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60% of the world is online — 10 insights on the state of the internet in 2021

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The new Digital 2021 April Global Statshot Report – published in partnership between Hootsuite and We Are Social – reveals that more than 6 in 10 people on Earth now use the internet.

Internet users have grown by more than 330 million over the past year, reaching a total of more than 4.7 billion at the start of April 2021.

That’s not the only big story in this quarter’s report though; we also cover:

  • a huge new milestone for social media growth;
  • fascinating insights into the world’s “favorite” social media platforms;
  • updated stats for worldwide TikTok use;
  • a closer look at social media motivations; and
  • fresh updates on the world’s evolving search behaviors.

Check out the video below for a quick summary of the top stories, then scroll down for the full report and my analysis of the latest essential trends.

Just before we dive into the data, I’d like to say a big thank you to the partners who make our Global Digital Reports possible: GWI, Statista, Semrush, Kenshoo, SimilarWeb, Locowise, and App Annie.

Full report

You’ll find the complete April 2021 Statshot report in the SlideShare embed below (click here if that’s not working for you), but read on past that to understand what all these numbers mean for you.

1. The state of digital in April 2021

Let’s start with a look at the latest global digital headlines:

  • The world’s population stood at 7.85 billion at the start of April 2021, which is roughly 1% higher than the figure for the same time last year.
  • There are 5.27 billion unique mobile users around the world, which means that more than two-thirds of all the people on Earth now have a mobile phone.
  • Internet users have grown by 7.6% over the past year to reach 4.72 billion, which equates to more than 60% of the world’s total population.
  • More than half a billion new users joined social media platforms over the past 12 months, taking the global total to 4.33 billion by April 2021.

There’s plenty of nuance behind these numbers though, so let’s dig deeper into some of this quarter’s essential trends.

2. Internet adoption passes 60% of the world’s population

Kepios analysis reveals that more than 6 in 10 people around the world are now online, with over 4.72 billion people using the internet in April 2021.

The latest reports indicate that internet users have grown by 332 million over the past 12 months, equating to a year-on-year increase of 7.6%.

However, COVID-19 continues to limit research into internet use around the world, so the actual total may well be higher than these figures suggest.

Indeed, as we’ll explore in more detail in the next section, social media user numbers have grown considerably more quickly than internet users have over the same period.

This is partly due to the fact that it’s relatively straightforward for social media companies to report accurate, up-to-date user numbers, because they can simply collect this data directly from activity on their own platforms.

Conversely, research into internet adoption still requires face-to-face interviews, because even a phone-based interview would skew findings in favor of those people who already have the technology required to access the internet.

It’s also worth noting that social media continues to be a key driver for broader internet adoption, and the latest research from GWI indicates that almost 99% of global internet users aged 16 to 64 use a social network or internet-powered messaging platform each month.

So, given the rapid growth in global social media users, it’s quite possible that internet users have also been growing more quickly than the latest reports into internet use suggest.

We’ve still seen strong growth in internet use over the past year though, with the latest data suggesting an average increase of more than 900,000 users per day, or 10½ new users every second. 

However, levels of internet adoption continue to vary meaningfully around the world.

More than 9 in 10 people across Northern and Western Europe and Northern America use the internet today, but more than 3 in 4 people across Eastern Africa remain unconnected.

Internet adoption also remains relatively low across Southern Asia, which is home to the world’s largest unconnected population.

More than 1 billion people remain unconnected across just three countries in the region – India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – and our analysis reveals that women make up the majority of these unconnected populations.

But despite these relatively low levels of adoption, Southern Asia is still home to more than twice as many internet users as Northern America.

For context, just 6.3% of the world’s internet users live in the United States, compared with more than 13% in India, and 21% in China.

So, in order to understand what the wider world is really doing online, it’s essential to look beyond the behaviors of internet users in developed economies.

And in fact, as we’ll see in various instances throughout this quarter’s analysis, it’s the users in the world’s less developed economies that are driving many of today’s most exciting internet trends.

3. Social media adoption accelerates again

One of the big surprises in this quarter’s data is that social media adoption continues to accelerate, despite the rapid pace of growth we’ve been reporting since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kepios analysis suggests that there are more than half a billionmore social media users in the world today than there were this time last year, representing year-on-year growth of close to 14%.

To put those figures in context, the number of social media users has increased by an average of more than 1.4 million each day over the past 12 months – that’s equal to 16½ new users every single second.

This rapid growth has propelled the global total to 4.33 billion, which equates to more than 55% of the world’s total population.

That total is also 3% higher than the figure we reported just 3 months ago, meaning that social media user numbers grew twice as fast in the first quarter of 2021 than they did over the previous three months.

China added 85 million new social media users over the past 12 months, equating to roughly 1 in 6 of the world’s new users during that period, while India, Indonesia, and Brazil also added significant numbers of new users to their local totals.

