sainsbury's tasteforlife.com for cooking ideas.
On my home PC, I'm more likely to be using it to find information on going out, the kind of thing I used to get from newspapers. I still buy a newspaper three or four times a week but it's for news and features rather than listings.
I associate sitting in front of a PC with work, so don't like to spend too much time on the internet at home. Perhaps once interactive TV gets properly up and running I might consider getting a digital service but at the moment it seems too costly for the amount of time I would use it.
I'm not a big TV watcher anyway. Maybe when I buy a flat I'll think about getting connected.
It's the same with WAP phones. I bought a new mobile a couple of months ago and thought about buying a WAP-compatible one. But I don't think there are that many sites that support it yet so I'd rather wait until the technology is beyond first generation.
I've got a PlayStation, which I'll probably upgrade when they bring the new version out later this year. I think it's going to have an e-mail facility on it but I wouldn't buy it specifically with that in mind.
This article was first published on Campaign