Asian-American sites seek popularity, profit

Internet: Places focused on the nation's most wired ethnic group are increasing, but don't seem to make money.

July 03, 2000|By Benny Evangelista | Benny Evangelista,SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Checking Asian-American Web sites isn't just a hobby for Nelson Wong, it's "a passion."

Wong spends about 20 hours a week surfing sites that are produced by or for the most wired ethnic group in the United States: Asian-Americans.

On his site, AArising.com, probably the oldest of them all, Wong has posted links to about 2,500 sites. They range from "blogs" - a new Net term for personal e-zines, or "Web logs," that offer comment on everything from TV shows to cars to love - to the high-profile commercial venture aOnline.com, which was recently launched by nationally known aMagazine.

A crop of commercial sites, including Click2Asia.com, aOnline.com, AsiaDera.com, AsianConnections.com and Onna.com, are looking for profits in the diverse marketplace of online Asians.

So far, Wong said, nobody has hit the target.

"If they're trying to make money at it, they may be barking up the wrong tree," said the 33-year-old Web designer, who lives and works in San Francisco. "I don't see anything out there that's a moneymaker."

Jeff Yang hopes to change that. The founder and chief executive of aMagazine and aOnline.com knows that commercial Asian-American sites have come and gone, but he believes the time is right for a breakthrough.

"We're sitting on something that is either going to be a gold mine or a land mine," said Yang, who is moving the headquarters of his 10-year-old company, aMedia Inc., from New York to San Francisco in August.

By all accounts, Asian-Americans are the most wired "community" on the Internet.

Two Internet research firms, Forrester Research Inc. and Jupiter Communications Inc., agree that 69 percent of Asian-American households, about 2.2 million, are online. According to census estimates, there are about 11 million U.S. residents of Asian ancestry.

In a report issued last week, Jupiter said the online penetration of Asian-American households should jump to 84 percent by 2005. By comparison, about 54 percent of all Caucasian households were online this year, a percentage that should jump to 76 percent in 2005, the Jupiter report said.

The reality, though, is that the term Asian-American does not refer to a singular entity, but a variety of people of various ethnic backgrounds, cultures and interests from countries throughout the Asia-Pacific Island and South Asia regions, such as China, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and India.

"The Asian-American community is probably the toughest to target as a homogenous community because they are so diverse," said Ekaterina Walsh, a Forrester Research analyst who has followed such Web sites for several years.

But Yang believes the time is right for a site that creates more of an Asian-American community. He believes his aOnline.com Asian American Digital Network, formally launched last month, will become a "virtual hub" for everything from "advertising to political organizing."

Yang's aMedia Inc. is hoping to build on the success of its 10-year-old flagship aMagazine, a bimonthly publication with about 200,000 subscribers that tracks culture and politics in the Asian-American communities.

The company is negotiating to buy an independent record label and plans to create a "digital studio" that will spotlight Asian-American artists and filmmakers through streaming video and audio. That will be important as more consumers switch to high-speed broadband Internet connections in the United States and abroad, he said.

"Asia itself is not yet a consumer market for broadband media, but within two years, Asia is going to be the single largest Internet market in the world," Yang said. "They'll need something to fill those fat pipes."

The competition among Asian-American portals is heating up, each offering news, features and entertainment to entice Asian and Asian-American Web surfers, although only two had sufficient traffic for Web research firm PC Data Online to report.

Los Angeles' Click2Asia.com launched in August with investors that include Gareth Chang, chairman of Asian broadcaster StarTV. Along with wire service news from Asia, the site last week offered Asian music videos, clips from a supermodel contest and an interview with actress Julia Roberts.

The site, which has advertised on billboards, saw traffic jump from 109,000 unique users in April to 376,000 in May, reaching about 0.5 percent of the total number of Internet users, according to PC Data Online.

The other site, AsianAvenue.com, launched in 1997 in New York, had 170,000 unique users in May, up from 111,000 the month before. AsianConnections.com, of Newport Beach, Calif., offers articles by former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres and popular TV chef Martin Yan.

Last week, visitors would have found links to exclusive video interviews with "Mission: Impossible 2" director John Woo and "Shanghai Noon" star Jackie Chan.

Forrester's Walsh said she has not seen anything to indicate that Web sites targeting Asian-Americans will make money. She said aOnline might have a chance because, as does African-American media company BET.com, it can leverage the drawing power of its print publication.

But in general, she said, Web sites have to target a specific group to succeed, and Walsh said even Onna.com's focus on women in Japan isn't narrow enough.

She said ethnic sites that are as narrowly focused as one for 16- to-28-year-olds who like a certain type of music might stand a chance.

Maybe that's why there's more of an explosion of noncommercial "blogs" that deal with such topics as lifestyles, imported cars and Asian-American fashion models, said AArising's Wong, who said that he tends to get eight to 10 new links every three days on his site, launched in 1993.

"I find them much more compelling," Wong said. "That's where the biggest growth has been, but it's not necessarily where you're going to make any money."

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