CT Latino Businesses: Adjusting To The Online Consumer?


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By Wayne Jebian

Antojitos Donde Julio, a Colombian restaurant on Hartford’s Park Street, just might have the fluffiest yuca bread in Connecticut. But these days, it takes a lot more than a good product to keep a business afloat; it also takes an effective marketing strategy. Owner Julio Castano has found online social networks to be the least expensive and most effective way for him to go.
“Facebook,” he says with a wide grin. “In the morning, I put up a picture of what I will be making that day, like my hamburgers. At lunch, customers show up saying they saw it on Facebook.”
But Castano may be among the few small Latino business owners who have embraced the no-cost marketing assistance of social media. For the most part, Latino business owners in Connecticut don’t seem to have a real online presence. If you use Google.com to look up Latino businesses of the brick-and-mortar type, like a neighborhood restaurant or store, that business will probably be listed in some of the online yellow pages directories, but there’s a good chance that it doesn’t have a Facebook page, much less a full website.
“People aren’t really looking to get into websites anymore, unless you are a big company,” said Joyce Bolanos of Viva Hartford media, a marketing company for small businesses.  As for  the lack of a social media presence, she adds, in some cases it is generational, especially among some of the smaller retail business owners, who are comfortable doing business the way they always have.
Maria Miranda, director of Miranda Creative, an advertising and marketing firm based in Norwich, says, “The majority of Latino-owned businesses are small enterprises.” She added, “Latinos face the same issues of any small business — too many options, too little time. Combine this lack of resources with lack of training, and you have the perfect mix for limited success.”
Even among the Latino small businesses that do have a presence online and in social media, such as Facebook, there are indications that their owners are still not taking full advantage of these networks.  CTLatinoNews sent a dozen Facebook messages to different Latino businesses in Connecticut and received no responses, including those with otherwise well-maintained sites and well-run shops, like Antonjitos Donde Julio and Criolissimo Restaurant in New Britain.
Malvamel (Malvi) Lennon, an insurance claims professional and former state senate candidate from Windsor, says, “I do not think they use social networking as effectively as their [non-Latino] American competitors do,” she says. “Immigrants started many Latino small businesses; many are not as technologically informed or as sophisticated as American competitors are, so they have a tendency to put their trust on more conventional marketing plans. Nevertheless, this trend will begin to reverse itself as the younger, American-educated generations begin to take on the running of small operation.”
We also found that even among professionals who could use online social media effectively, there are certain types of businesses and certain types of clients who say it is imperative to hold out for telephone contact, face-to-face meetings, and possibly even the U.S. Postal service. “Don’t know yet,” wrote Eddie Perez in an e-mail to CTLatinoNews about the effectiveness of online marketing for a business like Su Seguro, the insurance office on Park Street for which the former mayor serves as Vice President of Business Development. “Our operating assumption is that TV, radio and print are the way to go, and our few months experience looks like it maybe true.”
However, by remaining too old school, do Latino leaders risk losing their customer bases and constituencies to more internet-savvy players?  The young Latinos do spend a great deal of time online. “I can tell you that social media via cell phone use is huge in Latino community,” observes Marilynn Cruz-Aponte,  a long time community leader and Assistant to the Director of Public Works for the City of Hartford. “Being Latina means we are in constant contact with family – daily with aunts, cousins, children, spouses, friends. If you watch Latino TV, it’s all about promoting Facebook, Twitter and driving folks to web pages. It’s even a part of Tele-Novela scripts.”
According to the Nielson Digital Consumer report released last week, U.S. Latinos outpace other demographics in use of electronic media of all kinds, particularly in video technology from gaming to mobile. (http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/reports/2014/the-us-digital-consumer-report.html also http://ctln.local/2014/02/13/new-study-finds-u-s-latinos-ahead-of-the-digital-curve/).
In 2013, the Pew Hispanic Center reported, “Two-thirds (68%) of Latino internet users say they use Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites, according to the Pew Hispanic Center survey.  By comparison, 58% of all U.S. internet users say they use Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites.”
As the Latino population begins to undergo a generational change, many are interested in the online habits of this consumer base.   Currently, Social Lens Research, an online research firm is conducting a survey (http://www.sociallensresearch.com/blog/calling-all-hispanic-business-owners-tell-us-about-your-mobile-usage) to find if and how Latino business owners are using mobile technology platforms to manage and grow their business. CEO Julie Diaz-Asper said, “We were just really excited about how much movement mobile is providing to businesses…It was opening the opportunity for smaller companies to compete more efficiently because they could keep in contact with their partners globally, increase productivity, and improve their networking.”
Diaz-Aser says that the use of mobile internet has allowed networks of smaller businesses to achieve the muscle of big international companies, “One example is a company who is now using apps to connect with their programming team abroad. They can deliver their product much more quickly. That’s just one example.” To find Latinos at the cutting edge of mobile technology, she went to the Latinos in Social Media conference in New York, to an event called a hack-a-thon, where online pioneers ask the big questions.
For those non-tech-savvy business at the far edges of the geek-a-verse, the biggest question about social networking is if they had to start on one program, which would bring them the most customers. Facebook is the most popular site, combining the graphically interesting qualities of a website with the easy communication of a blog. Twitter is more text-intensive, and of course those “tweets” are so short that a reader can digest a ton of information in one viewing. On the other hand, the information-overload quality of it makes it a less than ideal environment for sharing in-depth information or closing deals.
“Women dominate Pinterest and slightly outpace men on Facebook,” says Maria Miranda. Men, especially younger men, like Twitter, and recent college grads are thriving on Instagram…all, for the most part, regardless of race.
“Linked-In is the only social site for business networking,” adds Malvi Lennon “Facebook and Twitter are much too casual, and better left for personal or even political purposes. On the other hand, Linked-In is geared towards professionals and industry.”
“Don’t underestimate the power of the search,” advises Julie Asper-Diaz, who said that the network Google+ could easily grow in popularity because it elevates its users’ visibility in Google searches.
With such a large share of Latinos wired in to one or more social networks, larger companies have long since figured out that Latinos are fertile ground for their marketing campaigns. Visalud, owned by Greenwich, CT-based, Blyth Inc, is a national brand of health plans and products. At the top of its site vi.com, are links for Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus icons.
“Nationally, sales went from around $200 Million a year to $600 Million in 2012, and that’s all due to the online presence, pretty much, the Facebook and social media campaigns” said Victor Zuletta, a representative for the company’s current promotional campaign, the “ViSalus Body By Vi™ Challenge“. However, Zuletta says that social media marketing is not always easy pickings, and as with any form of advertising, it’s best to keep one’s expectations realistic. “To an extent, Facebook and Twitter have been flooded with media campaigns, and because of that, when a new promoter comes on, they find that the audience has already seen their product.”
Even though the internet has a global reach, the best results come from people down the street enjoying the convenience of checking what the specials are and then having the option of stopping in on the fly.
“The best advertising is word of mouth, and word of mouth is through social media,” said Joyce Bolanos of VivaHartford Media, the analogy being that a medium like Facebook is simply a social space where people swap information, much like they would in a hair salon.