Why women matter more online

July 17, 2012, 4:18 AM UTC

Nick Lehman, president, digital, NBCUniversal, joined Susan Lyne, chairman, Gilt Groupe and Brit Morin, founder and CEO, Brit & Co. for a conversation at Fortune Brainstorm Tech about why women have become such an important demographic on the web. Fortune’s Jessi Hempel moderated. 

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Below is an unedited transcript.

Nick Lehman

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, now we’re moving on to an exciting topic.  We even queued up some tech news for this topic today, Women on the Web.  No, we’re not talking about Marissa.  Actually, today we’re going to talk about women as a market, a big and growing market.

All right.  So, for those of you who weren’t here earlier, I’m Jessi Hempel, tech writer with Fortune and the co-chair of Brainstorm Tech.  Thank you guys all for coming.  And we’re going to start right over here, we have Brit Morin, who is the founder and CEO of Brit Media.  Next to her we have Susan Lyne, Chairman of Gilt Groupe.  And then we have Nick Lehman, President of Digital Networks at NBC Universal.

Guys, let me ask a basic question, haven’t women always used the Web?  What’s different?  Why are we talking about this today?

BRIT MORIN:  Sure, I’ll start.  Women have always used the Web.  I mean, it seems like iVillage in the late ’90s and early millennium, but what has changed over the last few years is that women are spending more and more time on the web, and women are inherently more social on the web.  And I think the rise of social networks has really contributed to this change.  Women are also way more visual.  And I think people have figured that out along the way.  You see guys like Pinterest now, and all kinds of photo sharing sites that have really exploded over the last few years.  And whose users are primarily women, because women love to be visual and social.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, Brit, let’s stop a second on Pinterest, because I’ll be honest, Pinterest is why we thought of having this panel.  It seems like in February or so everybody woke up and discovered that there was a site that was really popular that no one had seen before, and everybody was using it, and everybody was all of these women in the Midwest.  And after that it seems like there has been a growing mounting enthusiasm around developing for women.

So, I would love to hear a little bit from each of you what you see as shifting structurally in 2012 when it comes to this market, and how much of it is created, because we suddenly notice something versus has been building for a long time?  And this one I’m going to lob over to Nick.

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NICK LEHMAN:  Sure, absolutely.  Well, I think to Brit’s point, what has changed is so many of the trends and sort of the digital dynamics where women over index, so whether it’s social, mobile, commerce, those are all the dynamics that are driving so many of the startups right now like Pinterest.  And so, I think that’s why there has been so much more focus, and you see it in the composition of the audiences of so many of the new digital businesses.  Women really are driving their audiences, and their success and revenues as well.  So, I think that’s what’s changed.

I think the other thing that’s changed, I mean you referenced iVillage, which is one of our brands at NBC Universal, iVillage has been around for over 10 years, and was one of the real original women’s communities.  And it still is.  But I think what’s changed, whether it’s for iVillage, or for other people in this space, is a way that you can monetize community.  So, I think 10 years ago it was really hard to monetize communities.  Advertisers were scared by communities.

Susan Lyne

And so I think one of the biggest shifts is that advertisers now realize that they have to be in the middle of that dialogue, and so that’s one of the things that we do with iVillage, for example.  We do things called Community Challenges, which bring together women across our site, and our app, and offline to go after specific missions or goals, like great hair, or weight loss, or summer reading challenges, and advertisers love to be in the middle of that because they’re in the middle of the dialogue, and sort of inspiration and the advice that we bring to them.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, Nick, what you point out is important.  You point out a structural shift happening on the web.  It strikes me, Susan, that you had some interesting thoughts about what the web is today, and how it has morphed.

SUSAN LYNE:  Yes, well, I think that with the web moving from being primarily about information to being more of a transactional platform that has definitely made women much more important, I think.  I think the interesting thing about Pinterest ‑‑

JESSI HEMPEL:  Let’s make sure we understand why does that make women more important?

