Markets Focus: Is the Word Getting Out?

Marketing to gays and lesbians takes smarts and specificity

Nearly 29 percent of gay Americans spend more than 20 hours online every week, according to the Gay/Lesbian Consumer Online Census, prepared annually by marketing firm OpusComm Group and Syracuse University's S.I. New-house School of Public Communications. The research finds that 77 percent have conducted banking or related financial transactions online, while 74 percent have bought a product or service, and 69 percent have made airline or hotel reservations online.

And yet when asked about online marketing efforts targeting lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) consumers, Stephanie K. Blackwood, cofounder of marketing agency Double Platinum, scoffs at the notion that marketers have started to realize the potential of such campaigns.

"In your opinion, who does good online work?" she asks. When Nike, Burger King, and several Anheuser-Busch brands are suggested as examples, she replies, "None of them have done anything specifically targeting the LGBT community."

Blackwood makes her observation less as a rousing call to arms than as a reality check of sorts. While some marketers have popped their shoulders out of the socket patting themselves on the back for LGBT campaigns, the reality is that many opportunities remain untapped.

Don't believe it? Visit any of the high-traffic sites under the PlanetOut Inc. banner (,,, and see how many ads for toothpaste, laundry detergent, or other consumer packaged goods you find. Or check out the number of online pitches supposedly targeted to LGBT consumers that merely rehash existing general-market campaigns.

Still, there are more than a few signs of the boom that focused-focused agencies and media have been predicting for the last 24 months. The 2005 Gay Press Report, compiled by ad agency Prime Access and media-rep firm Rivendell Media, notes that nearly 180 Fortune 500 brands were active in the gay market last year, a jump from 150 in 2004. Granted, those figures don't include online media  but it stands to reason that with advertisers dropping print for the Web, Internet media should pick up more than its share of the runoff.

This summer, Bravo and PlanetOut, which is handling promotions and sales, launched, the first broadband, video-centric channel specifically targeting the LGBT audience. Having evolved from the programming block of the same name on the defunct Trio cable network, OutzoneTV offers everything from Internet-only content from Bravo mainstays like comic Kathy Griffin and "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy" to episodes of "Cooking's a Drag," starring cross-dressing culinary crackerjack Betty Dee Lishous.

Opportunities to connect with upscale, tech-savvy LGBT consumers abound. "When you speak up to these consumers and you create a compelling reason for them to tune in, they do in droves," says Jason Klarman, Bravo's senior vice president, marketing and brand strategy. "Part of my job is buying advertising as well. What I'm seeing are more and more places that could potentially be like a watering hole, but online."

Marketing to LGBT consumers comes with its share of potential pitfalls. Take the inclusiveness of the LGBT tag, which encompasses a broad range of individuals who vary in gender, age, and sexual identification, among other things. "Advertisers look at LGBT as this big general audience, which it clearly is not," notes Mark Elderkin, PlanetOut Inc.'s president.

Adds Matt Skallerud, president of here! Interactive Media and founder of H.I.M. Corp., which develops Web sites for the gay and lesbian community: "Companies say, 'I just want to reach gay people.' What we sometimes have to do is say, 'Okay, let's step back and find out who you want to reach' [within that group]. People like us are essentially playing the role of business matchmaker and trying to match up companies with the demos they may not know exist online." To that end, HERE! has conducted a series of seminars across the U.S. to pass along tips to marketers unfamiliar with LGBT consumers.

Many marketers skimp on their homework. LGBT marketing experts bemoan the unscientific way a large percentage of advertisers approach this audience, eschewing in-depth research for gut hunches and programs that play on tired stereotypes.

"Some of these companies, they either go by the seat of their pants or just ask the resident gay person in the office what they should be doing," says Jeff Garber, president of OpusComm Group. "What does one person in an office in Chelsea [N.Y.] know about the preferences of a lesbian who lives in Topeka?"

What's more, the creative poses problems for many marketers. "The first impulse of so many people is just to say 'hunky bodies' and go from there," says Skallerud. "I'm not sure how 'hunky bodies' by themselves make a lot of sense for a product or service that's not sexual in nature."

According to OMMA's extremely informal poll of LGBT marketing wonks, the sectors that have most effectively targeted LGBT consumers online are travel/ tourism, automotive, and entertainment. Lagging behind slightly has been financial services, which Howard Buford, founder and chief executive officer of Prime Access, believes is about to change.

"With [financial-services companies], they're focusing their attention in the wrong place," Buford notes. "What gay couples are interested in is how they manage shared assets for unmarried couples, and what are the legal challenges around that. I guess that's kind of a specialty within financial services, but these companies need to know that general brand messages aren't enough."

Consultants also suggest that companies aim deeper than they have in the past. For years, few had ventured beyond the home pages of sites like Now more seem inclined to try advertising within chat rooms and other community areas.

As for promotions and cross-platform deals, few focused-focused media entities are scaled to allow for such expansion. In addition to the nearly 5.5 million unique visitors per month on its network of sites, PlanetOut Inc. last year acquired print titles The Advocate and Out, adding even more heft to its portfolio. "There's a print budget, an online budget, an event budget, a million other budgets. It's tough to coordinate," Elderkin says.

PlanetOut recently forged an online program around this month's Gay Games. GlaxoSmithKline's Lexiva HIV drug is sponsoring an interactive microsite, and there's a music-themed pitch for Chrysler's Jeep brand. Cadillac also extended its "best of the best" messaging into the LGBT space by sponsoring PlanetOut's Entrepreneur of the Year program.

"What those companies have tried to do, and I think have succeeded in doing, is take a marketing message for the general market and apply it in a smart, relevant way to the gay market," Elderkin says, adding, "It's not about 'doing something gay.' It's about communicating in a way that makes sense."


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