What Was the Consumer Internet Barometer?

The Consumer Internet Barometer was a quarterly survey report produced by the Conference Board and TNS NFO that recorded, analyzed, and reported on the Internet usage of 10,000 U.S. households. The Barometer was last published in 2009 and is no longer widely available or used as a reference.

Key Takeaways

  • The Consumer Internet Barometer was quarterly survey and report on consumer Internet use in the U.S.
  • The Barometer was last published in 2009.
  • The very growth and success of the Internet as an economic phenomenon was a major factor in the eventual obsolescence of the Barometer.

Understanding the Consumer Internet Barometer

As levels of Internet use increased through the 1990s and 2000s, it was expected that online purchases would become a more important driver of the economy. In cooperation with TNS NFO, the Conference Board published the Consumer Internet Barometer in an attempt to estimate this effect as the U.S. economy transformed and digitized. Throughout the 2000s, the Consumer Internet Barometer documented the process of change in the economy as more and more households got connected, trust in the security and financial infrastructure of ecommerce grew, and people spent more time and money online. The survey measured things like:

  • The importance of the Internet in the daily lives of households
  • Overall satisfaction of Internet users
  • Online purchase characteristics, times, and dates
  • Users' perceptions of security for online transactions and general Internet usage

The rate of response to the survey was very high, making the Consumer Internet Barometer one of the most widely relied upon measures of U.S. consumer Internet use at the time. With the Dotcom boom and bust, the rise of ecommerce, and the advent of big data, Internet use went from a novel frontier in the economy to a dominant and ubiquitous force that virtually all businesses and industries are now dependent on. Ironically, the strength and speed of the trends that the Consumer Internet Barometer was designed to measure ultimately outpaced the usefulness of this indicator.

Many of the survey items and definitions that were relevant to contemporary conditions seem wildly obsolescent by modern standards. For example, in the survey, a household was considered to be "online" if it reported being on the Internet at least once per month. Today, when constant Internet access through smartphones is virtually the norm and when interruption of Internet services for even a few hours can create major disruptions of businesses and consumers, this criterion seems remarkable primitive. 

Moreover, as the speed of change and transformation in the tech and telecommunications industries have accelerated year after year, a quarterly survey of Internet activity became less and less relevant. Today, when data on consumer behavior (online and off) is often collected, processed, and analyzed in real time, a quarterly barometer of consumer Internet activity is effectively obsolete, except perhaps in the most marginal regions of the world that may not be fully penetrated by telecom services. 

Nonetheless, the Consumer Internet Barometer could provide some useful data of historical interest as to this critical period of transformation of the economy.