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Related story: Attendance down at Maryland Hispanic Business Conference, but reasons vary

Businesses are turning to social media and other mobile platforms to tap into the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region's $20.1 billion Hispanic buying market.

About 550 executives in this market flocked to the 11th annual Maryland Hispanic Business Conference on Tuesday at the Montgomery County Conference Center in North Bethesda, where they learned about this and other topics essential for their growth.

"These events are crucial because the Latino community needs more of a push toward business development," said Axel Martinez, a Web developer for Image Concept Services in Rockville. Martinez said he was at the conference to learn what people are asking about social media and advertising.

Social media are especially vital in reaching Washington’s Hispanic market, 87 percent of which owns a cell phone, with 57.3 percent owning smartphones, said Francisco Vega, president and CEO of VegaPages in Vienna, Va. That’s more than the 44.7 percent of smartphone owners in the general market.

He added that with 25 million Hispanics using the Internet, their demographic is the fastest-growing group of Web users in the nation and that they spend 40 percent more time online than other groups.

About 1.5 million Hispanic people live in the Washington region, he said.

"This is a very attractive market for small businesses to tap into," Vega said.

On a national level, Hispanic buying power is at $1 trillion and is expected to hit $1.5 trillion in the next five years, according to a Nielsen report.

Knowing the culture, talking the language, developing a marketing plan after the business plan and hiring Hispanic staff will help businesses better take advantage of this market, said Lanaea Featherstone, president of the William & Lanaea C. Featherstone Foundation in Windsor Mill. The foundation works to advance the Hispanic community.

Finding at least 30 minutes each day to access social media also is key to growing a business, said Kristin Bouweiri, CEO of Reston Limousine in Sterling, Va., and a panelist on a discussion of social media. Bouweiri advised businesses to use Google alerts, an email notification program, to track their Internet reputation and follow trends in their industry, which they can then use for content on their blogs and other social media platforms. She also suggested using Facebook to learn more about clients and prospects so that businesses can better connect to them during business meetings.

Some business representatives said they were unsure how they were supposed to find the time for dealing with social media when they have staffs of fewer than 10 people.

‘You have to listen to people’

Prioritizing the social media platforms a target audience is using and spreading around the work needed to maintain these platforms may help, said Dawn Arteaga, digital strategist for Porter Novelli in Washington. She emphasized cross-promoting the company’s website through posting pictures of business products on Facebook, filming YouTube interviews and joining peer and prospect groups on LinkedIn, which serves as an online résumé and networking platform.

"You have to listen to people. Too many businesses view social media as just another form of press release," Arteaga said. "You have to have an online persona through social media."

Bouweiri also recommended using press release platform PRWeb to advertise directly to specific groups for about $80 per release. She said she has tracked 200,000 links to her website from a PRWeb press release. About 64 percent of LinkedIn's users said it has helped them grow their business, according to a survey from comScore, which researches digital business analytics.

Hispanic businesses also face the challenge of overcoming the language barrier when trying to reach clients through these platforms, said José S. Gonzalez, a Bethesda entrepreneur who is looking to get his Silver Branch Enterprises project off the ground. He said he was surprised to learn just how many social media platforms are available.

"There's almost a flavor for every taste," Gonzalez said. "It's all about staying ahead of the trends."

Whether a business is connecting to the government or to another business, "it's really just people to people," Arteaga said.

Juan Carlos, general manager at Parva, a Bethesda restaurant, said the conference illustrates the potential for the Hispanic market’s growth in the area.

Such growth has also led Carlos and others to partnering with the conference to host the Montgomery County Hispanic Heritage Celebration in Silver Spring on Sept. 28, which the organizers hope to hold annually.

“We’ve honestly grown so much here that we need to get together as a group,” Carlos said.

International business

The conference also touched on foreign import and export opportunities, with an afternoon presentation that featured a representative from the El Salvador embassy, a freight forwarder and others who specialize in trade support. The seminar included a business delegation from Colombia.

El Salvador hopes to increase trade with the U.S., with the goal of its boosting exports to $6 billion from $4.5 billion, said Enilson Solano, minister counselor of economic affairs for the embassy.

“Our model is from Sanchez to Sanchez to Smith,” he said, referring to how exporters could use Marylanders with Salvadoran connections to break into the mainstream market.

The U.S. Export Important Bank also offered its services in helping businesses find financing for their projects. The bank supported $34 billion in exports in 2011, including $6 billion involving small businesses, said Judith Rivera, export finance manager for the Women & Minority Owned Business Export Import Bank.

John S. Connor, a Glen Burnie company that provides transportation and logistics services, advised businesses to turn to freight forwarders to help them navigate the complex regulations and process involved in international trade.

lrobbins@gazette.net