The Femail Web

In July 2008, women’s websites boasted 84m visitors, 27% more than in July 2007.  Female bloggers have already made the blogosphere largely female in countries such as France with similar shifts happening in the US and the UK; there are now 36.2m female-authored blogs based in the US alone.

The move to a more female-dominated and female-friendly web – categorised as the Female Web – isn’t just changing the nature of conversations online, it is also changing the way we advertise & market products and grow profits.

The web – at least the one we have now come to understand and depend on – works best when it is collaborative, connected, immediate, open-ended and social in its activities and functionality – attributes we normally associate with women.  It’s conversational, gossipy in nature and allows instant intimacy to be formed with people; all things that women are incredibly good at talking about and doing.  Growth in the femail web then, should make perfect sense.  So why are few brands considering the impact of this phase transition on how they construct and negotiate their communications channels and why are fewer still taking into account the implications it has for website design, functionality or a brand’s overall tone of voice or online personality?

Women are responsible for 63% of all online purchases, according to TrendSight, a US-based agency specialising in marketing to women.  Significantly, these female consumers are making their purchases via social network sites and peer-to-peer referral sites such as OSOYOU, mystyle and MyFaveShop.  This is in part due to the innate sociability of the web itself.  But it is also increasingly happening because women generally communicate in formats and styles more in keeping with the etiquette of social networks, according to TrendSight.  That is, an etiquette that demands openness, collaboration, peer-to-peer engagements and high levels of honesty, trust and transparency.

Female portals tend to garner more interest than their male equivalents.  AOL’s Living portal aimed at women received 16.1m original visitors in June, whilst its male-oriented counterpart Asylum only received 3.3m visitors in the same period.  In the UK, visits to women’s lifestyle sites grew by 52.5% in the last year, whilst men’s lifestyle visits grew by a much lower rate of 16.9%, according to internet marketing research agency Hitwise.  Because of this, portals such as Shine, Yahoo’s new lifestyle destination for women, can attract 40m users on launch with its intimate mix of gossip, advice, politics, shopping and ‘how to’ blogs and forums on everything from being an entrepreneur to becoming a 21st-century homemaker.

It’s no wonder women have taken to blogging and are becoming the new online brand gatekeepers.  The female approach to blogging tends to be a conversational one; it is about relationship-building and story-telling and helping local community.  Men, on the other hand, have typically gone for link-heavy, signpost-rich posts which, say web researchers, drive men’s blogs up the Technorati chart, while women’s blogs remain lower down because their authors refuse to follow this method.

Advertisers are increasingly paying attention to woman-authored blogs, Heather Armstrong, who writes Dooce, is one of the blogosphere’s best-known personalities.  With some 850,000 readers logging in to read Armstrong’s chatty, irreverent takes on daily life, the advertisers couldn’t have been far behind.  Dooce carries adverts for lifestyle brands such as W Hotels, Rachel’s Organic yoghurt and the furniture and housewares store Crate&Barrel.  The site’s 2008 revenue is set to be seven times what it was in 2006, according to Federated Media, which sells advertisements for the blog.

Perhaps less hindered by traditionally strict guidelines in the print media, bloggers are increasingly collaborating with companies to provide custom content.  Female web etiquette also demands reciprocity and brands embracing the femail web will increasingly have to adhere to rules such as this one if they are to enter these now female-dominated spaces.  Brands will have to give something back, in other words – free products, perhaps more specialised service levels or civic branding projects.

The nature and texture of the web itself is changing, in the future the net will be intelligent.  It will actually read and digest the content of the information provided and it will make decisions about what you want to see.  This web may one day even be sophisticated enough to adopt an attitude as it trawls through the data!  Despite the long-term potentials of the web, however, nothing will change unless brands operating online remember that they need to place people, personalities and a voice at the front of their brand.  Ultimately, online brands will need a soul.

Consider the fact that women like to be welcomed into a space, but many websites forget this and instead begin immediately with their navigation chart.  Set a scene, say hello and welcome users in to your brand space.  In addition, the design of your site should be about respect, engagement, delight, empathy and narrative; the site should tell a story.   If you are using the web to sell brands, products or services, talk about these things in terms of the human benefits they deliver rather than their features.

Women are by nature comparison shoppers, so smart websites allow them to compare prices without navigating off their webpage.  Allow the user to replicate online what they do offline and remember women like to feel connected part of a community that is live, real and enabling, so consider peer commentary, chat forums, personal recommendations and, of course, unedited criticism.  The latter is crucial: female internet users are more likely to trust the overall claims of a site if they see that it allows negative as well as positive feedback.