Digital 2021: Global Overview Report

Close to half a billion new social media users. 1.3 billion years spent using the internet. Trillions of dollars spent on ecommerce.

If you’re looking for the latest digital insights and social media stats, you’ll find them all here.

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Start by making sense of the essential headlines and trends in this video presentation, and then read on below that for the full report, and our complete analysis of this year’s top findings.

Our new Digital 2021 reports series – published in partnership between We Are Social and Hootsuite – shows that connected tech became an even more essential part of people’s lives over the past year, with social media, ecommerce, streaming content, and video games all seeing significant growth in the past 12 months.

COVID-19 also introduced a new set of challenges and opportunities though, so digital in 2021 will be anything but ‘business as usual’. 

Global Digital Overview January 2021 DataReportal

Some of the key themes to look for in this year’s reports include:

  • Changes in how people search for information and brands;

  • The evolving demographics of online audiences;

  • The rapidly growing importance of ecommerce;

  • Why mobile is essential, but not the only answer; and

  • Why we need to change the metrics that guide our social media ‘mix’.

Just before we get stuck into the numbers, I’d like to say a very big thank you to all of the data partners and providers who’ve made this year’s reports possible, especially:

Before we begin: important notes on changes to our methodology

To ensure we can report the most accurate data, we’ve made important changes to the ways we calculate and talk about some of our numbers. 

We’ve explained these changes in the footnotes of each relevant chart within the report, but I’d like to highlight two of those changes here:

  • Social media users: the figures we publish for social media users may not represent unique individuals. This is because some social media accounts may represent animals, businesses, places, and various other kinds of ‘non-human’ entities, while some people may also manage more than one social media account on the same platform. As a result, we’ve changed the way we talk about social media user numbers to make it clear that the figures may not represent “people.” We’ve also changed the source we use for social media users in China, which has resulted in some changes to historical figures, including global totals.

  • Internet user numbers: with a handful of exceptions where no other data is available, we’ve stopped using data sourced from social media platforms to inform our internet user numbers. This is to ensure that those duplicate and ‘non-human’ social media accounts don’t artificially inflate internet adoption figures. Because of this change, the internet user numbers that you’ll see in this year’s report are not comparable to the numbers we published in previous years, and for many countries, this year’s internet users number will appear lower than the figures we published last year. However, in most cases, this does not mean that internet users have actually dropped. We’ve been able to re-calculate internet user figures for last year based on the same sources we’ve used this year, so the annual and quarterly growth figures we’ve included in this year’s reports accurately reflect how much internet user numbers have changed over time. Please refer to these published growth figures whenever you want to compare changes over time.


The full Digital 2021 global report

You’ll find our complete Digital 2021 Global Overview Report in the SlideShare embed below (click here if that’s not working for you), but read on below for my detailed analysis of this year’s top headlines and trends.

Essential headlines

Here are the headline stats and trends for the global ‘State of Digital’ in January 2021:

  • Population: the world’s population stood at 7.83 billion at the start of 2021. The United Nations reports that this figure is currently growing by 1 percent per year, which means that the global total has increased by more than 80 million people since the start of 2020.

  • Mobile: 5.22 billion people use a mobile phone today, equating to 66.6 percent of the world’s total population. Unique mobile users have grown by 1.8 percent (93 million) since January 2020, while the total number of mobile connections has increased by 72 million (0.9 percent) to reach a total of 8.02 billion at the start of 2021.

  • Internet: 4.66 billion people around the world use the internet in January 2021, up by 316 million (7.3 percent) since this time last year. Global internet penetration now stands at 59.5 percent.

  • Social media: there are now 4.20 billion social media users around the world. This figure has grown by 490 million over the past 12 months, delivering year-on-year growth of more than 13 percent. The number of social media users is now equivalent to more than 53 percent of the world’s total population.

Annual Global Digital Growth January 2021 DataReportal

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Despite these impressive figures, it’s worth noting that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted research into internet use around the world, so many countries have been unable to provide updates to internet user numbers in the past 12 months.

As a result, internet user numbers have likely grown more than the reported 7 percent, and we may see ‘corrections’ to these figures once everyday life (and research) can return to normal. 

But beyond tasty trivia, what does all this data tell us about what people are actually doing online?

Let’s dig into the full report to find out.

[Side note: just like last year, my review of this year’s key trends is a bit of a monster – more than 9,000 words – so you might want to grab yourself a coffee and get comfortable first.]

Get the full picture: read all of this year's Digital 2021 reports by clicking here, and compare trends over time by reading older reports in our complete library.

Social media adoption surges

As we’ve been tracking in our ongoing series of quarterly Statshot reports, social media growth has accelerated significantly since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Social media user numbers increased by more than 13 percent over the past year, with nearly half a billion new users taking the global user total to almost 4.2 billion by the start of 2021.

On average, more than 1.3 million new users joined social media every day during 2020, equating to roughly 15½ new users every single second.

Social Media Overview January 2021 DataReportal

Our analysis shows that the number of global social media users has more than doubled since January 2016, while more than 1 billion new users have been added to the global total in the past 3 years alone.

Social Media Users Over Time January 2021 DataReportal

Despite significant changes in digital behaviours due to COVID-19, people say that they’re spending roughly the same amount of time each day on social media today as they did this time last year.

However, GWI data does show that the daily average has increased by more than half an hour over the past 5 years.

The typical user now spends 2 hours and 25 minutes on social media each day, equating to roughly one full waking day of their life each week.

Evolution of Daily Time Spent Using Social Media January 2021 DataReportal

Added together, the world’s social media users will spend a total of 3.7 trillion hours on social media in 2021 – equivalent to more than 420 million years of combined human existence.

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As we’ve seen in previous years though, there are significant differences between countries.

Filipinos are still the world’s biggest consumers of social media, spending an average of 4 hours and 15 minutes per day using social platforms – a full half an hour more than second-placed Colombians.