SUSAN LYNE:  Okay, because women are responsible for somewhere between 80 and 85 percent of all consumer purchases.  They either influence or make themselves 80 to 85 percent.  You get different stats from different places.  But that’s an extraordinary figure.  And it goes on from there, 22 percent of all women actually shop on the web every day.

JESSI HEMPEL:  That’s astounding.

SUSAN LYNE:  Fifty-eight percent of all Internet purchases are made by women.  So, there’s just a lot of stuff out there.  Women are on the Internet all the time either looking for things, exploring, making those purchasing decisions, and ultimately transacting.  So, once you could actually not only gather those numbers, but also gather the data about what they were purchasing, and how and why, it became such a rich marketplace for savvy marketers to identify and then target all of their consumers.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, the opportunity becomes bigger.


JESSI HEMPEL:  And we’ve also seen just a host of startups in the last couple of years.  I mean, at this point Gilt is almost amongst the old guard.

SUSAN LYNE:  We are, yes.  We’re four-and-a-half years old.

JESSI HEMPEL:  Four-and-a-half years old counts as old.

Brit Morin

SUSAN LYNE:  It does, I know.  When you think about it, there was no Foursquare.  Twitter was just in its infancy.  I think Facebook had only been open to non-college students for a year.  There was no iPad.  The iPhone had just launched six months earlier.  There’s been so much change in the years since Gilt launched.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, we have a fresh startup in comparison, as in you guys are ‑‑ is it a year old today?

BRIT MORIN:  That would be my relationship with my husband.  Today, is my anniversary.  But today our startup is about seven-and-a-half months old.  So, even younger than my marriage.

JESSI HEMPEL:  The idea for your startup came about when you were planning for your marriage, no?

BRIT MORIN:  In a way, yes.  My background, I worked at Google for several years, and last year was taking some time off, and found myself actively creating.  And when I say creating, I was creating everything from muffins to my wedding decor to software code.  And what I found was, there also seems like there’s this resurgence with making and creating, especially among women.  I also think it’s one of the reasons why Pinterest is so interesting, because it inspires women to make and create.  And that’s an innate instinct within us.

And so I started a new company called Brit, which is a hybrid media and technology company.  We create content on a day-to-day basis that is curated products, as well as technologies, and apps that women could and should be using to simplify their lives.  We also add in a dose of DIY.  On the other hand, we’re also creating software utilities, and these different lifestyle verticals ranging from weddings, which was our first app launched because I was inspired during my wedding, and we’re also entering several other categories in the future.

And the reason we’re doing this is because I feel like largely there aren’t enough women designing for women in software, and there’s such a big opportunity to provide women with those types of utilities in all these different categories.  There’s just not enough innovation in categories like weddings, and food, and so forth.  So, we’re trying to do that.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, Brit, I want to highlight that point you made that you don’t believe there are enough women designing for women.  What does it mean to design for women, and who can do it?  And that’s a question for everybody on our panel.

SUSAN LYNE:  Well, if you look at Pinterest, and I started using Pinterest really early, I think one of the interesting things about it is that it came out of nowhere, but women found it.  If you build it they will come.  And it was such a simple idea, it was a place where you could collect things you loved.  And initially I think it was primarily for your individual use, but the fact that all the boards were public meant that it became this discovery engine very quickly.  And now that it’s got massive scales it’s actually a great search engine.  So, I go to Pinterest now instead of going to Google when I’m doing product search, because you’ve got human curated products, and enough of that that you actually are able to find a massive result when you put in wallpaper, or outdoor furniture, and it’s great.  It’s not algorithmic.  It’s people who have said I love this.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, you’re talking about good design.  You’re talking about good design ‑‑

SUSAN LYNE:  Clean design, simple design, intuitive design, you can’t make an ugly board on Pinterest.  I think that’s also another reason why it’s become so popular.  Everything is beautiful on it, highly visual.

NICK LEHMAN:  Visual, I think Brit said, visual and intuitive.  We hear that all the time as we do research with our audiences across our women’s properties.  It’s like two-thirds of women would much prefer sites that are visual and intuitive versus feature laden, and that’s one of the biggest differences that we see with men versus women in terms of sites.  Men, two-thirds of them want the feature-laden sites, versus the opposite.  So, that’s something that we think a lot about as we design.

