Multicultural Users Still Driving The Smartphone Revolution

I learned an important lesson about digital media back in 2000 or so. Multicultural segments in the U.S. are almost always way ahead of the usage curve.

Back then I was covering a company called Community Connect that launched AsianAvenue, MiGente and Black Planet. They were protean social networks where members built profiles and engaged in phenomenal amounts of social interactions across the country and across national borders. Founder Ben Sun and then later executive Omar Wasaw used to make my hair blow back with tales of the number of page views they were accruing at these sites, and the levels of engagement and daily use. This was when Zuckerberg was still in high school.

That same scenario was played out in the early years of mobile, when Hispanic users especially were much more likely to be “mobile-only” Internet users. Likewise both Hispanic and African-American mobile users way, way over-indexed on almost all data channel use going back to the mid-2000s. Again, multicultural segments, and the companies smart enough to map services against audience needs, were anticipating and learning digital patterns years before they hit the general population.

Well now the “general population” is multicultural, and marketers who overlook this demographic reality are not just missing an early peek at emerging digital behaviors. They are missing what marketing will look like in coming years.

To wit: Nielsen reports for Q4 2014 that multicultural users in the U.S. continue to lead the charge in smartphone penetration. General smartphone ownership reached 77% of mobile phone customers. But 86.6% of Asian-Americans, 83% of African-Americans and 82.4% of Hispanics owned smartphones. White Americans trailed at 74.2%.

Android remains the dominant operating system in the U.S., with 49.5% of smartphones running Google’s OS. Apple still owns handset share (43.6%). Android enjoys its highest penetration among Hispanic users (53.8%), but iOS ownership was up 6% in the quarter.

The increasing diversity of the U.S. population is not just a simple matter of switching demographic targets and superficial tweaks to messaging. There is a real cultural transition going on that goes to the heart of how marketers speak to consumers. The Millennial segment represents a key market where a lot of these transitions are taking place, demographically and culturally. This is the age group where the new face of America is taking shape, where 43% have multicultural roots.

At our recent Engage: Hispanics show in Miami (videos of all sessions available here), I found most fascinating a discussion on how to market to Hispanic Millennials.  As several of the panelists pointed out, these Millennials do not identify as “either/or” one heritage or another. One identity does not dominate at the expense of another. It is not a zero-sum game. Finding ways to speak authentically to this segment is an important challenge for speaking to the new “mainstream.”   

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