At the other end of the scale, users in Japan say they spend less than an hour a day on social media, although this year’s figure of 51 minutes is still 13 percent higher than Japanese users reported spending on social channels this time last year.

Daily Time Spent Using Social Media by Country January 2021 DataReportal

Mobiles have become the ‘first’ screen

The latest data from GSMA Intelligence shows that two-thirds of the world’s total population uses a mobile phone today.

This figure has remained steady for the past few years, but that’s perhaps not surprising when we consider that the world’s 5.2 billion mobile users equate to more than 85 percent of all the people on Earth aged 13 and above.

Mobile Users vs. Mobile Connections January 2021 DataReportal

But mobile’s dominance isn’t just about user numbers; it’s also about time spent, and how that compares to other devices. 

Data from App Annie shows that Android users around the world now spend more than 4 hours each day using their phones.

In total, that means Android users spent more than 3.5 trillion cumulative hours using their phones over the past 12 months.

Share of Time Spent in Mobile Apps by Category January 2021 DataReportal

And perhaps more tellingly, App Annie’s flagship State of Mobile 2021 report also reveals that mobiles now account for a greater amount of people’s time than live TV. 

This is the case even in the United States, where the average American now spends more than 4 hours per day using their mobile phone, compared to roughly 3¾ hours each day watching live TV.

GWI reports similar findings, with the company’s latest research finding that a typical global internet user now spends 3 hours and 39 minutes each day using the internet on their mobile phone. 

This compares to a total of 3 hours and 24 minutes per day watching television, but it’s worth noting that people are increasingly watching “TV” content via streaming apps on their mobile devices too.

However, mobile devices only account for about half of our daily internet time.

Daily Time Spent With Media January 2021 DataReportal

Online time jumps

In total, the average internet user now spends almost 7 hours per day using the internet across all devices, equating to more than 48 hours per week online – that’s a full two days out of a seven-day week.

Assuming that the average person sleeps for between 7 and 8 hours per day, this means that we now spend roughly 42 percent of our waking lives online, and that we spend almost as much time using the internet as we do sleeping.

The figures also show that people are spending more time online each day than they did in previous years. 

The latest findings from GWI show that the typical internet user spent 16 minutes longer online each day in Q3 2020 than they did in Q3 2019, representing a year-on-year increase of 4 percent.

Evolution of Daily Time Spent Using the Internet January 2021 DataReportal

If these rates continue throughout 2021, the world’s internet users will spend almost 12 trillion hours online this year, which translates to more than 1.3 billion years of combined human time.

However, as we saw in last year’s report, there’s significant variation in the amount of time that people in different countries spend online. 

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Filipinos report spending the greatest amount of time online, at an average of almost 11 hours per day.

Brazilians, Colombians, and South Africans also say they spend an average of more than 10 hours per day online.

At the other end of the scale, the Japanese report spending the least amount of time online, at less than 4½ hours per day. 

Interestingly, the figure for China also falls at the lower end of the spectrum, at just 5 hours and 22 minutes per day – 1½ hours less than the global average of 6 hours and 54 minutes.

Daily Time Spent Using the Internet by Country January 2021 DataReportal

A multi-device strategy is still essential

Mobile phones now account for roughly 53 percent of the time the world spends online, but the data clearly shows that other devices still play important roles in our connected lives.

Mobile's Share of Daily Internet Time January 2021 DataReportal

9 in 10 internet users say they go online via a smartphone, but two-thirds also say that they use a laptop or desktop computer to access the internet.

However, once again, things vary considerably by country. 

Mobiles are now the most widely used internet device in all countries, but the gap between mobiles and computers is often quite small, especially in Western Europe.

For example, 46 percent of Belgium’s internet users say that computers are their primary internet devices, compared to 49 percent for phones, and 5 percent for tablets.

Japan also sees relatively high computer use, with more than 4 in 10 internet users saying they prefer to go online via a laptop or desktop device.

The stage of a country’s economic development plays a role in shaping these ratios, but the median age of the population is also a critical driver.

As GWI reports, Baby Boomers are more likely to go online via computers and tablets than via phones, with mobile devices accounting for less than 50 percent of total internet time amongst users aged 45 and above.

Mobile's Share of Daily Internet Time by Age and Gender January 2021 DataReportal

Meanwhile, the latest data from StatCounter shows that computers still account for a meaningful share of the world’s web activity.

More than 40 percent of web pages served in December 2020 were requested by web browsers running on laptop and desktop devices, although the overall share of these devices is down slightly compared to December 2019.

Share of Global Web Traffic by Device January 2021 DataReportal

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The relative importance of different devices also varies considerably between countries.

StatCounter’s data shows that mobile phones account for more than 8 in 10 pages served to web browsers in Nigeria, but that figure drops to barely a quarter of web pages served to browsers in Russia.

Mobile's Share of Web Traffic by Country January 2021 DataReportal

It’s worth highlighting that web browsing only accounts for a small share of overall mobile time, with people spending far more time using mobile apps.

The latest data from App Annie reveals that native apps account for 92 percent of the time that the world’s Android users spend on their phones, while just 8 percent of that time is spent using mobile web browsers.

Mobile Time by Activity January 2021 DataReportal

So what does this mean for marketers?

One simple takeaway is that mobile is clearly an essential part of the mix, but we certainly can’t ignore other devices – especially in Western markets, or when we’re hoping to engage older audiences.

Online search behaviours are changing

Finding information is the main reason why people go online, with almost two-thirds of the world’s internet users saying this is one of their top motivations.

Reasons for Using the Internet January 2021 DataReportal

However, the latest research from GWI shows that the world’s search behaviours are evolving, and their changing behaviour has important consequences for anyone hoping to engage a digital audience.

Conventional search engines are still an essential part of the mix of course, with a massive 98 percent of respondents saying that they use a search engine every month.

