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Women's sites seek to separate from crowd

Women are manning the Net in greater numbers, but if the growing crop of "she" sites wants to avoid looking like a chain of paper dolls, they must cut themselves apart from the competition.

Women are manning the Net in greater numbers, but if the growing crop of "she" sites wants to avoid looking like a chain of paper dolls, they must cut themselves apart from the competition.

As indicated by this month's stellar public offerings by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and Women.com, big money is behind Net sites targeting women, who now log onto the Net at the same rate as men and more so when it comes to services such as America Online.

Despite healthy investments and a massive potential audience, analysts say that these sites still must distinguish their content and services from one another if they want to increase traffic and build a significant customer base to offer e-commerce services.

"We've long argued that there needs to be more differentiation between these sites," said Anya Sacharow, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. "If you think about all the different magazines on a newsstand, for example, there is clearly a difference between Vogue, Self, and Cosmopolitan."

Forrester Research estimates that 39.6 million women, or 29 percent, of women in the United States are online. By 2003, the research group predicts, roughly half of all women in the country will be on the Net. Women primarily use the Net for email and Web browsing, but the activities that have seen the most growth this year are shopping for cars, making travel plans, and tracking investments, according to USAData.com/Mediamark Research.

There is plenty of room for competitors in the women's space, which also includes Oxygen Media, iVillage, CondeNet, and ChickClick.com. But online consumers want choices--a challenge to these sites, forcing them to drill down and find niches within the women's segment.

"These sites all kind of blend together and look the same because they are trying to be all things to all women, but online consumers have shown themselves to prefer more variety," said Mark Hardie, a Forrester Research analyst. "The sites are seeing the traffic they expected, but they don't have a real perspective on the market. They also won't survive without e-commerce strategies--pure and simple."

Breaking away from the pack
A quick scan of the headlines on the most popular women's sites often reveals similar content when it comes to sex, health, and finance--with top features such as "Seduce Him," "71 weight-loss tips that really work," and "The boss forgot to give you a performance review?"

Some women have noticed this trend and say they are turned off by the so-called pink Net sector.

"Mostly it's the traditional media spin they put on everything--I don't read Cosmopolitan, and that is the same stuff they are pandering," said Susan Quinn, chief executive of the San Francisco Bay Area firm Wordcasters.

Other women feel they are not a part of the audience that mainstream women's sites and their advertisers are trying to reach.

"They are very generic; there isn't any information there that I couldn't get anywhere else, including Yahoo," said Juliette Cutler Page, the publisher of Feminista.com, who is working on a new "women's site for the real world."

As competition increases, the sites are trying to get more focused and to listen to women.

Jupiter's Sacharow notes Oxygen: Women at center of convergence that with its sister TV channel, Oxygen Media is more entertainment and culturally driven, whereas Women.com is creating Web tools to help women make decisions and is leveraging its partnership with Hearst New Media, giving it access to 50 million magazine readers.

iVillage, which has 2.7 million members, still is focused on community building. The company doubled spending on sales and marketing to $14.8 million during the fourth quarter to attract more women, according to its earnings report today.

ChickClick's model, on the other hand, is targeting women and girls who want alternative views and news from sites like Shewire and affiliates like Disgruntled Housewife.

"With the motto, 'Girl sites that don't fake it,' ChickClick describes an indie look and feel that celebrates frank discussion about what it means to be a girl or young woman," said Rebecca Vesely, ChickClick's editorial director.

Conde Nast has attempted to set itself apart by building a network of sites, CondeNet, instead of a women's portal.

"The other sites have taken more of a magazine approach with a little bit of everything, but a general site is not as satisfying," said Sarah Chubb, director of CondeNet, which includes the fashion site Vogue.com and Epicurious.com for cooking enthusiasts.

Acknowledging that portions of their content cross over, some sites say they are constantly searching for creative ways to lure women and build their brands.

"Women don't come to the Web to spend time, they come to the Web to save time," said Anna Zornosa, senior vice president of market and strategic partnerships for Women.com, which gets 5 million unique visitors per month. "We utilize offline brands in order to reach these women."

Through its deal with Hearst, Women.com has access to readers of Town & Country, who on average are 40 years old and make $125,000 per year, alongside Cosmopolitan subscribers, who tend to be in their late 20s and make an average of $25,000 per year.

"No one knows the women's market the way that these print publications do," Zornosa said. "We have dedicated a majority of our budget for years and years to research, and companies like Procter & Gamble, Toyota, and Bristol Myers have looked to us for research on how to reach women."

In contrast, Oxygen Media, which just launched this year, has hit the streets to ask women what they want.

After kicking off its "Tank Tour" last week to promote its Web site, the company already has encountered an estimated 75,000 women, according to Oxygen's vice president of consumer marketing, Tricia Melton.

"The whole concept behind the Tank Tour is that what matters to women matters to us," Melton said. "We want to give women a voice and find out what is on their minds, what makes them laugh, inspires them, and what makes them angry--and they are incredibly responsive so far."