Following in the footsteps of such specialized services as LatinoNet, WomensWire, Latino-Chicano Net and AsiaNet, NetNoir Online will make its debut on America Online and the World Wide Web June 19 with a focus on African-American culture.
The start-up service has already signed deals with content providers including Vibe, Motown Record Co., Olympian Carl Lewis and Village Voice columnist Greg Tate.
"NetNoir will be a study in synergy-that's our fundamental strategy," said CEO E. David Ellington. "Our advertisers, our content providers and our merchandisers will all come together and mutually promote each other while focusing on Afrocentric culture."
The service grows out of AOL's Greenhouse Program, which provides technical and financial support to promising start-up ventures. It is the first project from NetNoir Inc., San Francisco, started in January by Mr. Ellington, a 35-year-old entertainment lawyer, and Malcolm Casselle, a 25-year-old computer science expert who's worked for Apple Computer and Stanford University.
"With these kinds of endeavors, you bet the jockeys and not the horse they're riding," said Ted Leonsis, president of AOL Services Co. "These are young entrepreneurs who targeted a broad market that has a lot of crossover. They have all the fire and passion needed to launch this service. We just gave them the extra push they needed."
NetNoir Online plans to sell advertising space on its opening screen as well as on each of 16 department screens. A marquee spot sells for a steep $360,000 a year, while department sponsorship costs $120,000.
Although NetNoir clearly wants to make the online universe more appealing to African-Americans, it is counting on crossover appeal to build a profitable service.
"There's clearly a hole in the market, so NetNoir is brokering Afrocentric culture to the planet," said Mr. Ellington. "Anyone is welcome at NetNoir-our hook that makes us distinct is our focus on Afrocentric culture."
The number of African-Americans with online access is tiny. While one-third of U.S. homes have PCs and half of those have modems, only 5% of modem owners are African-American, according to Arlen Communications, Bethesda, Md.
"Quite frankly, the market for ethnic services is unproven at this point," said Arlen analyst Peter Krasilovsky. "However, we have seen a lot of crossover with the Afrocentric culture appealing largely to young white males, who happen to be strong users of online services."
"Users of online services are no longer just white males," countered Eddie Ford Brown, Motown VP-business development. "More ethnic markets have access to online services and the Internet, so the sudden surge of ethnic online services is just supply catching up with demand."