However, more than 7 in 10 respondents also say that they now use at least one tool other than text-based search engines to find information online each month.

Online Search Behaviours January 2021 DataReportal

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Voice search

Voice interfaces are the most popular alternative to text-based search engines, with 45 percent of global internet users saying that they used voice search or voice commands in the past 30 days.

It’s important to stress that digital assistants on mobile phones, such as Siri and Google Assistant, account for the majority of this voice activity. 

Smart speakers represent an exciting opportunity, but barely 1 in 12 internet users around the world owns one of these devices today, so their potential is still limited outside of North America and Europe.

Use of Voice Search and Voice Commands January 2021 DataReportal

Image recognition tools

Almost a third of the world’s internet users also use image recognition tools on their mobiles each month, with tools such as Pinterest Lens and Google Lens seeing particularly strong adoption across Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Use of Image Recognition Tools on Mobile January 2021 DataReportal

Young women are the most likely to use an image as their search query, with GWI’s research showing that 4 in 10 female internet users aged 16 to 64 have used one of these tools in the past month.

Use of Image Recognition Tools on Mobile by Age and Gender January 2021 DataReportal

These tools represent a particularly interesting opportunity for ecommerce brands, especially those in highly aesthetic categories like fashion, beauty, and home furnishing – and even consumer electronics.

However, it’s easy to see how image recognition technology could also augment other internet-powered tools. 

For example, a curious diner might access a restaurant’s reviews by snapping a picture of the storefront while they’re standing outside, and using that photo as a search query.

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Social search

Perhaps the most interesting trend in evolving search behaviours is the rise of social search.

Roughly 45 percent of global internet users say that they turn to social networks at least once per month when looking for information about products or services that they’re thinking of buying.

Use of Social Media for Brand Research January 2021 DataReportal

However, that figure is considerably higher amongst younger age groups.

Indeed, Gen Z internet users are now more likely to start their brand research on social networks than they are to turn to a search engine, and trends suggest that this will soon be the case for younger Millennials too.

Primary Channels for Brand Research January 2021 DataReportal

Teach me, don’t tell me

Digging a bit deeper into online search activities, this year’s reports reveal that people are more likely to research “how to do things” on the internet than they are to look for information about specific brands, products, or services.

This finding has particular salience for marketers, because it offers valuable insights into the best ways to engage an audience.

For example, rather than merely telling people that your brand is the ideal solution for a particular problem, a ‘how-to’ video may be a more effective way of capturing their attention.

Teaching people how to get the best out of your products and services is a great way to add mutual value, improve satisfaction, and potentially boost contextual relevance and recall.

People are actively asking for this kind of content, too.

Research from GWI that we covered back in our Digital 2020 April Global Statshot Report found that people were actively seeking out more ‘how-to’ videos and tutorial content during COVID-19 lockdowns.

And while these findings may have been asked in the specific context of coping with the impact of coronavirus movement restrictions, the ongoing ‘motivations’ data that you’ll find on slide 48 of our Digital 2021 Global Overview Report confirm the enduring appeal of this kind of content.

COVID-19 Insights: Types of Content People Want April 2020 DataReportal

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Content collaboration and co-creation on the rise

Another interesting trend we’ve spotted in this year’s search data provides evidence of the rise of content collaboration, as well as third-party mashups and remixes.

For context, this trend has been particularly evident in the recent ‘Wellerman’ meme, where people across the world have joined forces for duets of popular sea shanties.

Already hugely popular on TikTok, these videos have found their way across to YouTube too, often in the form of curated collections or remixes of content that was originally published to TikTok.

However, data from Google Trends suggests that this kind of content ‘porting’ isn’t an entirely new phenomenon.

If we were to consider ‘Tik Tok’ and ‘TikTok’ (one query with a space, one without) as being essentially the same search, TikTok would have been the third most popular search term on YouTube across the whole of 2020.

Top YouTube Search Queries in 2020 January 2021 DataReportal

This latest ranking of YouTube queries also highlights the importance of music to the world’s second largest social platform.

In 2020, 13 of the 20 most popular search terms on YouTube related specifically to music, with 8 of those including some version of the word “song” (including equivalents in non-English languages).

Internet users’ enthusiasm for music isn’t restricted to YouTube either.

Google Trends’ ranking of the 20 most common search queries on Google throughout 2020 also features ‘MP3’ in fifteenth place, highlighting the enduring appeal of music downloads despite the rising popularity of music streaming.

Top Google Searches in 2020 January 2021 DataReportal

Music streaming is a clear winner too though, with App Annie’s State of Mobile 2021 report revealing that Spotify was the ninth most-used mobile app around the world in 2020.

Top Mobile Apps by Monthly Active Users in 2020 January 2021 DataReportal

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And while many musicians may have a different perspective, it’s clear that there’s money to be made in online music too, with Sirius XM’s Pandora ranking 10th in App Annie’s list of the top 10 mobile apps by consumer spend in 2020.

Top Mobile Apps by Consumer Spend in 2020 January 2021 DataReportal

Internet connection speeds accelerate

New data from Ookla shows that internet connection speeds accelerated rapidly over the past year, with average mobile speeds increasing by almost 50 percent compared to this time last year.

Around the world, the average mobile data connection now offers download speeds of more than 47 megabits per second, which is more than 15 megabits per second faster than the average we reported in our Digital 2020 report.

Internet Connection Speeds January 2021 DataReportal

The year-on-year pace of change for mobile connections accelerated by roughly 70 percent compared to last year’s figures, indicating that 5G is already delivering tangible benefits for the world’s mobile internet users.

GSMA Intelligence reports that more than 4 in 5 mobile users around the world now have a connection which is capable of delivering ‘broadband’ data speeds, although not all of these connections will include a data subscription.

Mobile Broadband Connectivity Over Time January 2021 DataReportal

The number of connections identified as “3G or above” grew by roughly 8 percent over the past year, although – once again – the figures vary considerably by geography.

