How to Connect With the Digital Latino

Lessons From La Plaza del Pueblo

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Carlos Martinez
Carlos Martinez
Robert Spallone
Robert Spallone
There is a tradition in cities, towns and villages across all of Latin America whereby people congregate to share in life, exchange news, pass chisme (gossip) and take part in the community. It all happens at a central place: La Plaza del Pueblo.

From children playing around the fountain and the abuelas planning the next church function to teens wanting to see and be seen and the men making deals over a beverage, there is a place for everyone in la plaza. It's an intrinsic part of Latino culture to socialize with neighbors and learn what's really happening in the world from one another. What they hear in the plaza has credibility. Information is trusted much more readily coming from within than from outsiders.

This is a tradition built over numerous generations. You can't take it away from them. The unspoken need for social interaction has become a part of every Latino, even when they live in a relatively plaza-less culture, such as the United States.

Although Latinos in the U.S. have left the plaza behind, the act of socializing and sharing their lives is as vital as ever. This helps explain why they have been early adopters of almost every socially usable technology available. For example, Latinos engage more fully on their mobile devices, with 71% consuming mobile content compared to the market average of 48%. Latinos are also much more likely to use the full feature set on their mobile devices, over-indexing in the use of SMS, MMS, cameras, downloads, email, internet and gaming functions.

Consistent with their affinity for social features on mobile devices, Latinos also outpace others in every aspect of online engagement. Social-networking features in particular touch on main aspects of Latino culture: entertainment, community and language. Furthermore, Latino culture often emphasizes family, friends and other groups over the individual. Social media taps into these values and satisfies their desire for community.

Latinos are active online social beings. A Pew Research Center internet study found that they were more likely than others to use social-media sites, with 39% of their total time online devoted to social networking. Surprisingly, this engagement does not vary greatly by age. On average, a quarter of any age segment belongs to two different social-networking sites. Younger people tend toward profile-based sites such as MySpace and Facebook, and the older gravitate to group or community sites such as Yahoo Groups and Classmates.com.

In addition to using the top general market social networks, Latino-specific properties are growing explosively. Quepasa.com has a community of 12 million people and is registering more than 1 million new users per month. Migente.com claims 3 million members. The topic-based forums on Univision.com are also becoming a very popular place for Latinos to talk it up on over 1,000 areas of interest. Interestingly, Latinos use social media regardless of their language preference.

With nearly 23 million Hispanics online in 2009 and consuming just about everything with a social aspect to it, the online-social-mobile-gaming media world has become their new digital Plaza del Pueblo. Everything that was previously done within the confines of those community gathering places is being done in the new virtual space faster and with even greater frequency. This lack of boundaries enables Latinos to express themselves like never before in ways their parents never dreamed possible. They're still talking, making deals and passing the chisme, but they're also doing a whole lot more:

When disaster struck in Chile last February, the plaza proved to be a reliable way of getting real-time information. With phone lines down and cell-phone networks overwhelmed, people found out the well-being of loved ones through social nets like Facebook. When they needed to know, they went to the digital plaza.

The Sonoran band Los Pikadientes de Caborca recorded their 2008 hit "La Cumbia del Río" on a home computer, downloaded the song to their cell phones and shared it via bluetooth and memory sticks. The song was played on local radio stations and crossed over to the U.S. They've since signed with Sony and were nominated for a Grammy award.

Mexican-American recording artist and actress Jenni Rivera's social media savvy has helped her stay relevant. Her constant interpersonal contact with fans via Twitter has translated into strong record sales and other opportunities. Jenni appeared as a player on MTV's "Rock n' Gol" show just before the World Cup; she'll have a TV show on Mun2 cable channel, "Jenni Rivera Presents Chiquis and Raq-C"; and she will write and perform the lead song for an upcoming Univision web novela.

It is a credit to Jenni's strong fan appeal -- aided by social networking -- that she would be able to have so much activity on three competing networks at the same time.

Young Latinos now text, IM and monitor their MySpace pages continuously and all at the same time. They have upward of 1,000 friends on Facebook. Technology has provided an interconnected world that fits perfectly with their predisposition toward socializing. Their new plaza doesn't have a fountain, it has a screen.

It's up to brands to connect with them, on their terms, in their language and to bring something to the conversation.

Fifteen years ago, the first banner ad ran and garnered a 73% click-through rate. Today, these ads achieve less than 1%. And while banners still have a place in today's mix, they seem rather traditional in their approach: Click here so we can take you somewhere else and shout information at you.

The plaza is all about conversation. Blogs, chat, IM, social media, gaming all require an exchange of information that marketers are still trying to figure out. While the opportunities are plentiful, common pitfalls need to be avoided. The first, quite frankly, is laziness by marketers who don't take the time to understand the conversations taking place in the plaza. Translating general-market efforts and diving in with Latinos is a surefire recipe for failure. If you lack cultural relevance, you'll be an intruder from the start.

The second biggest problem is not having a sustainable plan. This is an issue in all markets, but more so in the Hispanic market because programs are often secondary to the general-market efforts. A 90-day trial followed by stop and starts is a fast track for Latinos to hit the mute button.

People want to have a relationship with their brands. All relationships require meaningful conversation or they're doomed. Brands need become be part of the conversation or risk being left out of consumers' hearts and minds.

Social media remains a largely untapped resource in the Hispanic market, but some marketers are actively engaged in the space, including AT&T, Budweiser, Ford, McDonald's, P&G, T-Mobile, Toyota and Volkswagen.

Toyota was an early adopter of connecting with Latinos using social media for the Matrix in 2008. In that effort, a MySpace program was developed to reach young "alternative" Hispanic males as an influencer group. It included a branded community and "underground" events that were heavily promoted online and via mobile. The successful initiative built a robust community with strong participation at events, leading to positive back-end metrics and ultimately measurable sales increases. Toyota is still highly active in the space on properties like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.

Now is the time for marketers to capitalize on the growth and momentum of the digital plaza. The revolution has already happened, so the proliferation of new vehicles and innovative uses will be more evolutionary over the next year or two -- a lifetime in which to gain or lose share. Those waiting for "the right time" to activate this sector are already a little late to the dance. Wait too long and you risk sitting on the benches while your competitors kick up their heels.

Here are a few suggestions for marketers who wish to join the conversation in the digital plaza:

Shouting into the plaza will get you nowhere. You need to "walk" among the people regularly and frequently. Clearly define your social-media objectives and assemble a dedicated team that understands the audience.

Start slowly and listen intently to understand the rhythm of the conversation. Newcomers entering any Plaza del Pueblo will be treated with caution. The same holds true for the digital plaza.

Be absolutely authentic in how you engage people in the plaza. Don't try to be someone you're not. They can spot a fake instantly, and once you earned that label, you will be shunned.

Choose to join their conversation instead of expecting them to join yours. Dare to be personal. People want stories that enrich lives, not convey attributes. Tell human stories about your brand. Prove that your contribution to their world is real and greater than the brand itself. If you sell detergent, then join women's conversation about the need for a thank-you after a hard day of laundry. If you sell large SUVs, then join men's conversations about being kings in their own worlds.

The key to reaching Latino users on any platform is to develop content that is "culturally pinpointing." Your dialog has to be unique to this group. Whether you're connecting in Spanish, Spanglish or English, you have to understand their underlying cultural mores.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Carlos Martinez is exec VP-managing director of Conill Advertising. He can be reached at carlos.martinez@conill.com
Robert Spallone is director of media at Conill Advertising. He can be reached at Robert.spallone@conill.com