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Putting a 1990s spin on an age-old question, marketers are asking, "What do women want ... from new media?"

Underlying the question is a stubborn fact. Eighty percent of interactive service users are men.

More women, however, are expected to venture into the interactive world, as new-media companies and advertisers start to reach out to them.

Hearst Corp.'s New Media & Technology division for example, this year plans to launch a branded online and CD-ROM service called HomeArts to target women and men passionate about the home, not gung-ho about computers. As part of its strategy, Hearst plans to develop new marketing channels beyond the male-dominated software stores, advertising in the pages of its women's magazines and through direct mail.

Other rumblings of change: Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising is working with advertisers to develop online and CD-ROM content in 1995 geared to women. Hachette-Filipacchi Magazines recently launched Elle, Women's Day and Home on America Online. And the company will soon put its magazine Know How online.

Modem Media, a Westport, Conn.-based interactive advertising agency, which numbers among its clients AT&T, J.C. Penney Co. and CBS, has formed a task force to determine how best to advertise to women interactively.

Even videogame companies, bastions of blood and guts and shoot-em-up products, are getting into the act. PF Magic, a San Francisco-based videogame designer and producer, plans to launch a videogame for working women this fall.

"It redefines the concept of playing. It's not based on winning or losing. You just play with it," said Brooke Boynton, PF Magic's producer and marketing coordinator.

These companies are betting it's not an innate fear of technology that's made women chary of the $1.2 billion online and multimedia software industry, but a lack of suitable content.

"It's not techno-phobia. It's `why bother,"' said Kathryn Creech, general manager of Hearst's HomeArts. "Women simply haven't been given a reason why. They haven't been given content that's interesting to them."

A big stumbling block, some say, has been a failure by most new-media companies to target or position their products to women.

"Companies have been more concerned about electronic media in general, as opposed to a particular demographic group. They're just trying to get online and experiment," said James Alexander, managing partner of eWorks, an electronic media consulting and production company based in Minneapolis.

Indeed, interactive services seem to be following a classic pattern of new technology launches where men dominate the early enthusiast category.

"There's an interesting analogy to interactive in the early 1990s and cable in the early 1980s," said Erica Gruen, senior VP-strategic media resources at Saatchi. "When cable was first launched it was very male-oriented. HBO was heavily into sports. USA was originally launched as the Madison Square Garden Network."

Now that PCs have become a staple of more and more homes, however, some say the early adopter model has become passe.

"The computer's been seen as a testosterone toy. That's why most people believe women have been left off the online universe," said Barry Layne, VP and director of Ketchum Interactive, a division of Ketchum Communications. "It's time to wake up. It's 1995. The early adopter model is dead as you look at computers. One-third of U.S. homes have PCs. It's a mass-market model now."

More women are buying computers, too. While 29% of women own PCs compared with 36% of men, the number rises to 43% among professional women, according to a 1994 study by Find/SVP, a New York research and consulting company.

Even more interesting, Find/SVP found that women are more interested than men in new interactive services like movies on demand, electronic banking and electronic shopping.

Still, the numbers won't change until marketers take things into their own hands. Said Ketchum's Mr. Layne: "There's been a fatal flaw in not targeting women aggressively. Companies have left money on the table. Women have a huge amount of spending and consumerism."

Also, without women users, interactive media risk losing staying power.

"Women are a key to retention. The online services have tremendous churn. Women are the ones disconnecting. They pay the bills. Women tell us, `There's nothing here for me,'*" said Ms. Gruen.

Mr. Layne, Ms. Gruen and others say it's incumbent upon marketers to make sure there's something "there" for women and that they recognize that women have different needs from interactive media than men.

"It really jumps out at you when you look at the data on how women and men use computers," says Bruce Ryon, director of multimedia research at Dataquest, San Jose, Calif. "Men just enjoy playing around with computers and have fun with the interface. Women, on the other hand, are more task- and goal-oriented. They use a computer to help with an objective. They want to know how quickly they can get to the information they need."

Marketers and media companies are taking that knowledge to heart.

"We are operating on the assumption that women want to get in, find something, and get out," said Hearst's Ms. Creech. To tap the visual power of CD-ROM technology, Hearst is putting its HomeArts product on both CD-ROM and online, building an intuitive, seamless interface between the two formats so users can effortlessly navigate between the two.

Addressing the differences between how men and women obtain information can pay off. Peapod, a successful online grocery service based in Evanston, Ill., has attracted a mostly female clientele among its 11,000-household base. The secret of its success? "Don't try to make someone fall in love with an online service. Make an online service that fits their needs and they will fall in love with it anyway," said Tim Dorgan, Peapod's exec VP.

Similarly, the Potato Board recently introduced a software program and in-store kiosk that offer recipe information and other easily accessed data about cooking.

For Home Shopping Network, attracting more men then women to its online shopping service on Prodigy and the Internet is not anything to grumble about. Indeed, going online has allowed the company to widen its audience beyond its mostly female TV viewers. Even better, its online users have price points several times higher on average than its TV audience and have much higher household incomes, says Melanie McCarthy, VP of HSN Interactive, a subsidiary of HSN.

Wanting to make its online offers even more attractive to its upscale consumers, Ms. McCarthy said HSN in 1995 plans to launch specialty boutiques tailored to customers' interests. HSN's boutique concept takes advantage of the niche marketing opportunities afforded by interactive media.

Ultimately, the ability of interactive media to target niches should work to women's advantage. Although it's unlikely electronic media will entirely shed their male image, the question of what women want will begin to be addressed-at least in cyberspace.

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