Consumers say the Internet still has a way to go to be fully functional and useful, according to the Unilever E-Consumer Report: Connectivity on the Web, released today. The report, the first of a quarterly series of Internet user surveys, reveals what people like and don’t like about the Web.

The series, the Unilever E-Consumer Report, conducted by Cyber Dialogue, conveys how highly active online users, primarily women, rate the performance of the Web across nine areas, from convenience and content to online shopping and entertainment, and against a driving motivation to use it. The first report card, Connectivity on the Web, examines how well the Web performs in helping users connect with others. It summarizes consumer responses according to three performance categories: “most useful,” “useful” and “could be more useful.”

The Web gets the highest performance marks (“most useful”) as a connectivity tool in two functional areas: connecting with others and lifestyle impact. It gets its lowest marks (“could be more useful”) for convenience, overall functionality, and entertainment. “Overall functionality” rates how well active users say the Web delivers “extremely desirable” features.

In other areas reported, consumers said the Web was “useful” for its content, information gathering, assuring security and privacy, and for online shopping. Top complaints included “too slow,” “unsolicited email” and “the system crashing and freezing” too often, among others.

“As a consumer products company whose primary consumers are women, Unilever is focused on using the Web to improve the everyday lives of people,” said Mark Olney, Vice President of Unilever Interactive Brand Center (IBC), a unit within Unilever, which is responsible for the development of interactive strategies for Unilever’s brands.

“We developed the consumer report as part of the way we measure the value of the Net, in terms of its ability to establish an ongoing dialogue with consumers,” he continued. “Our focus in providing value-added information makes consumer feedback essential. It’s also critical in our overall goal to work with our partners to help shape the Web to be even more friendly and useful to consumers.”

The report, which breaks out data by age, segments out parents and benchmarks motivations throughout the series, also surveys men for comparison purposes on their Web usage preferences. Men overall were generally less satisfied with Web performance than were women.

Among key findings in each of the nine areas:
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  • Connecting with others gets high marks. Nearly one in every three women (31%) feels strongly that “the best thing about the Internet is how it helps me connect with other people,” and nearly half(45%) feel sending and receiving messages is the “single most useful aspect of the Internet.”
    Grade: most useful
    • As a convenient tool to connect with others or gain information, there is widespread concern (42% of both women, 39% men) about the overabundance of choices and content on the Internet. Even so, most men and women (90% of women, 93% of men) agree that the Internet saves them time.
      Grade: could be more useful
    • Women are generally more satisfied than men with content area availability. When asked which content areas they “use and like a lot, ” women say: shopping (45% compared to 33% of men), cooking/recipes (30% compared to 10% of men), healthcare news and information (27% compared to 15% of men), and bulletin boards (14%compared to 6% of men).
      Grade: useful
    • Security and privacy involving unsolicited email remains a concern, but when it comes to receiving free samples and coupons, active online users say “send them on.” Coupons are particularly attractive to women in the 26-40 age segment (83%). Over half (54%) of women like to connect with companies via email communications. This is especially true of women who have children (62% vs. 46% of non-mothers).
      Grade: useful
    • The Internet is having a dramatic lifestyle impact on highly active users’ everyday lives. Women and men agree (89% each) “knowing how to use the Internet has given me a feeling of freedom and accomplishment.” More than a quarter (28%) of women report they are spending less time cleaning their homes, less time watching TV and videos (63%), talking on the phone (60%), and shopping in stores (57%) now compared to before they were online.
      Grade: most useful
    • Online shopping is one of the top uses of the Internet, according to study findings, and most women have shopped online (86%) at some point in the past. Just under half of women (45%) indicate they “use and like online shopping a lot.” (93%) feel “the Internet gives me access to more and better information about brands, products and services. ” Some complaints women have include: credit card security (25%), being unwittingly redirected to sites and services (25%), and being bombarded with advertising(21%).
      Grade: useful
    • Information seeking is widespread, but online users don’t find it the most useful aspect of the Internet. Although 85% of women find the Internet valuable for doing research, only 19% say “searching for information on specific topics” is the “most” useful aspect of the Internet, following “sending and receiving messages” (45%). A majority of women (66%) and men (87%) agree that the Internet allows them to “change the relationship I have with the companies I do business with.” Complaints include: “difficult to separate online information that is credible from that which is not trustworthy” (61% women, 66% men), and “it’s too hard to find things on the Internet” (21% women, 18% men).
      Grade: useful
    • Entertainment on the Web meets with low consumer expectations. Only about 10% (9% of women and 11% of men) feel the Internet is useful for entertainment purposes. There is some anticipation of future high-quality Web casts of events (4% women, 10 % men).
      Grade: could be more useful
    • In the area of overall functionality, many “extremely desirable” Web functions are not yet achieving “excellent delivery,” according to active online users’ standards. For example, 74% of women say the Web is desirable for keeping in touch with friends and relatives, while only 62% say the Internet provides excellent delivery of this function.
      Grade: could be more useful

    Cyber Dialogue conducted the survey online with 831 highly active online users. Its analysts classified each survey question into overriding themes or functions, and assigned a grade reflecting quantitative trends in each thematic classification.

    About Unilever

    Unilever (NYSE: UN, UL) is one of the world’s largest consumer products companies with sales close to $50 billion. It produces and markets a wide range of foods, home and personal care products. Unilever operates in 88 countries around the globe and employs 267,000 people.

    In the United States, Unilever sales exceeded $8 billion in 1999. It employs 21,000 people and has 66 offices and manufacturing sites in 23 states. Two of Unilever’s 12 global Business Groups are headquartered in the United States.