One subject has caused a bit of a stir in the Chisholm kitchen. An interesting report from comScore says that women are far greater users of social networks than men, and hurtling toward being more enthusiastic users of the Web in general.

It's funny how history seems to repeat itself. Back in 2004 I produced a report that examined the world's most successful newspapers, in terms of circulation growth. Of the newspapers studied,the vast majority of them had more female readers than men.

Newspapers historically have always been perceived as a male medium, so I thought I'd update myself on the current state of female readership.

In the United States last year, 47 percent of men read a newspaper each day compared with 44 percent of women, a difference of 3 percent. In 1999, the difference was 7 percent, with 62 percent of men reading a paper compared with 55 percent of women.

In Japan, the difference has compressed even further. In 2009, 2 percent more men than women read a paper, compared with a 25 percent gap between male and female readership in 1999.

U.K. newspapers reach 3 percent more men than women, compared with a 4 percent gap in 1999 while in Germany the difference is 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively. Australia is the exception. Newspapers reach a higher percentage of women than men by a factor of 2 percent. In 1999, it was the opposite, with male readership 9 percent above female readership.

What is interesting is that those countries that have made the most progress with female readers are also the ones with the best circulation performance.

Key factor

So perhaps it's not surprising that female usage is becoming an increasingly dominant factor online as well. The New York Times reported, back in 2008, on the growing usage in access and time spent among female users. A recent article on About.com quoted research from Pew and Forrester: "Men go online to be entertained and hunt down information, where women tend to go online to gather information that assists them in nurturing themselves and those around them. Clearly while both men and women generally spend allotments of time online, gender stereotypes are prevalent in what they do with their time online."

The recent comScore research also found that while men were more likely to use the Internet, women spent 8 percent more time online, averaging 25 hours per month on the Web. Globally, women spend 20 percent more time on retail sites overall than men. In the United States, women are more avid online buyers than men, with 12.5 percent of female Internet users making at least one online purchase a month, compared to 9.3 percent of men. Health sites show some of the largest overall differences in reach between female and male, with a nearly 6-point gap between women and men worldwide.

Where you live

The research also found that geography contributed to Web usage, with the narrowest gender gap existing in Latin America, where the percentage of female social networkers is about 2.4 percent higher than the percentage of male networkers. That difference increases to 3.8 percent in North America, 6.2 percent in Europe and 8.3 percent in Asia Pacific, the report said.

Gender stereotyping is dangerous enough without drawing geographic comparisons, but what is clear is that gender targeting is a vital tool, and for four reasons.

First, it's clear that men and women have very different interests and demands from their media. For example, women are three times as likely to play puzzle games online as men.

Second, all the available evidence suggests that for news media - indeed for media in general - targeting a female audience can have a remarkable impact on its growth.

Third, research suggests that 80 percent of domestic purchasing is controlled by the women in the household.

Finally, women are a geometric value creator. In other words, audience times time spent, times spending power, times acceleration.

U.K. action

One particularly telling example of the female factor is the growth of the Daily Mail's website. The British daily is perhaps the world's bestmedia practitioner of gender targeting, exemplified by its slogan: "Every woman needs her Daily Mail."

It was a latecomer to the digital world, but now, with its strongly female agenda, the Daily Mail's online audience has risen by 44 percent in the past year. More important, the daily's site traffic and unique visits top those of its rivals by 50 percent, again confirming the power of women when it comes to the Web.

So what are the lessons from this?

The statistical lesson is that for the reasons described above, publishers should have a clear - though not exclusive - focus on their female audience. A female focus fits well with a newspaper's relationship with its market and the range of services it can deliver: community, family, health, social well-being and entertainment. (And let's not forget that women control 80 percent of household expenditures.)

Content, therefore, should be built around the drivers of this interaction, including participation and networking.

But let's not forget: Participation and networking go only so far. Facebook, for example, may be getting eyeballs, but it's Google that keeps getting the cash.

The challenge, then, for publishers is not only to appeal more to women, but also to wrestle their 80 percent control of the household budget.

Sound familiar?

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