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The State of the Internet 2021: Social Media Statistics and Data

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The new Digital 2021 Global Statshot Report – published in partnership between Hootsuite and We Are Social – reveals that more than 6 in 10 people globally are now online.

Internet users have grown by more than 350 million over the past year. There are now 4.7 billion people using the internet as of 2021.

That’s not the only big story in this quarter’s report though. In addition, we cover:

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

Full report

You’ll find the complete 2021 Statshot report in the SlideShare embedded below (click here if it’s not working for you). We cover in some detail below what all these numbers mean for you.

1. The state of digital in 2021

Let’s start with the latest global digital headline figures:

  • The world’s population stood at 7.9 billion as of 2021, which is about 1% higher than the figure for the same time last year.
  • There are 5.3 billion unique mobile users around the world. This means that more than two-thirds of all people globally now have a mobile phone.
  • Internet users have grown by 8% over the past year to reach 4.7 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 4.3 billion.

Beyond the headlines, 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 4.7 billion people using the internet in 2021.

The latest reports indicate that internet users have grown by more than 330 million over the past 12 months, equating to a year-on-year increase of about 8%.

 

 

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has limited research into internet use around the world. Accordingly, the actual total may well be higher than these figures suggest.

As we’ll cover more in the next section, social media user numbers have grown far more quickly than internet users have over the same period.

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

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

Moreover, social media continues to be a big driver for broader internet adoption. In other words, what motivates people to use the internet in the first place?

Research from GWI indicates that nearly 99% of global internet users aged 16 to 64 use a social network or internet-powered messaging platform each month.

Given the fast growth in global social media users, it’s quite possible that internet users have also been growing more rapidly 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 900k users per day, or about 11 new users every second or about 630 per minute.

There are also large distributional effects. Levels of internet adoption continue to vary meaningfully around the world.

More than 90% of the people across Northern and Western Europe and Northern America use the internet today, but 75% of the people across Eastern Africa remain unconnected.

 

 

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

More than one billion people remain unconnected across just three countries in the region – India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Women make up the majority of these unconnected populations.

 

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But despite these relatively low levels of adoption, Southern Asia is still home to more than twice as many internet users as Northern America. It’s also growing faster and these individuals are becoming wealthier.

To help demonstrate the basic user distributions, just 6% of the world’s internet users live in the US. This compares with more than 13% in India, and 21% in China.

While marketers tend to be very Western-centric when it comes to audience targeting because of relative income and wealth levels, more users are coming out of other areas at a faster rate and their incomes are growing faster as well.

Accordingly, in order to understand what the broader world is doing online, it’s essential to look beyond internet users in developed economies only.

As we’ll see in various cases throughout this quarter’s analysis, it’s the users in the world’s lesser developed economies that are driving many of today’s most exciting internet trends.

These populations also tend to be younger and are the most keen to pick up on new trends.

The implications for investors are that it’s important to think globally and not just in home markets.

 

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3. Social media adoption accelerates again

One of the surprises in the current 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 as more people stayed inside as part of the distancing process.

Kepios analysis suggests that there are more than 500 million more social media users in the world today than there were this time last year. This puts the year-on-year growth to close to 14%.

 

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That means 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 about 17 new users each second or about 1,000 per minute.

This rapid growth has pushed the global total to approximately 4.3 billion. This comes to more than 55% of the world’s total population.

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

China added 85 million new social media users over the past year. That comes to roughly 1 in 6 of the world’s new users during that period.

India, Indonesia, and Brazil also added significant numbers of new users to their local totals, as large-population developing countries. (For example, Indonesia has almost as many people as the US.)

 

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

GWI recently added a series of new social media questions to its survey.

One of these questions asks respondents to identify what their ‘favorite’ social platform is.

First, it’s important to note that China has been removed from the dataset that informs the “favorite social media platform” charts in this report.

Users in China are currently unable to access the same social media platforms as the rest of the world. The Chinese Communist Party wants to focus on developing its country internally rather than giving the revenue to overseas companies in countries that are strategic rivals.

Accordingly, including data for China would potentially skew the global results.

YouTube is also 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.

This is because GWI classifies YouTube as a video platform and not as social media platform.

It’s also important to note that responses to this question will be subjective. Different survey respondents may use different criteria to determine their “favorite” platform.

But that doesn’t detract too much from the value of this data.

 

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Around the world (excluding China), almost a quarter (24%) 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.

Instagram ranks third, with 18.4%.

FB Messenger is just behind Twitter for fourth place.

From an investor’s perspective it shows the ongoing power that Facebook has over the social media landscape. Smart investments in Instagram and Whatsapp and the development of Messenger have provided growth tailwinds for the company.

At the same time, much of this is already in the price and it’s up to Facebook to follow through. WhatsApp is scarcely monetized and that will be an ongoing challenge.

Facebook also has to consider the potential for sagging interest in its flagship platform, which is its top money-making given its value for targeted paid advertising.

Like with anything, there’s execution risk.

