Market Focus: Enable These Browsers
When it comes to marketing online to people with physical disabilities, few individuals are better qualified to discuss the potential and the pitfalls than Charles Riley. As the co-founder of WeMedia, a for-profit multimedia company for people with disabilities, and former editor of its bimonthly magazine, Riley was among the first to tout the market power of his audience: an estimated $250 billion in discretionary income for the 54 million Americans with physical disabilities.
His company might, however, have been a bit too eager about the potential of the Internet to lure people with disabilities--and the advertisers who want to reach them.
"We went big on broadcasting the Sydney Paralympics over our Web site and blew our whole budget," recalls Riley, now an associate professor in the business journalism Masters program at CUNY's Baruch College, and author of "Disability & the Media: Prescriptions for Change." "The ideas we had were worthy ones--things like selling real estate to people who might not be able to get out during the winter time--but maybe we overestimated the interest from the online ad community. Remember, this was before 'Murderball.'"
Despite the aforementioned data, marketers big and small still seem befuddled in their online efforts to market to people with physical disabilities. The problem, in fact, may be one of relative ignorance. For years, most companies have attempted to reach "the disability community" rather than the many smaller communities that such a designation may encompass: individuals with visual or hearing impairments, facial disfigurement, cerebral palsy, or any number of other conditions.
"Saying that you want to market to 'the disability community' is like saying you want to market to 'the Asian community.' You're lumping together a lot of disparate elements. The needs of a person with visual difficulties are quite different from the ones of a person with hearing difficulties," notes Shel Horowitz, a marketing consultant and author of "Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First." Complicating the task further is that the various groups "don't always sing together," as Riley puts it.
Economic factors also complicate capturing and appealing to these audiences online. Mary Johnson, editor of Ragged Edge, an online opinion journal, points to census data and labor statistics suggesting that people with disabilities are, taken as an aggregate, the poorest sector in the U.S. "That translates to [less] computer access, which helps explain to me why people with disabilities have taken to the Internet less than non-disabled people," she says. On the other hand, Mike Dorn, Temple University assistant professor and coordinator of disability studies, stresses that people with physical disabilities are eager to be marketed to, online and off. "It's part of the experience of being an American in the 21st century," he says. Given that even a cursory Internet search reveals pages upon pages of material--serious-minded, funny, and profane--developed by and for disabled individuals, there would appear to be considerable opportunity for those online marketers who approach the task at hand with sensitivity and an eye for detail.
Broadly speaking, individuals with disabilities tend not to be especially fond of specialty-marketing approaches. Johnson recalls a recent online discussion group debate over the merits of a lighted cane. "Most of the comments were along the lines of 'Oh, God, I wouldn't be caught dead with one of those,'" she notes. The lesson? Just because a given product would seem to appeal to an individual with a particular disability doesn't necessary mean that it will. So it's no surprise that pundits believe any online marketing effort begins and ends with its tone. The good: straightforward approaches that tout a product's benefits, or ones steeped in what Kay Olson, publisher of "The Gimp Parade" blog, calls "disability cool." The bad: anything that tugs at the heartstrings, deliberately or otherwise. "People with disabilities do not like the Oprah-style 'pity pitch.' They're sick of hearing about so-called medical miracles," Riley stresses. Olson, who describes herself in her online profile as "a thirtysomething disabled feminist... overeducated, underemployed," agrees: "I don't want to do business with companies that patronize me or push the feel-good euphemistic stuff."
To find out what might work best for their product or service, marketers need only do the obvious: ask. In most instances, the companies who strike a chord are the ones which invest the time and effort to learn the lingo and understand the self-representations among the various online communities. In other words, they need only do what they ordinarily do with any other group.
"A lot of the time, you're talking not so much about a medical condition as a culture," says Riley. Still, companies have been slow to act. Riley notes with astonishment that a focus-group summit coordinated last summer by the National Spinal Cord Injury Association was one of the first bona fide efforts on the part of marketing professionals to reach people with disabilities.
Web design issues also abound, particularly for visually impaired users reliant on jaws, a popular screen-reading application, or comparable programs. Despite the popularity of such software, many Web sites are not coded in a way that facilitates optimal use of it -- or, in many cases, any use of it at all. The Bobby test, accessible via http://www.cast.org/bobby/, allows a company to test every page of Web content for accessibility issues.
A quick test-run of BestBuy.com, for example, gives the retailer low marks for, in numerous places, failing to "provide an extended description" when an image "conveys important information beyond what is in its alternative text." In other words, even those visually impaired users armed with jaws cannot enjoy a full, accurate depiction of the site's content.
Then there's the problem with Flash: Web sites developed using Flash are invisible to jaws users; in nearly all instances, only a home page title and a brief description can be read. Visually impaired consumers thus often miss the marketing message entirely.
"It's pretty amazing that so many online catalog places in particular fail to make their sites accessible to people who use screen-reading programs," Johnson says. "There's no reason not to do it--it's not expensive. It just requires sorting out a few coding things."