The latest ‘state of the nation’ Ofcom report shows 87% of people aged 16+ in the UK used the internet in 2019, with 81% of measured time spent online was on a mobile or tablet device.
Meanwhile, the number of internet users who use only their computers or laptops to go online continues to decline steadily, from 12% in 2017 to 4% in 2019.
While Ofcom’s Online Nation 2020 report was compiled prior to the lockdown, it offers a great insight into how consumers are behaving around the web and mobile and what they are looking at. In lockdown many of these things have been magnified.
So what are people doing online?
News and information services win out
In September 2019, news and information sites reached almost 99% of all adult internet users in the UK, who each spent an average of 12 minutes on these sites each day. While this was in line with September 2018, time spent on news and information sites increased in 2020 as users kept up to date with developments relating to the coronavirus pandemic.
Compared to the start of the year, visitors to news sites each spent 3 minutes more on the sites each day on average in March 2020 (15 minutes 43 seconds), though this fell slightly in April 2020 (15 minutes 32 seconds).
More recent survey data on the coronavirus pandemic and news services, conducted by Ofcom since 27 March 2020, suggests that over the course of the lockdown, BBC services have been used most.
Some 78% of adults have been using BBC services for news about the coronavirus, compared to 37% who reported using social media (by the eighth week of the survey, 15-17 May).
People appeared to access news less frequently as the lockdown continued in the UK; about a quarter (24%) said they accessed news about the coronavirus more than 20 times a day in our first survey at the end of March, falling to just 8% in mid-May. About two in five people say they have seen false or misleading information about the coronavirus.
Games gain ground
Ofcom’s media literacy research shows that four in ten UK adults and three quarters of 5-15 year olds played games of some kind in 2019. Sixteen per cent of all adults played games online, rising to 48% among 16-24 year-olds, and 59% of 5-15 year olds.
Online access has enabled distribution of games over the internet to consoles, PCs, smartphones, tablets and other smart technologies. Ofcom’s research suggests that in 2009, 27% of adults played games on a dedicated console, falling to 16% in 2019, while the proportion playing games on mobiles increased from 6% to 23%.
Improvements in the broadband speeds available to consumers and the greater computing power of mobile and tablet devices has made gaming a more accessible pastime for a range of audiences, spreading play throughout the day.
UK revenues for game software exceeded £3.8bn 2019, compared to £2.6bn for video and £1.4bn for music. Overall total consumer expenditure on games software, gaming hardware and culture was £5.3bn in 2019.
Social gets game
On average, more than a third of measured time spent online is spent on Google- or Facebook-owned sites. However, research suggests people in the UK use a range of services for entertainment, information and keeping in touch.
Notably, some of the fastest-growing services during the coronavirus crisis are not owned by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft (known as GAFAM). For example, TikTok, owned by Chinese tech company Bytedance, increased its reach among adults in the UK from 5.4 million to 12.9 million between January and April 2020, while Houseparty, owned by Epic Games, increased from 175,000 to 4 million. Zoom, run by former Cisco Webex engineer Eric Yuan, reached 13 million adult internet users in April 2020, up from 659,000 in January 2020.
Social and interactive features are by no means limited to social media and communications services. As communication functionality is integrated into a wider range of online services, people are using a range of apps to fulfil different needs and communicate with different groups of people.
For instance, games platforms have integrated features which allow players to chat and connect in groups, share content and play together. The research suggests that one in ten (9%) UK game- playing adults have used a games social network such as Steam or Xbox Live in the past month.
Of those who use the communication features of games and game-related platforms, a third (33%) talk to friends more via these platforms than via other forms of online communication, and more than half (53%) talk about a wider range of topics, not just the games they are playing.
Multiplayer games, meanwhile, allow for the creation of more formal social groups, such as guilds or clans: one in 20 UK adult game players and three in 20 child game players have joined or taken part in this kind of game social group in the past month. Fifty-two per cent of 8-15s who take part in these groups say they do so to socialise with other people, and 83% say they do so to play with friends.
Meanwhile, social media and online communication services are integrating game features into their platforms. Snap Games, for instance, allows users to play games alone or with friends on the Snapchat app, while video-chatting app Houseparty lets users play games with each other and take part in quizzes. Ofcom’s research suggests that 15% of UK adult players have played games on a social media platform.
Among those who post videos on video-sharing sites, 49% of adults say they do this to share their experience with friends or family. Of those who comment on video-sharing sites (45% of adult users), 61% say they mostly do this on the videos of people they know personally.
Advertising gets an airing
Measurement of time spent and conversion rates are features, alongside granular targeting using customer data and pay-per-view billing for advertisers, that have driven growth in online advertising and are hard to replicate in other media.
Advertising is the primary revenue source for many online properties and has grown at a compound growth rate of 20% for the past five years. Google and Facebook sites combined had an estimated 78% of UK online advertising revenues in 2019.
Although 2019 was another year of growth for online advertising, the latest Advertising Association/WARC Expenditure report forecasts that the impact of the coronavirus in 2020 will result in year-on-year declines in paid search and online display advertising for the first time.
The expert’s view
Commenting on the lockdown-related aspects of this study, Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst at UK broadband and mobile comparison site Cable.co.uk, says: “Since entering lockdown our physical distance from one another has led to us finding ways to communicate that we perhaps wouldn’t have turned to previously. In the work space, this has led to increased uptake of online meeting platforms, while at home far more of us are using apps such as WhatsApp, Zoom and Facetime for video-calling where previously a simple text would do.”
He continues: “While this is an interesting finding of the Ofcom report, it’s not altogether surprising. With lockdown forcing us to communicate in new ways, however, things could get very interesting in the future. Video calling, home working, and online meetings are likely to become a habit, and continue to pervade many businesses and social groups, fundamentally changing the way we live, work and communicate.”
Howdle concludes: “There are few barriers to this sort of increased online activity becoming the new normal from a network capacity perspective. Both Openreach and Virgin Media networks have coped extremely well under the additional stress. However, with streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and so on all reducing required bandwidth by lowering video quality, sailing may not be quite so smooth when things do finally return to normal in this regard.”