Market Focus: Hábleme (Talk to me)

Ask any Web pundit about the state of online marketing to multicultural audiences, and you'll likely get some variation on the following: "It's a globally wired world, dude. The opportunities are, like, totally endless, and everybody wants in." Dig a little deeper, however, and you find that this is only partly true.

Sure, most marketers say they want to lure culturally diverse consumers, but few seem to have acted on this sentiment. Take the financial space. Many investment firms supposedly are targeting Asian-Americans with marketing pitches. But look on the Web and you'd be hard-pressed to tell. One can navigate Merrill Lynch's international site for 10 minutes, for instance, without finding any culturally specific content.

Only Charles Schwab seems to walk the walk, with its international Web portal offering easy-to-use links to fully functional Chinese- and Korean-language sites."They've set out to reach Asians with the same rigor that they've shown in approaching the general market," says Larry Moskowitz, vice president of strategic marketing services at Kang & Lee (K&L) Advertising, which does not count Schwab among its clients.

Yet online marketing to multicultural audiences remains in its infancy. Some ethnic groups have been targeted with more success than others. America Online in particular receives high marks for its aol Latino section, which appeals to a range of otherwise underserved Spanish-speaking cultures.

"People who are in charge of strategy tend not to have an understanding of what multicultural markets are about," notes Felipe Korzenny, professor of advertising and integrated marketing communication at Florida State University and director of the school's Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication. Even where there are appropriate venues for would-be advertisers, the process of coordinating content is arduous. Moskowitz notes that k&l client Western Union has a contact person based in the U.S. for the Asian outbound market and contacts in each of the Asian markets it serves, in addition to a Western Union Web maven in charge of online marketing.

"Western Union has checks and balances in place that make it work," Moskowitz explains. "But if a structure like that isn't managed carefully, a leading Web site in any of the Asian markets could have three or four people approaching [it] about a single company's projects."

Still, marketers remain sluggish in their response to online opportunities. Jay Rossi, founder and ceo of multicultural marketing and translation firm ddr Global, notes that even the most eager clients often face administrative obstacles. "It takes a lot of convincing to get the lower echelon of decision-makers to buy into the concept, let alone to get them to take it to their higher-ups," he says.

As a result, quick fixes are often made; most notably, rote translations of English-language sites into other languages. Needless to say, an awful lot can get lost in translation. "Companies think that they just have to get the language right, but the language is the easy part," notes Sherrie Aycock, co-owner of AllPoints Research.

Adds Marla Skiko, vice president/director of digital innovation at Tapestry, Starcom MediaVest Group's multicultural arm: "You don't see too many people taking a tv commercial and just retrofitting it for another language. Why would anybody do the same thing for a Web site?"

Indeed, lost on many otherwise sophisticated marketers is the diversity of the ethnic groups whose members they hope to attract. Companies attempting to reach a greater number of Hispanics rarely take into account the cultural and linguistic nuances that exist among consumers from different Spanish-speaking regions. Even within the United States, a program that resonates with Dominicans might fall flat with Cubans.

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