What Do Women Want? Don't Ask The Net

The female demographic is the most misunderstood in the era of drill-down, slice-and-dice consumer data. It is evident in the schizophrenic, stereotypic and random efforts to monetize what media, entertainment and marketing executives assume are the paramount interests and concerns of more than half the country's population.

In the end, it might be more constructive thinking of female consumers as comprising many roles and affinities rather than as a gender category. The spate of new, predominantly general-interest online attempts to pander to the female psyche demonstrate this point.

This week, Yahoo launched Shine for its regular 40 million users, women 25 to 54. Like many of the similar existing and newer Web sites, it offers verticals on health, beauty and fashion; parenting, love and sex; work, money, food and home. It has the obligatory astrology and other trite personalized features, as well as blogging, which counts more women than men. Such self-proclaimed online one-stop shops for women are distinguished more by look and less by substance.



The general-interest efforts to attract and monetarily mine female online users unfortunately parallels the banal treatment of women's interests touted on the companion sites of television networks, such as Oxygen, iVillage and Lifetime. While they profess to entertain and enlighten (WE even talks about empowering women), they read like wannabes to blue-chip style and fashion brands (Glamour, Cosmopolitan, In Style) and celebrity news brands (Glam, TMZ). Younger females achieve the same with sites like and popular MySpace pages. They all have millions of users to justify their existence.

Surely, every Web site will argue that it is making a well-intentioned effort to service women's needs. The answer to "What would Oprah do?" will come in 2009 when the talk queen launches her OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) stable of TV and online properties under the Discovery Health-umbrella. Given her other commercial successes, Oprah could set a higher bar for the payday of ad revenues and "finder fees" from related linked sites, which are the real objective to most of these endeavors. (Women on the Web) bucks the predictable by providing intellectually and socially relevant original commentary from 16 marquee journalists and celebrities. The integrity of their quest is assured by the $200,000 investment made by founding contributors Lesley Stahl, Liz Smith, Peggy Noonan, Joni Evans and Mary Wells. Described by CEO Evans as "a party disguised as a Web site," the site, launched on Woman's Day last month, is the Huffington Post of women's chat. It covers everything from the presidential election and the economy to the differentiating influence of mothers and fathers. However, the sparse upscale advertising by sponsors like Tiffany doesn't prevent WowOwow from stooping to the obligatory horoscope and "bad hair day" weather report.

comScore and Nielsen Media broadly identify women's online communities as everything from iVillage to Everyday Health--which underscores the real dilemma. Unless companies can figure that out a way to interpret and capitalize on women's singularities without embarrassing themselves, it's best to specialize in the niche interests of the entire human race.

However representative I may be as a professional boomer with four children, I can tell you most of my bookmarked sites, RSS feeds, email alerts and the like are representative of my broad, deep interests in all things finance, business, media and Internet along with my personal interests. The far fewer women's branded sites I track range from the United Nation's and Women& Co to WowOwow and--dare I say it--Martha Stewart.

That makes me much like other women, according to official statistics. Of the 153.6 million females in the U.S. (now outnumbering men), 59% work and 37% are professionals or managers. About one-third have a bachelor's degree or higher degree. They are nearly evenly split between women who are married (62.4 million) and those divorced, widowed or never married (59.8 million). Either way, women make most of the decisions about spending money. Eighty-four percent of women are big computer users at home, per the U.S. Census Bureau. Some 52% of all Internet users are female.

Too little of what those statistics tell us about women is reflected in too few of the sites catering to them. We may yet see some form of older female-powered search engine if ever delivers on its on-again, off-again revamp plans.

There is definitely a sense that the Internet, the most long-tail of all media, is scrambling to catch up to women's increasingly powerful, influential and cerebral force. This is, after all, the age of Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy, Nancy Pelosi's role as Speaker of the House, and the back-to-back tenures of Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State. Then again, there are those startling statistics in the current issue of Portfolio underscoring a workplace backslide: a widening 78.7% pay gap, a 2% slip in top female executives who comprise 27% of top corporate officers and nearly 15% of which are in boardrooms--essentially flat the past three years.

The statistics say there are serious intellectual, economic, social and cultural concerns many women have that are generally underestimated and woefully underserved online. If nothing else, it is a big business opportunity wasted.

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