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AOL: Spanish-Language Web Ads Miss Target

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The traditional strategy for targeting U.S. Hispanics online, which could be summed up as "let's translate our ads into Spanish," is no longer an effective means of reaching this increasingly complex market. In fact, it may even end up alienating a large number of consumers.

Those are among the key findings of a new Hispanic study released today by AOL.

During a breakfast presentation to a group of advertisers and agencies in New York today, AOL executives argued that gauging Hispanics' attitudes and language preferences only by their level of acculturation (i.e., how "Americanized" they are or whether they speak English) is insufficient, given the size and richness of the online Hispanic universe.

Instead, brands should segment Hispanics by life stage, such as their age and whether they have children. Those factors play huge roles in shaping Hispanics values, interests, behaviors and language preferences, according to the study.

Olivia Maloney, AOL's director, Hispanic sales and solutions, said that brands typically tend to pigeonhole Hispanics into groups based on how long they have lived in the U.S.

That way of thinking is often driven by traditional media, where Spanish-language networks like Telemundo and Univision are considered outlets to reach first-generation Hispanics (and it is assumed that more acculturated Hispanics can be reached by traditional media).

Working on this premise, brands often simply reproduce ads in Spanish to reach those Spanish-dominant consumers.

"Brands say, that's our Hispanic marketing strategy," said Maloney. "But acculturation alone does not serve the market. It alienates a segment of the audience."

AOL Advertising partnered with the research firm Cheskin, which conducted telephone surveys with 717 Hispanic U.S. households; and an online survey with 616 Hispanic U.S. households and 634 general-market households.

According to the company's findings, 46 percent of online Hispanics are considered U.S. dominant -- they speak English at home, consume mostly English media and are U.S. born. Offline, this segment represents just 28 percent of the market.

Digging deeper, the survey found that the largest percentage of the U.S. Hispanic market consists of 20-something singles. About 23 percent of the market falls into the mature family segment -- 40-year-olds with an average of two children.

It's these life stages that often influence Hispanics' brand preferences, not necessarily their cultural background or acculturation level, found the study. In fact, most of the life stages AOL identified prefer English marketing, not Spanish.

"It's important to take a rich and multidimensional view into this market," said Robert McLoughlin, director of strategic insights, AOL Advertising. "This is about creating a sophisticated understanding of the market."

But sophistication can also create complication, particularly for brands with limited budgets. Might marketers be more confused and intimidated by targeting this market directly, given its complexity, especially since Hispanics can be reached in big numbers on mainstream sites?

For example, during its presentation AOL showed statistics for several general market sites that skew heavily toward Hispanics, such as the celebrity gossip blog Popeater.com. Plus, its Advertising.com network can reach 84 percent of the U.S. Hispanic market.

However, it can be risky to push messaging to that market without factoring in its diversity, said McLoughlin.

"I do think that this is an investment and a choice," he said. "If you make that investment and only have a simplistic approach, you can make mistakes."