Perhaps surprisingly, North Korea is one of just 4 countries where all mobile connections are 3G or above.

At the other end of the scale, there are now just 6 countries where fewer than 20 percent of mobile connections are capable of delivering broadband data speeds.

Broadband Connections as a Share of All Mobile Connections January 2021 DataReportal

There’s a big difference between 3G and 5G though, and the countries that have already activated 5G networks are already seeing significant benefits in terms of mobile data speeds.

For example, 5G is now readily available on some mobile networks in Qatar, China, and Kuwait, and all 3 of these countries have seen average mobile internet connection speeds more than double over the past 12 months.

Average Mobile Internet Connection Speeds by Country January 2021 DataReportal

The increased bandwidth available on 5G networks is also starting to make a tangible difference in the continued growth in global mobile data consumption.

Ericsson reports that the world now consumes roughly 55 billion gigabytes of mobile data each month, with each smartphone device consuming an average of 9.4GB of data per month.

The company reports that 5G currently accounts for around 4 percent of total mobile data traffic, but forecasts that this will jump to more than 10 percent this year, and more than half of all mobile traffic by 2026.

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Evolution of Mobile Data Consumption Over Time January 2021 DataReportal

These figures all point to the rapidly growing influence of 5G networks on the world’s mobile landscape.

But how will 5G impact marketing

For a start, faster connections mean that people should be able to enjoy richer content experiences while on the go.

The average mobile connection is now fast enough to enable users to stream 4K video without any disruption, although given the size of most mobile phone screens, this may not deliver substantial benefits to the average mobile viewer compared to streaming in 1080p.

However, 5G should bring more tangible benefits to mobile gamers, because 5G is designed to deliver significantly reduced latency.

This metric is particularly relevant to ‘shooter’ games – the world’s most popular video game format – because connection latency determines how quickly people can see and react to on-screen action.

Most Popular Video Game Formats by Age Group January 2021 DataReportal

Ookla’s latest data shows that average latency across the world’s mobile connections has decreased from 41ms to 36ms over the past year, although the latest mobile figure is still 70 percent slower than the average fixed internet connection.

However, 5G connections will enable video game companies to offer more compelling mobile-oriented gaming titles in genres where latency is an important consideration, which may significantly increase the appeal of these games across geographies that currently struggle with slower connections.

This is particularly pertinent in the developing world, where fixed internet infrastructure is often unavailable, and where it does exist, mobile connection speeds are often faster anyway.

But this is also true in some of the world’s highly developed economies. 

For example, average mobile connection speeds in Australia, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia all outpace the average speed of each country’s fixed internet connections.

The greater bandwidth offered by 5G should also improve options for people who want to broadcast their own livestreams.

This has particular relevance to mobile esports and mobile game live-streaming, which depend on fast, stable connections for the best experience.

Beyond gaming, improved mobile upload speeds will also enable a greater number of people to get involved in live commerce, empowering a new wave of mobile entrepreneurs to sell their wares in real-time via live-stream promotions. 

So, if you’re wondering how 5G might impact your marketing, my tip would be to think beyond current marketing activities, and ask yourself whether now might be a good time to start exploring mobile gaming or live-stream commerce opportunities for your brand.

Social media isn’t just about mobile apps

One of the most interesting takeaways from the rankings of the world’s top websites in this year’s reports is that a large amount of social media activity still takes place within mobile browsers.

For example, Semrush reports that Facebook still attracts 1.8 billion unique visitors to its website each month, which equates to roughly two-thirds of its monthly active user base.

World's Most Visited WebSites (According to Semrush) January 2021 DataReportal

Facebook’s own data suggest that most of these users will be using the company’s native mobile apps more frequently than they visit the web interface, but it’s still interesting to see that the website continues to play an important role.

However, the figures for some other social platforms are perhaps more surprising.

For example, WhatsApp and Instagram also attract huge volumes of traffic to their web presences, despite being clearly positioned as ‘app-first’ experiences.

Semrush also reports that Instagram’s website saw more than 830 million unique visitors in December, while WhatsApp.com attracted 276 million uniques.

Even TikTok – with its considerable Gen Z skew – attracted almost 200 million visits to its website in December 2020.

Data from SimilarWeb echoes these findings, with the company reporting even higher unique visitor numbers than Semrush for some of these platforms.

World's Most Visited Websites (According to SimilarWeb) January 2021 DataReportal

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But what do these findings tell us?

One hypothesis is that this web traffic is the result of ‘off-platform’ sharing, such as when someone sends a link to an Instagram post via a messenger app like Telegram.

Meanwhile, when it comes to services like WhatsApp, we might conclude that considerable numbers of people are chatting via the platform’s web interface.

These findings may not have immediate implications for brands’ advertising activities, but they do offer interesting insights into how the world uses the internet, and in particular, how people’s journeys across different digital platforms take shape.

A more strategic approach to social media marketing

In-depth analysis of data collected by GWI shows that at least 98 percent of the users of any given social media platform use at least one other social platform.

The audiences of individual social platforms are also subject to significant overlaps, with 85 percent of TikTok users aged 16 to 64 saying they use Facebook, and almost 95 percent of Instagram users saying they also use YouTube.

Social Media Platform Audience Overlaps January 2021 DataReportal

The extent of these audience overlaps has particular relevance to marketers, who often spend significant amounts of time debating which platforms to use for their activities.

The key takeaway here is that brands do not need to be active on every single platform, and in fact the data show that a presence on just one or two of the larger platforms offers the potential to reach almost all of the world’s social media users.

For context, at least 6 platforms now have more than 1 billion monthly active users, while at least 17 have more than 300 million.

World's Most Used Social Media Platforms January 2021 DataReportal

However, this doesn’t mean that marketers should focus solely on these larger platforms.

Indeed, the data support the argument for a more strategic, portfolio approach to social media.

