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Sites aim for African Americans

Two new sites targeted at African Americans are being launched this Black History Month.

Two new sites focusing on the African American community are being launched in conjunction with Black History Month, another indication that niche markets are becoming increasingly popular on the Net.

Black Entertainment Television and Microsoft today officially opened its new site, a year after the two announced their pending partnership. At the same time, American Visions launched its own subscription-based service.

The sites join NetNoir, an established player with sites on the Web and on America Online. They are gearing their services toward mainstream African American audiences, drawing readers with robust content and unique technologies.

Such sites are following the Net's trend to specialize, specialize, specialize--hoping that they can "narrowcast" to readerships with particular interests. (See related story)

"It so happens at the moment computer usage is highest among upper income people, but in time everybody's going to be on the Internet," said Gary Puckrein, president of American Visions Media, which publishes a magazine aimed at upscale African American readers.

Puckrein's site, which costs $55 a year, offers an extensive online library, virtual classrooms, and its own proprietary "push" technology, which delivers content directly to the desktop automatically.

MSBET--a 50-50 joint venture between Microsoft and BET--will be fully launched in June and will try to capture what it sees as a lucrative market.

Barry Johnson, president of MSBET, said the site will leverage the strong brand names of Microsoft and the Black Entertainment Channel's media properties: its cable network and two magazines.

Like NetNoir, MSBET will remain free on the Web, planning to make money through advertising, sponsorship, and licensing agreements with others. For instance, it built an exclusive site and did a cybercast for the NAACP Image Awards.

"We believe that if you look at the statistics of the number of African Americans with modems and Internet access, it's a compelling number and we believe the market will continue to grow and evolve," Johnson said.

With competition for online audiences heating up at an exponentially rapid pace, companies are constantly racing to find the angle that will draw the most people.

Sites cater to all sorts of speciality groups--from those with particular interests to those with specific demographic profiles. The strongest of those sites appear to be those aimed at the gay and African American communities.

To Johnson, the reason for that is clear.

"Those populations are always seeking voice," he said. "For the ones who feel in some way they don't have full access these forums provide a way to congregate and discuss issues that the real world don't provide very easily. Quite frankly, I wasn't aware there were so many African Americans online. This is an easy way to come together, and it's empowering."