The African-American online user base is growing as the digital divide narrows -- keep up with this growing segment of internet users.
With an online user base of 18.4 million, there are now nearly as many African Americans online as there are teens, according to eMarketer's figures. There are more African Americans online than there are Hispanics. And African Americans make up a greater percentage of internet users than Hispanics.
And yet, the current state of marketing to African Americans online has somewhat of the feel of the early years of internet marketing … more than a decade ago. While a few companies have made notable investments, much of the advertising on African American destinations is decidedly low-budget.
The sales talk is even reminiscent of the early days. African-American internet destinations offer the "opportunity to take traditional [marketing] programs and extend them using the internet," said AOL Black Voices publisher Bret Moore in an interview with eMarketer.
Part of the challenge is targeting African Americans when they are at general-market destinations rather than African-American sites. It's practically impossible to determine the race or ethnic heritage of a web user, unless such questions were asked during site registration (doubtful). Some assumptions can be made based on content preferences or items viewed (in the case of ecommerce), and behavioral targeting offers limited opportunities, but there are no silver bullets to reach the African-American market on the general web.
Behavioral targeting theoretically would help, since certain forms of it allow for tracking across different web sites. Marketers may be able to ascertain a pattern of someone frequently viewing African-American-oriented sites and then can display relevant advertising on more general sites. However, there may be limited availability of such targeting technology.
"Since there is a limited amount of content on the web that is contextually focused to a particular race or ethnicity, finding people that have read that content as they browse other content can dramatically increase the opportunities to deliver targeted advertising to those audiences," said Dave Morgan, CEO of Tacoda, in an interview with eMarketer.
There's also some indication that advertising executives consider other race/ethnic markets more important. Respondents to a 2004 survey by the American Advertising Federation said they had committed an average of 26 percent of their ad budget to multicultural advertising. But the same executives indicated that marketing to Hispanics is a more important goal than marketing to African Americans.
At this point in the evolution of the African-American online market, there are certainly enough users to establish strong reach. And those users are often just as sophisticated as other types of online users. Marketing to this group deserves as much attention and effort as other populations.
The good news is, African Americans like advertising. They are far more likely to notice and feel positively about a range of marketing vehicles, according to Simmons Market Research Bureau.
African Americans also tend to have more positive attitudes toward online ad vehicles, Simmons found.
Having a positive attitude doesn't ensure success, however. Advertising must be relevant to the community it's intended for. For African Americans, that means showing people of the same race/ethnicity and speaking in a language they understand, with a message that resonates culturally.
African Americans are far more likely than others to say that relevant online advertising (whether relevant to them as a consumer or to a site's content) is important, according to Forrester Research.
It's not just a feeling shared by adults. Seeing someone of their own ethnic group in media and advertising is far more important among African-American, Asian and Hispanic kids than among white kids.
"Marketers need to develop communications, products and services and messages that help [African Americans] feel welcome and relevant, and when we're talking about the Internet, safe," said Pepper Miller of the Hunter-Miller Group in an interview with eMarketer. "It's very, very important."
The importance of cultural relevance extends beyond African-American web sites. Twice as many African Americans say they primarily use mainstream web sites than use ethnic sites, according to research on ethnic media by Bendixen & Associates. African-American-oriented efforts can and should be extended across both ethnic sites and the general internet.
Debra Aho Williamson is a senior analyst at eMarketer. This article is drawn from her new report, African Americans Online: Crossing the Digital Divide.