Network: Women get wired

They're gaining on men when it comes to using the Net, giving rise to a new kind of girl power.
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WOMEN HAVE suddenly become one of the most sought-after audiences on the Internet, and even Bill Gates is taking notice. Microsoft's MSN portal has just hooked up with the Women's Consumer Network, a fledgling company based in Washington, DC, to expand its range of products and services targeted at busy, professional women.

"Women are a very attractive demographic," says Michael Goff, director of programming for MSN. "A lot of advertisers want to hit women who are making the buying decisions and, to some degree, consider the male eyeballs out there to be a waste for the products they're delivering."

Internet retailers have at last woken up to the fact that the future of e-commerce depends in part on its attraction to women. Professional women in the Nineties are earning and spending more than their predecessors. They are also working harder than ever before. The Internet should offer the convenience that today's woman needs when it comes to seeking advice and making financial decisions.

The efforts of the software companies have not gone unnoticed. Five years ago, it was estimated that only 5 per cent of Internet users in the US were women. Today, the figure is 44 per cent, up from 35 per cent in 1996. What is more, 55 per cent of next year's first-time Net users are expected to be women, forecasts Forrester Research.

In the UK, 15 per cent of the adult population is online and around 39 per cent of those are women, up from 32 per cent in 1996, according to figures from NOP. Forrester predicts that women online will be level- pegging with men by the millennium.

As the web becomes more mass market, women are no longer put off by the notion that the Net is the domain of male techno geeks; a complicated toy designed by and for nerdy males. A wave of sites, aimed specifically at women, has recently appeared, based on the idea that women prefer online content which they can put to use in their everyday lives. Packed full of practical information on everything from fashion to health care and parenting, these sites appeal to women because they are user-friendly.

Melissa Moss, president of the Women's Consumer Network (www.womensconsumernet.com), launched her company after more than a year of market research. Created by women for women, it provides best-buy advice on everything from purchasing a car to investing in mutual funds. The site also offers discounts on everyday items such as tights and contraceptive pills. "We're doing for women what they would do for themselves if they had the time," Moss says. "We research products and services, then we use the leverage of our membership base to negotiate good deals."

According to Moss, women use the Net in an entirely different way from their male counterparts who came to it much earlier. She says they are more interested in what technology can achieve than how it works. "Men use the Internet the same way as they use the clicker on the remote control of the TV," she says. "They're real happy to roam all over the place, to explore and have fun, whereas women use it as a tool to get things done; they're much more transaction-oriented than men."

As well as keeping a tight rein on the family purse strings, women, traditionally, are the researchers in the home. "They're the ones who find out where to go on holiday or make inquiries into which are the best schools in their area," says Judy Gibbons, director of MSN for Northern Europe, who stresses how much the Internet has helped women with their field work. "Now, rather than leafing through a magazine or visiting the local library, they're going online."

E-mail has also proved to be an attraction for women. Women write more personal letters and send more cards than men. They also tend to spend more time on the phone. For them, the Net is a support group offering advice on everything from how to cook to how to end a relationship.

Not coincidentally, Internet companies run by and for women are the darlings of the stock market. The stock of iVillage, the Internet company that operates the No1 women's site in the US, quadrupled on the day of its initial public offering. The site offers information on topics from parenting to retirement planning, and, at any one time, there are some 1,400 ongoing discussion boards. It attempts to create a sense of belonging, a community feeling, by bringing together groups of like-minded women who share experiences or help each other to solve problems.

Of those who have come online in the last 12 months, around 45 per cent have been women, according to NOP. They are part of a new wave of Net users, a generation and several orbits away from the techies who adopted the Net as their own at its inception. Among six to 16-year-olds online, 45 per cent are girls, according to NOP. Although the statistic might be influenced by the fact that younger users are often made to go online at school, it does suggest that women are gaining access to technology at a much younger age. "There's a whole new breed of young women who are technologically unafraid and who see technology as gender neutral," Moss says.

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