The Internet's Next Niche

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Online marketers should pay attention to the growing market of disabled adults.

Looking for the next hot market on the Internet? Look no further than the substantial number of consumers with disabilities. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 21 percent of Americans currently have a disability. That's 54 million consumers. Of these, more than 4 in 10 are online, a Harris Poll reveals. Although that's a smaller share than the non-disabled population, Web surfers with a disability spend more time logged on and report more positive feelings about the Internet than non-disabled Web surfers.

But despite its size, many marketers have ignored this consumer segment, notes Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll. It could be that consumers with disabilities - defined by Harris as anyone with a health problem, disability, or handicap that impedes him or her from participating fully in work, school, or housework - seem like difficult targets because they're extremely diverse in age, ethnicity, and physical condition. Marketers may have also shied away from the disabled market because many people with disabilities have lower incomes. "People with disabilities are not a fat, rich, affluent market," agrees Taylor. "But, when you look at their total spending, it runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars." According to 1995 census data - the most current available - persons with disabilities aged 15 and older had a total annual discretionary income of $175 billion.

It's a market that's caught the attention of a few savvy e-marketers. The front runners include WeMedia.com, a New York-based e-commerce site that will Webcast the 2000 Paralympic Games from Sydney, Australia this fall, and CanDo.com, a content and e-commerce site in Mountain View, California.

These market leaders have discovered that their target group is substantially different from non-disabled Web surfers. First: They spend more time logged on. On average, adults with disabilities spend twice as much time on the Internet each week - 20 hours - than their non-disabled counterparts, according to Harris Researchers. And, that time is all about surfing. Checking e-mail didn't count for this survey.

Online time is time well spent, say adults with disabilities. Forty-eight percent say that the Internet has significantly improved the quality of their lives, compared with 27 percent of adults without disabilities. This difference is especially striking for older consumers. Fifty-six percent of disabled adults aged 65 and older say that the Internet had substantially improved their lives, compared with just 6 percent of non-disabled older adults.

Marketers should learn to pay attention to this consumer segment because the number of people with disabilities in the United States is on the rise, says Taylor. "Far from the wonders of modern medicine reducing the number of people with disabilities, modern medicine is increasing it. People who would have previously died, now survive. People who are born with disabilities are also living much longer," he adds. And since the likelihood of disability increases with age, the aging of the Baby Boom generation means that the number of people with disabilities may swell to record numbers in the coming years.

In fact, the buzz about the disabled market is likely to become a roar when the results of Census 2000 are released, Taylor says. In its most recent count, the U.S. Census Bureau widened the definition of disability on its questionnaires. This means that a raw comparison between the number of people with disabilities over the last 10 years will show a dramatic spike. "That will mostly be a method effect, not a real increase," cautions Taylor. But it will call attention to a market that is experiencing real growth, and that deserves real attention.

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