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Wireless companies try to grab minority attention

Companies trying to match the hype of the wireless Web industry have started directing their attention to minorities, especially African-Americans, in the hopes of luring more customers.

Wireless Web operators struggling to match the industry's multibillion-dollar hype have started directing their attention to minorities, especially African-Americans, in the hopes of luring more customers.

This week, Verizon Wireless became the biggest carrier yet to tiptoe into this mercurial market strategy, which fizzled after a brief run on the terrestrial Web. Undaunted, it has signed a deal with popular African-American portal Afronet, adding the site's business, entertainment and general news to its list of content providers.

Targeting particular segments may have a shot on the wireless side of the world, said John Dee Fair, vice president of research for Telephia, a market analysis firm. "It makes a great deal of sense," he said.

About 8 percent of those using wireless Web-enabled devices are African-American. The category is still dominated by Caucasians, who make up nearly three-quarters of all the users, Fair said.

But the numbers are quickly shifting. At the beginning of 2000, nearly 80 percent of all wireless users were men. Now there's more parity, with women making up about 40 percent of all users.

"That's a fairly significant shift and indicates that there is probably a much greater increase in use, and a much more diverse audience," Fair said. "It portends a more diverse audience across the board and other demographics."

Two other wireless carriers have already signed deals with Afronet, according to the company. Sprint and Bell Mobility in Canada are offering Afronet's content to their wireless users. Analysts expect other wireless providers to start doing the same type of content deals now that Sprint and Verizon have pulled the trigger.

The industry is holding its breath. This same type of strategy never really took off on the terrestrial Web, although there are still portals catering to specific populations.

One of the most chronicled rises and falls was that of Channel A, launched in 1996 with the hopes of being the premier channel for Asian-related information and firebrand commentary. By July 1998, the site closed after a brief stint offering Asian food and products.

But Verizon and other carriers may have better timing this go round. A study released Friday showed home Internet use rose by 33 percent in 2000, with African-Americans showing an even bigger percentage increase in use. Nielsen/NetRatings estimates there are 8.1 million wired African-Americans. Caucasians still dominate this category, with about 87.5 million using the Web, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

This is Verizon's first attempt at using content to target a specific market segment. Spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said the company is exploring additional deals that may target other segments of the U.S. population.

"The site has been live for a little while now and it's getting very nice hits," Nelson said. "When we stack it up to the other 40-plus content providers we got, it is holding its own."

There is also a market for advertisers wanting to target the African-American population on the wireless Web, according to WindWire, which specializes in wireless ads. Spokesman Billy Purser said Afronet has also reached an agreement with WindWire.

Advertisers hoping to target the African-American community, including some "top ad agencies," have also started to flood WindWire with requests, Purser said.

Wireless industry analyst Telephia also has documented an increase in spending on advertisements to sell wireless services to members of the Spanish-speaking population.