Women and the Internet
WOMEN AND THE INTERNET
The number of women on the Internet grew from 15 percent of all U.S. Internet users in 1995 to only 17 percent in 1997 and 26 percent in 1998. However, as the Internet became a more mainstream media outlet in the late 1990s, particularly in the U.S., more women began to seek online access. Roughly 60 percent of new Internet users in 1999 were women, and by year's end, the number of women on the Internet nearly equaled the number of men. In 2000, women who accessed the Internet from home did so mainly to find news and information. Some also used the Internet to plan trips and book tickets, and to take care of banking needs online.
Even before women became a leading presence on the Internet—they began to outnumber men in the first quarter of 2000—several World Wide Web sites specifically targeting women, including iVillage.com, Oxygen.com, and Women.com, had emerged. According to a March 2001 article in San Jose Mercury News, the fact that women typically make about 80 percent of a household's spending decisions seemed to bode well for these "women's Web" sites. "Dozens of sites offering information, chat, and shopping sprang up in recent years, creating online communities where women could forge relationships and find content created especially for them. Advertisers were then supposed to flock to these sites, eager to parade their wares in front of legions of educated and affluent women online." Like most sites reliant on online advertising, however, these women's hubs struggled to secure the amount of advertising needed to produce a profit.
With $2 million in backing from America Online (AOL), former Time Warner executive Candice Carpenter and former president and publisher for Doubleday Nancy Evans co-founded New York-based iVillage.com in June of 1995. Developed as the one of the first Internet hubs to serve as a resource for women, the site's first two networks were called About Work and Parent Soup. Carpenter headed up the firm as CEO, while Evans worked as president and editor-in-chief.
Carpenter and Evans spent the next few years expanding iVillage's content and developing e-commerce alliances with companies that sold products specifically for woman. iVillage eventually grew into the leading online destination for women and one of the largest content sites on the Web, with more than five million visitors each month. To serve its target market of women between 25 and 54 years of age, iVillage offered several different channels, including astrology, babies, beauty, books, computing, diet and fitness, food, games, health, home and garden, money, news, parenting, pets, relationships, and work. Along with reading about topics of interest, users could also interact with online experts, participate in discussion and support groups, post messages, provide links to their own Web sites, enter contests, and shop. Membership was free, as the company chose instead to make money through advertising and sponsorships agreements, as well as from commissions on the products it sold online.
In April of 1999, iVillage conducted its initial public offering (IPO). Like so many other dot.com upstarts, iVillage watched its share prices skyrocket on the first day of trading. Roughly one year later, however, shareholders began to express concern about iVillage's lack of profitability. Stock plummeted from a high of $113.75 in 1999 to roughly $1 per share. In August of 2000, Carpenter was succeeded by Doug McCormick, who immediately put in place a restructuring that included layoffs and budget cuts. The firm bought out rival Women.com Network for $27 million in 2001. When the deal was completed, Hearst Corp. became the firm's largest shareholder with a 25 percent stake. AOL Time Warner and NBC both owned roughly 5 percent.
Prior to its buyout by iVillage, San Mateo, California-based Women.com exceeded iVillage in total site traffic. In fact, Jupiter Media Metrix listed Women.com as third among the most visited Web sites in the U.S. in 2000. Established in 1992 as part of an effort to form an Internet-based meeting ground for women, Women.com also conducted a successful IPO in 1999. That year, it joined forces with the online arm of magazine giant Hearst Corp., gaining access to content from traditional women's magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping. . Like iVillage, Women.com saw its advertising revenues start to tumble in 2000. As a result, its stock price plunged to roughly 25 cents per share, compared to a high of $20.25 in 1999.
OXYGEN MEDIA, INC.
Oxygen Media was co-founded in 1998 by world renowned talk show host Oprah Winfrey, television producer Carsey-Werner-Mandabach Co., and Nick-elodeon founder Geraldine Laybourne. The startup was dedicated to providing entertainment and information to modern women with its cable television and Internet offerings. Its online arm eventually included Oxygen.com, an Internet gateway for women, as well as Thriveonline, Moms Online, Girls On, ka-Ching, and Oprah.com.
Oxygen has at its roots a 1995 agreement between Winfrey and America Online (AOL), which resulted in the creation of Oprah Online, an AOL site offering information about Winfrey's show. Two years later, ABC Internet Group and Winfrey's company, Harpo Productions, created Oprah.com, the official Web site of The Oprah Winfrey Show, the highest rated talk show in all of television. In August of 1999, Oprah.com joined Oxygen group of Web sites. Oprah.com offered information on Oprah's Book Club and Oprah's Angel Network and vowed to help women "Live Their Best Life" by giving advice on relationships, food, mind and body, and lifestyles. Web surfers visiting Oprah.com—the site averaged over 155 million hits per month and 3,000 e-mails per day in 2000—can subscribe to Winfrey's magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine ; see streaming video of post-show discussions; write in an online journal; interact with other online Oprah fans; and even email Winfrey herself.
Oprah.com was unique in that it was able to use the success of a leading television show to attract an increasing number of female Web surfers. As a result, Oprah.com became one of the most popular online destinations for women. In additional to operating a leading women's site, Winfrey also encouraged women to become Web savvy by promoting "Oprah Goes Online," a 12-part series explaining how she and friend Gayle King learned how to use the Internet themselves.
Despite the name recognition Winfrey brought to both Oprah.com and to Oxygen, the firm's Oxygen.com site drew fewer viewers than both iVillage.com and Women.com in 2000. Believing it might have diversified too broadly, the firm consolidated its online holdings into three major sites—Oxygen.com, Oprah.com, and health portal Thriveonline—in December of that year. The restructuring included cutting 65 positions. Four months later, the firm implemented a second round of layoffs, citing weak advertising sales.
Along with a reliance on online advertising, which has yet to prove a dependable revenue source, another main problem with sites like iVillage, Women.com, and Oxygen.com is their attempt to target such a large, highly diverse group of people. According to BusinessWeek Online writer Diane Brady, "Women aren't a terrific niche market. There are too many of us, with too many different tastes, to race toward a portal or network based on gender alone." Despite the struggles faced by most of the Web sites targeting women, most analysts believe that women will continue to be a point of focus for new online ventures. According to a study conducted by California-based PeopleSupport, an online provider of customer service, nearly 63 percent of individuals who shop online twice a week or more are women. In addition, Forrester Research predicts that over 71.2 million women will be online by 2005, as the average annual Internet usage growth rate over the next five years for women will be 19 percent, compared to 13 percent for men.
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SEE ALSO: iVillage.com; Oprah.com; Virtual Communities