Rethinking E-Commerce Gender Demographics

In August, women became a majority of Web users in the U.S. for the first time in history, a milestone for an Internet once considered to be a male-oriented environment. Such demographic turning points generate great media and industry interest because e-commerce companies want to know exactly who makes up the Web audience.

But rather than demographics, online marketers in today’s e-commerce climate have become more concerned with how both women and men act, regardless of gender.

Behavior, Not Demographics

“When people go onto the Net, they think of themselves as consumers interested in information or a product, but not as any particular kind of identity,” IDC e-commerce analyst Barry Parr told the E-Commerce Times. “This is why sites that have attempted to distinguish themselves demographically and not behaviorally, such as, seem to be experiencing so much difficulty.”

In other words, recognizing that different segments of the population are online is important, but successful e-commerce ventures should also pay close attention to the specific online behaviors and trends that groups exhibit.

“It’s no longer enough to think of women as the target audience,” explained Jupiter’s Anya Sacharow. “To reach the women’s market, sites must pursue deeper relationships, based on interests, personal identities, and affinities.”

Numerous sites have been developed to address these behavioral interests, yet it remains difficult to determine the impact of Web sites designed by women for women. Should sites cater to women, or, are these sites really trying to secure an e-commerce market based on older models of marketing by demographics?

For Women By Women?

Some Web businesses are able to create sites specifically for women even when their content is not geared exclusively toward them., for example, illustrates how a site can secure a market segment of women, only to redirect them toward gender neutral e-commerce sites.

Company founder and CEO Tiffany Bass Bukow created explicitly to address women’s financial needs that were not being served elsewhere on the Net. She has referred to her site as a “two minute-a-day” solution to women’s financial lives. The site’s content includes features and columns presented with a consistently female-oriented approach — with women columnists, success stories about women and editorials by women.

Developing e-commerce features, however, reveals blurrier distinctions between online gender realms. Queries to for home mortgages steer the browser to, while home loan and auto insurance seekers are directed to and InsWeb — e-commerce sites with no distinctively female orientation.

The Women’s Financial Network (WFN) faces similar challenges. Founder Jennifer Openshaw has described her site as “the first full service financial site created by women to meet the unique financial needs of women.” Again, the site includes women in photos, as columnists and advisers, and features financial themes that appeal to women.

But these aspects of such sites also appeal to men. Among the site’s main assets are its own brokerage firm and applications for home mortgages, home equity loans, auto financing and personal loans — all services men seek online, too.

The Pressure of Demographic E-tailing

Meanwhile, e-commerce sites with businesses strategies that aimed to blend e-tailing with gender relevant content have had a trying experience.

The fact that Web users are attracted to a gender-based site does not always mean they are willing to spend money there. In recent months, notable women’s sites that were launched as both portal and e-tailer have since shed their e-commerce components.

In July, women’s online network iVillage sold its iBaby e-commerce business to rival and closed two other e-commerce sites, and iVillage’s stock has lost nearly 90 percent of its value since last October.

iVillage has instead shifted its focus to providing content to women, and working out advertising and sponsorship deals that have made similar content sites profitable. Similarly, Oxygen ceased its direct retail operations this summer, less than one year after its highly publicized launch. It too, will focus on content.

Making Sense

Due to the dot-com shakeout, this year has been forgettable for many pure-play e-commerce sites. But the rough rides for gender-specific e-commerce sites like iVillage and Oxygen may have both behavioral and demographic roots.

Fundamentally, online marketing through demographics is limiting: even if one group does shop at a targeted site, e-commerce ventures that cater only to one market segment and not another may encounter serious problems generating revenue.

Web users have confirmed the attraction of sites that appeal to specific demographic groups for content and advice: they can provide cyber-solace and create a more manageable and personable space within the vast postmodern expanses of the Web.

But when it comes to online shopping, Net users have shown — women and men alike — that they prefer the boundless Internet. Demography alone has not been a successful tool for e-commerce.

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