No AHAA Moment for Interactive

Just one week after the big Advertising Week extravaganza hit New York, a much smaller, way more targeted, advertising conference is taking place in the Big Apple. It’s the semi-annual conference of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies (AHAA).

Like a dutiful journalist, I scoured the agenda to see what conference events might shed light on interactive marketing strategies and tactics in this segment. I even tuned into a Webcast sponsored by Yahoo en Español, hoping for interactive tidbits. Well, that’s what I got — tidbits. Interactive advertising may be hot again, and the Hispanic market may be the fastest growing demographic in the U.S., but efforts to bring the two together are still in the earliest stages.

Yet some growth is happening.

First, a few Hispanic market stats. Hispanics made up nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population, as of July 2003. That’s nearly 40 million people. One in 10 U.S residents age five or older speaks Spanish at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s 29 million people. And the Hispanic audience is young — meaning they’re just at the beginning of establishing themselves as consuming. Thirty-five percent of Hispanics were under 18 in 2000, as compared to 26 percent of the overall population, according to Census data.

It’s been nearly a year since America Online launched its AOL Latino service, targeted at U.S. Hispanics. In that time, it’s signed some big name clients and forged some interesting partnerships. The service has also grown pageviews from fewer than 4 million a month to 30 million.

What AOL Latino seems to be doing most, however, is hand holding. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Getting newbies online is, after all, one of AOL’s well-known strengths. And though Hispanics are quickly growing accustomed to the Internet, 55 percent still have no access at all, according to the 2004 U.S. Hispanic Market Report, published by the Diversity unit of Synovate.

One of America Online’s big efforts in that regard was the introduction of its AOL Optimized PC deal, which gives buyers a starter computer for $300 if they sign up for 12 months of AOL service. The PC comes with both English- and Spanish-language applications. The company is also conducting something of a road show in Chicago and Miami, taking a street team to malls, Hispanic-oriented cultural events, libraries and schools. The effort utilizes a Cinetransformer — a “transportable, totally self-contained, state of the art, 95-seat digital mobile cinema” (in other words, a big trailer with seats and a screen). The 15-minute show extols the benefits of having a computer in your home, specifically, one equipped with AOL Latino.

“Inside there is a video that teaches them about the Internet and AOL Latino — what it is, how to use it, how it can benefit them in their daily lives,” explains Mercy Lugo-Struthers, director of U.S. Hispanic marketing for AOL Latino. “Our market is very interested in learning, for themselves and for their kids.” That educational aspect is even extended to schools with a large Hispanic population. The company has struck a partnership with the Miami-Dade County Public Schools to conduct a program with will begin November 1. “We train the teachers about the Internet and how to use a computer, and about AOL Latino,” Marcy told me. A similar program is in the works for Chicago-area schools. AOL Latino also holds advertisers’ hands as they engage this growing market online. Rather than simply run banner ad campaigns, a company spokesperson told me, AOL helps advertisers build larger experiences. Examples include the Mi Negocio (My Business) site AOL built for Ford Motor Company and a co-branded microsite it recently built for Vegas.com.

Hand-holding consumers, at least, is paying off. According to comScore Media Metrix, AOL and Yahoo are the top sites among U.S. Hispanics, with the Time Warner online properties reaching 76 percent of the online population, and Yahoo sites reaching 73 percent.

Number two Yahoo is aggressively educating the advertising community, too. The company’s Yahoo en Español last week sponsored a panel discussion on Hispanic marketing at Advertising Week, and ensured interactive was part of the dialogue.

“We used that platform as an opportunity to bring Hispanic industry know-how to what’s traditionally a very general-market city,” Liz Sarachek, executive director of sales for Yahoo U.S. Hispanic, told me. “The whole Hispanic market has been elevated to a greater level of consciousness in the overall marketing world. What’s great is the fact that it was sponsored by Yahoo — not a huge brand in television or on the client side. An online company sponsored the only Hispanic event [at Advertising Week] and we took on every medium.”

One key to growing the Hispanic interactive market, Liz feels, is creating and sharing case studies. Who’s Yahoo en Español working with? Everyone, Liz says. From Hispanic agencies to traditional ones, and from interactive shops to marketers themselves.

“We are doing our best to cover everybody out of respect, and trying to be in the right place at the right time,” Liz said. “There are people in every one of those buckets that are more aggressive and getting it faster.”

At the aforementioned AHAA-related Webcast, I submitted a question to the panel of Hispanic agency folks. I asked what role online plays in their media mix, and what’s necessary to grow spending. The most interesting answer came from Daisy Exposito, chairman and CEO of the Bravo Group.

“We have a dedicated group just to do online,” she said. “There are so many variables you have to consider: Who are you trying to reach? Is the Internet the best way to reach this consumer? I think the good news is that Hispanics are getting online. The more we can quantify that that is so, that we can make a case for that, the better we can grow that space.”

Exposito notes there’s a common misconception that Hispanics don’t read, which impacts spending in print media. “Is this true?” she asked, “or is it a matter of not having the right research?”

Online Hispanic marketing is, in many ways, where interactive was a couple of years ago. It needs research; it needs case studies; it needs audience growth; it needs education. With all these elements — and inexorable population growth — I expect we’ll see some progress in the next couple of years.

“People aren’t fighting it as much anymore,” Liz told me. “I think what it comes down to is comfort and education. If you understand something, you have a comfort level. If you don’t understand something, you don’t have a comfort level.”

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