Behind The Numbers: The Digital Divide Narrows

More than half of all African-Americans ages three and up -- 19.2 million people -- will use the Internet this year. That number is projected to rise to 20.1 million by 2007, according to the eMarketer report "African Americans Online: Crossing the Digital Divide."

That's good news for blue-chip advertisers such as Allstate, Procter & Gamble, Infiniti, Chrysler, and Verizon, which are aggressively -- reaching out to this audience through the online channel. "Advertisers have always targeted this audience offline," says Debra Aho Williamson, the eMarketer senior analyst who authored the report. "Advertisers' movement online is very much a factor of size. Reaching the proverbial 50-percent mark offers a very powerful market."

AOL reports that 62 percent of African-Americans conduct their banking online; 58 percent read news online frequently or occasionally; 71 percent conduct research for school or job training, according to Pew Internet & American Life, and 61 percent search for information about a new job.

When looking for information, AOL says, African-Americans are most interested in health (72 percent), news (68 percent), financial information (60 percent), entertainment (55 percent), and sports (39 percent). In addition, a bigresearch study shows that 21.3 percent of this audience uses the Web to seek travel information and book reservations, and 20.1 percent hunt for jobs. Only 11.5 percent use the Web to shop. Online dating, travel, and gaming sites are increasingly frequented by African-Americans, says Sherman Wright, cofounder of Commonground, a multicultural marketing agency.

Analysts predict that African-Americans will be early adopters of Internet-enabled mobile phones, and broadband penetration among this group was projected to grow 25 percent in 2005. "When you're targeting African-Americans on sites that are of a personal interest to them, they're more inclined to view those messages, especially if the ads are related to the subject matter they're looking at at the time," says Ahmad Islam, Wright's partner in Commonground.

Trends driving the growth include rising income levels and educational status, more relevant content, enhanced credit options, and a growing sense of marketers who target them appropriately as "trusted sources," Wright says.

Some advertisers do a better job than others. For its "Infiniti in Black" campaign, Infiniti paired each of its models with an influential black entertainer or artist. "They showed the car in conjunction with the African-American community in these beautifully shot movies," Williamson says. "I was impressed with the level of commitment to bring this campaign to the online audience."

Yankelovich reports that 67 percent of African-Americans access the Internet from home, while 35 percent connect at work and 32 percent at the library. Black women are more likely to access through work, says Nia Enterprises. The most popular sites among African-Americans, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, are AOL's BlackVoices, BlackPlanet, the u.s. Department of Education, and Consumerinfo.com, a telling change from last year's top 3, which included Sprint, BellSouth, and Kazaa.