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Report on E-business

Web strategists set their sites on women

As Net-access gap closes, gender surfing
differences recognized, reasons grow more
compelling for sites that cater to women

Friday, May 25, 2001
Special to The Globe and Mail

Every Sunday morning, while her husband and three children are still asleep, Carole Cantor creeps downstairs to her Toronto kitchen to indulge in one of her favourite activities.

It's not that the 44-year-old ultrasonographer doesn't want to be found out. It's just that she wants at least half an hour of uninterrupted time to surf the Web.

"I find it very relaxing," says Ms. Cantor.

So what does she do on-line? After answering her e-mail, Ms. Cantor settles into her Better Homes and Gardens ( e-mail newsletter, checks out late-breaking news at The Jerusalem Post's site ( and visits family forums at Chatelaine magazine.

If the family's still not up, Ms. Cantor will scour several other gardening and food sites or visit ultrasound-related Web sites.

Ms. Cantor's surfing preferences are typical of those of many women, who, research shows, have different on-line interests than men. And as the gender gap to Internet access closes and women actually spend more time on-line than men, there are increasingly compelling arguments for sites geared to women.

"There's every good reason for there to be Web sites catering to women, just as there are specialty channels and TV programs and movies and lots of other things that cater to women," says David Ellis, a media analyst at Omnia Communications Inc., a Toronto-based new-media research and consulting firm.

Jennifer Evans, national director of Toronto-based DigitalEve Canada,a women's technology network, agrees. Career women, she says, look to the Web for help balancing work and home. Mothers, especially with small children, often use the Net to connect with people outside the home.

And women are becoming "an economic force to be reckoned with," she adds. A February report by DoubleClick Inc. found that 75 per cent of female Internet users research their travel-related purchases on-line, and 50 to 60 per cent use the Web to research items such as electronics and computer hardware and software.

The gender gap to Internet access is closing, according to Toronto-based market-research firm IDC Canada Ltd. In a report published in March, it found that 66.6 per cent of men and 62.8 per cent of women had Net access in February. But that has shrunk from a nearly 10-percentage-point difference in January, 1999.

Women also are spending more time on-line -- an average of 1,092 minutes a month compared to 967 minutes for men, according to a recent Media Metrix Canada report.

Although men and women may head to many of the same sites -- from downloadable music to electronic-greeting cards -- there are still some distinctive differences in their surfing choices, according to Media Metrix Canada's report.

Women tend to seek hobby and lifestyle sites, health information and chat sessions. Men gravitate to technology, sports, automotive, business-to-business and auction sites, the report says.

Women still aren't as comfortable buying on-line -- but that, too, is changing. According to previous IDC research, 87 per cent of men complete their purchase on-line compared with 81 per cent of women. But two years ago, the gap was 15 percentage points, says Joe Greene, IDC Canada's vice-president of Internet-solutions research.

The kinds of purchases the sexes make are different, too. Women, he says, buy household goods and clothing on-line; men buy computer hardware and games.

And that spells opportunity. He says, for example, that a department store setting up an on-line presence could sell to both sexes but cater to them differently in its on-line advertising and site setup.

"Women in the cyberworld are very much like women in the bricks-and-mortar world," he says. "There's got to be a way for the site to be set up in such a way" to recognize that.

Transcontinental Media Inc. hopes its new women's Web sites -- for English speakers and for those who speak French -- will become comfy meeting places for Canadian women. The Montreal-based company, which publishes such magazines as Canadian Living and Homemakers, launched the site on Mother's Day to give the 6.5 million monthly readers of its nine women's magazines another way to interact with the publications and like-minded women.

The sites will offer many of the standard themes -- health, food, family, leisure, fashion and finance -- zeroing in on women 25 to 35 years old. The business case is threefold: to give magazine readers a direct channel of interaction, to give the magazines new content-development opportunities and to give advertisers a more targeted audience, says Linda Petrin, new-media director at

She acknowledges there was some trepidation about creating the site, given the quick demise of, a site run by Rogers iMedia (a unit of Rogers Communications Inc. of Toronto), which went live in February and folded only a month later.

Rogers iMedia president Tim Root says the site was intended as a place for Canadian women to go to manage their busy lives, focusing more on tools such as fitness tests and less on text. But the expense didn't justify its presence.

"In light of what's happening generally in the dot-com space, as we approached the point where we were ready to launch the site, it was clear that this was a pretty substantial risk for Rogers to be taking on at this particular time in the Web's evolution," says Mr. Root.'s fallout was "a good reality check" for Transcontinental, Ms. Petrin says.

"If we had chosen to build something totally independent from the relationship we currently have with our readership, it would have been much more difficult to succeed," she says. "We recognized very early on that what we have in common with the people we're targeting is our magazines, so we made sure we would have enough content in our portal for our target audience to find something they are familiar with. This is something that I think was missing on the Springboard portal."

Although she won't reveal what it costs to run, Ms. Petrin says Transcontinental expects it to be "self-sufficient" in three to five years. To increase revenue opportunities, the Web and magazine sales forces have been integrated for cross-selling of ads.

"The Internet solutions that make sense business-wise, the ones that are there for the right reasons, the ones that have been properly integrated into existing business models, are there to stay," she says.

eHarlequin (, run by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., a subsidiary of Toronto-based Torstar Corp., was launched on Valentine's Day last year as a romantic escape, with features, quizzes, daily and weekly stories, discussion boards, author spotlights and an on-line store for its 700,000 members.

Executive vice-president Pam Laycock says the site has helped the popular book publisher attract a younger audience, providing "huge revenue opportunities." It's an extension of the intimate relationship Harlequin tries to achieve with its off-line and direct-mail business, which can be taken to a greater level through an on-line presence. That's eHarlequin's financial value, Ms. Laycock says.

"It's really a way of taking that intimacy we have with the customer to a level that you could not get off-line," she says. "We [can] understand more about the customer and her preferences, be able to communicate directly with her and her with us, and be able to take all that information and develop a really rich profile with the customer and then target offers to her that are specific to what her needs and desires and wants are."

New York-based iVillage ( says it will offer the "most comprehensive destination for women on the Web" after its acquisition of San Mateo, Calif.-based, offering its millions of monthly visitors information on everything from astrology to money, and giving access to's on-line magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Redbook, to generate additional revenue streams.

But Ms. Evans isn't impressed by sites such as iVillage, which, she says, merely try to duplicate the myriad women's-magazine sites.

"It's not your typical fashion layouts and love advice and horoscopes that seem to be cutting it when it comes to women's sites," she says. "We're a little bit behind in creating things specifically for our market, for niches, and women are still considered a niche."

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