Hispanic Social-Networking Sites Prosper

By: Indie rocker Eric Monterrosa checks his ElHood.com Web page at least three times a day, answering fans, surfing for other new Latin artists and keeping in touch with friends from his native Colombia.

ElHood is sort of a bilingual MySpace promoting the latest in Latin music, and for Miami-based Monterrosa, it has become a personal and professional lifeline. It is also the latest in a wave of Hispanic social-networking sites building links across the U.S., Latin America and Spain, all hoping to capture coveted advertising dollars.

"A lot of Latin artists are plugged in," Monterrosa said. "So if you want to find them it's easy. If you go to sites like MySpace, you have to go through all sorts of genres, types of music, and languages."

About 56 percent of Hispanics in the United States use the Internet, compared with 71 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 60 percent of non-Hispanic blacks, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. But the number of Hispanics online jumps to 67 percent among 18- to 27-year-olds ? the group most likely to visit social-networking sites and one coveted by advertisers.

The online gathering spots allow users to post profiles and keep in touch with friends, as well as expand their circle of acquaintances. Ads and partnerships that help spread new music keep the sites afloat.

ElHood's easy-to-use tools make it a breeze for first-time surfers ? artists and fans ? who often mix Spanish and English in their profiles.

Other Hispanic sites to pop up in the last year or so include the entertainment-oriented Quepasa.com, the mostly English MiGente.com, and a Spanish version of the global networking site Hi5.com.

This week, News Corp.'s MySpace announced it's jumping into the market with a new Spanish-language site for U.S. Hispanics and a pan-regional site for Latin Americans.

Another site, Vostu.com, presents itself as an alternative to Facebook.com, where students post profiles of themselves visible to a mini-network of their college or high school classmates. A group of mostly Hispanic Harvard business students launched Vostu in February, targeting prep schools and universities across the Spanish-speaking world.

Dan Kafie, the 24-year-old Honduran native who co-founded Vostu, believes his site can compete with the larger ones because it's specially tailored to the needs of a relatively small but affluent group.

"There's similar types of sites, but they don't capture the cultural subtleties," Kafie said. "We thought there's an opportunity."

For example, Facebook has relied mostly on e-mail addresses provided by schools, something academic institutions in Latin America don't necessarily offer. Then there's the language issue. Some larger sites let users perform basic tasks in Spanish, but drill down and the more advanced tools are still in English.

Vostu takes extra security measures, a nod to concerns in countries where kidnappings are common. It limits the initial number of members on each school network to 100 people and requires additional checks for those seeking to join.

Because texting is especially popular among Latin American teens, the site also offers its own integrated version of instant messaging, Kafie said.

But are technology, culture and language enough to draw people away from MySpace, Facebook or Google Inc.'s YouTube?

These days, Hispanic youth in the U.S. are already creating their own communities in mainstream sites. Students in California recently used a section of MySpace to organize walkouts to push for the creation of a federal holiday honoring farmworker advocate Cesar Chavez.

Tamara Barber, a Forrester Research analyst who focuses on Hispanic consumer technology, believes the smaller Hispanic social-networking sites can compete, even with MySpace stepping into the ring.

"I don't think MySpace in Spanish is going to put all these sites out of business," she said. "The Hispanic market online is largely untapped. The fact that MySpace is coming out right now shows that Hispanics are a significant opportunity."

ElHood co-founder, Argentinean-born wunderkind Demien Bellumio is already tapping. The 30-year-old, bicultural, tech-savvy hipster represents exactly the demographic his site targets.

Bellumio talks in rapid-fire ? English or Spanish, you choose ? about his company, Hoodiny Inc., which owns the site. Thanks to a deal with the Warner Latin America label, Hoodiny also offers complete artist catalogues online and develops Web sites for top artists such as Mexico rockers Mana, Miami-based rapper Pitbull and Ricky Martin.

To Bellumio, it makes sense that the social-networking sites would be among the first Internet sites to successfully market to Hispanics.

"Music is a huge part of our culture. And people are looking for a way to come together," Bellumio said. By tracking the demographics of his users for record labels and artists, he also provides important marketing data that other, larger sites do not.

Monterrosa, who performs under the name Monte Rosa, believes there's growing need for services targeting the Latino population in the United States.

"More young people come to this country and don't have a family," Monterrosa said. "They are here to strive or to study and they need contacts. They don't have money to go to shows or clubs, but they can reach out to people who also like the same things," he said. As for those in Latin America, they can connect with music and youth scenes that are difficult to find outside the big cities.

To succeed in the long term, the sites will need to meet the expectations of a new breed of Hispanic Internet users, said Richard Chabran, head of the nonprofit California Community Technology Policy Group, which has studied Hispanic use of the Internet.

"The youth, they want it to be fast. They want it to be hip, and they want to see themselves in it ? but not just themselves," he said. "People who are serious about the Hispanic market realize that if you put up a site in Spanish and it's not done well, they're going to get you."


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