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Woman to Woman, Online

Heather Armstrong’s wickedly funny blog about motherhood, Dooce, is more than just an outlet for the creativity and frustrations of a modern mother. The site, chock full of advertising, is a moneymaking machine — so much so that Ms. Armstrong and her husband have both quit their regular jobs.

J. C. Penney and Crate & Barrel sell their furniture and offer decorating tips next to posts on Ms. Armstrong’s conversations with her 4-year-old daughter, Leta. Walgreens promotes its photo printing services next to pictures of the family dog. And the W Hotel chain of Starwood brags about its Internet-friendly rooms on the Dooce (pronounced deuce) home page.

These advertisers are eager to influence the 850,000 readers, mostly women, who avidly follow Ms. Armstrong’s adventures. Although Ms. Armstrong will not disclose exact numbers, Dooce’s revenue this year is on track to be seven times its size in 2006, according to Federated Media, which sells ads for the blog.

Sites aimed primarily at women, from “mommy blogs” to makeup and fashion sites, grew 35 percent last year — faster than every other category on the Web except politics, according to comScore, an Internet traffic measurement company. Women’s sites had 84 million visitors in July, 27 percent more than the same month last year, comScore said.

Advertisers are following the crowd, serving up 4.4 billion display ads on women’s Web sites in May, comScore said. That is more than for sites aimed at children, teenagers or families. “Moms are the decision makers of the household as far as purchases are concerned,” said Chris Actis, vice president and digital director at the ad agency MediaVest.

The rapid growth in advertising and traffic to women’s sites has attracted the attention of major media companies and venture capitalists.

Last week, for example, the cable giant Comcast paid about $125 million to buy the shopping and entertainment site DailyCandy, which calls itself “a free daily e-mail from the front lines of fashion, food, and fun.”

In July, Peacock Equity, a venture partnership of NBC Universal and General Electric and Venrock, a venture capital firm, invested $5 million in BlogHer, a network of 2,200 blogs by and for women.

In March, Yahoo created Shine, a site that publishes original content, blog posts from readers and articles from traditional women’s magazine publishers like Hearst and Condé Nast.

Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a major Silicon Valley venture firm, sees so much opportunity that it has made several bets in the sector, including in Glam Media, a network of 650 women’s sites that draws more visitors than its rivals and has raised $114 million from investors.

“I love women. Women are more than half the population, and they do most of the shopping,” said Tim Draper, the venture firm’s co-founder and managing director. “We are constantly looking for more sites that cater to women.” In addition to Glam, Draper Fisher has invested in CafeMom, MyShape and NearbyNow.

Although men are heavy users of the Web, they tend not to visit sites explicitly aimed at them. AOL’s Living channel for women had 16.1 million unique visitors in June, while its Asylum site, a top men’s destination online, had only 3.3 million. ComScore does not even track men’s sites as a category.

Joni Evans, a literary agent who found a second career as chief executive of wowOwow, a site for women over 40, said the gender disparity comes from the fact that women thrive on sharing anecdotes. “Women love to reach out and talk,” she said, adding that the Web is perfectly suited to that.

Advertisers are betting that the trust and intimacy that come from talking about sex after motherhood or reading about a blogger’s battle with postpartum depression will translate into sales of products discussed on a site or simply advertised alongside the personal stories.

Some companies are also working with women’s sites to create sponsored content in a collaboration so close that it would surprise many traditional print editors. At CafeMom, for instance, Wal-Mart Stores offered gift certificates to bloggers who write about Wal-Mart’s green products in exchange for writing about what they bought.

For another Wal-Mart campaign, Glam, which promotes its “custom content creation” to advertisers, wrote a quiz, “What’s Your Steak Style?” to help a reader determine whether her “palate personality” is casual, healthy, decadent or gourmet. Each page featured an ad for Wal-Mart’s new steak selections. Glam also published features with headlines like “Barbecue on a Budget” that looked like articles but directed readers to Wal-Mart steak ads if they clicked on them.

Other advertisers are taking a less direct approach. When the retailer J. C. Penney wanted to tell mothers about its Chris Madden bedding and furniture collection last fall, Federated Media built a Web site called Fall Shopping Guide, sponsored by the retailer, that placed ads for the new designs next to content about home decorating taken from 10 parenting bloggers in Federated’s advertising network.

Ree Drummond, author of the popular blog Confessions of a Pioneer Woman, was remodeling her bathroom that month, and her posts about the project appeared on the new site. Even though she did not mention J. C. Penney, some who commented connected the ads with the blog anyway — an advertiser’s dream. “Love you pioneer woman!” said one posting. “I also heart JCPenneys.”

J. C. Penney has since started a campaign with Federated for its Linden Street line. Ms. Armstrong of Dooce, Ms. Drummond of Pioneer Woman and others are writing blog posts about home décor for the site.

The notion of building a Web business around women’s interests is certainly not new. A decade ago, iVillage, Women.com and many other sites thought that the women’s market would be their ticket to riches. Instead, the sites struggled to find an audience and advertisers.

One reason was that brands that market to men, like car and technology companies, were the first to feel comfortable advertising online, said Chas Edwards, chief revenue officer and publisher of Federated Media. Brands that are aimed at women are now catching up.

To the disappointment of some women who want sites that focus on serious issues like politics, advertisers are not interested in every kind of content. They gravitate to the tried-and-true topics of women’s magazines: fashion, beauty, celebrities and love life.

So do the readers. “Time and time again, women are happy to see their relationship with their food, their clothes and their relationships externally manifested in entertainment and how-to content,” said Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBC Universal’s women and lifestyle entertainment networks, including iVillage.

Shine from Yahoo initially vowed to cover current events and avoid the typical fare of sex and diet tips. But the most popular stories on a recent day were about racy photos of the teenage star Miley Cyrus and whether women were attracted to men with beards. “We tried pure news, and sometimes it doesn’t work,” said Brandon Holley, Shine’s editor in chief.

Ms. Holley was most recently editor in chief of Jane, the Condé Nast women’s magazine that closed in July 2007. Jane struggled with the same problem — how to offer an irreverent, feminist take on women’s topics — and ultimately failed to attract advertisers.

Ms. Armstrong of Dooce says readers come to her because she is more honest than glossy women’s magazines. “It’s really raw and unfiltered, not run through a committee of 12 people who need to approve what you say. It’s the real deal,” she said.

That does not always go over well with advertisers. When Ms. Armstrong used a lewd phrase in the subtitle of her blog, two family entertainment companies removed their ad campaigns from her site.

“I thought that was awesome,” Ms. Armstrong said. “I knew an advertiser would pull out, but I think advertisers are beginning to understand that people come to my Web site because I do that — the reason I have eyeballs is because of my irreverence.”

 

Claire Cain Miller, The New York Times. August 13, 2008

Copyright © 2008 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.