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AOL Opens Area to Attract Black Subscribers

A few years after dedicating a section to U.S. Hispanics, America Online Inc. has created AOL Black Focus for black subscribers to its Internet access service.

The new area with tailored community features and content seeks to attract an overall black audience that accounts for more than 10 million online users nationwide, or 8 percent of the U.S. Internet population.

“AOL recognizes that it cannot speak to 30 million-plus members with the same voice, [and] we are committed to offering our members targeted content and experiences that speak to their interests,” said Belinda Hankins, executive director and general manager for the black business category at AOL, Dulles, VA.

Accessed by typing the Black Focus keyword on AOL, the section covers beauty and style, news and money, culture and entertainment, relationships, inspirations and chat and message boards.

Content partners include The Tavis Smiley Show from National Public Radio; BlackVoices.com; NiaOnline; magazines like Black Enterprise, Honey, Savoy and Heart & Soul; Beliefnet and Africana.com, owned by AOL parent AOL Time Warner, New York.

Marketing on Black Focus currently is limited to a joint sweepstakes with BlackVoices.com. Entrants stand to win a trip on “The Festival at Sea.”

“The launch of AOL Black Focus is an important step in AOL's dedicated programming for the African-American community, and we expect that the advertiser community will take notice,” Hankins said.

“But for now,” she said, “our priority has been on establishing partnerships to provide content and features we know this audience wants.”

AOL does not disclose the ethnic makeup of its subscribers. But it touts research to prove Black Focus serves an unmet need in the marketplace. A survey by AOL's Digital Marketing Services Inc. unit showed that though blacks share many online interests with the general population, they have a distinct identity as well.

For instance, 43 percent of the online blacks surveyed access the Internet through broadband versus 36 percent for the general online population. Among those not using a broadband connection, blacks are 27 percent more likely to get one in the next year than the general population.

Also, 48 percent of online blacks buy clothes on the Internet compared with 41 percent of the general population. And 44 percent buy music and videos over the Internet versus 39 percent for the general market.

In that survey, 74 percent of online blacks said the Internet has had a positive effect on their children. A majority of them claim to read online ads, and 46 percent find them informative compared with 26 percent of the general population.

Though that research might seem self-serving, there is no doubting AOL's determination to segment its audiences for user ease and advertisers.

“Whether it be AOL Black Focus, AOL Latino, AOL for Small Business or targeted channel-based content, this is a larger mission for AOL to get closer to our members and target their interests with relevant and distinct programming,” Hankins said.

And what of competition? Sites like BlackPlanet.com and Viacom-owned Black Entertainment Television's BET.com have a strong following in the market. Black Focus undoubtedly is a market expansion for AOL to draw more black subscribers or advertisers interested in that market. It is also a move to protect its flank.

“We believe there is room for many online resources to serve this growing online community,” Hankins said. “At AOL Black Focus, we are focused on solidifying our position as the leading Internet service provider for African-Americans.”

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