BRIT MORIN:  What is really interesting with Pinterest is as opposed to other social networks, where you’re intentionally sharing, you’re tweeting, or you’re making a comment on Facebook.  Pinterest is almost unintentionally sharing.  You’re collecting things for yourself, yet it’s social by nature, as well.  So, it’s an interesting juxtaposition of a social network, because there’s unintentional sharing with commenting and following and all these other game dynamics that go hand-in-hand.  And when you think about women specifically, women actually on Twitter they are less likely to tweet as they are to consume, and to favorite, and re-tweet.

Even when I started my content site in the fall, I noticed that for the first few months women weren’t commenting on my posts, and I wondered why, like why is my content bad, what’s going on.  Men were commenting.  I didn’t understand that.  And then all of a sudden something hit and women started commenting.  So, there’s also I think this trust within the community that once one woman starts commenting and one person starts sharing the others sort of follow.  It’s just an interesting perspective, as well.

JESSI HEMPEL:  But, Brit, let’s take Pinterest, since it seems to come up a lot, most of the engineers we visited that office for an article we wrote in the spring, most of the engineers and all of the founders were men.  Does it matter?  That’s a question for everybody here.

BRIT MORIN:  I don’t think so.

NICK LEHMAN:  I don’t think it matters.  I think the key is usability testing and going to the audience.  I think creators can create for all different types of segments and audiences, as long as you continue to sort of pressure test it with your audience.

BRIT MORIN:  It’s interesting.  The idea for Pinterest was manifested through Ben’s wife.  And I know of several other women’s focus startups and companies that were the ideas of the founder’s wife.  So, it’s interesting to see that through execution, yes, you can do it.  But, in many cases the ideas for these concepts start with women.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, we’ve talked about building the companies.  I want to spend a moment on funding the companies before we talk about the audience.  Brit, I aim this question at you, because I know you’ve raised money in the last year.  Does the rise of these women’s sites, Pinterest and others, mean that funders are more likely to fund women’s sites?  Is it easier?

BRIT MORIN:  I don’t think it’s necessarily easier, I think most venture capitalists understand what we wall understand that women are spending more time on the Web than ever before, women are driving purchases online and it’s a lucrative audience to go after.  And if you have a smart idea in a category that’s targeting women specifically, it’s probably worth looking into, at least understanding more about.

As a female founder I do think it sort of doubles as a positive thing for venture capitalists, because like I was just saying, I have many ideas for things that women ‑‑ software products and content that women could probably use that aren’t currently available, and I think investors understand that I have a great vision for the utility we’re aiming to provide for women.


Anything to contribute?

SUSAN LYNE:  Yes, there was an amazing article I would say, maybe six months ago, where they looked at the number of women who were partners at VCs, looked at the top 50 VCs.  And the only one that had more than one female partner who could actually participate in the decision making about what would be funded was Kleiner.  And many, many, many of them had zero female partners.  So, I think that makes it hard if you are coming in saying, I want to build this.  It is targeting this audience and you are not speaking to anyone who is a likely consumer of it, you’re going have a much harder time getting financing.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, we want to move now to talking about the audience and marketing to this audience, because it’s huge.

And Nick, you guys have been doing all sorts of creative things at NBC.  In fact, drum roll please, you have an announcement today.  So, let’s start there.

NICK LEHMAN:  We do have an announcement.  I think, to your point about sort of marketing to the women’s market, I think the point that I would make is that actually the women’s market is a lot of different markets.  We can talk about this in all sorts of generalizations, but you really have to segment it in careful and strategic ways.  So, that’s one of the things that we’ve been doing a lot of at NBC Universal.  And so we launched today a new site targeted at Latinos, which they’re 16-17 million Latinos who are really underserved on the web, but super-savvy, super-avid digital enthusiasts.

