Parsing Pew: What The Latest Online Content Buying Numbers Really Say

You are about to see a host of references to a new batch of numbers from the Pew Internet & American Life project pop up all over the place. The headline is tantalizing: 65 percent of those surveyed this fall paid for online content. But what does it mean?

At the most basic, it means Pew has a very broad definition of content ranging from music, software and gaming ‘cheats’ to newspapers, magazines, e-books, adult content and dating services. The distinctions were often blurred between kinds of content and containers. For instance, one category was “a digital newspaper, magazine, journal article, or special report” but other options included apps and premium or members-only content. That makes it difficult to hone in on what people are willing to pay for — the actual content or the way content is delivered. There’s also no sense of what they aren’t willing to pay for. It’s a low-res snapshot of online consumer buying behavior.

What if you zoom in? A little methodology (see more below) for context: the 1,003 adults interviewed for Pew from Oct. 28-Nov. 1 were asked if they used the internet, even occasionally, or sent email; that came out to a 75 percent group of internet users. The 65 percent number comes from that subset.

Here’s what they said they paid for:

— Music: 33 percent
— Software: 33 percent
— Apps: 21 percent.
— Games: 19 percent
— A newspaper, magazine, journal article or special report: 18 percent
— Online videos, movies or TV: 16 percent
— Ringtones: 15 percent
— Photos: 12 percent
— Premium or members-only content on a particular website: 11 percent
— E-book: 10 percent
— Podcasts: 7 percent
— Some “other” kind of content: 6 percent
— A particular website or online service, such as an online dating site or service: 5 percent
— Tools, skills or materials to use in an online game: 5 percent
— “Cheats” or codes to help you play online games: 5 percent
— Adult: 2 percent

By far, the highest numbers downloaded either one (25 percent) or two (21 percent) types of Pew-defined content at most. The breaking point for double digits was 5 kinds of content.,

They were also asked if they’d ever paid for various forms of access: subscription, 23 percent; download an individual file, 16 percent; and streaming content, 8 percent. The amounts they said they paid averaged $47 a month but was skewed by some “extremely” high-end users. The average for most was closer to $10 a month.

Jim Jansen, the senior fellow who analyzed the results, described it as a look at bits and atoms. In this case, the bits are literal — online-only goods — versus “tangible” atoms like printed books and CDs, a difference from past studies for this part of Pew. Instead, it winds up being more like mixing apples and oranges with the crate they come in or the paring knife you might use to scrape off the rind to flavor a dish.

The full report is here.

* From Oct. 28-Nov. 1, Princeton Survey Research Associates International interviewed 1,003 U.S. adults about their online content habits. (672 interviews by landline, 331 by cell) The margin of error was a fairly narrow plus-minus of 3.7 percentage points.