AOL Says Bienvenidos to Latinos

America Online Wednesday launched AOL Latino, a Spanish language version of its 9.0 Optimized online service designed to meet the needs of the United States’ fastest growing minority group.

The new service expands upon Keyword: LATINO, which AOL launched in 2000, and is aimed at allowing AOL and its advertisers to forge a closer relationship with the U.S. Hispanic audience. The group now accounts for 12.5 percent of the total U.S. population, numbering 35.5 million, according to U.S. Census figures.

More importantly, both for AOL and for advertisers, this group is fairly new to the Internet and usage is growing quickly. In June 2003, comScore Media Metrix reported there were 12.5 million Hispanics online, up 25 percent from 2000. AOL says it already has 2.3 million Hispanic members, and it wants to be the first ISP for Hispanic newbies as they come online, as it has been for so many in the general population. Gaining new subscribers and holding onto current ones is especially important for AOL right now, as it seeks to stem the tide of defections among its dial-up base.

While AOL has an advantage in already having substantial market reach among U.S. Hispanics — a Simmons study conducted in 2002 found it number one in the market with a 45 percent share — the path it’s following is littered with disappointments. Spanish-language portals like StarMedia and QuePasa.com launched in the late 90s with great fanfare, but have largely been unsuccessful.

Users of AOL Latino open their AOL to hear “Bienvenidos, tienes email” rather than the familiar “Welcome, you’ve got mail” that greets English-language users of the service. The use of the word email, rather than “correo electronico,” as email is known in many Spanish-speaking countries, underscores AOL’s desire to create something uniquely for the U.S. Hispanic audience.

“This is not just AOL translated into Spanish,” said Peter Blacker, vice president of U.S. Hispanic and International at America Online. “We really hired Hispanics to create programming, products, and understand the community.”

The service, whose buttons and menus are all in Spanish, features Spanish language content in news, sports, entertainment, music, and lifestyle channels. Partners like Time Warner sister company People en EspaÑol, BBC Mundo, La Opinión, El Diario-La Prensa and BuenaSalud provide that content.

Additionally, AOL Latino offers Spanish language information on immigration, likely to be helpful to first generation immigrants. An “Ask the Teacher” section is designed to assist Spanish-language-dominant parents in helping their children with their homework. Spanish and English speaking tutors offer assistance in subject areas like math, history, English, and social studies. AOL is counting on family-oriented features like these, along with its parental controls, being popular among U.S. Hispanics, as 64 percent of the population has children under 18, according to U.S. Census figures.

AOL has managed to line up an impressive roster of charter sponsors for AOL Latino. It launches with advertising from Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Heineken, Loreal, General Mills’ Cheerios, and Toyota. Executives say more category-exclusive partners will be added later in the quarter.

The AOL Latino launch comes just as the online service debuts its well-received AOL 9.0 Optimized version, and as it seeks to develop niche versions to please different segments of its audience. Earlier this week, AOL released its version for kids, KOL. It’s currently developing a version aimed a teens, currently known as Red.

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