4. WhatsApp is the world’s ‘favorite’ social platform

GWI recently added a series of new social media questions to its survey, and one of these questions asks respondents to identify their ‘favorite’ social platform.

Just before we examine this data in detail, it’s important to highlight that we’ve removed China from the dataset that informs the ‘favorite social media platform’ charts in our reports.

Users in China are currently unable to access the same social media platforms as the rest of the world, so including data for China would potentially skew the global results.

Similarly, note that YouTube is not currently included in the list of social media platforms that respondents to GWI’s survey can choose from, so it won’t appear in any of these rankings (note: GWI classifies YouTube as a video platform, rather than as a social media platform). 

It’s also important to stress that answers to this question will be highly subjective, and different survey respondents may use different criteria to determine their ‘favorite’ platform. 

But that doesn’t detract in any way from the value of this data.

Around the world (excluding China), almost a quarter (24.1%) of internet users aged 16 to 64 say that WhatsApp is their favorite social media platform.

Facebook comes in second in the current ranking, with almost 22% of respondents choosing this option, while Instagram ranks third, with 18.4%.

Overall, Facebook’s four main platforms account for more than two-thirds (67.9%) of global favorites outside of China.

Perhaps surprisingly, Twitter ranks fourth at a worldwide level, although fewer than 5% of respondents chose this option.

The fact that Twitter ranks higher than TikTok may raise a few eyebrows, but it’s important to remember that GWI’s survey only covers users between the ages of 16 and 64.

Indeed, GWI’s data clearly shows that preferences vary meaningfully by age and gender, even within that 16-64 age group.

However, despite these variations, one of Facebook’s platforms is still the top choice across all demographic groups.

As we’ll explore in more detail later in this analysis, these findings reinforce the hypothesis that user numbers aren’t always the best measure of social media opportunity.

But in order to make better sense of these rankings, let’s take a closer look at the reasons why people use social media.

5. ‘Socializing’ still tops social motivations, but behaviors are evolving

Overall, “staying in touch with friends and family” is the top motivation for social media use at a global level, with roughly half of all respondents saying that this is one of the primary reasons why they visit social platforms (note that respondents can choose more than one option).

However, it’s interesting to note that news and entertainment are also important drivers for social media use, with more than 1 in 3 users around the world saying that these are amongst their top motivations.

More than a quarter of internet users aged 16 to 64 also say that they turn to social media to find inspiration for things to do or buy, while 26.5% say that they visit social platforms specifically to find products to purchase.

Marketers may also be surprised to learn that people are more likely to cite “seeing content from [their] favorite brands” as a top motivation for using social media than they are to cite “following celebrities or influencers” (23.4% vs. 20.9%) – we’ll explore this in more detail in a moment.

Looking beyond people’s primary motivations though, it’s increasingly clear that social media is a top destination for entertainment.

More than 4 in 5 internet users aged 16 to 64 say that they visit social platforms to find funny or entertaining content, and more people visit social networks like Facebook and TikTok to find entertainment than they do to message friends and family (however, note that this specific datapoint doesn’t include messenger platforms like WhatsApp or Telegram).

Overall, people say that they now actively use or visit an average of more than 6 social media platforms each month.

But which platforms attract the largest audiences?

6. The world’s most active social platforms

WhatsApp may be the world’s ‘favorite’ social media platform, but Facebook still claims the world’s largest active user base.

The latest data show that Facebook now attracts almost 2.8 billion monthly active users, which is 57 million more than it attracted just three months ago.

The available data indicate that YouTube has the second largest active user base in the world, with Google’s planning tools reporting that advertisers can now reach almost 2.3 billion users on the platform each month.

However, these figures only represent logged-in users in a selection of countries, and Kepios analysis suggests that total monthly visitors across YouTube’s mobile app and website (including non-logged-in users) will likely be much higher.

‘Official’ data put WhatsApp in third place in our latest ranking, with the company’s most recent statement on user numbers (from February 2020) revealing that the messenger platform attracts at least 2 billion monthly active users.

Once again though, Kepios analysis suggests that the number of monthly active WhatsApp accounts may be much higher than this, with our calculations putting that figure somewhere around the 2.6 billion mark.

However, because WhatsApp accounts are tied to a phone number rather than user profiles, there’s a good chance that this figure includes a number of ‘secondary’ accounts operated by the same individual, especially when it comes to business accounts.

For context, many people around the world use more than one mobile device (e.g. one for personal use and one for work purposes), and data from GSMA Intelligence suggests that the typical global mobile user now operates an average of 1½ mobile connections.

Over recent days, a number of media outlets have referenced a ‘leaked’ Bytedance document which reveals that TikTok users have now grown to 732 million, indicating that the platform has added at least 40 million new users since August 2020.

