1 in 5 UK adults have never used the internet

I’m just back from speaking at the BBC’s Open Access Forum – a meeting of the multiple organisations involved in driving or facilitating internet adoption in the UK – from the BBC, BT and Google to mentors from local grass-roots initiatives.

The event was introduced by Mark Thompson and hosted by Gavin Esler, who could teach some qualitative researchers a thing or two with his ability to effortlessly engage with a very wide range of people and to know his subject matter inside-out.

We were commissioned by the BBC to conduct some extensive qualitative research among non-users and recent adopters of the internet which, along with quantitative work from Ipsos Mori, formed the basis of a BBC Research report, Encouraging Home Broadband Adoption, that is published today. The research findings were delivered to the forum by way of a fantastic short film, conceived and commissioned by us. (Sadly we can’t show it here as it contains real research participants, and the MRS rightly takes a rather dim view of that sort of thing.)

But here are some of the key findings:

More than 10m UK adults have never used the internet. This is around 1 in 5 of all UK adults. Just take a moment to think about that. 1 in 5 adults in the UK have never used the internet.

As you might expect, this audience is notably older than the UK average, and heavily skewed towards lower socio-economic groups, but stereotypes are unhelpful here: 14% are aged 15-34 and 33% are in the ABC1 social groups.

Ostensibly the challenge is extremely tough: 82% say they are unlikely to get the internet and 81% say they know little or nothing about it.

But the research shows that much of this apparent rejection is driven by uncertainty about what the internet is and what it can do, and considerable fear and bafflement about computers. We found that with time, explanation and reassurance it is possible to engage and inspire the majority of non-users, focusing on benefits (as opposed to websites) that mean something to them: the ability to look at photos of your grandchildren or to save money on holiday bookings.

Years and years of marketing messages about the internet and online services have almost entirely failed to cut through, as this audience tends to filter these messages out, believing them to be aimed at someone else, or offering benefits that are not accessible to them.

“Encouraging home broadband adoption” is not going to be a walk in the park but there is a sizeable audience out there that is available to be converted. And that news helped to get today off to a positive start.

Another key message is that non users are not a big homogenous group. (After all, they are one in five adults.) One slight reservation I have after today’s session is that a lot of the focus was on social exclusion, despite the fact that many of those who do not use the internet have more varied and more socially active lives than those of us who work 50+ hours a week in a busy office (whatever our Facebook pages might suggest.)

We heard from Martha Lane-Fox in her capacity as Champion For Digital Inclusion, charged with bringing the benefits of internet connection to the 4 million UK adults who live in the hardest social and economic conditions. This is important work with the potential to enrich people’s lives, and this was underlined by some of the testimonies we heard today.

But with all the media coverage of Martha Lane-Fox’s role and her Race Online 2012 initiative, it’s important we don’t forget that there are another 6.5m non internet users who are not ‘socially excluded’ at all. They are just a bit scared of computers, or simply don’t know what a web browser is.

Our research shows that there are real opportunities to help this audience to get online and to reap the benefits.

I just hope that when this activity kicks off, it doesn’t equate internet confusion with social exclusion.

Stuart

See also: BBC Online controller Seetha Kumar’s blog post from earlier today on Digital Inclusion

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