What women want online

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Marketers, media address needs with varying degrees of success

A survey by Nielsen Media Research and CommerceNet released last week reports that 34% of Internet users are women, a figure analysts predict will increase steadily.

There are more things for women to do online as well. Hearst Corp., Hachette Filipacchi Magazines and Lang Communications have all opened World Wide Web sites targeted to women in recent months.

On the marketing front, clothing retailer Express and package-goods companies including Kellogg Co. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., have recently opened Web sites.

But many say what's out there for women still isn't what they want.

The issue takes center stage this week at "How to Market to Women.Online" in Washington. Sponsored by companies including People, Interactive Week, Apple Computer, Interactive Publishing Alert and consultancy the Kelsey Group, the conference attempts to correct misperceptions about women online.

"AOL has really been responsible for getting women online by helping them overcome some of the `alien' connotations of cyberspace," said Judith Broadhurst, author of "The Women's Guide to Online Services" (McGraw-Hill, October 1995). "But they've done some damage in saying chat rooms are where it's at--it's really backfired in terms of women's perceptions about online."

Women are still put off by the technology of online services, she said. There's also the fear factor: harassment, pornography, even being stereotyped as a geek.

Surveys have found that online shopping ranks low in interest among both sexes but particularly so for women. That's ironic since women are recognized as the prime shoppers in the brick-and-mortar world.

"It is sexist of men to develop these shopping sites," said Erica Gruen, senior VP-strategic media at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York.

If marketers and media companies can find the right way to reach women online, they'll hit a lucky market.

"Women online are probably in higher positions and [earning greater] incomes than men online--you're getting influencers," said Regina Brady, CompuServe's director of interactive marketing.

Although CompuServe traditionally has skewed heavily male, the online service thinks women will respond to a holiday marketing campaign from Martin/Williams, Minneapolis, that "will have a much more emotional pitch...that may strike core values particularly present in women," Ms. Brady said.

Media companies' Web sites are trying various tactics to woo women: Lang's Women's Web skews toward business and networking advice .

Hearst's HomeArts (http://www.homearts.com) is home oriented. Hachette's Elle is a fashion holdout, hoping women want beauty and style advice online.

New-media brands are hoping to carve a niche as well. iVillage, a new venture backed by AOL, will create content devoted to parenting. Women's Wire, an online service for women 18 to 40 features information on health and fitness, fashion and finance. The site expects to start taking advertising by yearend.

Marketers, obviously, hope that with more women online there will be more interest in their products online.

"We wanted to make the site a safe place for women," said Jim Roemer, Express marketing director, pointing to "unsavory characters" who sometimes harass women online.

The site requires women to register before entering, which gives Express a valuable mailing list and contributes to the feeling of exclusivity.

The vast majority of entrants agree to receive mailings, both electronically and via regular mail, Mr. Roemer said. This month Express sent its first e-mail, publicizing a new portion of the site that teaches women how to simplify their wardrobes.

The exclusive nature could backfire, however.

"A lot of us are turned off by things `just for women.' Why do we need to be relegated to some cordoned-off area?" asked Ms. Broadhurst.

Bristol-Myers' site provides information that goes well beyond the marketer's health & beauty aids focus. One area, for example, is entirely devoted to fashion.

At iVillage, the solution to marketing to women is tying marketing information to content, said Elaine Rubin, senior VP-interactive marketing.

"We want the marketer to develop an innovative marketing program with us--maybe with discussion forums, a customer service program, online research," she said. "We're going to take the Nikes and Nabiscos who haven't decided how to work with new media yet . . . and act as a consultant to those marketers." Even Microsoft Network--a service whose name connotes high technology--is trying to find out what women want.

Three things are necessary, said Product Manager Jodi DeLeon: efficiency, time savings and relevancy. "Navigation needs to be more intuitive," she added. "With men, the computer tended to be perceived as a gadget...Women saw the computer more as an efficiency vehicle."

Copyright November 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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