However, this figure does not include users of Douyin (Bytedance’s version of TikTok for the mainland Chinese market), which some people might argue is technically the same platform.

Bytedance only publishes daily active user figures for Douyin, with the latest statements revealing that 600 million people in China use the platform each day.

This suggests that TikTok and Douyin now have a larger combined audience than either Instagram or WeChat.

Looking more broadly, at least 17 social media platforms now have at least 300 million monthly active users.

However, with LinkedIn not publishing MAU data since it was acquired by Microsoft back in 2016, it’s unclear whether the platform would qualify for this list (for reference, the figure that we report for LinkedIn’s advertising audience is based on total registered members, not monthly active users).

These monthly active user figures are an important gauge of a platform’s potential, but monthly active user numbers can also become a distraction for marketers.

For example, as I noted above, the typical social media user says that they actively use more than 6 social media platforms each month, and many of these platforms will see significant audience overlaps.

But just how big are those overlaps?

The simple answer: big.

7. Social media audience overlaps

When it comes to users aged 16 to 64 outside of China, GWI’s data reveals that barely 1% of social media users are unique to any one platform.

Moreover, for many platforms, that figure is much, much lower.

GWI’s data indicates that YouTube has the largest ‘unique’ audience, but even then, just 1% of YouTube users aged 16 to 64 say that they don’t visit any other social platform.

That figure drops to 0.7% for Facebook and 0.2% for LinkedIn, but for many of the smaller platforms, the numbers are even lower still.

Just 1 in every 1,000 users of Instagram and TikTok between the ages of 16 and 64 say that they don’t use any other social platforms, while the latest data suggest that all Snapchat users in this demographic are also active users of at least one other social platform.

Meanwhile, the data for individual platform overlaps also make for interesting reading.

For example, roughly 86% of TikTok users between the ages of 16 and 64 say that they also use Facebook, while 55% of Instagram users in the same age group say that they also use Twitter.

But – aside from providing interesting trivia – what does this data actually tell us?

For marketers, the easy answer is that usagecontext and motivations likely matter far more than user numbers alone.

Yes, reach is important, but with most people using a wide variety of social platforms each month, it’s important to remember that marketers have various options for achieving that reach.

And with most brands relying heavily on paid media to achieve meaningful reach in social media, these findings highlight the potential benefits of adopting a more varied social platform mix.

Critically, brands don’t need to maintain a regular organic presence on social channels in order to take advantage of their paid media placements.

So, my advice would be to re-explore the various ad formats offered by each platform – together with their associated CPM and CPA values – in order to identify the most efficient and effective ways to deliver your message to your audience.

But it’s worth stressing that brands’ social media opportunity isn’t limited to advertising.

The world’s internet users are also increasingly turning to social media to research products and services that they’re thinking of buying.

8. Evolving search behaviors

We’ve been tracking the world’s evolving search behaviors for a few quarters now, and the latest data show that ever more people are going beyond conventional search engines to find information about brands.

GWI’s data suggests that more than 7 in 10 internet users now use or visit some form of social platform or tool when looking for information about the things they’re interested in buying, with almost 45% saying that they visit social networks like Facebook for this specific purpose.

The figure for brand research on social networks is even higher amongst younger age groups though, with nearly 54% of women aged 16 to 24 saying that they visit social networks when looking for information about products and services.

This drops to just below 30% for users over the age of 55, but that still represents a large and compelling opportunity for marketers.

Looking beyond social media, the use of voice interfaces continues to grow, with GWI’s latest data showing meaningful increases – even since our January report.

Globally, nearly 47% of internet users aged 16 to 64 say that they used voice commands or voice search on any device in the past month, but that figure rises to almost 60% in India.

Similar to the pattern we saw for search on social networks, it’s younger internet users who are driving this trend, with well over 50% of internet users below the age of 35 saying that they’ve used voice interfaces in the past 30 days.

It’s also worth reiterating that the majority of voice searches take place on smartphones, so don’t restrict your voice-related activities to ‘smart speaker’ devices like Amazon’s Alexa.

Meanwhile, more than a third of internet users also say that they’ve used image recognition tools such as Pinterest Lens on their phone in the past month.

The use of these tools is considerably higher across Latin America and Southeast Asia though, with roughly 6 in 10 respondents in Mexico and Brazil saying they’ve used one in the past month.

Once again, use of search ‘lenses’ varies meaningfully by age: users aged 16 to 24 are almost twice as likely to be regular users of image recognition tools as users aged 55 to 64 are.

But the more important story lies in geographic trends.

Across all three of these new search behaviors – use of social search, voice interfaces, and image recognition tools – it’s users in developing economies that have been the quickest to embrace new technologies and approaches.

Critically, internet users in these regions already outnumber users in more developed economies by a factor of 2 to 1.

