If Internet usage were a race, women certainly would be outpacing men.

Just four years ago, women accounted for just 18% of Internet users. Today, women make up 50% of some 93 million people on-line, according to “What Makes America Click,” a new survey by NetSmartAmerica.com, a New York-based consumer-behavior research company. By 2002, it’s expected that women will outnumber men on the Internet 60 to 40, according to the survey.

“Time-starved women will drive e-commerce in the next decade,” says Bernadette Tracy, NetSmartAmerica.com President.

Recognizing the potential of marketing to women on the Net, brand marketers are doing much more than just creating Web sites. They’re going directly where female users are: female portals.

Since banner ad click-through rates have dropped over the last year (just 26% of people who see a banner ad will click on it, down from 54%, according to NetSmartAmerica), brand marketers are using other tactics to market to women. As a result, many are turning to sponsored editorial content.

On the Women.com home page, there’s a link to a “Healthy Ideas” section sponsored by Rodale Press’ Prevention magazine. The area, launched several years ago, provides nutrition information, recipes and fitness tips.

Rodale Press has just teamed with Women.com again to create a site based on its New Woman magazine. The site, www.newwoman.com, provides women with advice, interactive tools, and information on beauty, health, fashion and fitness. It contains four channels: beauty and fashion, health and fitness, relationships and sex, and news and views.

The Women’s Auto Center also provides editorial content, such as stories like “Meet the Mom Who helped Design a Kid-Friendly Minivan.” There’s even a weekly poll that raises questions like “What Would you Do If You Had a Flat?”

The Ford logo appears on the page. At the bottom of the page, visitors can link to the Web sites of Ford’s various car brands, including Volvo, Mazda, Lincoln and Mercury. “This gives us the opportunity to have two-way communications with women,” says Johnston. We can get feedback from them.”

While Ford continues to use traditional marketing, the Internet gives it the ability to deepen its relationship with its customers. “It enables us to provide 24-hour, immediate communications, Johnston says.

ivillage officials say the partnership demonstrates the need for all types of companies to take women more seriously in cyberspace.

“Traditionally, women have been overlooked in the automotive industry,” says Nancy Evans, co-chairman of iVillage.com. “But as we move toward the new millennium, iVillage.com and Ford are committed to giving women resources that will put them in the driver’s seat from development to purchase maintenance.”

Men and women use the Internet for vastly different reasons. While men use it as a toy, women use it as a tool, the “What Makes America Click” study states. The reason women take it more seriously is that they use it to simplify their lives. A female survey respondent described her PC as an “extraordinary time-saving appliance.”

Women hold the Internet in such high regard that when asked what price tag they would place on losing Internet access for six months, the average response was $83,200. Men, meanwhile, would settle for $68,500, according to the study.

Savvy marketers recognize the potential of marketing to women on the Net. After all, females account for 85% of retail purchases, stock the shelves in the house, and pay 70% of the monthly bills, according to NetSmartAmerica.

As for other areas, pet food shows strong growth potential. About 86% of on-line users have pets, according to the NetSmartAmerica survey. Of these, about one-third would consider purchasing their pet food directly from the manufacturer.

Several pet food companies are meeting this need. Ralston Purina teamed with iVillage for a major content and e-commerce initiative for women who own pets. In the iVillage “pets” area, visitors can get information on supplies, food, and apparel. Sponsored by Ralston Purina, this site provides chats, photos of members’ pets, pet names and books and a link to the Ralston Purina Web site.

Television stations are also developing on-line relationships with women. iVillage, for instance, is receiving on-air promotion from NBC and on-line distribution of NBC.com and Snap.com.

“Despite what began as a dominant male-skewed medium, women now represent the fastest growing demographic on the Internet,” says Tom Rogers, president of NBC Cable and executive vice president at NBC. “This partnership demonstrates NBC’s commitment to providing our viewers with the most valuable Internet resources.”

Because they’re pressed for time, many women visit the sites of consumer packaged goods manufacturers for meal solutions. While at these sites, they look for new products, product recipes, coupons and samples and nutritional information.

But recipes aren’t all that women desire. They’re also using the Internet to do their banking and investing. The NetSmartAmerica survey predicts that women, not men, will drive on-line banking. This could be why financial services companies are making women an integral part of their on-line initiatives. Charles Schwab & Co. sponsors the Investor Center.Located in the Armchair Millionaire, an on-line community developed by iVillage and Intuit, the site provides investing advice and articles.

Using the Internet enables H&R Block not only to market to women, but also to build a stronger relationship with a powerful demographic.

“E-commerce is not about putting a cash register on the Web site, it’s about building a relationship,” says Wollney. “This helps me get my message to women more effectively.”

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