Internet cornucopia: Attractive demographics suddenly draw advertiser interest as cultural communities blossom on the Web.

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benjamin sun has seen the future of the Internet in the U.S. And it is decidedly ethnic.

Americans of African, Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern descent are logging on in droves--often outpacing general market adoption of the Internet.

And for Mr. Sun, president-CEO of Community Connect, developer of ethnic Internet sites including AsianAvenue.com and Blackplanet.com, people of color represent the future of the wired world.

"We're on the cusp of something that is going to explode in the U.S.," he says. "Ultimately, the main driver of this all is the fact that people in these communities have these incredible ties with one another. The Internet is just such a perfect media for these ethnic groups."

LANGUAGE OPTIONS BLOSSOM

Since 1995, non-English speaking Internet users have gone from less than 10% to as high as 50%, according to researcher Wired Digital. Roughly 5 million of 40 million Internet users were non-English speaking then; today, it's 81 million of 180 million, says John J. Steere, CEO-chief creative officer for Cyverasia, the digital division of ethnic marketing agency Admerasia, New York.

African-Americans outpace all other segments--including the general market--for online adoption, according to Forrester Research.

In 1998, 23% of African-American households were online. That number should top 40% by 2000--or a 42% rise in adoption, Forrester notes. Hispanics have 36% of households online, a number expected to hit 43% next year--or an increase of 20%.

While 64% of Asian-American households are online, the number is expected to grow 7% next year, the company reports. At the same time, consumers of all ethnic backgrounds are showing a desire to acculturate--or retain distinctly ethnic identities--within the U.S. market.

"As a result, targeted Web sites are beginning to proliferate, answering the call for marketers to penetrate various communities effectively online by appealing to their cultural sensitivities," Mr. Steere says.

The demographics are alluring to marketers. Web surfers will be twice as likely to have high household incomes, college degrees and management positions than the U.S. population as a whole, and this also is true for the ethnic markets, Mr. Steere says.

ASIAN LEAD

Recent demographics for online household penetration by the year 2000 show the highest Net-penetration in Asian households at 68%, followed by Hispanics at 43% and African-Americans close behind at 40%. The Asian- and Hispanic-Americans are the most lucrative multicultural markets online in the U.S. About 56% of Asian-Americans said they were more likely to buy a product advertised in their native language, according to Market Segment Research.

While Asian-, Hispanic- and African-Americans get the top-of-mind awareness, other ethnic populations are finding their place online as well.

In the U.S., some 39% of Russian-Americans own PCs. Among other audiences, 54% of Filipino, 66% of Middle Easterners and 79% of Indians all have PCs, according to company statistics based on internal surveys cited by Tony Das, senior VP-eStart.com, a site from long-distance provider Startec Global Communications Corp., which targets Arab-Americans. The company will debut specific Turkish- and Iranian-American sites by year-end.

Many of these audiences are part of a diaspora using the Internet to maintain contact with family in their homeland, Mr. Das says. In 1998, 142.2 million were online, with 56% coming from outside the U.S., reports International Data Corp.

Projections note that by 2005, 208 million in North America will be online, and 412 million will be online in emerging markets, led by India, China, Middle East, the Philippines and Russia, Mr. Das says.

Site creators--and the marketers who spend against these ethnic audiences--are finding that the users who tap the sites are seeking ties to the homeland, Mr. Das says. They're keen for films from India, music from the Middle East, food products from Asia, he adds.

"What percentage of people coming into Amazon.com are looking for Arabic music, much less anything Arabic?" he asks. "I can tell my marketing partners that they will get a focused market. What we're doing in an ethnic context is providing the focus in a niche context for people who are selling these kinds of products."

Research shows that ethnic Web users prefer content in-language or in-culture, a fact that caught some marketers off-guard with the fast-paced minority adoption of the Internet, says LaTanya Junior, director-media services, Stedman Graham Partners, New York, and co-director of New Americas Strategies Group. Seeing content targeting the particular ethnic group often can elicit reactions from viewers that can be rewarding for the site host or marketers involved, she adds.

TRIGGERS A RUSH

"You can imagine whenever a Hispanic, Black or Asian pops up in the [advertising] creative, the rush they feel," she says. "Marketers never really paid attention to that. The Internet automatically gives you a choice of your own programming."

A similar rush could be experienced by marketers who adopt a culturally-relevant Internet feature as part of their advertising program, experts predict.

"It's no longer about niche anymore," says Mr. Sun.

"You're talking about a new majority. People are not looking at reaching these audiences as an opportunity. They're going to look at reaching these audiences as a necessity."

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