Nielsen: China has 56.5 million potential Net users

A new survey puts China’s potential number of Internet users at over 50 million, but how many of them are actually online remains open to speculation.

The Nielsen results, announced April 22 in Hong Kong, place China’s potential Internet population at 56.5 million. However, “those are not users. Those are people who live in households that are connected to the Internet,” said Hugh Bloch, managing director, North Asia, AC Nielsen

“Internet use in China is increasing faster than anywhere else in the world,” Bloch said.

The most recent official Chinese government estimates by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), released in January, estimated the nation’s Internet population at 33.7 million.

Nielsen’s figures are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 randomly selected households with a fixed line telephone, a sample size that offers a margin of error of approximately two to three per cent, Bloch said. The provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, and Guizhou, and the autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Xinjiang, and Tibet (Xizang) were excluded, Nielsen said.

Bloch said that measuring households was part of Nielsen’s model, something it inherited from its early work in television audience measurement. “What we do when we go into our markets is we look at households only. CNNIC measures Internet use anywhere.”

He said that active Internet users are measured by recruiting a panel in each market. However, Bloch said that a China panel would not be recruited until the end of the year, if at all, depending upon market reaction to this initial survey.

Even with a significant “potential universe” for Internet use in China, Chinese Internet users are still spending far more time than money online. Eighty-five per cent of survey respondents used the Internet between 31 minutes and three hours each time they log on, one of the highest user averages in the world, Bloch said.

However, out of 12 possible Internet activities, purchasing ranked dead last, with only three percent of those polled saying that had made a purchase online during the last six months.

Reading newspapers and magazines online was the most popular activity, at 41 per cent, followed by e-mail at 39 per cent.

Bloch sought to manage the expectations of those reading the survey’s results. “People look at the number and say, ‘wow.’ Clearly that needs to be tethered.” He added that such a large figure “makes China look like a very exciting market – potentially.”

Despite Bloch’s attempts to mitigate the impact of indicating such a large potential Internet market in China, others were critical of using such figures simply for marketing purposes. Peter Lovelock, insight director of Beijing-based research firm MFC Insight called the numbers “a mixture of entertainment and Wizard of Oz illusion.”

“Basically they’re saying the kids and the grandparents are using the Internet,” he said referring to Nielsen’s choice of households as the unit instead of confirmed individual users.

The Nielsen report doesn’t do enough to define clearly what constitutes an Internet user. “I would have thought 50 million is very realistic for e-mail use, but not for surfing the Web,” Lovelock said.

At present, the only other source of China Internet population numbers is CNNIC. The now-defunct Internet Audience Measurement Asia Ltd. issued the earliest independent Internet population surveys in 2000, followed by NetValue Ltd. The latter ceased making its reports public when China began enforcing regulations on market survey companies operating in the Chinese mainland.