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Paying for Online Content as Popular as Ecommerce

Two-thirds of web users have paid for digital content

January 3, 2011

Publishers still struggling with the choices involved in monetizing their content may have some good news about paid models: According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 65% of online Americans have paid for intangible digital content over the web. That’s just under the 66% who told Pew earlier in 2010 they had made an ecommerce purchase of physical goods.

The most popular online content for purchase were music and software, with 33% of respondents reporting they had paid for each. For the most part, men and women had similar purchasing habits, except that men were more likely to purchase software online. Larger differences existed between age groups; more adults ages 18 to 49 purchased each content type other than news than did those over 50.

US Internet Users Who Have Purchased Online Content, by Type, Nov 2010 (% of respondents)

“When you hear that 65% of US internet users pay for online content, the number sounds impressive,” said Paul Verna, eMarketer senior analyst. “But when you drill down into the data, you find that this aggregate number is spread out among a broad base of content types that includes everything from music, software and apps to movies, ebooks and game cheats. No single category in the survey had a paying user base of more than 33%, and relatively few respondents have paid for more than three types of content. This means that content owners still have an uphill climb as they transition their businesses from physical products to digital media.”

The oldest adults, seniors over 65, were most likely to fall into the group that had never purchased any type of online content, followed by their younger-boomer counterparts.

Demographic Profile of US Internet Users Who Don't Purchase Online Content, Nov 2010 (% of respondents in each group)

The average respondent spent about $10 per month on digital content. Asked whether they had accessed digital content via subscriptions, individual downloads or streaming, internet users indicated subscriptions were the most popular model, at 23%. Two-thirds of respondents had only used a single payment method to access content.

“These findings put paid content on an equal footing with tangible goods and travel services—both of which also have online paying user bases of two-thirds of internet users,” said Verna. “This is a good barometer of online commerce overall, but it leaves content owners with the same quandary they’ve been facing for years: how to convert more people to paying customers in the digital domain. When they figure this out, we’ll start seeing mass-market numbers in surveys such as Pew’s.”

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Check out today’s other article, “Online Ad Spending Set to Break Records.”


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