More Than 2 Chinas Worth of People Will Be Digitally Connected By 2020. Are You Ready?

More Than 2 Chinas Worth of People Will Be Digitally Connected By 2020. Are You Ready?
Image credit: Shutterstock

In five years, three to five billion consumers who have never used the Internet before will come online, and most of the new adopters will be mobile-only users. This means that a population twice the size of China will begin accessing information, sharing photos, making purchases, using digital services and more. By 2020, there will be around eight billion people on the planet, and nearly 65 percent of them will be connected.

Five years really isn’t that long of a time period. Think about it, the first iPad came out just five years ago. The implications, from purely a content consumption standpoint, are huge. The volume of content, products and information is going to explode in ways we haven't yet begun to dream of. New services will emerge.

Humankind has never had this amount of growth potential sitting right in front of it before. The population of the Internet and digital connectivity is literally going to double in five years. It’s a mind-boggling proposition, and everything we know about digital engagement will need to be thrown out the window. We are going to see massive changes across the entire spectrum of human life, including how we interact with each other and the world around us.

Related: What the Office of the Future Might Look Like (Infographic)

Companies in every industry will have to rethink the way they structure their business, and scale will be the trump card. The need for scale will be particularly profound in terms of the demand for content. People are consuming digital media more than ever before, thanks largely to the rise of mobile devices. The global population now consumes 3.9 exabytes in data a month. By 2019, this number will be 24.3 exabytes.

Online content is how people are -- and will continue to -- learn and connect in just about every country on Earth. As the number of new Internet users continues to grow exponentially, so will the demand for content. In just five short years, there will be a shift in how the Internet is accessed and consumed, and one of the biggest changes will be that everything will be done, viewed and absorbed through ONE device.

Not only will people read, watch, share, buy, create, collaborate, etc., but in the future, all of those separate actions will be bundled together. This means consumers won’t just be using a device to read. For example, people will both be able to read about new health issues and also record their own vital signs, get real-time advice on how to manage their health or create a video on a nutrition and fitness routine and share it.

Everything will come from one place that can be accessed anytime, anywhere. This creates tremendous challenges and opportunities for businesses.

A brave new world

We are on the cusp of a content consumption revolution, and new users will inevitably have new online behaviors. It should come as no surprise that everything will center around mobile. The number of smartphone users worldwide will surpass two billion in 2016. By 2020, this number will triple to six billion, and GSMA Intelligence estimates that smartphones will represent two-thirds of the “nine billion mobile connections in place.”

But, what are these new Internet consumers going to be doing online?

A recently conducted global survey of online activities in emerging and developing nations helps answer this question. It found that these users actively share content with their friends and family, and that after socializing, accessing information is the second most common online activity. For users in emerging markets, the Internet is increasingly their go-to source for content on political news, healthcare, government services and more.

By 2020, we will be seeing new levels of collaboration possibilities that will not only cross borders but cultures too. It is a convenient and affordable link to the rest of the world, and in many cases, the only one.

Feeding the beast

This changing landscape has dramatic and unavoidable implications for what is required of publishers. When your potential customers are scattered all over the world, content is how you attract them, educate them, connect with and engage them. Companies that have high-quality products and / or content will be surpassed by those who have intelligently thought about how to execute quality content at scale, whether through user-generated content, content that is engineered to go viral or a well-honed formula for telling digital stories.

However it’s produced, this content will need to be accessible on-demand and on mobile. It also needs to be shareable, since social networking is the most popular online activity for users in emerging markets, and since social networks are leading platforms for content discovery and only becoming more powerful.

Content also needs to be original and relevant. The vast amount of content out there online means that making your content stand out is not easy, even within one country. Once you expand your playing field to the entire world, achieving relevance becomes a much steeper challenge.

Related: Is There a Future for Email?

Localization is key. Emerging market consumers are extremely diverse, with significantly different cultural backgrounds and online behavioral patterns. A global strategy will never succeed unless it is also localized and keeps the unique characteristics of each market in mind. What resonates in India will not resonate in Africa, and vice versa. Conversely, making content locally relevant can reap real results. Around 60 percent of consumers in emerging markets react more favorably to mobile content that is locally relevant.

“As mobile offerings become more prominent in emerging markets throughout regions such as Latin American and Africa, hyper-local content is being consumed with more frequency than other broader offerings,” wrote Upstream CEO Marco Veremis.

In addition, all these new Internet users will come with their own unique sets of interests, experiences, passions, likes, dislikes, preferences and more, and they will want ways to engage with these interests online. It may already seem like there is an online community for just about every topic, no matter how niche, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

As these small enthusiast communities expand in numbers, the demand for enthusiast content and the impulse to fulfill it will also expand. There are entire subsets of interests and content that haven’t even been created yet.

Fortunately, this tremendous diversity will also generate a tremendous amount of data about new types of Internet users, niche topics and more. This will enable brands to gain insight into these new users and target them accordingly, with articles, videos, offers, products, etc. Analytics will enable personalization. This is already happening today but on a minute scale compared with what’s coming.  

Satisfying the hunger for diverse, relevant, localized and personalized content on a global scale is a momentous task. It will require more sophisticated, powerful infrastructure and new ways of thinking about how content is created and delivered. I predict that as the rising billions get online, a new wave of innovation will conceive of innovative new tools for creating content. People will create content with an immediacy and at a scale that’s never been done before, which will combine different kinds of experiences (videos, photos, audio, messages, etc.) in interesting ways.

Finally, since mobile devices will be the device for everything -- from content consumption to commerce -- these two experiences will become more closely connected. Content and commerce won’t be separable. We have already seen early efforts at this, as Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, and others roll out commerce buttons around content.

It is crazy to think that in just five short years, billions of people will be seamlessly connecting to the Internet not from a wired terminal, but from the palm of their hand. Content, sharing, buying and even new ways of consumption that we haven’t thought of yet will be available in less than a decade from now.

An online community the size of two Chinas is barreling toward us fast, and it will hit us hard. Are you ready?

Related: This Is What the Internet Will Look Like in 2025