Web Marketing to a Segment Too Big to Be a Niche

October 30, 2007

ALTHOUGH 50 million people in the United States have some form of physical or mental disability, they spend money just as easily as others. But there are few efficient ways for advertisers to reach them, and that’s what a new Web site, Disaboom.com, hopes to change.

Disaboom is the brainchild of J. Glen House, who graduated from medical school after becoming a quadriplegic as a result of a skiing accident at 20. The site combines the social-networking features of Web sites like Facebook with information of interest to its constituency: medical news, career advice, dating resources and travel tips.

Disaboom.com went live Oct. 1 and hopes to attract more than a million unique visitors each month by the end of February and to double that over the next year. Mr. House and his investors took the company public in May, listing it on the Over the Counter Bulletin Board securities market.

“I don’t think mainstream advertisers realize the magnitude of the marketplace and how underserved it was,” said Howard Lieber, vice president for sales at Disaboom.

Among some advertisers who have already signed contracts with Disaboom are Netflix, Johnson & Johnson, Avis and Cricket Communications.

“I didn’t have to think real long and hard about it,” said Kathy LaPointe, mobility motoring manager at the Ford Motor Company, about the automaker’s decision to advertise prominently on the site. Ford is highlighting its $1,000 allowance for new car buyers to defray costs of adding adaptive equipment like wheelchair or scooter lifts, steering wheel knobs and pedal extensions.

Click-throughs from the ads to Ford’s Web site “have performed well above the benchmark,” Ms. LaPointe said. “This has been a huge success for us so far.”

To Ms. LaPointe, this is part advertising outlay and part public service.

“We’re in the business to make money and sell vehicles, but it’s also the right thing to do,” she said. “We can’t even measure the societal benefit” of the effort, she added. “We’re trying to make a difference in the world and help people.”

Marketing to people with disabilities may look great on paper, but it is not easy.

“We’re a very difficult group to reach,” said Eric Lipp, founder of the Open Doors Organization, a nonprofit group that consults with companies about the disability market. “People in the marketing world will say, ‘I can reach out to them,’ and I’m just telling you it’s not easy. We’re just spread out over all kinds of walks of life — from different races to different religions to different income levels and education.”

Still, Mr. Lipp, who has spoken with Disaboom representatives and plans to write articles for the site, said he was optimistic about the venture. “We would like to see something like this work,” he said. “You just have to build the right mouse trap.”

Disaboom paid DATA Inc., a computer design firm based in Denver, $280,000 to design the site, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. It also recently acquired lovebyrd.com, a dating Web site for people with disabilities, which Disaboom is folding into its own site. At the end of June, the company listed $2.2 million in cash.

“I think they’re right to get a big war chest of money,” Mr. Lipp said. “Now it’s about reaching out to the community.”

One person the site has contacted is Andrew J. Imparato, president of the American Association of People With Disabilities, which has 180,000 members. Disaboom has sponsored a mentoring event for the group and is trying to sign up all of the association’s members; in turn, Mr. Imparato hopes that people who are not members of his group will learn about it through Disaboom and join.

Mr. Imparato said Disaboom could serve as an important clearinghouse for people with disabilities, organizing them to make their voice resound more clearly with business and government.

“The disability community to a large degree is trying to get more visibility as a desirable constituency, whether you’re talking about customers with money in their pockets, or a talent pool to hire from, or voters,” Mr. Imparato said. “To a large degree, we feel like we’re invisible as a market and a political constituency.”

The number of adults with some form of disability is by all accounts growing, in part because the population is aging. Disability rates among older people are substantially higher, greater than 40 percent of the population 65 and over, compared with 19 percent of those between 16 and 64, according to census data.

The portion of the population with a disability will rise from one in five today to nearly one in four by 2030, according to Open Doors.

“They call us T.A.B.’s — the temporarily able-bodied,” said Mr. Lieber, who does not have a disability. “If you live long enough, you will get some physical limitation. You will eventually experience some of what these people are experiencing right now.”

People with mobility challenges are active consumers. A 2005 Harris Interactive study commissioned by Open Doors found that 69 percent of adults with disabilities — more than 21 million people — had traveled for either business or pleasure at least once in the preceding two years. In that same period, more than half had stayed in hotels, while 31 percent had booked at least one flight and 20 percent had rented a car. More than 75 percent of people with disabilities dine out at least once a week.

There are few media outlets that specifically aim at the disabled population, but advertisers like McDonald’s, Verizon Wireless, Sears and Honda have featured people with disabilities in their mainstream advertising. Target features disabled models in sales circulars; Kohl’s department stores use mannequins in wheelchairs in store displays.

Although some of these efforts may prompt accusations of political correctness, advocates for people with disabilities say they welcome the current crop of ads — which tend to feature people with disabilities prosaically in group situations — over the bromide-filled narratives about overcoming adversity that characterized earlier efforts.

“If you’re watching a commercial for a bank or a wireless phone carrier and you see someone in a wheelchair who is just part of the scene or background, it helps create a message that people with handicaps are integrated in society,” said Mr. Imparato, of the American Association of People With Disabilities. “Part of what that does is it normalizes having a disability.”