So, we launched a site called Mujer de Hoy, which we brought together Telemundo and iVillage together.  We did sort of a mash-up within the company, because we had expertise in the women’s segment and in the Hispanic segment.  And the idea is to market and have a platform for marketers to reach these very hard to reach women and do it with content that really speaks to them, and a sensibility that really speaks to them, which means you have to do it in a bilingual way, and it means you have to do it across platforms, which we were fortunate to be able to do in a very unique way, bringing together the television assets that we have at NBC Universal, and the digital assets like iVillage, which is actually run by Jodi Kahn, who I think is in the audience somewhere here, who helped build it together with Peter Blacker, our head of Telemundo Digital.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, you mention iVillage, and iVillage, that’s Web 1.0 focus on the female audience.  You have been at this for a long time.  How have you seen this market, the women’s market in particular grow, and what kind of opportunity do you see it becoming?

NICK LEHMAN:  Well, as you said before, it’s just getting bigger and bigger.   There are more and more platforms.  There are more and more avenues for us to expand our engagement with the audience.  It’s not just Web 1.0 anymore.  It’s really integrating the community into creating the content with us.  And that’s something that we’re rolling out soon with new products like Ask iVillage, with our even video series that we have on iVillage and my best idea, which crowd-sources great content and ideas.

So, we’ve really ingrained the community in content production, but there’s mobile, there’s commerce, there’s so many other ways to build our business around the women’s market much bigger than ever before, and I think also what we’re seeing is so many categories of advertisers who really focus on women are moving, migrating so many more digital dollars to digital platforms, that’s just another accelerant in the business.

JESSI HEMPEL:  Have you noticed that at Gilt and how have you taken advantage of that?

SUSAN LYNE:  We don’t take advertising, but I would say that there is definitely a new sense of being able to use a platform like Gilt as a marketing platform, because what Gilt is is really ‑‑ it’s a platform for discovery, right.  There are two kinds of shopping, right.  There is the I have to buy groceries today shopping, where you have a task and you have a list and you’re going to go out and do it, but then there’s the let’s go shopping, which is completely different.  It’s about let’s go out there and see what’s in the stores right now.  Lets’ get inspired; maybe fall in love with something.

That’s what Gilt ahs really tried to tap into and I think that sense, that ability is what makes it interesting to marketers.  And it’s also what I think is interesting about Pinterest, is that it’s about browsing.  It’s not about the search for X; the way Amazon is a fantastic platform if you know you want a 40-inch flat screen TV.  You go in there, you look, they’ve got everything.  It’s perfect.  But, if you want to see and be inspired, and be tempted, and seduced by something it’s not about that.  So, for browsing and for discovery you need a different ‑‑ a very different kind of platform.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, a year ago when we sat on the stage, actually, this stage together, Susan, you talked about the tablet and the way that the tablet had really changed the stakes, because Gilt shoppers could just move so much faster.


JESSI HEMPEL:  It’s been a year and my iPad, or whatever it is that I’m using, doesn’t actually look that different than it did a year ago.  Where are you experiencing the innovation, where have you seen it in the last year?

SUSAN LYNE:  At Gilt, or in the tablet business?


SUSAN LYNE:  At Gilt, so I would say that we have been ‑‑ we spend a lot of time on launching new verticals.  So, we went into Gilt Taste, we went into Park and Bond.  We’ve rebuilt our home site.  So, it was about giving people a variety of options to shop.  More recently we’ve gotten back into the experience, the customer experience and we’ve launched some betas, something called Gilt Live, which is a way to see, as a stream, what’s being purchased at any given point.  And, again, it’s about going back to that discovery piece of it, because even though we’ve launched all these different verticals, most people who shop Gilt still don’t know that they can shop for gourmet food and wine, or that they can shop for home goods.  They may come just to the fashion site, because there is a gaming element to it and you have to move quickly, they’re in and out before they realize there’s all these other things they can do.  So, Gilt Live is a different way to shop, a different way to discover a product that might tempt you.  And because you see everything that’s coming through it’s a great way for us to surreptitiously introduce a lot of different categories to people.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, with the rise of tablets and digital platforms, there are so many outlets for our attention, so many more than we had in a more traditional media world.  Brit, as you think about building your company, how do you think about building a media company in that world?

