How top decision-makers use the web

On a client’s behalf, we looked into the patterns of web use by companies’ top executives. The top decision-makers, not middle management.

It’s not a simple issue, as we’re generally asked to “think broad” (how to reach as many people as possible) or “think targeted” (how to convince opinion leaders in a given area). But as far as I know top decision-makers’ use of the web is still a largely unexplored field of investigation. And one may even question the importance of the web for these busy and hyper-selective people.

But let me share some of the insights – intuitive and/or analytical – that we picked up on the way. Hopefully we’ll have a little debate and learn more.

1. Decision-makers are major consumers of information. That’s the good news. But they mostly consume offline. They digest kilometres of press reviews, summaries, newspapers… Both because information is a strategic asset and because they are constantly on the move and have time to read printed matter. They clearly prefer hard copies (in France they swear by Le Monde, Le Figaro, Les Echos, La Tribune, newsmags, Challenges, etc.). They don’t surf much spontaneously (it’s a generational thing).

2. However, they do use the web. Mostly they use it indirectly: corporate press reviews (even when they are printed) include more and more web-based articles, even from expert blogs. This is both an intuition and something verified by the content of major groups’ press reviews and the catalogue offered by press review providers. This blog’s readers will recall the statistics of clippings agencies’ own clicks 😉 . The saying could go: “I’m clipped, therefore I’m influential”.

And in the decision-maker’s team, the people writing the summaries, etc. are definitely online.

3. Top executives’ many business trips could be so many opportunities for mobile web browsing, but this is probably still in its infancy. It only took off with the iPhone – and again chief executives tend to be from a different generation. The top boys who don’t surf on their desktop PCs are unlikely to take the plunge into the mobile web (not everybody is as cool as Obama). And yet mobile browsing is poised for take-off (away on business, jet-lagged, without their favourite newspaper, the smartphone will save their day).

4. Regarding the generational effect we’ve talked about, how are things going to change? Quickly, according to these data from a McKinsey survey for a French printed press trade event.


They show that:
– the renewal of generations weakens the daily printed press: 66% of readers among people 65 and older and 30% among under 18s
– habits are gradually eroding: the generational effect (which stipulates that we keep our habits as we grow older) is relative, since for instance in 1999, 42% of those aged between 18 and 24 read a daily once a week; in 2007, in that same group (now aged between 26 and 32), only 34% did.

In other words, things are changing fast and the top executives of tomorrow are on the web today.

5. Which are decision-makers’ favourite online spots? It’s not easy to say, as the web’s favourite source of information is Google, which accounts for 50% to 80% of traffic on media sites and encourages them to be reactive and attract readers by the busload, with little regard for quality. The hegemony of the free access model makes the information websites’ media planning somewhat vague (“Who are my readers? Well, er, those who type in key words”), while web users search for content rather than trust a particular media brand – and the brand they trust is called Google.

Broadly defined, the equation is: ad-funded model + free access = race for audience = volume and reactivity effect = Google produces my traffic = my identified and loyal readership is the minority = borders are blurred between each media’s reader profiles.

Except that our top executives, on the other hand, are much more faithful than the average web user to strong media brands. As a rule, subscriber-only websites seem to provide much better answer to the question at hand (Which are decision-makers’ favourite online spots?), but the subscriber or even hybrid model (Le Monde, Les Echos, Le Figaro, La Tribune again) is such a small fraction of the whole that it’s difficult to answer the question. There’s maybe a niche for very high quality, subscriber-only business information sites for this audience of top decision-makers. Wait and see.