As a result, there’s a good chance that the relentless quest for ‘economies of scale’ will result in platforms pushing these tools more actively to users in Western markets over the coming months.

9. The role of influencers

Another of the interesting new charts in this quarter’s report explores the types of accounts that people follow on social media.

Friends and family come out top, but – perhaps surprisingly – fewer than half of all respondents selected this option.

Entertainment-related accounts occupy the next few places in the ranking, with more than a quarter of respondents saying they follow actors, TV shows, meme accounts, and musicians.

B2B marketers may be interested to learn that roughly one-fifth of all internet users aged 16 to 64 say that they follow companies that are relevant to their work.

It’s unlikely that all of these people will work in procurement or ‘partner relations’ roles though, so B2B marketers may want to think more broadly about how to tap into the potential of these broader audiences.

For example, how might you harness employees outside of your core target audience to influence the opinions and attitudes of their colleagues who work in purchase-related functions?

Meanwhile, all marketers may be interested to learn that people are more likely to follow companies and brands that they’re thinking of purchasing from than they are to follow influencers and other experts.

The gap between these two categories is admittedly very small – 21.6% versus 21.3 – but this finding should still be an important consideration when it comes to building an overall social media plan.

In particular, people appear to be just as keen to hear directly from brands as they are to hear from influential third parties.

However, the number of people following influencers varies considerably by geography.

For example, more than half of all internet users in the Philippines say that they follow influencers, but that figure drops to less than 7% in Russia.

Similarly – and as is so often the case when it comes to digital behaviors – the role of influencers also varies meaningfully by demographic.

Overall, women are more likely to follow influencers than men are, although it’s interesting to note that this finding is reversed amongst Baby Boomers.

Younger people are also more likely to follow influencers than their parents’ generation, with women aged 16 to 24 more than 3 times as likely to follow influencers as women aged 55 to 64 are.

And while we’re on the subject of influencers, it’s worth taking a quick look at vlogs (i.e. blogs delivered in a video format) too.

Around the world, more than half (51.7%) of internet users aged 16 to 64 say that they watched a vlog in the past month, but there are significant disparities between countries.

Nearly 9 in 10 internet users in the Philippines are regular vlog viewers, but in Japan, that figure drops to fewer than 1 in 10.

These figures have been rising steadily over recent months though, and the data clearly shows that vlogs are an increasingly popular form of entertainment.

Vlogs are also an important consideration for marketers, with roughly 1 in 7 internet users saying that they actively turn to vlogs when researching products and services that they’re interested in buying.

10. Don’t get distracted by shiny new toys

Marketers love to experiment with the latest digital innovations, but it’s important to remember that many of our existing tools continue to offer powerful opportunities.

For example, media reports of email’s demise have largely exaggerated its fate.

The latest data show that roughly 4 in 5 internet users still use a webmail service (e.g. Gmail) every month, with only China and Japan seeing usage rates below 75%.

Even more tellingly, usage remains relatively consistent across different demographic groups, with more than three-quarters of global internet users across all ages and genders saying that they’ve used a webmail service in the past 30 days.

In a similar vein, Yahoo! continues to rank amongst the world’s 20 most visited websites, despite having been around since the last century (gasp!).

Indeed, the latest data from Semrush shows that Yahoo! attracted more than half a billion unique users to its website in March 2021, suggesting that Yahoo! still has a larger active user base than Snapchat.

Even Hotmail continued to rank in the world’s top 20 Google searches during the first three months of this year, despite Microsoft migrating the service to Outlook.com back in 2018.

The key takeaway here is that many of our audiences continue to use old favorites, even as new services compete for their attention and affection.

Remember: it’s called a marketing mix for a reason.

Most digital opportunities are an addition rather than a replacement, so don’t abandon platforms and activities that are working for your brand, simply because a new kid arrives on the block.

Digging deeper

There are loads more great insights packed into the 200 slides of this quarter’s Statshot, so be sure to dig into our complete suite of analyses to learn more.

Stories to look out for include:

  • impressive growth in the advertising audiences of various social media platforms, with Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter all seeing sizeable quarter-on-quarter increases;
  • data exploring the popularity of podcasts around the world, with the surprising finding that podcasts see higher adoption in developing markets like Indonesia and India than they do in the US and Europe;
  • some intriguing trends in mobile app download data from App Annie that highlights the surging popularity of messengers like Telegram and Signal;
  • great insights into the latest ecommerce and online payment trends from Contentsquare and Worldpay; and
  • the latest trends in global digital ad spend from Kenshoo, including a big year-on-year jump in paid search spend.

Don’t forget that you can always dig into all of our previous reports too – along with our complete collection of local country reports – over on DataReportal.com.

That’s all for this quarter though; I’ll be back with all the freshest insights from the next three months in our July report.

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