There’s also more regulatory scrutiny over social media platforms, especially as it pertains to Section 230 in the United States and the implications for social media platforms’ civil liabilities.

Overall, Facebook’s four main platforms account for more than two-thirds (68%) of global favorites outside of China.

Twitter ranks fourth globally. However, after the top three, there is a big drop-off. Fewer than 5% of respondents chose this option.

Twitter does rank higher than TikTok, which may seem slightly surprising given how much TikTok took off relative to Instagram. But GWI’s survey only covers users between the ages of 16 and 64. TikTok is commonly influential in the sub-16 age group while Twitter has a larger amount of older users.

Preferences vary quite a bit by age and gender. For example, Instagram is popular among younger demographics, while Facebook, WhatsApp, Line, and Pinterest do well among older cohorts.

Despite the varied tastes, Facebook’s platform is still the top choice across the demographic groups studied (age, gender).

 

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It also shows that these results reinforce the idea that user metrics aren’t always the best way to measure social media opportunity.

To make better sense of these rankings, we need to get into why people use social media. Why do they use the sites and apps that they do?

From an investor’s point of view, it’s always about how something creates value. Even for traders with a short-term time horizon, it’s important to get at as the big picture helps drives flows into securities.

5. Socializing still the primary driver of use, but behaviors are evolving

By and large, people use social media to keep in contact with family and friends. About half of all respondents saying that this is one of the primary reasons why they use social media platforms. (Respondents were allowed to choose more than one option.)

Nonetheless, news and entertainment are also important reasons for social media use. About 36 percent of users globally said reading news stories is among their top reasons why, just behind “filling spare time” or to pass time while bored.

 

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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 purchase, 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%).

Looking beyond people’s primary motivations though, it’s 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. More people visit social networks like TikTok and Facebook to be entertained than they do to message friends and family. This would also of course hold true for YouTube if it were considered a social platform, though it’s not for purposes of this study.

 

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People now actively use or visit an average of more than six social media platforms each month.

But which have the largest audiences?

6. The world’s most active social platforms

Facebook still claims the world’s largest active user base even if it’s not the most popular based on things like people’s “favorite” social network.

The latest data show that Facebook now attracts about 2.8 billion monthly active users.

 

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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. Total monthly visitors across YouTube’s mobile app and website, including users who are not logged in, 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 showing that the messenger platform attracts at least 2 billion monthly active users.

But monthly active WhatsApp accounts may be much higher than this, potentially above 2.5 billion.

Nonetheless, because WhatsApp accounts are tied to phone numbers rather than user profiles, there’s probably a number of duplicate accounts attributed to the same person. One example would be splitting personal and business accounts, as many people use more than one mobile device.

Data from GSMA Intelligence suggests that the typical global mobile user now operates an average of 1.5 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 China’s WeChat.

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

LinkedIn is not included on this list, as it hasn’t provided MAU data since it was acquired by Microsoft back in 2016. So it’s unclear whether the platform would qualify for this list. Registered members are different from monthly active users. Many LinkedIn users don’t use it regularly and only update their profile or use it when changing jobs or looking for a new one.

These monthly active user figures are an important gauge of a platform’s potential, but their use for determining valuation or potential revenue can be off.

As noted earlier, the typical social media user says that they actively use more than six social media platforms each month. Many of these platforms will see significant audience overlaps.

And it’s a matter of the extent of the overlaps, which can be substantial

7. Social media audience overlaps

Excluding China, which has its own app set, barely one percent of users are exclusive to one platform alone. Most use Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, but Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, Pinterest, and LinkedIn have less overlap.

 

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YouTube has the largest ‘unique’ audience being essentially a pure video platform. But even then, just 1% of YouTube users aged 16 to 64 say that they don’t visit any other social platform.

For other platforms, the numbers are even lower still.

Just 1 in every ~1,000 users of TikTok and Instagram between the ages of 16 and 64 say that they don’t use any other social platforms. And it suggests ALL Snapchat users in this demographic are also active users of at least one other social platform.

There are also other interesting overlaps.

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

Besides trivia, how is the data informative?

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

Total reach is important. But with so many social platforms being used each month by so many people, it’s important to remember that marketers have various options for achieving that reach.

Most brands rely heavily on paid media to achieve meaningful reach in social media. So these findings highlight the potential benefits of having a diversified approach to various social channels.

Moreover, brands don’t need to maintain a regular organic presence on social channels in order to get the most bang for their buck with respect to their paid media placements.

Exploring 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 isn’t limited to just advertising.

More internet users are turning to social media to research products and services that they’re thinking of buying.

8. How search behaviors are changing

With respect to search behavior, data show that more people are looking beyond Google to find information about brands. For example, many people now “YouTube” something instead of “Googling” it.

If someone wants to find out how to tie a tie, a video might be easier than a blog post.

More than 70% of internet users now use or visit social media when looking for information about the things they’re thinking of buying.

Nearly 45% saying that they visit social networks like Facebook for this specific purpose.

