During Crisis, Internet’s Strengths Emerged

In the days following the tragic events of September 11th, data has trickled in that helps us piece together a portrait of American Internet usage in a time of crisis, showing us how deeply the medium has become ingrained in people’s everyday lives.

While, obviously, marketing to people in the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy is in poor taste, gauging the importance and strengths of the Internet — in comparison with other forms of media — can be instructive for marketers and advertisers.

For anyone who has found themselves glued to a television set during the days since the attacks, it won’t be surprising to learn that most Americans used the TV as their primary source of information following the hijackings. Harris Interactive pegged the number at 78 percent of online adults, while the Pew Internet and American Life Project said that 81 percent of all Americans got most of their news in this manner. Interestingly, Pew found no difference between Internet users and non-users with regard to their reliance on television.

Radio was the runner-up, providing 15 percent of online users with their primary source of information, according to Harris. Pew came up with a number of 11 percent of the overall American population, with, again, no difference between Internet users and those without access.

Next came the Internet (with only 1 percent or fewer people saying they looked primarily toward newspapers), which was the primary source of information for only 3 percent of online adults — Harris and Pew agreed on this count, and both included only Internet users.

Looking More Closely

It’s tempting to dismiss the Internet, then, as an insignificant factor, but a closer look reveals its importance in people’s lives. Fully 64 percent of the online population, according to Harris, used the Internet as one of their sources of information. The reasons? To get more detail (36 percent), to get information not available from other sources (30 percent), to get more up-to-date information (30 percent), or to get information while at work (26 percent).

In a look at the audience for Internet radio stations, MeasureCast found dramatic increases in the number of people listening and the total number of hours streamed on Tuesday, September 11th as compared to the Tuesday before. News/Talk station KSCO-AM 1080 in Santa Cruz, Calif., streamed 2,254 hours of news to 1,377 people on September 11th, a 660 percent increase over the previous Tuesday. In little College Station, Texas, KZNE-AM 1150 (a Sports/Talk station) streamed 2,181 hours of programming to 1,397 listeners, an 8,988 percent increase over the previous Tuesday, when it only had 19 online listeners.

It’s interesting to note that the stations cited by MeasureCast were both in small towns, because many people trying to reach an audio stream or major news Web site found access difficult because of congestion. Although anecdotal evidence would suggest that the number of people having this problem was large, the Pew research found that 56 percent of those who went online to get news and information about the attacks did not have any problem accessing them. Only 15 percent reported having “a lot of problems” and 28 percent said they had “some problems.” Of those who had problems, 41 percent eventually got to the site they wanted, 38 percent went to other sites, and 19 percent just gave up.

News Brands Benefit

Another interesting finding was that the brand identities of news Web sites are apparently quite well-established. Fully 37 percent of people going online Tuesday to seek information about the attacks were trying to reach one particular site, while 58 percent tried various sites.

The non-portal site that got the most worldwide traffic, as measured by ComScore Networks, was CNN.com, with 11.7 million unique visitors between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. Eastern time. MSNBC.com came in next with 9.5 million unique visitors, followed by Go.com (home of ABCNews.com) with 3.5 million and, interestingly, BBC.co.uk, with 2.2 million. On a percentage basis, CNBC was the big gainer, with a 2,440 percent increase in traffic over the previous Tuesday. NewYorkTimes.com saw an 1,870 percent increase, and NBC.com gained 1,209 percent.

And, so far, the news sites have managed to hold onto some of those gains in worldwide traffic (by English readers), according to ComScore. Although traffic to CNN.com on September 18th was down 45 percent from the Tuesday before (the day of the attacks), its traffic was still 332 percent greater than the Tuesday preceding the attacks. MSNBC.com has done well, but not quite as well. Its traffic on September 18th was down 31 percent from the day of the events, and it managed to bring in 132 percent more than it did on September 4th.

Coming Together

In addition to being an information source, the Internet served as a “virtual town square” in the 48 hours following the attacks, according to the Pew study. Thirteen percent of Internet users participated in virtual communities or “attended” virtual meetings online — defined as posting comments in chat rooms, online bulletin boards, or on e-mail discussion lists. Only 4 percent of online Americans visit chat rooms on a typical day. In these forums, people were doing everything from grieving to comforting one another, from participating in policy debates to flaming one another.

Almost half (48 percent) of those who used the Internet to discuss the bombings with others reported that it helped them to cope better with what had happened, according to Harris.

Internet use also had a very individual dimension, as people reached out to friends and family to check on their safety. Harris said 26 percent of those online used the Internet to send out e-mail inquiries about others’ safety, while 17 percent received an e-mail checking on them. Pew reached similar conclusions, saying that 15 percent sent e-mail to family members, and 12 percent sent e-mail to friends. More women than men were involved in this activity. Six percent of Internet users used instant messaging applications to connect with others on Tuesday, which was about the same number as do so on any given day.

Playing to Strengths

Although the Internet didn’t necessarily fulfill every need that people had in the wake of the tragedy, it definitely was a central part of their media diet. While it wasn’t the primary source of news and information, it served to provide more information, different information, and up-to-date news while people were at work. Additionally, it helped people connect to one another and discuss their feelings and thoughts.

Now that we know better why people look to the Internet, we need to examine ways in which Internet marketing can take advantage of these inherent strengths. Provide opportunities to get more information about products, in ways that complement the marketing efforts taking place on other media. Also, we need to expand our use of e-mail for its relationship-building qualities. As an example, many companies have sent out e-mails of sympathy to their customers in the wake of the disaster, and some airlines have sent frequent flier program members e-mails detailing the new security measures being implemented. The Internet isn’t TV and it isn’t radio, but it does serve very basic needs. Marketers need to give Americans what they’re seeking.

Pamela Parker is managing editor of ChannelSeven.com, where this article first appeared, and Internet Advertising Report.