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More Adults Joining Social Networks, Pew Says

Posted by: Douglas Macmillan on January 14, 2009

It’s tempting to compartmentalize social networking sites by the demographic groups most closely associated with them: MySpace is a party for teenagers, Facebook is for a hangout for college students, and LinkedIn is a conference for working professionals. But a steady influx of adult Internet users to all of these sites is altering their makeup at a surprising rate, according to a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The research group found that some 35% of online adults now have at least one profile on a social networking site, more than quadruple the amount that did in February 2005, when the figure was 8%. Compared with teenagers – who flocked to these sites early on but then slowed down in adoption – the number of grown-ups jumping on the social media bandwagon has roughly doubled every 18 months over the past four years.

Online advertisers, are you listening? Sites like MySpace, found to be used by half of social networking adults, are now a viable place to pitch mature consumers with discretionary income – many of whom are not obsessed with Justin Timberlake or Twilight. Yet kiddy-geared ads continue to dominate the site.

“As you start to see more adults in social networking, I think [marketers] will have to respond,” says Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst with eMarketer. They want to be where their customers are. Williamson does allow that young people are currently much more engaged with these sites, while many older adults tend to join them “as a novelty,” to connect with old friends, and check back irregularly. But over the next couple years, she expects adults to spend more time on social networks.

Another surprising finding in Pew’s study is the prevalence of minority groups on social sites. The portion of African-American adults with an online social profile (48%) as well as non-white Hispanics (43%) both eclipse the portion of white adults on the site, just 31%. As Pew senior research specialist Amanda Lenhart points out, that’s mainly due to the fact that 18-24 year-olds, by the far the most socially wired group in the study, are more diverse in makeup – because of higher birthrates among minority groups, immigration, and other factors. Still, “those numbers are a reality,” she says.

With many brands ramping up efforts to court minority groups online, social networks appear to be a good place to start. I spoke with Marla Skiko, who heads up digital innovation at global ad agency Starcom Mediavest Group’s multicultural unit, Tapestry, and she said she’s noticed a “huge uptick” in the number of consumers her campaigns target using online social networks – particularly Latinos. “We are bringing more ideas in the social environment to our clients, and we hope that those platforms continue to refine their ability to target our consumer,” she says. MySpace Latino, a site launched by New Corp. last Spring, has already proved to be a valuable tool for reaching Hispanics online.

The audience is there, the verdict is out: Is social media a viable channel for online ads? If anything, these numbers give Web sites like Facebook, which have struggled to refine a business model, more time to find out. "If you saw usage rates stagnating, it would start to look like a fad," says eMarketer's Williamson. "As long as more people use social networks, the more time they have to develop that model."

Reader Comments

Jim Hollinshead

January 15, 2009 1:56 PM

The timing of your article is exceptional! I am a grown up who has jumped on the Social Networking Bandwagon and finding an online utility (see Facebook and MySpace)that enabled me to re-connect with long-lost friends was nothing short of amazing!

Ironically, sites like may have come too soon...

The novelty of Facebook hooked me and the utility of Social Networking reeled me in. Now that I have had my 2.0 awakening, I feel compelled to proselytize my unenlightened, 1.0 adult friends! This should read like "poetry in motion" or perhaps "fishing out of a barrel" for advertisers who are on the lookout for transfomational trends in consumer behavior.

While I am an adult in my forties with discretionary income, my Facebook "Friends List" in no way resembles the Membership Roster at the nearby suburban Country Club. Advertising Analysts beware! Social Networks may be a niche now but they have the potential to completely re-define consumerism in America.

Jessyca Frederick

January 15, 2009 4:34 PM

It's not just that sites like came too soon, it's that they didn't realize or understand the potential of social networking and capitalize on their already-large registered user base to deliver a compelling product early enough (or at all) and instead remained dedicated to older gimmicky methods of user-retention.

As an adult user of Facebook (I'm on it several times a day), I can say I look at the targeted advertising and I appreciate it more than non-targeted advertising.


January 16, 2009 6:39 AM

Where is the share button? Fb or Goog connect should be a plus!

Mark Wallace

January 16, 2009 2:07 PM

I run a b2b social networking site for environmental professionals called commonground ( Many of our members also have profiles on facebook and linkedin. That number has increased significanlty over the last six months.

I agree that social networks will be a terrific opportunity for marketers who do things right, but it can also be a huge issue issue for those that do not get social media marketing. It is very differs from traditional marketing. In the near future, I hope to hear more about companies who have effectively figured out the social media marketing and ad revenue recipe.

Christopher Prince Boucher

January 16, 2009 4:21 PM

It's a great thing. Once everyone is on the boat, then we have the power collectively to do many positive things.

Real Change.


January 17, 2009 12:24 AM

Yes, social networking can be fun and help build fun relationships for adults. I CyberDate hot models and webcam in few social networks.. Are others doing this? It seems like WooMe is popular for adult social networkingdating via webcam. You can visit a site like or to video date california girls. Video dating is more fun and safer!

Dali Burgado

January 21, 2009 10:44 AM

Absolutely, advertisers and marketers must take heed. Social media and online social networking are revolutionizing marketing and advertising.

Great post.
Dali Burgado

Cutter Mitchell

January 22, 2009 10:54 PM

First off, Alex I totally agree. An article about social networking, and no share.

Second, seems to be what is happening out there, obviously. But 35 percent of online adults seems low, or lower than it should be. And I am willing to be most of these adults who have profiles on social network sites have then on professional networking sites.

The reason for this, as I see it, is because any way you slice it these sites are not professional. MySpace will always be for teens, Facebook will always be for college students, and let's face it LinkedIn is the most unprofessional place for professionals.

What is needed is a straight forward site that focuses on professional connections, even if they are social, using a medium that is new but also known to them. This is how you get the remaining 65% of online adults into social media.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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