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Portals revamp sites for minorities

Steve Chin, whose Web site targeting Asian Americans tanked last July, is close to launching a new and expanded site in partnership with publisher Jeff Yang: A.Space.

Get ready for Channel A, version 2.0.

Steve Chin, whose Web site targeting Asian Americans tanked last July, is close to launching a new and expanded site in partnership with publisher Jeff Yang: A.Space.

"We want to be the dominant gateway for Asian Americans," said Yang, whose print publication, A.Magazine, targets the same audience. "We've been looking to get on to the Internet in a way that makes sense, and we were sitting here in a treasure trove of content."

They have their work cut out for them.

Web communities are supposed to have an advantage over generic sites because they target a ready-made audience. It's a formula that has worked well for companies like StarMedia, which is aimed at Spanish and Portuguese speakers in Latin America, and iVillage, which is aimed at women.

But the community model has hardly panned out for all comers, especially among the numerous portal sites that have sprung up to cater to ethnic American audiences. Rather than seamlessly exploiting a niche, these players are still tinkering with their formulas in a bid to find one that works.

"You can't just give [consumers] a site and say, 'This is an Asian hub, come to me,'" said Forrester Research analyst Ekaterina Walsh. "After you take into account income, technology, age, and motivation of life, ethnic background doesn't matter."

Many of these sites appear to be wrestling with just that problem, having recently announced or undergone face-lifts: NetNoir, which caters to African Americans, unveiled a redesign recently, and LatinoLink is scheduled for a relaunch as Latino.com in January, according to the company's president.

Even the most promising sites admit things haven't gelled as quickly as they'd first hoped they would.

"It's taken us four and a half years to be an overnight success," said NetNoir founder David Ellington, who may have more reason to hope for an eventual payoff than some. His company is heavily backed by online giant AOL, which has taken a 20 percent stake.

An obvious gold mine
On paper, the demographics look favorable for ethnic portals. Sixty-four percent of Asian American households are online, according to Forrester Research. Hispanic American households follow, at 36 percent, and among African Americans households, 23 percent are online. Thirty-four percent of Caucasian Americans are online.

Chin, a former reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, and Yang are counting on those big Asian American numbers, despite the downfall of Channel A.

A content-driven site about Asian American issues and culture, Channel A eventually transformed into an e-commerce site, selling Asian home furnishings and gifts. But because of thin margins and sagging advertising revenues, the site closed its doors last summer.

In regard to A.Space, Forrester's Walsh said that although Asian Americans are not a large group of consumers, they are an attractive group. Asian Americans are well educated, have higher incomes, and are comfortable with technology, according to her study on ethnicity on the Net.

But Walsh said sites that market themselves along ethnic lines alone are missing the point. A site's attractiveness depends on content that is not overtly pinned on one ethnicity.

Walsh used fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger as an example. She said Hilfiger's clothes have become popular among African American and Hispanic American teenagers because they appeal to their tastes and not just to their ethnic identities.

Still, variations on the ethnic portal theme abound.

GlobalMecca, a site that caters to affluent African Americans, has created a business model that focuses on affluent Web users by providing high-brow content about business, career building, and literature.

"We're not looking to entertain visitors, we're looking to empower and educate them," said Rod Robinson, founder and chief executive of GlobalMecca.

A different perspective
But not all of the models share a single-minded devotion to the bottom line.

Channel A, for example, was once a member of Communities Incorporated, a coalition of minority community sites, including NetNoir, LatinoLink, Jewish Community Online, the gay and lesbian site PlanetOut, and senior citizen sites SeniorNet and ThirdAge.

Many of these publications originally saw the Web as a cheaper way to publish information, but they soon realized how difficult it was to survive on the Web without robust advertising or e-commerce.

Although it remains to be seen whether such businesses can successfully make the transition to become commercial enterprises, the founders frequently express a common vision--to empower and increase awareness of their communities.

Lavonne Luquis, president of LatinoLink, is convinced there will always be an audience for her site, since she can't imagine a time when people won't be dissatisfied with the mainstream media.

"It's a rarity to see a Latino on TV, and in terms of newspapers, people feel in most part that the coverage is very negative," Luquis said. "We bring into light positive profiles of the community."