Bringing Japanese Women's Sites up to Speed...

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2000

by Gail Nakada

"Many women have a balancing act to perform-kids, work. The Net is the single technology that talks about shaking up the business environment for them," says Janet G.H. Ang, director, sales operations, Asia Pacific IBM. "The Internet is actually helping to level the playing field in many aspects for women." Launched on September 2, 1999, is a coming-of-age site for the Japanese Internet.

There are a lot of websites out there targeting Japanese women, some good, most not so good. Catalog sites just want to sell. Those run by cosmetics companies, household product manufacturers, or magazine publishing groups concentrate on the two "Bs" (beauty and boys, and the acquisition thereof) or the two "Cs" (cleaning and cooking). Sites that include "Women in Business" features tend to focus on super career women, providing few role models for the average working OL or university student. There are some good efforts. Office Will (, headed by Mutsumi Okuyama and targeting outsourcing work to women, for example, should be applauded. There hasn't been one comprehensive Japanese site, however, with enough pull to draw in women with varied interests, work, and social backgrounds as well as to support e-commerce capabilities that will drive advertising, sponsorship, and revenue.

Think in the U.S., or in the U.K. has changed that. By offering a mix of content and encouraging self-development in any or all aspects of women's lives, they envision being the online resource for Japanese women. Users can find practical advice on starting a business, writing a business plan, creating a resume, quitting an old job or finding a new one, dealing with stress and health matters, or just enjoying their free time. Their "Ask the Experts" feature offers access to advisors in categories such as: Career and Education (law, money, entreprenuership); Body and Mind (health and counseling); Lifestyle (fashion, love, relationships, international marriage, education, etc.); and Entertainment.

"We want it to be a substantial site," says president Kumi Sato. Dynamic and indefatigable, Ms. Sato is also president of the public relations firm Cosmo PR and the mother of three children. "We wanted to respect the fact that 85% of women in Japan are college graduates. After having gone through the Japanese educational system, they are highly intelligent. Many of them leave jobs after marriage or don't even pursue a career because they don't have the mentors, the emotional support, the necessary information or skills to continue. There's a real lack of information and self-development programs for Japanese women. In making broadband, a sense of community is very important. Right now the media has focused on us as centering on working women, but we embrace nonworking women as well. That's an important target for us, too."

Make no mistake; Japanese women are coming online. Todd Newfield, CEO of Fact Communications-Flying Color Group, a leading Internet marketing solution company, has been deeply involved in a study of Japanese Internet users. "Finally, home access is over 50% for the first time," says Newfield. "Women account for between 42% and 44% of new users-that's very important. Our research has shown that women on the Net in the 27-34 age group are information seekers. They are very active readers; they are ad sensitive and have high involvement with the ads they read. More than half of them are working. This is a purchasing crowd! Women on the Net are very in-line with fashion and consumer products. They are an international group and they enjoy their lives." What is important to all those marketers looking for "sticky" eyes glued to websites? Newfield says, "This group spends more time reading webpages than men, around twice as long-54 or 55 seconds per page-close to a minute." has already been able to generate interest from some heavy hitters. IBM is working with the group as a strategic partner and negotiations are in progress for the company to sponsor a technology portion of the website.

"Technology, tips and techniques, information helpline, we are doing something similar to this at," says IBM's Ang. "From IBM's perspective this is obviously a business imperative. You shouldn't put a name on it-feminism or whatever. You're talking about capitalizing on the best talent. If we don't ensure that these talented and well-educated women contribute to the productivity and economic growth of the country, it becomes a terrible waste." IBM also hopes to power the website's e-commerce bazaar, set to open in January. The bazaar is critical in generating revenue for the venture.

Warner Home Video and FM radio station J-Wave were quick to recognize the possibilities of the site. They have come onboard as sponsors, supplying video and music clips and information. Sato and her marketing team are working on developing syndicated sales with both online and offline retailers, co-branding and co-marketing of products to Japanese companies and a wide range of multinational retailers.

Sato feels it's still possible to be a category killer and not have the huge inventories or staff roster that some popular sites demand. "There are two basic approaches to doing business on the Net. One, you look at, they've got 2,000 people working for them, a huge inventory that they have to keep up. Two, you look at eBay with 100 or 200 staff. Their attitude is much more, 'we will provide you a platform, we'll take a commission, we'll invest in our systems, and we'll do tons of marketing, but you need to do your transactions.' I think eBay's approach makes a lot of sense. We want to create a profitable business first and foremost. If you run it like a business, you have to keep your costs to a manageable level. I think that a lot of people get that formula whacked right out of line. You have to grow with your volume." The group is currently deep in the second round of financing.

Localizing the product to deal with Internet use in Japan has been a learning experience for the entire team. "We've spent a lot of initial costs just getting the design right," remembers Sato. "We went through five designers. We did tons of research. Some women (in the test groups) were reacting, 'do we really want this?' We realized they were reacting to the look and feel of the Internet design. The initial design was dropped, and we did the whole thing again. We changed the design to a softer one. It's like they want it (the information) but they want it in their comfort zone."

High interconnection charges also influenced the layout of the site. "We originally put a yellow screen behind our 'ask the experts' page. It looked really fancy but yellow is an additional color that makes loading time slow. You never know these things until you have users! Users came back to us and said, 'we love your experts site but it's too heavy.' So we had to change. That's one of the things-taking off the design features and going for utility-we definitely had to study and localize ourselves." One edge they have is that the content is developed by women for women. Notes Fact Communication's Newfield, "Women consumers know when you're talking at them and when you're talking to them. The distinction is very important in the success of a site."

Content is a little on the slim side and some navigational features need to be worked out for the chat areas but the site is generally a strong one. "It's almost like you're running a race," Sato says, settling back in an arm chair in her office with a well-deserved cup of coffee. "You have to be the first out there or you won't get the attention. Internet business is wheeling and dealing all the time, because everyone is chasing everybody else!"

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