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Rather than focusing all of their attention on reach, marketers can now explore other factors, such as the specific creative opportunities offered by each platform’s content formats, or the different engagement opportunities available on more ‘niche’ platforms.

And the good news is that – if we look beyond reach – we have plenty of options to choose from, even when it comes to social media.

GWI’s data shows that the typical global user now has a presence on more than 8 different social channels, although the data also indicate that people use these channels with varying frequency and different levels of engagement.

Average Number of Social Media Accounts Per User January 2021 DataReportal

However, it’s very unlikely that people use each of their 8.4 different platforms for exactly the same purpose.

GWI’s data clearly show that people use social platforms for a variety of different reasons, and these underlying motivations offer a far better basis for planning than reach figures alone.

Reasons for Using Social Media January 2021 DataReportal

So, next time you’re planning a campaign, look beyond platform user numbers, and ask yourself:

  • Who do I want to engage?

  • Why might they be using social media?

  • Which platform(s) will be most relevant to their motivations?

  • How can I use these channels to achieve my desired outcomes?

As we’ll see in the next sections though, people’s motivations and platform choices also vary meaningfully by location and by demographic, so be sure to dig into our latest local country reports for richer insights into your specific audience’s behaviours.

The importance of understanding local

The internet may seem like a truly global environment, but the data in this year’s reports clearly show that people’s behaviours and preferences vary considerably between geographies.

Furthermore, while many platforms are popular amongst users all over the world, the ways in which people use those platforms often differ meaningfully between geographies.

For these reasons, marketers need to invest time to understand the nuances of their specific audiences.

In particular, global marketers need to go beyond the headlines reported in Western media, because trends in these countries are only representative of a small fraction of global digital audiences.

For context, the United States accounts for fewer than 1 in 15 (6.4 percent) of the world’s internet users. 

Users across the whole of the EU and the UK account for less than 10 percent of the global total, while internet users across all of the world’s 60-plus ‘highly developed’ economies account for less than one-third of the world’s total connected population.

Share of Global Internet Users by Region January 2021 DataReportal

And just in case you’re thinking that developed economies account for the majority of the world’s spending, Statista reports that China – which doesn’t feature in that list of ‘developed’ economies – now accounts for almost half (46 percent) of the world’s total consumer ecommerce spending.

So, what do marketers need to do?

The first step is to pay closer attention to what’s happening at a local level.

You’ll find all of our latest reports for every single country in the world – completely for free – in the DataReportal library.

I’d also recommend going beyond headlines to identify the corresponding audience for each “juicy stat”. 

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Don’t assume that reports of a meteoric rise in the users of a new social platform have any bearing on your audience in your country. 

It’s always better to invest time to find out which channels your audience prefers, and what they use each platform for.

In many cases, you may find that digital platforms that haven’t made the news for years in your home country are still the dominant choice in another market.

A good example of this is Yahoo!, which remains one of the top destinations for audiences in Japan.

However, it’s also important to look beyond your bubble – especially if you want to identify emerging trends that may shape your audience’s future behaviour.

Dig deeper into the data: explore thousands of free reports in our comprehensive online library.

Look beyond your borders

Various trends suggest that the ‘next big trend’ in digital won’t emerge from a Western market.

For example, as we saw above, the connected behaviours of people across Asia and Latin America are already reshaping online search.

Similarly, the popularity of live-streaming has revolutionised online shopping in China, where the ‘live commerce’ market is now worth around US$60 billion a year.

The live-stream shopping format has become so popular in China that just one influencer – Viya – sold more than US$4.5 billion through her Taobao live-stream channel last year. 

For context, reports suggest that this equates to roughly the same amount that supermarket chain Carrefour sold across all its stores in China in the same period.

However, data shows that the popularity of live commerce isn’t just a Chinese phenomenon, with the format also picking up momentum across Southeast Asia and India.

What’s more, these three regions – China, Southern Asia, and Southeastern Asia – account for more than half of today’s global internet user base, so this is an opportunity that marketers around the world will want to tap into, even if live-stream shopping hasn’t taken off in their home market yet.

Developing nations are also leading the way when it comes to innovations in digital finance.

For example, the latest data from GWI shows that internet users across Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia are far more likely to own cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, compared to their peers in Europe and North America.

However, the impact of these trends isn’t restricted to the developing world; they also have real significance for marketers in the West.

With many developed nations already seeing internet adoption rates in excess of 90 percent, big internet companies from the US and China know that they need to look to emerging markets to secure the next wave of growth.

Internet Adoption by Country January 2021 DataReportal

To ensure the best possible chances of success, these companies also know that they’ll need to tailor their products and services to the needs, behaviours, and preferences of these new audiences.

However, economies of scale are a critical consideration for big internet companies, which means that they’re unlikely to develop significantly different products for each region or local market.

As a result, we can expect to see the influence of trends and developments in developing markets appear in Western platforms too, potentially resulting in changes in behaviour across developed economies as well.

Digging deeper into online audience demographics

We’ve included a wealth of new charts in this year’s reports that offer insights into connected activities by age and gender.

One of the most revealing of these charts shows how adoption of ecommerce varies by demographic.

Ecommerce Adoption by Age and Gender January 2021 DataReportal

And the clear takeaway from this GWI data is that internet users in the Baby Boomer generation are only marginally less likely to use ecommerce than Gen Z and Millennial internet users.

Moreover, female internet users aged 55 to 64 are actually more likely to shop online than male internet users aged 16 to 24.

It’s important to stress that these figures only reflect people’s behaviours once they start using the internet; the data doesn’t show ecommerce penetration against the broader population.

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Nevertheless, these findings clearly show the near universal appeal of ecommerce amongst internet users, regardless of their age or gender.

And the obvious takeaway here is that online shopping represents a large and compelling opportunity for almost all consumer brands, regardless of category or target audience. 

However, there are some important differences in how people of different ages go about their online shopping.

