Study: Facebook changing the way people communicate

January 14th, 2011 by Chris Hogg Leave a reply »

Facebook in a computer lab. - Photo by Sarah Houghton-Jan

As media, marketers and PR professionals work to understand more about how content consumption habits are changing in digital media, Facebook has continued to emerge as a dominant player.

The social network says it boasts a membership of more than 500 million active members, 50 percent of whom log-in each day. The average user creates 90 pieces of content each month, and the average user is connected to 80 community pages, groups and events.

As Facebook grows, its footprint as a platform for content discovery grows with it and according to a study (PDF) published by Abacus Data, widespread Facebook usage in Canada is changing how citizens consume content and learn about news around them.

The Ottawa-based market research firm says nearly 75 percent of Canadians now maintain a Facebook account, and while more than 90 percent of millennials (those aged 18-29) have a Facebook account, well over half of adults 60 and up do as well.

According to the study, about 60 percent of people older than 60 identify themselves as Facebook users; nearly 70 percent of people between the ages of 45 and 59 say their on Facebook; almost 80 percent of those aged 33 to 44 are on the social network; and 91 percent of millennials have a Facebook account.

“It’s very common to hear of a generational gap in social media use, but these results show that that gap is more of a gradient – the real gap is in how the different generations use social media,” Alex Monk, a strategist at Abacus Data and author of the report, said in a news release. “Membership is one thing, but the critical data is how people use their Facebook accounts.”

The study says the younger the person, the more likely they are to use Facebook often. To investigate how different generations use Facebook, researchers conducted an online survey with 1,362 Canadians in December 2010 and asked them how they were most likely to hear about a newsworthy or important event within their circle of friends. Results showed Facebook is a primary source of news discovery.

“Nearly half of millennials first hear about noteworthy events within their social circles via Facebook, while only 13 percent hear by phone and 8 percent by email,” said Monk. “That’s what makes the millennial generation so different from the others.”

In contrast, more than 50 percent of people ages 45 to 59 and those over 60 were most likely to hear about a noteworthy event within their circle of friends by phone. That said, older generations are not cut off from technology as a means of communication, as nearly 30 percent of respondents older than 60 said they were most likely to hear of noteworthy events via email.

How people hear about a newsworthy event. - Image courtesy Abacus Data

Brand advocates and marketers are flocking to Facebook because of its active user base, especially among younger generations. Businesses are creating content just to be shared via the social network, communication between brands and customers is more transparent and studies show millennials prefer to interact with brands in a digital space.

Citing forecasts from eMarketer, RICG says, “Businesses are expected to spend $1.7 billion on Facebook marketing in 2011, an increase of $500 million over 2010.”

To understand more about who uses Facebook, Abacus researchers also looked into background information such as level of education, geography and age. “One may hypothesize that Facebook is used nearly exclusively by young people and students, as its origins can be traced to university and college campuses,” the study notes. “However, the idea of student-exclusive use quickly evaporates when membership is broken down by level of education.”

The survey showed 70 percent of people with post-graduate or higher education use Facebook; 78 percent of those with a Bachelor’s degree are on the social network; and 76 percent of those with “some” university or college are on Facebook:

In Canada, Facebook use by geography breaks down fairly evenly across the country. Atlantic Canada sees the highest level of Facebook users at 80 percent of the population. Other provinces break down as follows: Quebec (75%), Ontario (72%), Central Canada (69%), Alberta (74%) and British Columbia (75%).

Abacus Data says the key difference between older generations and millennials with Facebook is usage patterns. ”It’s one thing to have a Facebook account, but another to use it,” the study notes.

Researchers say millennials are much more involved in Facebook, with 50 percent checking their account multiple times per day and more than 80 percent checking at least once daily. Among 30- to 44-year-olds, 67 percent check daily, while 58 percent of those aged 45-59 and 50 percent of people older than 60 checking daily.

How often people check Facebook. - Image courtesy Abacus Data

Looking further into usage patterns, researchers asked respondents four statements about sharing information online to see how their usage and behaviour differs. The statements were: “Sharing any kind of personal information online is too much of a risk for me”; “I share selected personal information with my family and friends via Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or a personal website”; “I readily share information. I am not concerned with privacy risks, as only my friends want to see what I share online”; and “I don’t use the internet for personal networking or social reasons.”

The trend with milliennials continued, as they were most likely to share information and most likely to be using social media. Older generations said they were not as likely to use social media and more likely to believe sharing information online is too risky. Researchers say this could be indicative of a fundamental, generational attitude difference.

“Among other things, sharing information online can be a sign of comfort with the Internet as a social medium, or as an acceptance of social networking as a means of keeping in touch with friends on a regular basis,” the study says.

Out of those surveyed, 75 percent of millennials share some info online, as they’re more comfortable with technology and Facebook is widely seen as just another natural means of communication.

The study concludes by saying: “A gap does exist between millennials and other generations, but not in the simple use of the Internet or other modern technologies. The use of Facebook as a natural extension for social communication is where a generational gap becomes evident. The prevalence of email use and Facebook membership among older generations suggests that they are active on the Internet; they communicate and share information via email. Real penetration of Facebook as a means of relaying meaningful information within a social circle, however, still seems to rest with millennials.”

[Cross-posted to Future of Media]

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