The thing you first notice is the scale of mobile use. When it comes to the internet in Italy, mobile is the key platform, and as mobiles get smarter and connections get faster, internet access in Italy is undergoing a step-change from the web to mobile. Online use in Italy gives a window into mobile social networking that other markets will adopt and as Danny Meadows-Klue discovers in Milan, Italians are hungry for even more time on Facebook.
In a car racing through Milan city centre my taxi driver is animatedly chatting into his mobile. Seventy kilometres an hour, we slide through amber lights just before they click red. It’s clear neither pedestrians, lights nor other cars are going to get in the way of this guy catching up with his mates as it nears the end of the shift. Like most countries, mobile has become the enabler of social change. Use in Italy has always been disproportionately high, dating back to the explosive use of SMS in the 90s - which is why the Italian migration to mobile internet use is so interesting.
Internet use in Italy
More than 25m consumers have internet access in Italy and the market is still growing. Among the power brands Google, Facebook and YouTube all top 15m viewers per month, and audiences are rising (10%, 18% and 18% year on year respectively). More interesting than their total penetration in the market is the time being spent online: Facebook clocks-up more than 9hrs 36minutes per consumer. It’s a massive slice of time, and one that beats Yahoo, Google, MSN and YouTube combined, but with the switch to social networking well underway, the amount of time Italians collectively spend on Facebook will leap further over the next eighteen months.
But outside Milan, Turin or Rome, internet access feels subtly different. Wifi hotspots are less common and speeds can still be achingly slow. Italy has always suffered from communication infrastructure challenges, with bandwidth provision lagging years behind consumer demand. Unlike many Northern European markets which often had political support in boosting connectivity among small towns and rural communities, Italian telcos have stumbled at laying large enough pipes for the always-on broadband people would clearly demand. The last fifteen years has seen wave upon wave of excuses for failure to deliver effective bandwidth provision, and today it’s materially holding back the online video and music industry in particular. As a consequence, more internet demand is being pushed towards text based sites, Facebook and mobile apps; and sites looking for nationwide take-up need to be light on bandwidth and smart on caching.
Local Italian internet sites
Outside from the global powerbrand dotcoms, local players like Virgilio, Libero and to a lesser extent Leonardo are all gaining strong audiences and among the top 10 online media properties. La Repubblica remains the strongest online news site in terms of reach (8.1m people per month) with Corriere della Sera not far behind (7.4m). These print titles have managed an effective transition online, and a combination of being early entrants into the web pre-2000, as well as smart selective innovation - video content and deep dive digital supplements are an example – has benefitted them well. Italian newspapers and magazines copied the proven successes of US and UK digital media to enable relatively low cost and efficient growth. The politicised nature of Italian TV also created an opportunity for quality journalism to flourish online, with a lively blogging community and a rich political debate.
Virgilio, Liquida and Libero all score higher than Google News in terms of audience reach, confirming that the Italian digital media is managing to deliver deep consumer experiences as well as broad appeal. Even La Stampa is gaining 2.4m users a month; roughly one in ten of all Italians online.
For online marketers, the arrival of the Audiweb measurement platform made media planning easier. There was heated debate inside the industry before a standard industry measure could be settled on, but having one measurement currency has helped professionalise the Italian internet industry.
Italian mobile use
More than six million Italians (6.1m Feb 2011) are using mobile internet access each month, and the growth rate is averaging more than 7% a quarter. Facebook is pulling away as market leader, and the scale of growth puts it head and shoulders above others. In mobile social behaviours, Italy is ahead of most countries in seeing the relative acceleration of Facebook in particular. Social Italians are enjoying the customary Facebook checking on the way to work, as much as you’ll find in any country, but they’re spending more time with Facebook on mobile, and the traffic data shows a rapid switch to mobile devices.
More than 40% of mobile internet users are logging on to Facebook, echoing a mobile behaviour of the late 90s which saw Italy consistently score among the highest in the world for the volumes of SMS per consumer.
Google mobile already has a monthly reach of a quarter of the mobile users (26% Feb 2011), an audience level that will increase with the new generation of smartphones and the faster connections opening up in Italy. Google’s audiences are likely to grow more steadily than Facebook’s and while time online will always be tiny compared to a social network, Google continues to form the critical step in the mobile consumer’s journey.
The trending for Twitter and FourSquare seems less clear, but among young urbanites the novelty is as strong as in London or New York. Cultural factors will ensure location based services have a big role in Italy over the next couple of years, but Facebook looks far better positioned to capitalise on the demand.
Outside the taxi, Milan’s walls seem plastered with posters shouting for the latest Nokia or Blackberry. The mobile device wars are intense in a country where the smartphone is the essential social enabler. My taxi driver pulls up at the hotel, without disconnecting from his. We swap money for receipts, the taxi sign switches off and he heads out into the city for some of that face to face social networking that in the internet industry it’s all too easy to overlook.
Danny Meadows-Klue has trained marketers and agencies in more than 40 countries on the ways to harness digital. More than 45,000 marketers have attended his workshops and talks during 15 years. He ran the leading UK website, held a vice-presidency at NBC's internet businesses, played key roles in setting up the internet marketing trade associations in 20 countries, and has worked on more than 1000 online campaigns and sites. In numerous awards, Danny has been recognised as one of the key people shaping this digital marketing sector. He has been an advisor on government policy, President of the industry associations in the UK and Europe many times, a columnist in more than 20 magazines and newspapers, and one of the first regulators for digital and direct marketing industry in the UK. When not coaching marketers you'll find him scuba diving, but you can always reach him online at Danny@DigitalTrainingAcademy.com