BRIT MORIN:  Well, I can tell you I’m definitely paying attention to mobile.  Over one-third of my content site’s traffic is coming from mobile, and we haven’t even done any mobile optimizations, or released any mobile apps yet.  In fact, I think the statistic is 54 percent of women own a smart phone now in the U.S., as opposed to even 46 percent of men.  So, we’re definitely thinking mobile first, and in mobile there are all kinds of aspects of what you can do there.  And I still think it’s a category that’s largely un-touched, yet 5 billion people in the world today have a mobile phone.  And I think to gain the most reach the quickest you need to be first to the punch when it comes to innovating in that space.  So, we’re looking forward to building a lot of new different types of utilities, to creating at Brit and Co. a mobile app, and to really start reaching people through their phones, as opposed to through their computers, or even through their televisions.

JESSI HEMPEL:  How do you help people discover you, Brit?

BRIT MORIN:  Social.  It goes back to social.  In fact, more than 50 percent of my traffic comes from social networking sites.  And Pinterest alone, as we were just talking about, sends over 10 percent of traffic to my site.  So, we are definitely doubling down on social.  I think especially with women word of mouth and community is really important and if women are sharing your content around the Web and vouching for its credibility, it’s only going to help grow your traffic further.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, Nick, I know that you have an initiative at NBC called Women At NBC.  And did it launch this year, or did it launch earlier?

NICK LEHMAN:  No, it’s a couple years old, actually.  So, Women at NBCU is basically a sales research and content initiative that allows marketers to connect with all of the different female skewing brands at NBC Universal, whether that’s digital brands like Daily Candy and iVillage or our TV networks, E, or the Today Show, or any of the female audiences, and it allows them to basically find and reach the women that they’re trying to address, but at scale, and use the entire portfolio.  And so that’s something that `we’ve helped all sorts of marketers with.

For example, we recently did a big campaign with Tide to introduce their pop up color campaign, and use talent, for example, from Daily Candy, SuChin Pak from XM TV, who is our chief correspondent, appeared in vignettes on all of our networks that ran in lots of different shows, that drove to digital, and it’s a way to connect the dots between all the different platforms for marketers who may have a harder time doing that on their own, and without this glue that we can build for them have a hard time doing the really deep integrations that we think end up being much more authentic and interesting to them.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, I’m curious, you must get a lot of research about what women are doing, and how they’re spending their time.  What’s the most interesting sort of ah-ha that you’ve had in the last few months?

NICK LEHMAN:  I think when we have a great sort of think tank within Women at NBCU and our integrated media group there does a lot of great research, I think that together with our iVillage research, I think probably the most interesting thing that came out of it that we heard recently was that only 11 percent of women who are online feel like they have their lives figured out.  And that’s no matter what demo, what age group, or what segment you looked at, and they were all looking towards digital to help them figure out their lives.  And they were looking for tools, and they were looking for solutions, and so that’s really inspired a lot of how we’re looking at our digital businesses that go after women.

For example, at iVillage we’ve really repositioned it to be about life tested solutions and advice, but also inspiration.  That’s the other nugget that comes out in the research.  It’s not just about the practicality of it, they also want the inspiration and the me time as well.  We need a little guilty pleasure along with all of the pragmatism.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So that idea, that’s curious to me.  I would like to meet the 11 percent who feel like they have their lives figured out.  Who are they?  Serious, where do they live, I’d like to meet them?

NICK LEHMAN:  Aspen, I think.


JESSI HEMPEL:  So, we’re going to open to a couple of questions.  We only have time for a couple.  Anybody in the audience want to jump in?  Andy?  Nice and loud, and I’ll repeat it since you don’t have a mike.

QUESTION:  (Off mike) ‑‑ because of data and targeting and all these things you’ve been discussing, increasingly when you’re making a pitch to a VC or starting a company up, you would say there’s going to e a high female skew or a high male skew.  And I’m just wondering, this is kind of a metaphysical question, but what happens when all websites kind of are skewed male or female.  Is there hope for people who hope to have websites or e-commerce sites for men and women?  Will that no longer become possible?