GWI’s data show that younger generations are considerably more likely to use a mobile phone to make online purchases, but these figures tail off quite quickly amongst their parents’ generation.

Mobile Ecommerce Adoption by Age and Gender January 2021 DataReportal

Conversely, Baby Boomers are considerably more likely to buy things online via a laptop or desktop computer.

Nearly twice as many internet users aged 55 to 64 say they bought something via a computer in the past month compared to internet users aged 16 to 24.

Making Ecommerce Purchases Via A Computer January 2021 DataReportal

However, these figures relate solely to checkout, and there’s a high likelihood that older generations will still be using mobile devices to inform the rest of their ‘buyer journey’.

For example, while it’s not mobile-specific, data from GWI shows that older age groups are the most likely to research products online before making a purchase.

More than 6 in 10 male internet users over the age of 45 say that they go online to look for information about products and services that they’re thinking of buying, compared to just 51 percent of men aged 16 to 24.

Researching Products Online by Age and Gender January 2021 DataReportal

It’s also interesting to note that a significant share of older internet users play video games.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, gaming adoption rates amongst older generations aren’t as high as they are for Gen Z, where more than 90 percent of internet users say they play games.

However, GWI’s data still shows that more than two-thirds of internet users aged 55 to 64 around the world play video games.

Playing Video Games by Age and Gender January 2021 DataReportal

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But once again, there are plenty of differences lurking beneath the surface of these headline findings.

For example, as we saw in the earlier section on internet connection speeds, older gamers have different preferences when it comes to the kinds of games they play, with ‘puzzle’ formats particularly popular amongst Baby Boomers.

Another age-related trend is evident in our latest social media data, which shows that older age groups are the fastest-growing segments of many platforms’ audiences.

For example, Facebook saw users over the age of 65 increase by roughly 25 percent over the past year – that’s almost double the average across all age groups of 13 percent since this time last year.

Annual Change in Facebook's Advertising Reach by Age and Gender January 2021 DataReportal

Meanwhile, users over the age of 50 also represent Snapchat’s fastest-growing audience segment.

The number of users aged 50 and above that advertisers can reach on Snapchat has grown by roughly 25 percent in the past 3 months, with male users in this age group increasing by a third.

Quarterly Change in Snapchat's Advertising Reach by Age and Gender January 2021 DataReportal

Note that these Snapchat figures represent quarterly growth, while the Facebook figures above showcase annual growth.

It’s also worth noting that these figures represent relative growth, not the absolute increase in user numbers.

Older age groups typically account for a smaller percentage of overall social media users than younger demographics, so it’s perhaps ‘easier’ for older age groups to record faster growth.

For context, users aged 25 to 34 still accounted for the greatest number of new Facebook users over the past year, even though they were already the platform’s largest demographic segment.

However, these relative growth figures still show that a greater number of older users are joining social platforms.

These evolving demographics may bring new opportunities for marketers, together with new revenue streams for platforms and publishers.

Online grocery and the rise of ecommerce

One of the standout digital stories in 2020 was the rise of ecommerce, with the COVID-19 pandemic driving consumers all over the world to embrace online shopping.

With GWI data showing that most internet users already made online purchases even before the pandemic, there wasn’t much scope for an overall increase in ecommerce adoption rates amongst internet users.

However, GWI data still shows that ecommerce adoption rates increased by 3.3 percentage points between Q2 and Q3 2020, representing quarterly growth of more than 4½ percent.

At a global level, nearly 77 percent of internet users aged 16 to 64 say they buy something online each month.

Internet users in Indonesia are the most likely to make ecommerce purchases, with more than 87 percent of the country’s respondents to GWI’s survey saying they bought something online in the past month.

At the other end of the scale, just 57 percent of internet users in Egypt say they made an online purchase in the past 30 days.

The ecommerce adoption rate is also relatively low in Russia, where just 60 percent of internet users say they bought something via the internet in the past month.

Ecommerce Adoption by Country January 2021 DataReportal

As we saw in the previous section, there isn’t a significant difference in ecommerce adoption rates by age and gender, at least at a global level.

However, a more interesting story lies in what people have been buying over recent months.

Before we dig into the numbers, it’s worth pointing out that different sources report quite different findings for ecommerce activity, so data points on some slides may appear to contradict similar data points on other charts.

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These differences don’t represent an error; rather, they illustrate that different metrics may tell a different story about what people have been doing across different parts of the internet. 

Statista reports that the Fashion and Beauty category accounted for the largest share of global B2C ecommerce revenues in 2020, at more than US$665 billion.

Global Ecommerce Spend in 2020 by Category January 2021 DataReportal

This is the first time in our ongoing series of Global Digital Reports that the Travel category hasn’t come out top, highlighting just how difficult recent months have been for travel and tourism brands.

Indeed, Statista reports that online revenues in the Travel, Mobility and Accommodation category were down by more than 50 percent year-on-year, resulting in a drop of well over half a trillion US dollars in annual consumer spending.

On the other hand, many other categories saw strong growth in ecommerce revenues in 2020.

Food & Personal Care was the fastest growing category, with COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures acting as a catalyst for significant increases in online grocery shopping.

Annual Change in Ecommerce Spend by Category January 2021 DataReportal

Worldwide, the category saw annual revenues in excess of US $400 billion in 2020, up by more than 40 percent compared to the previous year.

Data from Contentsquare also offers good news for online grocery brands, with traffic to supermarkets’ ecommerce properties 35 percent higher in December than it was in January.

People haven’t just been visiting online grocery stores either; Contentsquare’s data shows that supermarkets’ online transactions were more than double their January 2020 levels in both November and December 2020.

Ecommerce Transaction Index for Supermarkets January 2021 DataReportal

These numbers support findings that we shared in our Digital 2020 July Global Statshot Report, when we reported that significant numbers of internet users had been saying they intended to continue with new online shopping behaviours that they’d adopted during the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Moreover, these numbers don’t just offer good news for supermarkets.