 

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Brand research on social media is even higher among younger age groups. Over 50% of women aged 16 to 24 say that they visit social networks when looking for information about products and services.

This drops to just under 30% for users who are 55+. But it still represents a large and compelling opportunity for marketers.

 

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The use of voice search also continues to grow.

Globally, nearly 47% of internet users aged 16 to 64 say that they’ve used voice commands or voice search on a device in the past month. That percentage rises to nearly 60% in India.

 

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Younger internet users who are largely driving this trend. More than 50% of internet users below the age of 35 say 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 voice-related activities are not only related to devices like Amazon’s Alexa.

 

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More than a third of internet users say that they’ve used image recognition tools like Pinterest Lens on their phone in the past month.

The use of these tools is considerably higher in Latin America and Southeast Asia. About 6 in 10 respondents in Brazil and Mexico say they’ve used one in the past month.

 

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Use of search lenses varies quite a bit by age:

Users aged 16 to 24 are nearly twice as likely to be regular users of image recognition tools as users aged 55 to 64 are.

Geographic dispersions are more notable.

Across all three of these new search behaviors:

  • use of social search
  • voice interfaces, and
  • image recognition tools

…users in developing economies that have been the quickest to embrace these new technologies and approaches to search.

Internet users in emerging markets already outnumber users in developed markets by a factor of more than 2x.

Consequently, there’s a good chance that the need for scale will result in platforms pushing tools more actively to users in developed markets more aggressively.

9. Influencers and their role

We’ll also take a look at the types of accounts that people follow on social media.

Friends and family are most popular, but fewer than half of all respondents chose this option (46.5%).

Entertainment accounts take up the next few spots in the ranking. More than 25% of respondents saying they follow actors, TV shows, meme/parody accounts, and musicians.

 

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B2B marketers may be interested to learn that roughly 20% of all internet users aged 16 to 64 say they follow companies related to their work.

But they may not be involved in actual business activities, so B2B marketers may need to think more creatively about how to tap into the potential of these types of audiences.

For example, how could employees outside of your core target audience influence their colleagues who work in purchase-related roles?

All marketers may be interested to know that people are slightly more likely to follow companies and brands that they’re thinking of buying from than they are to follow celebrities, experts, and other influencers.

This finding should still be an important consideration when it comes to building an overall social media plan.

One insight – people are just as readily willing to hear directly from brands as they are to hear from influential third parties.

But the number of people following influencers varies considerably by geography.

For instance, 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. The median figure is 21%.

 

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The role of influencers also varies meaningfully by demographic.

Women are more likely to follow influencers than men. But this finding is reversed amongst the 55+ group to a slight extent. And in each age cohort, the difference narrows. And naturally, younger people are more likely to follow influencers than older people.

16 to 24 is 3x more likely to follow influencers than 55 to 64.

 

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Vlogs are an interesting format too.

Globally, 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 90% of internet users in the Philippines are regular vlog viewers. But in Japan, that figure drops to fewer than 10%.

These figures have been rising steadily, and the data clearly shows that vlogs are an increasingly popular form of entertainment, mostly through YouTube.

Roughly 1 in 7 internet users say that they actively turn to vlogs when researching products and services that they’re interested in buying, so it’s an area for marketers to target.

 

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10. Focus on getting very good at one channel, then develop further

Marketers love to tinker with the latest opportunities, but existing platforms continue to offer great ROI.

Email is nearly 30 years old in terms of widespread popularity but still offers great returns.

Nearly 80% of internet users still use an email service every month. And this is consistent among countries. Only China and Japan seeing usage rates below 75%.

 

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Usage also remains pretty consistent across different demographic groups. More than three-quarters of global internet users across all ages and genders say that they’ve used an email service in the past 30 days.

 

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Despite Yahoo!’s decline as an overall resource, it continues to rank amongst the world’s 20 most visited websites, despite having been around since the 1990s, which is ancient in the internet world.

Yahoo! continue to attract more than 5 billion unique users to its website each month, suggesting that Yahoo! still has a larger active user base than an app like Snapchat.

 

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Even Hotmail continued to rank in the world’s top 20 Google searches despite Microsoft migrating the service to Outlook back in 2018.

 

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The main idea is that old favorites still attract a lot of attention even if new services compete for one’s attention.

Most digital opportunities are an addition to the mix rather than a replacement. Platforms and activities that are working for your brand should remain part of and approach new platforms cautiously.

Further insights

There are 200 slides as part of the Statshot, so more detais can be gleaned at a more granular level if desired.

Trends to look out for going forward:

  • Growth in the advertising audiences of various social media platforms, with Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter all seeing sizeable q/q increases
  • Podcasts and live audio as a form of marketing (e.g., Clubhouse), with the result that podcasts are seeing greater adopting in emerging markets relative to developed markets
  • Messengers like Telegram and Signal are seeing large download activity
  • Insights into the latest e-commerce and online payment trends, and
  • The latest findings with respect to digital ad spend, including a big year-on-year jump in paid search spend.

 

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