Social networking grows en Español

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TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Everybody's heard of social networking sites by now, right? Websites like MySpace and Facebook that connect people who have similar interests.

More and more of those sites are in Spanish, hoping to tap into what could be a huge market. Which could mean competition for English-language sites chasing limited advertising dollars.

Ambar Espinoza reports.


Ambar Espinoza: Back in the 90s, a company called Community Connect was a pioneer in the field when it launched two social networking sites: AsianAvenues and BlackPlanet.

In 2000, it added MiGente, an English-language social networking site aimed at Latinos. BlackPlanet and MiGente are among the top 20 such sites globally, according to the research site Hitwise.com. The creators of these new Spanish-language sites say they offer something the mainstream counterparts don't.

Demian Bellumio is founder of ElHood.com.

Demian Bellumio: You know, I just came from Spain, and there are so many amazing artists that you will never, ever find in the U.S. because the industry is not prepared to promote those artists here in the U.S. So you go to our site and you will find them, and you will enjoy them.

Bellumio says the people who work on the site come from many countries in Latin America, reflecting the audience they serve.

Daniel Kafie is a co-founder of VosTu.com, which connects students in Latin America and Latinos here in the U.S. He says MySpace's Spanish-language version is basically just a translation of its English site.

Daniel Kafie: It's not the same thing as what we're trying to do, which is creating a network from scratch and saying these are the features that we think Latin Americans could really use, because it's aligned with their culture.

And that's a big selling point to advertisers. Research shows Latino online users tend to be more affluent, more educated, more Americanized than the overall Latino population in the U.S. — and on average, they're 10 years younger than the general online market.

Lee Vann is founder and CEO of a Hispanic marketing firm called Captura Group. Vann says there are more than 16 million Latinos online. It's the fastest-growing segment of Internet users, rapidly outpacing the mainstream market.

Lee Vann: The U.S. Market is growing at about 1 percent whereas the Hispanic market is growing at about 15 percent each year.

Vann says $16 billion a year is spent on Internet advertising in the U.S. Only $150 million of that targets Latinos. But more users could mean more ad revenues.

Some estimate the use of social networking sites by U.S. Latinos tripled last year. On top of that, the sites are appealing more and more to the 60 million Web users in Latin America. And online ad spending in the region is also up.

The entrepreneurs behind the new Spanish-language social networking sites are counting on a powerful source to attract users: word of mouth. It's how Claudia Pineda, a college student in Los Angeles, got drawn in.

Claudia Pineda: To be honest, like I just got on MySpace because everyone else had one and I was like, what's the big buzz about it, you know?

Pineda isn't convinced the Spanish-language sites will pull her away from MySpace. But online experts like Lee Vann say things may change. If the new sites offer content that really hits home with Latinos — profiles of athletes like Diego Maradona or pop artists like Shakira — they could hit it big.

If they can gain a critical mass of users, then maybe some of the bigger online players in the Latino market, like Univision or Telemundo, could buy them out.

In Los Angeles, I'm Ambar Espinoza for Marketplace.

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