A new survey of Americans shows a large gap between the top 31 percent of adult information technology users and the 69 percent who are either offline or minimally connected.

While the technology “elites” own the most devices, use the internet and cell phones frequently, and create content such as web sites, blogs, and digital movies, the rest of the pack either relies primarily on cell phones, is just starting to experiment, or is offline altogether.

Conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the survey divides tech users into 10 categories, ranging from the 15 percent who are “off network” to the 8 percent of tech “omnivores,” who “voraciously” and creatively consume the latest information, gadgets, and services.

Following the omnivores at the top are the “connectors,” the 8 percent who are “heavy, pragmatic tech adopters” and either use technology to connect socially or to improve their work productivity.

“Lackluster veterans” frequently use the internet but tend to avoid cell phones, while “productivity enhancers” use technology to learn new things, keep up with others, and do their jobs. These two groups each comprise another 8 percent of tech users.

In the middle of the pack are “mobile centrics,” who primarily use cell phones (10 percent), and the “connected but hassled” (10 percent) who invest in technology yet find the constant connectivity a burden.

Nearly 49 percent of American tech users fall into the “few tech assets” category, where they either don’t have access, find it irritating, or use it sparingly.

Conducted via telephone, the survey included 4,001 American adults and has a confidence level of 95 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percent.

By looking at patterns of adoption and use of new media tools, the study can help communicators understand what technologies people have, how they use them, and what they think about them.

This kind of data is invaluable when planning PR and marketing strategies, and it should help school leaders avoid common pitfalls such as relying too heavily on one form of communication–eMail or voice broadcasting, for example–when reaching out to parents or other key groups.

The survey also reinforces why using a marketing mix of communication channels–from “Web 2.0” techniques such as blogs, podcasts, and online social networks (like FaceBook.com and MySpace.com), to more traditional tactics such as small-group meetings and print materials–is so essential.

Just because the Pew research shows that 85 percent of all Americans have either internet access or a cell phone doesn’t mean that’s their only–or most preferred–communication channel.

Interestingly, in terms of gadgets and gizmos, a 2006 Pew survey showed that more adult Americans (73 percent) have a cell phone than any other technology, followed by desktop computers (68 percent), digital cameras (55 percent), video cameras (43 percent), and laptop computers (30 percent).

At 20 percent, iPods and MP3 players are gaining traction with the over-18 crowd as well, followed by webcams (13 percent) and personal digital assistants (11 percent).

And, while the vast majority of American adults–67 percent–say they like having so much information at their fingertips, more than one-fourth–27 percent–say they feel overloaded.

eMail fatigue and information overload pose real challenges to school communicators, who must find a way to cut through the clutter and get people’s attention.

Unfortunately, much of the message and image clutter that abounds in school districts is self-generated.

Restraint matters when it comes to communications. Just because we can send information in new and exciting ways doesn’t mean we should.

In many ways, the Pew research puts new labels on the old “diffusion of innovation” model first identified by sociologists studying farmers’ adoption of new seed-corn technologies in the 1940s.

Made famous by Everett Rogers two decades later, the theory identifies innovators as the 2.5 percent who create new ideas and take risks, followed by the 13.5 percent who are early adopters and the 34 percent who make up the early majority.

Bringing up the rear are the 34 percent who comprise the late majority, followed by the 16 percent who are considered innovation laggards.

Rogers added an important element by identifying five key stages, or steps, an individual or group has to go through before adopting a new idea–steps school leaders can’t ignore when planning their communications strategy.

These steps include awareness, interest, trial, evaluation, and adoption. As Rogers points out, when simply creating awareness or generating interest in a new idea, product, or service, mass communication techniques such as web sites and publicity are appropriate.

However, if your goal is to get people to try something new, evaluate the pros and cons, or adopt a new idea as their own, more personal techniques–including good, old-fashioned face-to-face communication or first-hand experience–are required.

Too often, school communicators either get stuck in the awareness and information-sharing stage, or they try to “pass go” and skip immediately to the adoption stage, without providing the proper foundation of information, shared experiences, and one-to-one communications.

Moving public opinion and changing behavior take time, resources, and careful planning.

New media tools such as web sites, blogs, and podcasts with RSS feeds to MP3 players or text messaging to cell phones might represent the new frontier in communications, but we can’t forget that pot-luck suppers and home-based coffees are often what get presidents elected and school bonds approved.


Pew Internet and American Life Project


Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.