Grocery shopping tends to be a high-frequency activity, which means that people have had the chance to develop new habits over recent months.

As most marketers know, it can be very difficult to inspire behaviour change – especially in high-frequency activities – so the new shopping habits of recent months present an unparalleled opportunity for brands and retailers to challenge the status quo.

And what’s more, we’re already seeing evidence that people’s habits have changed in other categories too.

Online cosmetics purchases soared during the recent year-end holiday season, with shoppers around the world making more than 3½ times as many online category purchases in November 2020 as they did in January 2020.

Some of this variance can likely be attributed to the category’s normal seasonality, but such a dramatic jump between January and December suggests that a significant number of purchases that people might previously have made in physical stores have now shifted online.

This echoes findings from Adobe, who reported that:

…it would’ve taken between 4 and 6 years to get to the levels that we saw in May 2020 if growth had continued at the same levels [we’d seen] for the past few years.

Furthermore, it’s now highly unlikely that people’s shopping behaviours will return to pre-pandemic patterns once daily life returns to some semblance of normality.

While we can expect to see people return to physical stores once health concerns ease, many people will likely continue to conduct a greater share of their shopping activities online than they did prior to 2020.

These changes aren’t just about where people make their purchases, either.

Our analysis suggests that people have moved a significant share of their activities across every step of the buyer journey into online channels, meaning that marketers may need to rethink every aspect of their activities – not just “last-mile” demand generation.

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Google dominates global digital – but a bit less than before

It might not come as a surprise to learn that Google dominates almost every aspect of digital, but it’s still interesting to quantify the company’s position.

More than 7 in 10 mobile handsets in use around the world today use the Android operating system, according to the latest web traffic data from Statcounter.

Share of Global Web Traffic by Mobile OS January 2021 DataReportal

Facebook’s data puts Android’s share even higher, with the company’s Insights tools indicating that more than 8 in 10 mobile Facebook users aged 18-plus access via an Android-powered device.

Share of Facebook Access by Mobile OS January 2021 DataReportal

Google’s position in the search market is stronger yet, with Statcounter’s latest data indicating that the platform enjoys more than 90 percent share of the global search market.

Search Engine Market Share January 2021 DataReportal

Chrome is also the world’s favourite web browser, accounting for almost two-thirds of web traffic across all devices.

Share of Global Web Traffic by Web Browser January 2021 DataReportal

However, data suggest that Google’s global dominance may have started to slip in these key categories over the past 12 months.

Statcounter’s data shows that the share of global web traffic served to Android devices fell by 1.6 percentage points in the year to December 2020, representing a 2.2 percent relative annual decline.

Similarly, Statcounter’s data indicate that Google’s share of the global search market dropped by 1.3 percentage points over the past 12 months, representing a 1.4 percent relative decline.

Chrome’s share of global web traffic also saw a year-on-year decline of 0.2 percentage points, although its longer-term growth trend still points upward.  

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But it’s a different story over at YouTube.

App Annie reports that the average amount of time that people spend watching videos on YouTube has increased by as much as 6 times in some countries over the past year.

At a global level, people now spend an average of more than 23 hours per month using the YouTube app on Android phones, equating to almost one full day using the platform’s app each month.

However, Google’s own data reveals that mobile phones only account for around 70 percent of YouTube watch time, suggesting that the overall total across all devices is somewhere in the region of 33 hours per month.

Top Social Media and Video Streaming Apps by Time Spent January 2021 DataReportal

And there’s more good news for Google when it comes to its communications platforms.

App Annie’s data also shows that the company’s flagship video calling platform – Google Meet – ranked seventh amongst the world’s most downloaded mobile apps in 2020.

That puts it just three places behind Zoom, and ahead of both Snapchat and the rapidly rising Telegram.

And with video calls looking set to remain a key feature of the communications landscape for the foreseeable future, Meet may turn out to be yet another jewel in Google’s crown.

Top Mobile Apps by Downloads in 2020 January 2021 DataReportal

Looking ahead: 2021 and beyond

Hopefully that’s given you a solid understanding of the ‘state of digital’ today.

But what does the future hold?

Based on our ongoing analysis of these trends, here are some of the things we’ll be monitoring closely during the coming months.

The demise of third-party cookies

Based on current plans, 2021 will be the last year that Google’s Chrome browsers support third-party cookies, which Apple’s Safari browsers already block by default. 

Many advertisers have relied on these cookies to power their targeting and reporting activities, so this change may have significant implications for many of the world’s digital marketers. 

In the short term, this change may result in greater reliance on “walled garden” platforms such as Facebook and Amazon, because their on-platform technologies don’t rely on third-party cookies. 

However, almost all programmatic advertising companies will need to reinvent their models for a world without third-party cookies, so we may see a wave of new innovations in the ad tech industry over the coming months.

Flexible working

For many white collar workers around the world, 2020 was the year of working from home, or “WFH” as it became commonly known.

WFH looks like it will remain an enforced part of many people’s working lives for the foreseeable future too, with many countries still in the throes of high COVID-19 infection rates at the start of 2021.

Moreover, many people may choose to continue with more flexible working practises even after the pandemic passes, and many employers may actively encourage such flexibility too.

Evolving workplace dynamics have already inspired many changes in the world’s professional digital behaviours, from the rise of video conferencing to a greater reliance on software that helps teams manage remote workers.

However, I expect to see further innovation in products and services designed to help with remote working over the coming months, especially in the areas of communication and ‘team cohesion’.

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Connected healthcare

Telemedicine was already a hot topic in healthcare prior to the outbreak of COVID, but the coronavirus crisis of 2020 has accelerated the industry’s advance in much the same way that it accelerated people’s move to online shopping.

Doctors around the world are now offering ‘remote’ consultations, with many turning to video conferencing platforms and even messenger apps to deliver diagnoses and advice for their patients.

