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NEW YORK-Direct marketers are just starting to target Hispanics in earnest, but it won't take long for many to say "Hola!" to the largely untapped market.

That was the message at a daylong conference here earlier this month-the first of its kind devoted to the subject-sponsored by the Direct Marketing Association's Directo council.

Currently, industry executives estimate 20 agencies, six telemarketing companies, a handful of research companies and several consultants serve marketers aiming for the Hispanic community.

"Hispanic consumers are relatively underexposed to direct marketing," said Beatriz Mallory, president of cataloger Silk America. "They're not the jaded consumer whose mailbox is perpetually full," she said.

Ms. Mallory cited industry estimates that the average Hispanic household receives just 20 direct marketing offers a year, compared with 350 sent to other households.

As a result, Hispanics tend to be far more interested in and responsive to mailings; they read them more thoroughly and keep them as reference sources about unfamiliar products, she said.

Research shows Hispanics are more brand-conscious and charitable than the population at large, making image appeals and fund-raising drives potentially more successful.

Ninos, a bilingual catalog started in 1991, and Nuestra Gentes, a magazine distributed by direct mail operation Advo System, Hartford, Conn., and sponsored by Sears, Roebuck & Co., are among new direct marketing programs.

There are nuances to consider, and marketers ignore them at their peril.

Lists of Spanish surnames, often compiled from phone directories and other public sources, should be used when mailing English-language offers. But separate lists of Spanish-speaking households, such as callers to advertisers on Telemundo or Univision, should get Spanish-language mailings.

Multigenerational families living together may require separate languages, since older members prefer Spanish and younger, more assimilated ones often prefer English, said Shelly Lipton, president of New York-based Lipton Communications Group.

Despite the higher response rates, only 14% of Hispanics pay for mail-order goods with credit cards: 74% pay cash on delivery, where returns are more frequent.

And studies show 40% refuse to participate in computerized voice-response calls. As a result, live operators are important.

So is a clear signal that toll-free calls are indeed "gratis," since many Hispanics are wary of hidden costs.

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