For cyberpioneer Dan Pelson, acquiring the tiny Girls On Film Web site in 1997 and raising its online visibility could have backfired in a big way. Instead of hitting more of the site's target audience-women interested in film reviews and other pop culture subjects-he risked drawing in men looking for a quick thrill.
"It could have turned out that we reached 35-year-old men because they thought it was Girls On ..." Pelson trails off, laughing. "Well, whatever." A Web site with photos of naked girls could have made a lot more money, he admits, blushing, "but that was not our interest."
Reaching 18-to-34-year-old women was. In 1996, Pelson, president and founder of New York City-based Concrete Media, a company that builds Internet-based media brands, began searching for a Web property to appeal to young women. Surveys indicated that this age group was logging on in increasing numbers, but Pelson believed there were few places for them to congregate online. It was certainly a potentially lucrative niche worth mining: According to Mediamark Research, women 18-to-34 spend $3.6 billion a year on health and beauty products, representing 31 percent of all sales in the category. They also drop $12 billion a year on clothes, nearly 20 percent of total sales.
Enter Lise Carrigg, then a 27-year-old New York University film studies graduate. As a class project, Carrigg had created the Girls on Film (GOF) site in 1994, enlisting the aid of three friends to write film reviews and spout off about "chicks, flicks, politicks"-the site's motto.
The girls reflected their own target audience: female twentysomethings with brains who were looking for movie recommendations from critics they could relate to. Reviews and casual commentary on everything from bad-hair days to movie theaters that serve beer resonated with readers. On a good day, the site-whose name is a sarcastic nod to the cheesy Duran Duran song of the same title-racked up to 5,000 page views.
But at the end of the day, the site didn't pay the bills. "I hadn't eaten very well in two years," says Carrigg, who found herself, resume in hand, seated before Pelson in the winter of '97. At the time Pelson was hiring for Concrete and was starting up a project called Bolt that would later become a premiere Web site for teens. When Pelson asked the usual interviewer opener-"tell me about yourself"-Carrigg gushed on and on about GOF. "This was obviously her passion," Pelson recalls.
A few weeks later, Pelson and Carrigg were in negotiations over Concrete acquiring the GOF site. Pelson did his homework before signing the check. He ran a few focus groups to test the site's potential, but relied mostly on online surveys to gauge audience interest. Surveys asked about the user's demographics, lifestyle, and habits, such as how many movies they watched in a typical week. "Focus groups are good for getting general stuff, but ultimately, if you ask 10,000 people some questions on the Internet, that's more valuable to me," Pelson says.
The surveys confirmed Pelson's hunch: GOF's audience, with its core group between 18 and 25, was looking for a place of their own on the Web. Two months after meeting Carrigg, Pelson completed the deal (he's mum on how much he paid), and Carrigg found herself behind a desk at Concrete as an executi ve producer-"which was kind of funny," she recalls, "since there was nobody else there. I was in charge of me, basically." Soon, Carrigg hired GOF's three cofounders, who all still write for the site: 30-year-old Clare Bundy works out of Los Angeles as the site's editor; Sibyl Goldman, 28, is a part-time writer/consultant, as is Carrigg, now 29; Dre Pyros, 28, came on full time last May after finishing graduate school and now works as an executive producer based in New York.
While Carrigg and company concentrated on the creative, Pelson worked on attracting more young women to the site, taking a mass-market approach. Four months after acquiring the site, he established a deal with Yahoo! that allowed the popular search engine's users to connect directly to GOF via a link on the Yahoo homepage. Similar deals were inked with AOL, Netscape and Hotmail. Hits to the site quadrupled. Of course, not every first-time visitor was an 18-to-34-year-old woman, Pelson says, but the viewers who liked the content, bookmarked the page and kept coming back were.
Content was expanded as well. Sections on television and books were established, as was a new name: Girls On Network (www.girlson.com). A feature called "GO Notes" brought instant messaging to registered members. Today, nearly two years into the venture, the site has 100,000 members and averages five million page views per month. One such member is Thisbe Lynne Sauvage, 33, from Denver, Colorado. Sauvage says she logs on to GO everyday, often to check her GO Notes and catch up on the latest content updates. "It's wonderful to finally have a place to express opinions about movies and books that I love," she explained in a GO Note. "[GO] is informative, and smart-assy."
