IQ News: Women’s ‘Net’ Work

Female-oriented sites are rushing to form ad networks.
Successfully establishing four interactive lifestyle sites about travel, food, relationships and nutrition in a little over two years is no longer enough at CondƒNet, the online division of magazine publisher Condƒ Nast. In January, CondƒNet will launch CondƒNetWork, offering ad buyers single-stop placement on its sites and providing access to one of the most demographically desirable female audiences online. To make its new pitch, CondƒNet will be combining the audiences of Epicurious Food, Epicurious Travel, Swoon (its female-skewing dating and romance site) and a health-oriented site called Phys, which launched in August.
In so doing, CondƒNet will be following the biggest online publishing trend since the Web universe’s initial Big Bang of site creation: coalescing related properties into networks, often as a ploy designed to attract advertisers. And the burgeoning women’s online market–which by some measures now makes up 40 percent of the total wired community–is one of the areas where this strategy is most prominent. As of CondƒNet’s upcoming change, all of the electronic “Four Sisters,”–a group that includes Moms Online and Parent Soup publisher iVillage, Women’s Wire producer Wire Networks, and Hearst New Media and Technology–have fallen under the network spell. (Electra, a fifth major female-oriented online venue, launches from America Online Studios today.)
“Our primary intent in putting together this network is to give advertisers an opportunity to harness larger numbers–we get about 13 million page views per month on our sites,” says Sarah Chubb Sauvayre, director of CondƒNet since January 1996. Although CondƒNet doesn’t have the highest number of visitors among its category–that trophy seems to belong to iVillage with 49 million monthly page views–CondƒNet feels that in coalescing its very highbrow audience, it will attract plenty of advertiser attention. The online publisher always has emphasized original content over repurposed print material. “The demographics we have across our network are higher than the other women’s networks,” Chubb claims.
To back up her contention that CondƒNet draws a more sophisticated audience, Chubb cites statistics for the Epicurious brand showing that 95 percent of its visitors attended college. By comparison to Epicurious, she says, several other studies have shown that 90 percent of Women’s Wire visitors have attended college, 85 percent at iVillage, and 84 percent at Hearst’s HomeArts. (It’s important to point out, however, that Epicurious’ desirable demographics, including an audience in which 38 percent have a household income of more than $100,000, do not necessarily extend over all CondƒNetwork offerings.)
“We’ve stuck to really deep personalized information in targeted areas of interest,” says Chubb Sauvayre. “We don’t want to have one of those multiheaded sites that end up with a more mass, shallow-women’s-magazine approach.” So CondƒNetWork will stress the individual identities of its sites, with no unified navigation scheme.
Even as Chubb Sauvayre points to the attractiveness of the Epicurious audience, advertisers may view what site to buy as a toss-up; the demographics of the Four Sisters illustrate that female netizens are an undeniably uppercrust group. Therefore, it looks as though the women-oriented networks’ next challenge will be to carve out truly individual niches on the Web.
In the meantime, media buyers will likely recommend multiple buys as they do for print publications aimed at women. In fact, advertisers including Lincoln Mercury and Trivial Pursuit made buys this month on several women’s sites, and the sites themselves buy banners on each other’s properties, a marked promotional departure from the methods of print’s Seven Sisters. Still, media buyers agree the overall network concept makes sense.
“It’s hard to keep track of all the new sites on the Web,” says Fran Laufer, senior vice president and associate media director at BBDO, New York. “There are nowhere near as many titles in print to keep up with.” For Visa, BBDO this year built a “Cities to Dine For” listing of restaurants on Epicurious, a database of Visa-accepting restaurants searchable by city and cuisine.
Although such a promotion may have worked just as well on one of the other women’s networks, beleaguered media buyers may find that there is more differentiation in the women’s online market than demographic data seem to support.
iVillage’s 49 million page views per month–three-quarters originating from its presence on AOL–demonstrate the power that early comers to the online women’s market still have. Announced in September as “Life Soup–The Women’s Network,” the brand equity of its 2-year-old parent firm quickly won out, and it is now referred to as “iVillage–The Women’s Network.”
According to founder and CEO Candice Carpenter, “Women are looking for a home online. They’re not interested in surfing.” Hence this network emphasizes community, featuring ongoing discussions and chats. “We have no interest in banner ads. We offer advertisers marketing opportunities, instead,” she says.
The first of the Web’s Four Sisters to call itself a network was Hearst’s HomeArts, which now offers ten separate “channels” or areas of interest. “We envisioned from the start in March 1995 that buying the Web would be confusing,” recalls Kathryn Creech, vice president and general manager of the HomeArts Network. This network includes about 50 percent material from Hearst’s print publications and affiliate partners.
The most easily remembered women’s site is probably, uniting Wire Networks’ flagship Women’s Wire site and online venues the San Mateo, created for Yahoo (Beatrice’s Web Guide) and for Rodale Press (Prevention’s Healthy Ideas). The company claimed the Web address in 1994 when women were still a small minority on the Net and, in terms of its fondness for some traditionally male-skewing content, such as stock quotes, still reflects its early-adapter heritage. Thus, the site tends to attract financial, automotive and telecommunications advertisers. “ gave us the recognition we needed to go after the smart, professional women coming online,” says Wire Networks CEO and president Marleen McDaniel.
With four prominent women’s sites to choose from, is there room for even more? Given the increasing size of the female online audience, the answer may well be yes. “Someone would be smart to start a DoubleClick [ad network] for women,” says Greg Smith, director of strategic services for Darwin Digital, New York.
But just because the presence of women’s networks offers media buyers critical mass–or, in some cases, class–the now-ubiquitous women’s network concept may be only one approach to generating brand awareness and sales among the female audience as the Net evolves.
“Having women-only networks on the Web is like having women-only newsstands for print,” says Kathy Biro, president of Boston-based Strategic Interactive Group. “There are other ways of using interactive media, for building customer relationships, for electronic commerce and more.”