Searching Latino

Special correspondent Judy Colbert recently attended Search Engines Strategies Latino, a conference focused on the ever-expanding Latin American marketplace. What follows is a glimpse into a very big opportunity, with some very big challenges. The event was held July 10-11 2006, and chaired by Nacho Hernandez, CEO and founder of iHispanic Marketing Group, LLC.

After 16 fact-packed sessions over two days at the Search Engine Strategies Latino conference in Miami, the consensus is Latino marketing is a gold mine waiting to be tapped. Businesses were told, if you're contemplating marketing to the Latino market, you're likely heading in the right direction.

Important Statistics
The Latin American market is huge. It's bigger than huge - the numbers are mind-boggling. Eduardo Valades, president of iHispanic Marketing Group, says there are 44 million U.S. Hispanics with $575 billion in buying power. Almost half of that population is 24 years old or younger. In the U.S., there are an estimated 16,000,000 Hispanic Internet users and that number is expected to grow 30 percent in the next five years. In fact, there is at least one person of Latino heritage in over 3,000 counties in the United States. They are qualified buyers and spend more time on the Internet and look at more pages than the non-Latino market. The top 20 Latino markets in the United States represent more than 70 percent of the total marketplace.

Latin American countries around the world host a population of 560,000,000 individuals and 80,000,000 Internet users. In the Brazilian market alone, there are about 26,000,000 Internet users in a population of more than 184,000,000 people. Of course, it's not all rosy. There are some major roadblocks.

Search; Lost in Translation
As this was a search engine seminar, there was an emphasis placed on search engines and capabilities. A major problem is translation. Spanish usually translates longer, according to Paul D. Saffery, managing director of SilverDisc Chile. For example, "Cheap Tickets to New York" is 25 characters including spaces, but the literal translation, "Pasajes Baratos a Nueva York," is 28 characters. A 25-character fix would be "Vuele barato a Nueva York" (fly cheap to New York). To make matters more difficult, Spanish is considered a non-standard language, says Saffery.

There are 13 different versions of Spanish just in the Western Hemisphere. They range from North Mexican and Mexican to Paraguayan and River Plate or Buenos Aires. The Spanish translation for "flight ticket" is "billete aéreo," while in Mexico "boleto aéreo," and in Uruguay "tiquete aéreo." So, the accent is a second factor, because search engines don't read them. Thus, you have to deliberately misspell words by omitting the accent. In another example, "erizo" means "sea urchin" in Chile, but "hedgehog" in Spain. These obstacles can seem insurmountable. Neutral Spanish is an option, but it eliminates a lot of the feel-good opportunities.

Then, there's Brazilian Portuguese. To ignore that market is to ignore one third of the South American population. Language translation is also an issue in Brazil where there are three distinct words for tangerine, depending on the region of the country. If you're trying to market to the entire Latin American market, then a search for the most popular of several possible translations may be the best choice.

With relatively few websites in Spanish, Latinos are forced to do their research on English language pages. So, website designers will benefit greatly from having the important pages, such as product descriptions and pricing translated into Spanish. Often, the Latino market will spend an inordinate amount of time researching a product and then go to a store to purchase it.

Target As Hispanics
Valades' primary message though, was "Don't just target to Hispanics, target as Hispanics." For example, a Latin American consumer will understand oral care, or "cuidado bucal," but will search for bad breath, "mal aliento." Even when a professional translator converts an English-language site to Spanish, the navigation buttons aren't included in the translation. Often, the graphics still show North American images instead of Latin American images. Broadband is not readily available, so the use of Flash and similar media are a drag on the system. Ultimately, it's better to have a good translation of important pages rather than a poor translation of an entire site.

Hispanic Pay-Per-Click
For selling, pay-per-click is the option of choice, with an almost unlimited number of paid ads available and PPC costs at pennies on the dollar when compared to U.S. prices. Another choice is buying domains in each country that you plan to market. This not only marks your presence, but also protects your brand. Some countries, Argentina for example, are giving away their country domains for free or at a very low cost. Others cost a small fortune. Some countries require that you have a mailing address in that country, while some also require an agent or hosting service from that country. When targeting just one or two countries or areas, you can define your PPC with geo location restrictions.

Positives & Negatives
Another negative is in dealing with payment options for goods purchased, most specifically in the business-to-consumer (b2c) area. Most people in the Latin American market don't have credit cards. Those who do usually don't feel comfortable providing their credit card information over the Internet. So, someone in Latin America may need to visit a bank to complete the transaction. Further complicating matters is relying on postal service. Delivery can be lengthy, cumbersome and unreliable. Even private companies like UPS have their share of hassles.

Google recently announced Google Checkout as an equivalent to PayPal for the Latin American market. So far, Google Checkout only accepts credit cards. However, Gonzalo Alonso, general director of Google Mexico, anticipates payment agreements through the various banks in Latin America in relatively short order.

Now, some good news. Younger Latino audiences, particularly in the United States, are more likely to understand and be comfortable working with an English language Web site. That's a good portion of the aforementioned 44 million U.S. Hispanics.

The State of Hispanic Online Marketing If you plan to promote your product or service to the Latin American market, yesterday is the day to get into it, but tomorrow isn't too late. Understanding the challenges and finding solutions to Latino Marketing will undoubtedly pay huge dividends. Be sure to
have important content in Spanish, more text than Flash or images, and make sure your translation is appropriate.

Also, remember this important consideration: Most Latin American homes don't have a computer. Internet cafes are incredibly popular and often the social center of a community. The café owner becomes the evangelist of all things Internet, from new search capabilities to informative websites. So, beyond the technical advantages, sites that optimize for the search engines will benefit from old-fashioned word-of-mouth marketing. Families, friends, coworkers and Internet café communities will soon find their favorite sites. A massive and growing market is waiting.