The demographics are right on, too: 80 percent of GO members are females who are generally young, single, and college-educated, making between $45,000 and $65,000 a year. Most are white and live in urban areas like New York and San Francisco. They typically spend only five to ten minutes online per session, but return often. Off-line, they go to movies, watch TV, read books, and, most importantly for advertisers, shop.
"Most Web sites in this age group skew 80 percent male," says interactive media specialist Shawn O'Meara, with ad agency Fallon McElligott, who works with clients like Lee Jeans and Ralston Purina. Last fall, Lee advertised its Lee Dungarees, targeted to 17-to-22-year-olds, on the GO network. Banner ads, which run $6,000 to $16,000 on the site, linked viewers to the Lee site. "We could have bought space on an .edu site, but then you're only getting people coming from a college server," says O'Meara. "We didn't want to cast anyone away. Girls On is appropriate for us-it's fresh, hip and cool."
Greg Smith, director of strategic services at Darwin Digital, the interactive marketing division of Saatchi & Saatchi, says niche sites like GO ensure that advertisers reach the right people even if they don't reach as many. "With a female-skewed product, for instance, it's more efficient to advertise at a place like GO," Smith says. "I know exactly who the person is that I'm talking to. I know it delivers the right environment or attitude for my product."
Indeed, GO is eager to please advertisers and defends the right to tailor content to suit them. "We're comfortable that we know how to handle it, just like a newspaper has to be concerned that ads and editorial are not confused," says executive producer Pyros. Still, the line between ad and editorial blurs much faster on the Web, as evidenced by GO's options to advertisers. A clothing retailer, for instance, might sponsor a two-month series on celebrity fashion faux pas. A Web bullet-a banner ad alternative that "fuses" content with sponsorship from the retailer-would allow viewers to replace a starlet's bad-clothing choice with the sponsor's apparel. Viewers who wanted to purchase the clothing could then go through an on-site transaction processing system or order a catalog. The advertiser's cost, which includes content creation by Concrete Media: $45,000.
Still, not every GO girl will be ready to buy, says Arielle Dorris, vice president of strategic planning for the online direct marketing firm, i-traffic. "The site's younger viewers are less likely than the 25-to-49 age group to actually make purchases," she says. Without such immediate gratification, marketers may be less inclined to advertise on the site. That could be a challenge to Girls On, which relies mostly on ad revenue, and similar sites. Using the accepted industry formula, GO's monthly revenues may hit $50,000 a month or higher. Pelson declined to comment on revenue. While GO may not be Amazon.com, Darwin's Smith explains, "You don't have to be big to make money. GO could very well be profitable, if they're lean and mean enough."
With that in mind, GO is already expanding the brand offline. Since November, a New York-area cable show has featured film reviews by GO writers. And this summer, HarperCollins will release a GO book of reviews and social commentary. It's a strategy that competitors like the less commercially successful Cybergrrl site hope to follow. Cybergrrl founder Aliza Sherman, author of A Woman's Guide to the World Wide Web, has watched Pelson and GO closely. So far, she likes what she sees: "He really understands the value of the brand and the importance of being cross media."
Pelson also understands the importance of keeping tabs on GO members and tweaking content to suit their interests. One recent survey, for example, found that the audience wanted music reviews, so GO's three categories will grow to four within a few months. Pelson hopes to explore topics like finance, cars, and technology.
The information hardly flows one way, reflecting the interactive strength of the Web. GO members often weigh in with their own advice and opinions. "Some of the funniest content is when people disagree with us," says Pyros. "We got hundreds of e-mails when my negative Spawn review came out." Adds Cybergrrl Sherman: "Dan realizes the importance of voices. But he also knows we're in this business to make money."
Total number of people aged 18-34 online in the last 30 days: 17 million
Number who were women: 7.5 million
Why women 18-34 used the Internet in the last 30 days (multiple answers were allowed):
sought information: 5.1 million
used chat areas: 1.4 million
used e-mail: 4.7 million
Estimated number of women between the ages of 20 and 34 today: 27.9 million
Projected number of women between the ages of 20 and 34 in 2005: 28.1 million
Projected number of women between the ages of 20 and 34 in 2015: 31.5 million