By Diane Brady When pundits talk about African Americans and the Internet, they often focus on the Digital Divide -- the fact that fewer black people have online access than their white counterparts. But a new study released on Sept. 14 suggests that black women also approach the Net differently, devoting little time to personal e-mails or other recreational pursuits. Moreover, they're much more apt to go online to investigate companies before buying their products or services.
The study, conducted by a Chicago-based black women's Web community called NiaOnline.com, draws on a survey of 1,733 female Internet users. About half the respondents were black, with 44% identifying themselves as white and the rest being from other ethnic groups. It serves as a wake-up slap to anyone trying to treat female consumers as a monolithic group, and offers interesting insights into a community that has often been under-served on the Web.
First, forget the notion that black women aren't interested in the Web. Cheryl Mayberry McKissack, founder and CEO of Nia Enterprises and NiaOnline, says they're more likely than white women to use it when making purchasing decisions.
Nearly 65% of African-American respondents to the survey said they frequently or almost always visit the Web site of a product when deciding to purchase it, vs. 58% of white respondents. About 16% of black respondents also said their favorite Web sites have a major influence on purchase decisions, vs. 12% of white respondents (click here to see the full results of the survey).
PRYING EYES. A wider divergence occurs around the issue of using the Web for fun. One reason may be that more black respondents primarily access the Internet from work (32%, vs. 9% of whites), meaning fewer send e-mail that is "usually personal" (39% vs. 78%, respectively). McKissack believes there are demographic reasons, too: "Women are more likely to head our traditional household," she says, arguing that they may have less time and more inclination to go online for tools or resources to help them manage their families.
McKissack also sees some cultural factors holding back online recreation. "African Americans have a disproportionate fear relative to the Internet," she says. "There are privacy concerns that go back to a number of issues in the community.... We have traditionally been distrustful of people asking us for information." While the online world is attractive because it offers anonymity, she adds, the fear of losing that anonymity may prevent some users from fully exploiting cyberspace.
UNTAPPED MARKET. Will this change with time? Probably. In the survey, African Americans expressed a greater desire to sign up for high-speed connections than white respondents, even though they were only slightly behind. They are also more eager than white respondents to introduce their children to the Internet.
For them, it's a potent tool to shape how and what they buy. With black women likely to be the primary decision makers in their households, that creates a powerful incentive for companies to see if their sites are really reaching out to this market.
Brady is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York