In the 15 years I have been writing about Internet media and advertising, I feel as if I have been writing the same story every few years about the untapped and undervalued Hispanic and African-American communities. Internet history should have taught marketers a lesson about this. Long before Mark Zuckerberg was cooking code at Harvard, amazing online communities such as MiGente and BlackPlanet were already demonstrating the massive power of social networking. Ethnic minorities in the U.S. embraced digital technologies (now mobile) as a communication tool often more fiercely than the general population because the Web helped knit together the dispersed families that are so important to Hispanic/Latino and African-American culture.
Marketers continue to be behind the curve. The recent U.S. Census showed that Hispanic and Latino populations now comprise 16% of the overall U.S. populace and these are among the fastest-growing groups in the U.S. But in expanding the scope of their efforts, do marketers risk misfiring by over-generalizing this large Latino audience? Marketers need to understand the unique dynamics around Internet use that occur in many Latino families, says Phil Colon, CEO of Project 2050, a communications agency focused on the segment. Marketers addressing the Latino family are sometimes talking to multiple generations whose experiences in U.S., language preferences, and attitudes towards technology can be vastly different.
"The older generation still has a bit of distrust about online," he says. And yet, older Latinos in a household often still use the Internet as a resource, but sometimes through a proxy. The younger or savvier or more U.S.-centric person in the household may be the kid who is in school, U.S.-born and usually becomes the hub for all kinds of information. For marketers, this means that a retailer might make an initial outreach in a bilingual TV messaging campaign to the older stakeholder in making buying decisions. "But how do we utilize the younger generation to deliver a reinforcement message to that parent that is combined with something they see on TV?"
Colon suggests marketers target the tech-savvy Latinos, especially in social media, in order to start conversations and "extrapolate insights for product development."
Running a Spanish language ad on Univision and Telemundo is all well and good, Colon says, "But you are reaching only half the market. Forty-eight percent of today's U.S. Latino market is under the age of 18, with the majority of them born in the States. It is less about language than it is about culture," he says. Location matters. Local cultures exert influence on language use that marketers have to appreciate. Talking to the Latino community in El Paso, Texas or southern California will be very different from addressing Latinos in the New York City area. "You have subsets and groups with their own ways of communicating." While the overall majority of younger Latinos are English dominant, in El Paso the 12-to-18 segment is a more direct product of immigration and a marketer might expect this target to be more Spanish speaking.
Still, there are overall trends and affinities to Latinos online. An AOL/Cheskin study found that Latinos are generally more enthusiastic about the benefits of the Internet than other users and they rely on it more for product news and evaluations. "They highly regard product reviews and ratings," Colon says. There is also a good deal of peer-to-peer assistance within social groups, and that tech-savvy member helping others find information and make purchases.
And while Internet penetration generally is leveling off, the Latino population online is one where growth can be expected to continue for a while. Between 2006 and 2008, Colon tells me, usage in the Latino community rose 10%, from a 54% penetration to 64%. Fueling this growth, according to Colon, are the groups who traditionally had not been well wired but are embracing the efficiencies digital brings to all lives: foreign-born Latinos, as well as households earning less than $30,000. When it comes to targeting this audience online, the range of subsegments and diversity of needs is only growing.