That question, though rarely asked out loud by mainstream marketers, is often implied in other questions when they ask about Black media. And it was a specific challenge to Ken Smikle who, last month, held Target Market News' second-annual African-American Internet Summit in Chicago. It was attended by nearly 200 people and included some of the brightest minds in marketing, advertising, market research and the digital space.
The obvious web strategy how-tos were addressed during the conference. However, neither the aforementioned question nor a second important one -- "What's black about Blacks on the web?" -- ever surfaced from the summit's predominately Black audience. Nonetheless, these questions hovered around experts' presentations and panel discussions as they instinctively addressed them, and we in the audience, knowing the drill, pocketed the answers to have at the ready for Doubting Thomas marketers.
Given the web's format, where one can interact with information and people anonymously, it's no wonder that many marketers and some consumers view targeted sites as separatist or discrimination in disguise.
Smikle fires back, responding to the marketer's question: "Why do we need hockey websites? No one would question the need for hockey info."
So what are Blacks doing differently in the digital space that warrant Black websites?
Donna Byrd, a summit presenter and publisher of The Root, an online magazine that provides news and culture from a Black perspective, made the following statement with regard to Black websites and The Root:
It's naive to think that Black is not important. At The Root, our audience continues to be enthusiastic about the content. Many of our perspectives from Black America's savvy thought leaders are not carried in mainstream. As Black Americans, we have reached a point in our evolution where we can be celebratory and critical. We buck the notion that there is a monolith in the Black community.The Root's recent coverage about the late John Hope Franklin helps Byrd makes the point. I read about the recent passing of Franklin, the great Black historian and scholar, on two different mainstream websites and on The Root. The mainstream sites chronicled Franklin's numerous accomplishments and his encounters with racial discrimination during the pre- and post-civil-rights eras. The Root included these facts as well, but focused on Franklin's opposition against the field of black studies.
"It's important to understand how we are important in the world of African Americans and how important African Americans are in the world," said Eric Easter, VP-digital and entertainment for Johnson Publishing and also a presenter at the summit. Easter also clearly understands the changing Black consumer: "Blackness is not enough of a construct to reach Black people on the web. While Blackness is still relevant, Black folks tend to be engaged by content that presents a worldview of who they are and content that demonstrates their broader experiences. Don't put limits on Black people because you think they aren't into something. If I'm into jazz or collecting watches, I want to go deeper and may visit 10 websites. It's about cultural affinity and not a racial issue. I like sushi, but I also like collard greens."
Relevant content from Black websites has also been appealing to mainstreamers -- the new urbans. Many are venturing on to Black websites post-Obama "to not only understand who is he, but who are they?" as media entrepreneur Zamira Jones reminds us. RushmoreDrive.com, the first targeted search engine for African Americans, is capitalizing on this trend by expanding its relevancy and content via partnerships. According to the April 9 issue of Target Market News:
RushmoreDrive.com ... announced a partnership with Citadel Media. ... Citadel Media syndicates some of the country's top Urban programming including The Tom Joyner Morning Show, The Michael Baisden Show and Big Boy's Neighborhood. The multi-faceted agreement between the companies will bring a new level of access and relevancy for online Black and urban consumers.BrokenCurve, a digital-strategy company that combines cutting-edge technology to create content delivery networks directed to the Global Urban Youth Culture. Like Byrd and Easter, Nelson speaks to the Black audience's desire to be viewed in a broader context. However, Nelson also does not shun the relevance of Black culture.
For us the question of 'What's black about it?' is always present. Primarily because one of the common denominators for Black people the world over is an ongoing attempt to redefine what it means to be Black, and have others accept and respect that definition as opposed to limiting us to others' potentially false definition of who we are.
If Black people the world over are on a continual quest to define what it means to be Black, chances are that the definitions being passed around by mainstream marketers are already out of date -- if they were ever current to begin with. Black media -- and Black websites in particular -- might not give marketers all the answers but might start them out with the right questions.