Why Market Researchers should care about bandwidth

The Pew Research Center has tracked broadband adoption for several years; the most recent study shows that the adoption rate has dropped. As of April 2008, 55% of the adults in the U.S. have access to broadband at home, with just 10% using dial-up connections.

As you might imagine, broadband usage is unevenly distributed. People living in rural areas are less likely to have a high speed connection, as are lower income and African Americans (Hispanic broadband access is similar to the overall population). Notably, broadband adoption now increases with age, with the highest rate among those 65 and above.

All very interesting you might say, but what’s the point for me as a researcher or marketer? When I dug deeper into the report, I found some nuggets about why broadband isn’t being used that lead to implications about research and product. Here are a couple of points to ponder:

  • Some people say they don’t want broadband. Of course, availability and cost are issues for some, but 19% say that nothing would convince them to get broadband. I’m sure that some of the naysayers would actually become subscribers if they were to try broadband (most marketing still focuses on speed, ignoring the benefits of an always-on connection), but there will still be some who won’t make the move of their own volition. Slowing adoption rates confirm that these people aren’t just late adopters, they are laggards, and they will probably only convert when forced by suppliers. As we know from the Technology Adoption LifeCycle model, the stages correlate to different psychographic profiles. These people are different!
  • Many of those who want broadband do not have access (particularly in rural areas), or cannot afford it. This has implications for the design and implementation of market research.
  • Beyond the broadband versus dial-up split, 35% of adult Americans do not have any form of Internet access at home. The most significant demographic differences shown in the Pew report summarizes are age, income, and education – truly a digital divide.

Lessons for marketers and researchers

  1. You still need to consider bandwidth capabilities for online surveys. Perhaps your research topic is such that you don’t care if you deter dial-up users, but often you should be concerned about non-response bias, and in any case the things that improve surveys for lower bandwidth are good practice for all. In particular,
    • Combine pages when it makes sense. We’ve all seen surveys that have every question on a new page with no good reason. Every page load takes more time for a dial-up user. Sometimes your logic requires a new page (but be careful when choosing a tool that you aren’t forced into poor practices just because of the tool), but it is usually possible to put a few questions together with the result looking better for the responder. Demographics and related satisfaction questions are good candidates, but try especially hard to make the front of the survey look good when viewed over a slower connection. Note that the advice to combine pages doesn’t just mean put everything on a single page. Remember, you are trying to engage the respondent. Think of the survey like a conversation. A long single page online survey can be very daunting, and almost as frustrating as endless clicks.
    • Make your graphics small files. There’s nothing wrong with some graphical elements for branding or just to make the pages more interesting, but be sure to keep the files small. That great picture of the product was probably taken with a multi-megapixel camera, meaning that the file is hundreds of kilobytes. But it doesn’t need to be very high resolution, regardless of the speed of the connection; 72dpi is probably plenty.
    • Avoid gratuitous or physically large graphics, for the same reason as the previous recommendation. Your respondents are doing you a favor, so don’t show them images just because you think they make the survey more interesting.
  2. Is an online survey really the best approach? Usually online surveys work very well, but don’t be blind to other techniques. Is your target market online? If your product is aimed at one of the demographics that are underrepresented online you may be increasing the potential for bias. Weighting and oversampling might be helpful, but could increase costs and you may miss out on insights from some of the key targets. Even if you are surveying existing customers (rather than using a panel) be aware of the potential for problems, especially if your email coverage isn’t representative. Perhaps telephone or mail data collection would allow you to better reach the full range of psychographic profiles.
  3. Match your marketing to your targets. No surprise here, but remember a couple of things. Your customers may be looking at your messages online, just not at home, by using the Internet in the library or at work. [Side note – speedy access is one reason why online shopping at work is popular at lunchtime.] Don’t alienate the less technically attuned consumers. Differentiated advertising through different media is probably a good idea.

As with many other aspects of research and marketing in general, the real message here is to think, not assume. Try to put yourself in the mind of your respondents, prospects, and customers.


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