I mean, if you think about in the golden age of big media, The Ed Sullivan Show, they probably didn’t think about that as much.  Now, we have the tool to think about it, and that’s really good, but I’m just wondering, and I know this is not your purview, necessarily, but I just wondered if you guys have had any thoughts about that?

SUSAN LYNE:  Look, Amazon is a male/female site.  And I don’t know what the stats are specifically, but I’m sure it is a multi-usage site.  So are Facebook and Twitter.  They are more female than they are male, but there are still a lot of guys using them.  So, I don’t think it’s either/or.  I think what you’re seeing is that like most things, women read more magazines than men do.  Women watch more television than men do.  Women are now using the Internet more than men do.  And I don’t know what you guys do with your time, but ‑‑

BRIT MORIN:  I have an interesting story.  So, obviously Pinterest has been at the top for the last year.  Well, a site called Manterest was launched a few months ago, and it was designed to look exactly like Pinterest, only you nail thing instead of pin them, and it ended up being a lot of cars, and watches, and boats.  And it actually, as you guys probably haven’t heard of Manterest, meaning it hasn’t actually succeeded thus far.  And I think that a lot of that is because of the design of the site as well.  Pinterest, the visual nature appeals to women, doesn’t appeal to men as much.  Bing, for instance, has way more female users than men.  But I agree with Susan that many sites are gender neutral.

JESSI HEMPEL:  Okay.  Time for one more question before we close.  We’ve got a quiet group.

Well, then I’m going to throw out a final question.  As you think forward to what the world will be, we’ll sit here in a year and have this conversation, what’s your biggest hope for largely ‑‑ no, here you go, what’s the one innovation that you would like to see that would make your day-to-day business easier, and your personal experience with the web better for next year?

NICK LEHMAN:  Related to women?

JESSI HEMPEL:  I didn’t say that, but if you’d like to take it that way, Nick, I invite it.

NICK LEHMAN:  I would say the one thing that I think would make our businesses sort of ‑‑ put them on the trajectory that we’re looking for is actually in the mobile space.  We’ve talked a lot about mobile, and what a powerful platform it is for women.  And if you look at overall mobile usage, it’s about 20 percent of consumers’ media time.  But it’s only about 1 percent of where marketing dollars get spent.  And I think that’s a gigantic discrepancy.  And so that’s one of the things that I’d like to see change over the next year.

I think mobile is such an incredible targeted, and personal marketing platform for women in particular, but for all consumers, that is certainly a trend I would like to see change a lot over the next year.

SUSAN LYNE:  So, I’ll give you a really small one, and then something that I would hope for that’s more macro.  So, the small one is, I would love to see one or more of the file storage companies, the YouSendIts of the world, or really offer a way to not just hold your stuff, but also to give you a way to organize it, give me a way to organize it that make more sense.  I can’t tell you how often I think how did I file that?  Did I file it under board of directors, did I file it under marketing presentation, did I file it under the date?  But if somebody could come up with a way that when you are storing they are automatically sending you a better way to think about your metafiling of all of it, I would love that.  That would make my life hugely more valuable.  And I would pay for it.  I would pay a premium for it.

JESSI HEMPEL:  So, I’m jumping to Brit because we’re out of time.

BRIT MORIN:  I’ll do this quickly.  I would say innovation and developer platforms, both for mobile and the web.  I think right now there are so many fragmented platform that we can use to develop on, even in the mobile space there’s Android, there’s Blackberry, and when you have an amazing concept or an idea, you have to hire engineers who know specifically know that programming language.  It takes months, weeks or months to iterate on the design, and to get things pushed out.  They don’t sync across platforms as well.  And I think that there could be even more innovation in technology in general if it was easier for people to build, and to deploy what they want to build.

JESSI HEMPEL:  Thank you.

Thank you everyone.  I hope you will all take time over the next few days to join us to talk more about this topic.  We will likely be wherever the 11 percent of the rest of you who have your lives figured out are.  Thanks, guys.