McKinsey & Company is a global management consulting firm. They consult with lots of big companies and even some governments about market trends and what needs to be done to stay ahead of the curve. Now, whether or not their advice is always sound and unbiased is an issue beyond the scope of this column and, in any case, probably far too expensive for anyone besides large corporations and governments to afford anyway.
But one of the reasons McKinsey is a sought-after consultant is because they do a lot of research. Their research studies often include hundreds of thousands of participants across multiple continents. Earlier this month, they released the findings of one such study focusing on “how consumers conduct a range of activities, from core communications like e-mailing or socializing, to consumption of types of content (video, audio, games, etc.) to commerce and creative applications.” In other words, how people live and work online.
(As an interesting side note, I’d like to point out their economic model here is not all that different from most webcomics. They’re giving away the research freely in order to convince potential customers to buy their services.)
As one might expect, younger people tend to be more likely to be more progressive in their use of technologies. That can probably be said in a general sense about every technology and every generation through the history of man. But there are some striking numbers in the report, despite some of the broader common sense findings.
One of the most immediately noticeable is that, in nearly every category that was looked at, there was a distinct cut-off age of 35. The percentage increase changes from category to category, but people under 35 have more smartphones, use social networks more, get their news online, subscribe to premium video content... generally, spend much more time online than people over 35. But that 35 year old mark is the key; people who were born after 1975 who essentially grew up in an era when computers of some sort were always in the home. (As points of reference, both the Atari video game system and the TRS-80 computer were released in 1977.)
By extrapolation, this suggests that both webcomic creators and webcomic audiences tend to be in the under-35 bracket as well. Looking around online in a decidedly anecdotal manner, that seems to bear out. There are certainly some creators and readers who are over 35; some of the more popular creators have even broken into their 40s but they’re also generally the ones who’ve been doing webcomics for several years now. The points being, though, that targeting an older demographic with a webcomic is going to make for an uphill climb and that webcomic subject matter focusing on computers and gaming is not at all unexpected.
More significant in the McKinsey report, however, are the data trends regarding mobile devices. (The report cites that they are including smartphones and tablets in their “mobile device” category.) Again, using age 35 as a cut-off, younger users spend three times as much time online on their mobile devices, and significantly greater percentage of time using their mobile devices over a traditional PC. That goes for every category: social networking, music, web browsing, games, email and video.
We’re looking at relatively common sense findings once again -- that younger people use mobile devices more than older people -- but the numbers are noteworthy and put the notion well beyond anecdotal evidence. But also worth pointing out are the breakdowns of how PCs and mobile devices are actually used, as a percentage of users’ time.
Older people, we find, use their PCs primarily for “traditional” computing activities: email and web browsing. Youths split their usage much more evenly, with the exception of email which is shown in all the charts as the least important to them. Their connections with people seem to be more broad-based -- they’re basically using a device (often, a phone) that was originally designed for individualized communication well beyond those original limits. Older people, by contrast, continue using phones primarily for one-to-one communications, whether that’s by voice or by email.
What does all that mean? I think the primary takeaway here, as it pertains to webcomics, is that the audience for them is largely device agnostic. That is, they want to see their content and don’t care where they are when they get it. They’re just as comfortable looking at their PC as their laptop as their tablet as their phone. Which means that a webcomic designed exclusively for a large screen monitor might prove to be frustrating to fans who want to see it on their mobile device while they’re travelling.
Now, McKinsey’s report here doesn’t tell people what to do with their findings, and that suggestion about keeping a more open format for webcomics is my takeaway from the report, keeping in mind that there are still some noticeable holes in their data. What was their methodology for getting this data, for example? Why, if they’re looking at mobile device usage, is text messaging completely ignored? Does “social networking” consist of making updates, checking others’ updates, or a combination of both? And, likely beyond the scope of this research, what social networking sites are being used and in what percentages?
But despite some of those holes, more data is a good thing and keeping abreast of trends in online usage as well as trends in pop culture generally can only help everyone.