Women and the Web

They go online for community — and in greater numbers
Written by Robert Bryce, Contributor

When it comes to women and the web, content is still queen. At least, that's the thinking of dozens of female-focused sites vying for viewers.

Women now outnumber men on the Web, and that fact could mean big changes in the future as advertisers and marketers spend billions of dollars trying to reach this market.

E-tailers and portals have been courting female viewers for years. But the importance of women — and their spending power — gained renewed focus this summer when research firm InsightExpress found that the online population is now 51 percent female. That's a dramatic change from five years ago when men outnumbered women on the Net by nearly 2 to 1.

Although online marketing efforts toward women will intensify, there are key questions about how advertisers will best be able to reach them. Sites that cater to women shoppers are likely to thrive as they roll out more features. But there are on going questions about the future viability of women-focused content sites and their ability to garner the advertising dollars they need to survive.

Fast Times

For the Spiegel Group, which owns spiegel catalog, the future means shortening product cycle times so that Web shoppers can buy new fashions sooner. For Lands' End, the future will probably mean more features, such as the virtual model that enables a Web shopper to see how a garment will fit her particular body shape.

"The Web allows us to do things much faster than we could in the catalog," said Melissa Payner, president and CEO of Spiegel catalog. "We look at all the fashion shows, and when we see key silhouettes on the runway, within eight weeks we get those products on the Web site."

Spiegel, which has been selling to women through its catalog for 136 years, has been particularly happy with the growth of its Web presence. E-commerce sales were up 70 percent in the first half of 2001, compared with the same period a year-ago, and the company's 2000 Web sales jumped 205 percent over 1999.

Spiegel is even using the Web as a feedback tool to help it spend its advertising dollars wisely. "We photograph ideas, and then put [prospective] ads on the Web site," Payner said. Then, "we send e-mail to our customers and ask them to vote on which ad they think is most effective. We are getting instant feedback on our marketing."

InsightExpress' survey found that as more women are using the Web, it begins to more closely mirror America's overall demographics. In 1996, the average household income for the online population was more than $62,000. Today, it's $49,800 — a figure that's slightly above the average household income for the U.S. population as a whole.

Those numbers are important, said Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president of consulting firm Retail Forward — formerly Pricewaterhouse Coopers' E-Retail Intelligence System — be cause they show that a broad range of women are using the Web, and those women control billions of dollars in discretionary spending. Women are taking an in creasingly act ive decision-making role in the purchasing of traditionally male-oriented items like electronics and home equipment, she said.

That could help content sites like iVillage, which has been targeting women on the Web since 1996. IVillage certainly needs some good news. In 1999, a few weeks after going public, its stock soared, trading at more than $104 per share. But the tech implosion hasn't been sexist. Today, iVillage's stock trades for less than 70 cents per share. According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, iVillage lost $334.3 million from 1996 to 2000. The company, which recently bought its main rival, Women.com Networks, has also gone through a dramatic downsizing, cutting its staff by about 50 percent.

Despite the problems, iVillage CEO Doug McCormick believes that women-focused content sites will prosper. He said iVillage now reaches about 20 percent of American women who use the Web, and those women are visiting the site two or three times per month. "As broadband availability increases, the ability to get an audiovisual message and put it in a branded environment, is a great investment opportunity," he said.

IVillage may also gain traction from its recent deal with media giant Hearst. In the partnership, iVillage will produce online content for a variety of Hearst's publications, including Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Redbook. Those tie-ins should produce valuable synergy and new viewers for iVillage, McCormick said.

As iVillage struggles to muster the ad dollars it needs to survive, there are many other content sites operating on shoestring budgets. They are, for the most part, run by women who want to provide fo rums for women to share their experiences, business ideas, pregnancy advice, etc. These forums include Advancing Women, Her Planet, TheNetworkfor Women.com and WWWomen.

Although many of these sites have loyal supporters, there are doubts about their long-term viability. Gary Chapman, director of The 21st Century Project at University of Texas and a frequent writer about Internet-related issues, said small, women-focused content sites may soon go the way of the corset. "The patterns of usage on the Internet seem to be going toward relatively few number of sites that have a full range of content, like MSN and Yahoo!," he said.

But Dottie Gruhler, CEO of HerPlanet, an online community for women, disagreed. There will always be women-focused content sites, she said, because women want community. They want to share their life experiences with other women.

"Women won't go to Spiegel.com or Sears.com for a community," Gruhler said. "They'll go there to shop. Content sites will survive because if you have a vibrant community for women, then Spiegel and Sears will look to advertise in places like HerPlanet to get people to shop at their sites."

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