Whats Up With the Urban Markets Conference?

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As we prepare to celebrate the National Association of Minorities in Communications'20th anniversary-and the 14th annual Urban Markets Conference-I would have hoped to see more visible progress in the cable industry.

With the conference just a few weeks away, current registration is disappointingly low compared to that of other industry gatherings. After 14 years, average attendance at the Urban Markets Conference is 500, while events such as the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing Summit and the National and Western shows achieve attendance in the thousands. Something is terribly wrong with this picture.

As the industry faces a remarkable rate of growth in its urban audience, the Urban Markets Conference deserves to be at the top of its strategic agenda.

Clearly, there are dozens of industry conferences for senior management to choose from, so the primary test of a conference's importance is its relevance. What could be more relevant than the impact of a rapidly growing and largely untapped audience on cable's bottom line? While the industry continues to focus on technology and delivery, the bigger picture of end-user needs is largely being ignored.

Far from being an issue of simple diversity or sensitivity, understanding the urban market is a critical strategic and financial imperative. And the stakes are high. New audiences are more than just new eyes-they are new attitudes, new interests, and new buying habits. Those differences will require a fundamental shift in the industry's way of doing business.

Differing interests may mean adjustments in programming. Changing demographics can mean widely varied delivery options. Shifting priorities in attitudes and consumer habits may lead to new categories of potential advertisers, or at the very least, new advertising approaches.

Take a look at any current issue of The Wall Street Journal. Notice the unprecedented presence of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and women in advertisements for everything from brokerage services to high technology recruiting. In the business sector, Wall Street has embraced a reality-great economic times have created a tide that has lifted all boats. And a newly wealthy consumer base is no longer limited to suburban soccer moms, but is comprised of a complicated array of communities with dramatic differences from the "traditional" viewer.

Here's a snapshot:

  • In the last decade, African-American consumer power has nearly doubled, from $308 billion to well over $533 billion, with Hispanic-American buying power growing from $208 billion to $383 billion.
  • According to several sources, premium penetration is higher in black and Hispanic households than in non-Hispanic white or Asian households. In addition, pay-per-view usage is highest among African-American and Hispanic consumers, thus demonstrating the value of the urban audience to this industry in terms of revenue.

How long can cable continue to overlook the kind of critical information that defines the Urban Markets Conference and continue to hold its dominance? Is there a perception that the conference is just for minorities, or that the urban audience is monolithic, and thus not worth detailed market study?

Every year, Urban Markets plays host to lower and middle-level managers, but rarely to senior executives. Yet, those same senior executives flock to the annual Walter Kaitz Foundation dinner to honor those who have made significant contributions to forging new opportunities for people of color. That is laudable, but only reflects one side of the equation. The greatest opportunities concerning people of color are in the area of audience growth.

The industry spends an inordinate amount of money and resources in the development of strategies to retain and acquire subscribers. In the urban market, we find an audience saying, "Here I am. Take me." The industry, however, seems uninterested in their voice and their concerns.

Over the years, Urban Markets has garnered support from some cable operators and programmers, but where are the decision-makers that run the industry? Some of them will send their employees of color to the conference, but ignore invitations to speak there. I urge the industry, especially senior management, to educate itself on the importance of the urban and minority markets, and the effects of industry decisions on its growth.

As many top-level executives have board meetings scheduled during Diversity Week, this is a perfect opportunity to set an example of support for the Urban Markets Conference by attending themselves.

Let's take some lessons from McDonald's Corp., Nike Inc. and The Coca-Cola Co., and respect the role of the minority consumer in setting trends and impacting the bottom line.

Curtis Symonds is executive vice president for affiliate sales and marketing at Black Entertainment Television.

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