With increasing numbers of women turning to the Internet for everything from horoscopes to stock tips, the women's online market has exploded into a high-stakes battle for customers and advertisers.
Two companies with headquarters on opposite coasts, IVillage and Women.com, are engaged in a neck-and-neck fight for recognition as the top Web site for women. New York-based IVillage insists it is the leader, with 1.6 million registered members, roughly 4 million visitors a month and a slew of blue-chip sponsors trying to reach its savvy, 25-to-49-year-old female audience.
Meanwhile, San Mateo, Calif.-based Women.com recently announced plans for its own public offering of stock and in January lined up a joint venture with women's magazine publisher Hearst Corp. to create a large online network for women. Through its joint venture, Women.com reaches more than 4 million women each month.
The race to reach women on the Web comes after initial assumptions that men would remain the dominant force on the Internet. However, women now represent the fastest-growing segment of the online population, and because so many Web sites cater to men, women are seen as underserved. Like most other Internet businesses, IVillage and Women.com haven't earned a penny, but investors appear willing to look past the short term to the lucrative market that's developing.
The estimated 49 million women online are regarded as an untapped gold mine of advertising revenue and electronic commerce. Online advertising revenues are projected to grow to $7.7 billion in 2002, while revenues from women shopping online could reach $19.8 billion in the same year, according to research firm Jupiter Communications. That's up from the $2.1 billion women spent shopping last year on the Internet.
Plus, women tend to hold the purse strings, controlling 85% of all personal and household goods spending, according to Women's Consumer Network, a Washington-based market research group.
Women.com and IVillage are similar in how they reach out to women, offering an abundance of information using bright graphics and lively, user-friendly copy. Both also take advantage of their interactive abilities. For instance, at IVillage's "work from home" area, women can chat with others about their businesses or get advice from the author of a book about home-based businesses for women.
"Through this medium, I know we can do enormous things," said IVillage Chief Executive Candice Carpenter.
Such offerings, coinciding with the burgeoning female Net population, could alter the way women get information and how marketers reach them. No one predicts the demise of women's magazines, which have long captured women's attention. But publishing executives realize they must establish an Internet presence to remain relevant to the techno-savvy. That's why they're partnering with women's Web sites, hoping to play off one another's strengths. For instance, while Web sites offer interactivity, women must still turn to magazines to see glossy photo spreads of the latest fashions.
"If I were to tell you there was no concern in the print world that the Internet will take away readers, I wouldn't be telling the truth," said Al Sikes, president of Hearst's new-media and technology unit. "But because both feature strong characteristics, they could enhance each other."
The landscape is likely to become even more complex as powerful new players enter the market. Geraldine Laybourne, a veteran television executive who turned Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon into a leading kids network, is launching a women's cable channel and related Web sites through a venture called Oxygen Media. Backed by such investors as Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Entertainment Group and America Online Inc., Oxygen is gearing up to become a leading destination for women both on television and the Internet.
And on June 10, Time Warner Inc. and Advance Publications Inc., parent of Conde Nast Publications, announced plans to create a women's television network and Web site by early next year. By combining Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting System; Time Inc., which publishes People and InStyle; and a slew of Conde Nast titles such as Vogue, Mademoiselle and Glamour, the partners believe they'll have the editorial power and resources to capture a good share of the market.
Meanwhile, America Online, the leading Internet portal, continues to expand its lifestyles channel, targeting women. And analysts say other media giants are likely to be planning their own attack into the market.
"The landscape six months from now should look very different, but it's unclear how it's all going to play out," said Kate Delhagen, who analyzes the Internet for Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "There's room for two players, but I'm not so sure about four. It's a critical time for all of them to establish their presence and figure out how to build multiple streams of revenue."
Women.com and IVillage both say advertisers and sponsors are most enticed by their core audiences: well-educated women of prime spending age. An average Women.com user, for instance, is 36, college-educated, with a household income of $53,000, similar to IVillage's typical user.
Ford Motor Co. sponsors IVillage's auto center because it "recognized that we need to be where our online consumers are," said Wendy Johnston, Internet project manager at Ford. The auto maker has seen increased traffic to its buyer site via IVillage, she said.
Still, some advertisers are skeptical about the benefits of Internet advertising. So finding a successful formula to attract women and boost revenue presents a big challenge.
For IVillage and Women.com, the plan includes e-commerce.
IVillage recently acquired online retailer IBaby, which sells maternity clothing, and arranged a revenue-sharing deal to sell Ralston Purina pet products. About 28% of IVillage's revenue now comes from e-commerce.
Women.com Chief Executive Marleen McDaniel said its health area is an example of how it is expanding its retailing base. At that location, women can find out what remedies are recommended for colds. They then can visit the company's store and purchase products such as echinacea from a company that advertises on Women.com.
However, in order to boost revenue in the long run, women's online companies must draw larger audiences. Anya Sacharow, a Jupiter Communications analyst, believes the sites must use content to distinguish themselves as such magazines as Vogue, Mademoiselle and Good Housekeeping have.
Although Women.com and IVillage believe they are different from each other, each defines its niche as women with busy working and personal lives. On IVillage, for instance, women can learn how to make grilled peaches with rum-spiked whipped cream or discover five ways to handle their in-laws during the holidays. Women.com users can learn the ins and outs of choosing a stockbroker or read about one woman's love affair with cars.
If anything, both sites have been expanding their content rather than narrowing their focus.
"We want to reach out to as many women as possible," McDaniel said.
To better build their brands and audiences, both companies recently launched television advertising campaigns. Maier says Women.com's TV campaign, produced by San Francisco-based Citron Haligman Bedecarre, intends to differentiate Women.com as a fun, hip Web site for women trying to get things done.
Meanwhile, IVillage worked out a deal with NBC for an estimated $25 million of prime-time advertising in exchange for 10% of its stock. The national campaign, produced by DDB Needham in New York for prime-time airing, portrays IVillage as a place women can go to get help.
In addition to the ad campaigns, both companies hope to attract larger audiences through cross-promotional deals. Traffic from Hearst's magazine Web sites is directed to Women.com, just as Women.com directs its users to Hearst magazines sites.
And along with its NBC advertising deal, IVillage has a cross-promotional arrangement with Snap.com, the Internet portal service from NBC and CNet. Snap.com promotes IVillage on its site, and the two companies are jointly producing content on Snap.com.
"Both companies have been aggressive in developing their networks and pursuing various deals," Sacharow said. "But the industry is still developing. Both companies still are in the process of inventing themselves."
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Women on the Web
A look at how the two leading Web sites catering exclusively to women compare.
Headquarters: New York
CEO: Candice Carpenter
Audience: About 4 million visitors each month
Key sponsors/advertisers/partners: NBC, Ford Motor, Charles Schwab, Ralston Purina, Kimberly-Clark
Content: A network of sites that focus on topics such as family, health, work, money, food, relationships, astrology and travel. IVillage has 16 channels.
Other information: Went public March 1999
Headquarters: San Mateo
CEO: Marleen McDaniel
Audience: More than 4 million visitors each month
Key sponsors/advertisers/partners: Hearst, Microsoft, Toyota, IBM, Hallmark and Bloomberg
Content: A network of sites, including Women.com, HomeArts.com, Astronet and Hearst magazines' Web sites. Women.com has 20 channels.
Other information: Filed for an initial public offering
Sources: Women.com, IVillage