CLIENT PROFILE: Dueling sites fight for bit of female attention Women.com and iVillage have been battling for female eyeballs and wallets for over five years now. With the consumer dot-com sector in a tizzy, who’s winning the PR war? Aimee Grove r

What a difference a year makes. Up to and through the 1999 holiday season, Internet content and e-commerce companies dominated the headlines with glowing puff pieces celebrating the wonders of online shopping and newly minted, 20-something millionaires.

What a difference a year makes. Up to and through the 1999 holiday season, Internet content and e-commerce companies dominated the headlines with glowing puff pieces celebrating the wonders of online shopping and newly minted, 20-something millionaires.

What a difference a year makes. Up to and through the 1999 holiday

season, Internet content and e-commerce companies dominated the

headlines with glowing puff pieces celebrating the wonders of online

shopping and newly minted, 20-something millionaires.



Just five months later, everyone is suddenly ringing the death knell for

the same start-ups. With Wall Street’s recent roller-coaster ride

sending the stocks of many consumer-oriented dot-coms crashing to earth

and venture capitalists suddenly wary of potentially profitless

ventures, industry analysts are predicting a shake out of the most

over-crowded categories.



But helping companies survive hard times is what PR is all about. That’s

why PRWeek decided to check in with two suddenly-out-of-favor new media

companies battling it out for one of the most coveted audiences on the

Web. How will iVillage and Women.com each use PR to gain investors’

trust back, drive traffic to their sites, reach profitability - and

attempt to drive the other out of business?





Desired audience



Women have been a sought-after audience since the Internet’s earliest

days, as the founding of both iVillage and Women.com in 1995 proves. As

much as the two companies like to insist otherwise, their offerings -

various channels of content aimed at females aged 25-54, as well as

online shopping, e-mail, chat, news and stock quotes - are extremely

similar.



The two have even adopted similar positioning over the years.



The two are also neck-in-neck in traffic, with iVillage ranked 35th with

5,768 unique visitors and Women.com 36th, with 5,756 unique visitors,

according to Media Metrix’s March 2000 figures. Women.com’s membership

of 2.9 million is smaller than iVillage, which claimed a membership of

4.9 million in the first quarter of 2000. Both reported larger losses

versus the same period last year as well as huge jumps in revenues. And

both are promising profitability by 2001.



To complicate things, several other companies have entered the race for

Web-savvy women. Now vying for those female eyeballs (and wallets) are

such cash-flush competitors as Oprah Winfrey-backed Oxygen Media (Thrive

Online), Martha Stewart Online and Women’s Financial Network (WFN),

which debuted last month.



With its status as a Silicon Alley pioneer and CEO Candice Carpenter at

the helm, iVillage was for a long time somewhat of a media darling.



However, the same camera-happy leadership that was once an asset may

have become a liability. Over the past few months, iVillage has suffered

a series of scathing articles, including one report contending that

several top managers threatened to quit if Carpenter was not removed.

Within weeks of that story, COO Allison Abraham and CFO Doug Monaghan

quit - though both denied Carpenter had anything to do with their

decisions.



Also, as its share price plummeted from its high of dollars 130 to near

dollars 10, iVillage became the whipping boy of the so-called ’new

economy,’ landing on every publication’s ’worst’ list during April’s

Nasdaq slide. ’We are aware that the reality of business media is that

what goes up must come down. For us, it’s about executing our plan,

communicating aspects of that plan and our progress toward it,

consistently and thoroughly,’ explains SVP of corporate communications

Betty Hudson, a seasoned NBC PR veteran who joined iVillage shortly

after its April 1999 IPO. Hudson’s pragmatic approach may not provide

the full PR story, however.



The company, which uses NY-based Abernathy MacGregor for IR and

corporate PR and Kaplow Communications for consumer PR, obviously has

not strayed from its early strategy of using its colorful CEO as a

mouthpiece. For example, after a series of negative articles in The

Industry Standard, Carpenter sat down with a Standard reporter to set

the record straight.



And as Susan Orenstein wrote in the resulting article, ’Among the many

traits attributed to Carpenter is her ability to tell a compelling

story.’



Hudson, who also oversees employee and financial communications, says

she uses her two PR firms as ’our arms and legs’ more than as strategic

partners most of the time. At present, even though about 15% of its

traffic comes from outside the US, iVillage does not have any concrete

plans for international PR. ’It’s on the drawing board,’ Hudson

promises.



Reporters who cover iVillage have mixed feelings about the company’s PR

team. ’If it’s stuff that’s safe, they can be great to deal with. But if

the news is in any way negative, the walls go up,’ says one

reporter.



Unlike iVillage, Silicon Valley-based Women.com, founded by Ellen Pack,

has maintained a relatively low media profile - both before and after

the recent market downturn. According to PR director Becca

Perata-Rosati, who joined last June, the goal for her team is the same

today as it has always been: ’To become a brand name with awareness and

visibility.’



’We try not to change the PR strategy because of market behavior,’ she

says, adding that part of her strategy is also differentiating Women.com

from the competition - ’and the negative press they are generating.’



In addition, Perata-Rosati says they make sure to highlight the depth of

original content offered on Women.com via Rodale Press and Hearst Corp.,

which owns a 47% stake in the company and enables it to host online

editions of Cosmopolitan, Redbook and Town & Country magazines on its

network.



Perata-Rosati, who oversees media relations and executive communications

but not IR or employee communications, aims to reorganize her department

into separate practice areas: ’I want each person to have beats they

could own and certain reporter relationships they could own, too.’ Since

June 1999,Women.com has worked with Ruder Finn/San Francisco for support

of both its consumer and corporate PR initiatives. Women.com will

leverage this relationship with Ruder Finn as it moves to expand its PR

operations overseas.



While most of these strategies seem sound, Women.com’s straightforward

approach may have cost it media exposure in some of the same industry

trades that have covered iVillage extensively. For example, a staff

writer at one of the hefty Internet business pubs describes the company

as ’kind of opaque.’





Missed opportunities



’Twice now the PR people from Women.com have taken me to a lunch where

they trotted out their execs to tell me about the company, and we have

had a really great meeting, then I never hear from them again,’ explains

the reporter. ’I like to hear about some sorts of interesting trends or

insights beyond just ’Here’s our company.’ Let’s face it - women on the

Web is just not a story in and of itself anymore.’



In the end, both iVillage and Women.com will likely need much more than

smart PR to survive. Certainly, future funding will help determine the

winner, especially now that both their stocks are currently under

water.



Notably, Women.com has the resources of Hearst backing it, and at press

time some local media reports suggested the two companies might even be

involved in merger talks - something both sides deny unequivocally.

Finally, some have pointed to the possibility that the whole women’s

portal category could collapse altogether, as Internet usage and

preference patterns continue to evolve. To the credit of both PR teams,

neither side seems ready to throw in the towel just yet.





Women.com



PR chief: Becca Perata-Rosati, director of PR (reports to SVP of

marketing Anna Zornosa)



Internal PR staff: Three (two more to be added soon)



External agency: Ruder Finn (primarily San Francisco) for consumer and

corporate





iVillage.com



PR chiefs: Betty Hudson, SVP of corporate communications (reports to CEO

Candice Carpenter); VP of corporate communications Jason Stell



Internal PR staff: Six



External agencies: Abernathy MacGregor for corporate and IR; Kaplow

Communications for consumer PR.



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