Digital solutions designed to help with wellness and wellbeing have also seen significant growth in recent months, and trends suggest that this will continue to be one of the hottest areas of growth in 2021 too.

Digital finance

The ever-fluctuating price of Bitcoin continues to grab media headlines around the world, but it’s clear that ‘DeFi’ – decentralised finance – has started to gain more mainstream acceptance.

For context, it’s notoriously difficult to change people’s financial behaviours, with a popular industry axiom proclaiming that people are more likely to change their spouse than change their bank.

However, data shows that increasing numbers of people are now turning to ‘alternative’ financial solutions, especially for products like insurance.

Meanwhile, mobile payment platforms and ewallets are changing the ways in which people pay for things.

This is most clearly evident online, with Worldpay reporting that ewallets accounted for the greatest share of online purchases around the world in 2019, with almost twice as much share as credit cards.

But with many retailers and shoppers prioritising contactless payment methods in recent months due to COVID-19-related health concerns, mobile payment services such as Apple Pay and Google Pay have come to the fore in physical retail too.

I don’t foresee an ‘overnight revolution’ in consumer finance this year, but I do expect to see an acceleration in people’s adoption and use of more digital products and services in the financial services sector.

Online education

More than 1 billion people around the world faced some kind of disruption to their education in 2020 due to COVID-19, so we can expect increased emphasis on digital innovation in the world of learning over the coming months too.

Some of this will relate to how individual educators deliver their materials, with innovations in ‘digital classroom’ solutions likely to continue apace in 2021.

I’d expect to see some important changes in government policy too, with lawmakers all over the world addressing the societal imperatives and potential opportunities associated with enhanced online learning.

These innovations will likely extend to the corporate world too, with remote training and ‘upskilling’ remaining one of the hottest topics for HR professionals in 2021

And given the importance of education, we might expect to see digital giants like Google and Facebook become more actively involved in this field too, potentially even collaborating to deliver much needed support to governments and educators around the globe.

Portable digital identities

With digital privacy once again making headlines at the start of 2021 thanks to another furore surrounding platforms’ terms and conditions, 2021 may be the year when ‘portable digital identities’ start to gain more mainstream traction.

People everywhere are increasingly aware of – and concerned about – how much of their ‘data’ they share, whether knowingly or not.

As a result, platforms and publishers may start to accept decentralised sign-on solutions, such as those offered by Inrupt.

Large internet companies will likely resist these third-party solutions due to the inevitable financial consequences, but if a sufficient number of users choose privacy over ad-supported content, 

What else?

Are there any other trends that you’ll be watching in 2021? Send me your tips on Twitter.

And if you’d like more tailored insights into what the future of digital might hold for your brand or business, get in touch with me on LinkedIn to learn more about Kepios’s Quarterly Digital Briefings.

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And finally… 

Let’s wrap up this year’s bumper analysis with some more lighthearted insights…

From Instagram with #love

Instagram passed another cultural milestone last week, when the total number of posts published to the platform featuring the hashtag #love passed the 2 billion mark.

While this means that the typical Instagram user has only tagged an average of 2 of their posts with #love, it’s by far the most popular hashtag on Instagram, appearing on more than 50 percent more posts than its closest rival, #instagood.

Most Frequently Used Hashtags on Instagram January 2021 DataReportal

Interestingly, however, it’s taken longer for posts tagged with #love to reach the 2 billion mark than it did for them to reach 1 billion, despite huge growth in Instagram’s user base in the past few years.

The billionth #love post was published sometime around the middle of August 2015, back when Instagram had just 300 million monthly active users.

That means it took roughly 58 months to reach 1 billion #love posts, but 65 months to reach 2 billion, despite Instagram having four times as many users today as it did back in 2015.

However, just as I reported back in August 2015, Instagram’s constantly updated feed of posts tagged with #love offers some fascinating insights into the human psyche and people’s motivations.

Be warned, though: there’s plenty of #NSFW content in there too, so prepare yourself for some rather ‘explicit’ surprises.

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It’s a dog-eat-dog cat world (wide web)

We couldn’t finish this year’s analysis without an update to our Pulitzer-worthy coverage of one of the internet’s most hotly contested battles.

Despite raising the alarm this time last year, it appears that many people still haven’t received the memo about the internet being invented for sharing pictures of kittens.

To make matters worse, the past 12 months have even seen #TeamDog consolidate its position as – well, top dog on the internet.

The Battle for the Internet Continues January 2021 DataReportal

The #CanineCrew managed to publish an additional 44 million #dog posts to Instagram, while #FelineFriends only managed 33 million new #cat posts.

It’s a similar story over on Twitter, where the platform’s advertising tools reveal that 307 million users are ‘interested’ in dogs, compared to just 23 million who are ‘interested’ in cats.

That’s a marked improvement on last year’s ratio of 250 million vs. 250 thousand, but dog lovers still outnumber cat lovers on Twitter by a factor of 13 to 1.

Bizarrely, even reptiles are more popular on Twitter than cats (35 million vs. 23 million). 

Maybe all the cats have been banned from Twitter for perceived threats to Larry.

Perhaps most tellingly though, cats appear to be losing the battle for the web – arguably their home territory – with Google web page results for ‘dog’ outnumbering results for ‘cat’ by 3.83 million to 3.68 million at the start of 2021.

But as we’ve seen consistently throughout this year’s data, there are considerable differences between countries.

India is clearly all about #TeamDog, with the country’s netizens more than three times as likely to enter a Google search for topics related to dogs as they are to search for topics related to cats.

The data tells a different tail in Indonesia though, where online searches for cats are more than twice as common as searches for dogs.

I could go on, but much as I enjoy this pun-ditry, I’ve probably taken up enough of your 6 hours and 54 minutes for today, so I’ll paws things there.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with the first of our Digital 2021 local country reports.

Until then, if you need any more stats, check out our complete free library of Global Digital Reports.

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