Media: Websites for women: it's war

Conde Nast has appointed Sue Douglas to spearhead an expansion of its activities in cyber space. But it's a crowded market out there.
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The Independent Culture
CONDE NAST'S appointment of Sue Douglas as director of new media signals a new offensive in the web wars for the glossy magazine publisher. Ms Douglas, a former editor of the Sunday Express and deputy editor of The Sunday Times, is playing a major role in Conde Nast online's cyber front. "Conde Nast was one of the first publishers to launch its magazines on the web. Women are becoming the predominant users of the web and they are using it differently to men," says Ms Douglas.

Latest Internet Trak figures reveal that 39 per cent of web users in the UK are female, compared with 31 per cent last year. On the financial side we could be spending between pounds 400m and pounds 1.5bn shopping online next year. Today 60 per cent of women provide at least half the average household income. This demographic shift is prompting publishers to re-examine their online priorities.

Conde Nast, which took an early lead in online publishing by distributing electronic versions of its print portfolio (Vogue, Tatler, Conde Nast Traveller, World of Interiors) risks being stranded. Magazine giant IPC (Marie Claire, Mizz, Woman, Ideal Home) moved quickly, investing pounds 25m in IPC Electric. Rival publisher EMAP (Red, Elle, Top Sante) has also stirred.

An e-zine which merely mirrors its print counterpart is no longer enough, as Ms Douglas readily acknowledges. Her task will be to help transform Conde Nast's sites into virtual communities. The commercial possibilities appear obvious; from Traveller offering upmarket holidays to Vogue selling designer clothes online. But the job won't be easy: the top designers have strict distribution policies, while only 61 of the UK's top retailers have websites, with less than half equipped for e-commerce. A bigger headache came from the pre-Christmas launches of five dedicated women's networks.

The consensus among these "communities" or "destinations", as they prefer to be known, is that women haven't the time or inclination to use the web as a form of escapism as they might with a magazine (try curling up with a personal computer on the sofa). "Women are using the Internet as a resource. They want answers and advice," says Maxine Benson, a co-founder of everywoman.co.uk, aimed primarily at women who are starting or growing a small business.

The venture, with a staff of nine based at offices in Richmond, south London, is small compared with Charlottestreet.com the pounds 10m venture from Associated New Media, part of Associated News. Associated says 40 per cent of women Internet users read at least one of its titles. Not surprisingly Charlottestreet.com targets Middle England, with eight channels offering the traditional range of services from health and beauty to baby care and shopping. "But we're definitely not the Daily Mail online," asserts editor Nicola Davenport. Ironically last week the Mail declined to carry an advert by Bartle Bogle Hegarty for another pounds 5m newcomer Ready2shop.com. The Mail said that the ad, featuring Ready2shop's co-founders Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine naked save for strategically placed fried eggs and water melons, was rejected on grounds of taste rather than commercial rivalry.

Ready2shop provides a service advising women in a hurry which item of clothing really suits them, cost and availability.

Alicen Stenner, head of marketing at handbag.com, the joint pounds 11m venture between high street chemists, Boots, and The Daily Telegraph newspaper group, aims to capture around 300,000 unique users and reach annual sales of pounds 70m.

Both Associated and The Telegraph admit it will be three or four years before they see a financial return as the e-commerce capabilities of all the sites is severely restricted.

Internet service provider Freeserve, which launched i-circle.com a month ago, may not need to advertise. Of Freeserve's 1.5 million users, 500,000 are women. Anita Bevan, former editor of BBC Family Life, who is responsible for i-circle's editorial content, counters suggestions that the market is too small to support this proliferation of women's networks. "Look at how many women's magazines there are."

Back at Conde Nast, Sue Douglas is not so sure. "A lot of these sites are trying to be all things to all women. No one magazine tries to do that. Why should a website?"

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