It’s said that the marketplace is cycling faster than ever these days. No doubt this is true, but at least a part of this sensation of a brisker pace is an illusion that brand marketers should scrutinize carefully.

The iconic illustration of faster cycles is the oft-cited speed at which media technologies have reached an audience of 50 million. Radio, it is claimed, took 38 years to reach 50 million; TV, 13 years; the Internet, four years. It’s a very dramatic recitation. But it’s urban legend. It’s hard to know this, though, without a lot of spadework. A Google search returns well over 130 million Web pages with some mention of these data, and very few of these pages cite any independent authority.

For example, a United Nations report authoritatively references these data. Many other authorities cite this U.N. report. Yet, the report itself footnotes no primary sources. Additionally, the U.N. report presents these data as if they apply to worldwide audiences, even though audience sizes are difficult if not impossible to measure in much of the world. So it’s no surprise that the pertinent geography of this urban myth occasionally gets confused. A Goldman Sachs report published during the height of the dot-com bubble asserted that these data related to media technology growth in Asia.

Ground zero for this urban legend appears to be a 1998 U.S. Department of Commerce report that relied on a 1997 Morgan Stanley report on Internet retailing co-authored by legendary Internet analyst Mary Meeker. The geography issue, at least, is resolved because both of these reports cite these data for the U.S. marketplace. But the Morgan Stanley report contains only vague references to primary sources, making it tough to independently examine the underlying figures. This is not to suggest anything untoward, only to take notice of the fact that these data buttress a central belief about the nature of the 21st century digital marketplace, so it seems entirely appropriate to apply the time-honored principle of trust but verify.

That is exactly what Gisle Hannemyr did in an article for a 2003 issue of The Internet Society. Hannemyr’s Internet bona fides are impressive. In 1991, he co-founded the first ISP in Norway, and later, other Internet businesses. In 2003, Norwegian members of an association of entrepreneurs and investors called First Tuesday voted him Internet personality of the decade.

In a meticulous and exhaustively referenced analysis of media audience growth, Hannemyr traced the origins and early history of the three media at issue (along with the telephone, a communications technology notably omitted from the Morgan Stanley growth comparisons). Then, compiling audience data from all available sources, Hannemyr computed an estimate of adoption rates. Details of Hannemyr’s analysis are readily accessible, so there is no need to belabor them here. It’s his bottom-line that’s key.

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