Research reveals global changes in online behaviour

'Largest ever' study says digital engagement in emerging markets is overtaking mature markets

What is claimed to be the largest ever global research project into people's online activities has revealed major changes in the world's online behaviour. The study, entitled ‘Digital Life', was undertaken by research company TNS which carried out nearly 50,000 interviews with consumers in 46 countries. 

Core data from the study is being made publically available on The report reveals rapid increases in digital engagement and social networking in fast developing marketing such as Latin America, the Middle East and China.

According to the study, digital sources are the number one media channel for people who have online access, with 60% of online users accessing the internet daily, compared to 54% for TV, 36% for radio, and 32% for newspapers.

Digital engagement in rapid growth markets such as Egypt (56%) and China (54%) is higher than in mature markets such as Finland (26%), Denmark (25%) or Japan (20%). This is despite the fact that mature markets tend to have a more developed internet infrastructure.

Blogging and social networking are fast gaining momentum in rapidly growing markets. According to the report, four out of five online users in China, and over half of those in Brazil, have written their own blog or forum entry, compared to just under a third in the USA. 92% of online consumers in Thailand, and 88% in Malaysia, have uploaded photos to social networking sites - compared to 48% in Germany and 28% in Japan. 

According to TNS, this growth in social networking has been driven by the move from PC to mobile, and consumers say that they expect their use of social networking on mobiles to increase.

Online consumers in rapid growth markets are, on average, spending more time on social networking sites than on email. In areas such as Latin America, the Middle East and China, consumers spend 5.2 hours per week on social networking and 4 hours on email. In contrast, online consumers in mature markets spend more time with email (over 5 hours) than with social networks (just under 4). The heaviest users of social networking are in Malaysia (9 hours per week), Russia (over 8 hours per week) and Turkey (more than 7 hours per week).

The study also reveals wide variations from country to country in the average number of social media friends maintained by consumers. Online users in Malaysia top the chart with an average of 233 social media friends, closely followed by Brazilians with 231 and Norwegians with 217. The least ‘social' are the Japanese with just 29 friends and Tanzania with an average of 38 friends. Chinese consumers are heavy users of social networking, but on average have 68 friends, indicating a cultural preference for fewer but closer friendships.

The study was completed in September 2010. Almost 49,000 people aged between 16 and 60 were interviewed. The research covered 46 countries including Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, Africa, North America, South America and Australia. 

TNS have produced a website which enables the data to be explored in a variety of ways via interactive data visualisations providing country overviews, and country-by-country data on topics such as which online activities are most important, and the degree of online engagement for each nation. Side by side country comparisons can be set up providing revealing comparisons between nations, and age specific filters can be applied to identify variations in usage patterns.

What does this mean for info pros?

The Digital Life site provides nifty visualisations and it's fun to interrogate it to see how Australians compare to Austrians, or Indians to Indonesians in their average number of social media friends. More to the point, however, anyone involved in global knowledge and information projects would want to be aware of country-by-country differences in, say, social media uptake. The ability to filter by age provides another valuable lens - how do millennials differ in online expectations and habits in various countries? What tools might they demand when they enter the workspace, and how will this impact on global knowledge sharing initiatives? This survey might not provide all the answers but it's a useful starting point for discussion.