I came across this article this week by Christine Churchill …. and it provides a great insight into what makes men and women tick online. A useful reference to check your own site against if you have a particular target group in mind.

The secret’s out: men and women are different—in person and online. Gender differences matter in web design, content, and marketing. It takes more than a girlish color scheme and soft focus photos of smiling children to draw women to your site and earn their loyalty. Color and design matter, but so do content, safety, and service. And oh, by the way: men want compelling visuals and for you to just get to the point. Surprised? You shouldn’t be, as these research findings demonstrate.

“Thinking pink” is not thinking at all

Many Web designers and marketers have a simple strategy to appeal to women: “Think Pink.” Often this is a good opening strategy if women are your target market because they do tend to favor pink and purple hues. But color preferences are affected by a variety of factors other than gender including age, personal bias, and culture.

Numerous women-oriented sites like Avon.com, Brides.com and Komen for the Cure successfully use soothing, pastel colors to create a calm, inviting place to linger and browse. But they don’t stop at just using colors women like. The sites are well organized, provide interesting content, and let users personalize their experience.

Don’t fixate so much on pink that you ignore the larger role color plays in determining mood, purpose, and trustworthiness. Ideally, color choices should be based on your site’s purpose and products.

Common color associations include:

  • Trust: blue and white
  • Dependability: blue and black
  • Danger: red and black
  • Cheapness: yellow and orange
  • Fun: yellow, red, orange, and purple

Even if women do most of the shopping for children’s toys at your site, a pastel color scheme conflicts with the site’s purpose. Colors appropriate for a toy site (red, yellow, and orange) would not be appropriate for a stock tip or medical information site.

Get more information about color choices by reviewing the results of Joe Hallock’s Color Assignment study.

Girls just want design

A widely-reported study of design preferences from the University of Glamorgan found that women prefer sites designed by other women. The study also noted a clear difference in design and layout preferences:

“Where visuals are concerned, males favour the use of straight lines (as opposed to rounded forms), few colours in the typeface and background, and formal typography. As for language, they favour the use of formal or expert language with few abbreviations and are more likely to promote themselves and their abilities heavily. ”

Women users were far more likely to compliment sites that had been designed primarily by other women. Yet, when researchers looked at the composition of design teams, they found find that 74% of sites studied were designed by a man or male-led design team. Female designers or design teams produced only 7% of sites. Over three quarters of sites designed to appeal to women had male design teams. An article at HumanFactors.com has an excellent analysis of this study and its implications for designers.

Certainly, this doesn’t mean that only men can design for men and women for women, but it does highlight the importance of soliciting different perspectives and opinions during the design process.

Usability testing should always be a major component of your design and redesign process. Bring in members of your target audience early in the process and listen to what they say. That’s a basic component of good Web design, no matter who your audience is.

Women are online hunters and gatherers

Conventional design wisdom says that men devour data while women focus on pictures, but the results of recent eyetracking studies indicate just the opposite.

Usability and eyetracking research conducted by Eye Square, a marketing research and usability company, found that many of our gender assumptions about web content are just wrong:

“The empirical findings indicate that there is a big difference in the attentional behaviour between women and men. Whereas women tend to receive textual information very carefully, men start their orientation on a web site at photos and generally, read less text. Concluding from the empirical data, we therefore, describe women as being text orientated and accurate, and men as icon orientated and loose… women read and men do not.”

A 2005 study released by the Pew Internet and American Life Project: How Men and Women Use the Internet, supports those findings. Pew’s study highlighted some important traits of female Internet users, including their propensity to:

“…penetrate deeper into areas where they have the greatest interest… Women tend to treat information gathering online as a more textured and interactive process—one that includes gathering and exchanging information through support groups and personal email exchanges.”

Most women aren’t impulse buyers online. They take the time to learn about the product and get as much information as possible before making a purchasing decision. That’s not always easy, though. Half of women consumers report that they’ve left stores and Web sites because they couldn’t find what they wanted or been able to get enough information about the product.

Build a safe, personal community that emphasizes service

This is an area where small businesses can shine. Large companies may get thousands of emails and phone calls per day, and few are equipped to respond quickly and in a personal manner. We’ve all been frustrated by the canned email responses that arrive days after we sent a query and don’t begin to answer the question we asked.

Personalized service is key to building customer loyalty. This New York Times article discusses the buying clout of women consumers and describes how electronics retailer, Best Buy, moved from the business model of “…a boy store, built by boys, for boys,” towards a more consumer-friendly orientation:

“Online, Best Buy has added ‘click to call,’ so that a shopper can ask a representative to call her back at a time she requests to help with buying decisions. In the stores, it has made the aisles cleaner and wider and added shopping bags as an alternative to carts.”

As with a physical store, a welcoming environment entices visitors to your site, good information keeps them there, and a focus on trust and privacy helps turn them into customers.

Women users are more likely to trust your information if they think they’re getting the whole story. How can you persuade them that this is the case?

  • Pay attention to your product descriptions. Make them complete and informative.
  • Make it easy to ask questions. Online chat features are very popular because you can get instant answers from a live representative.
  • Beef up your “Frequently Asked Questions” page.
  • Clearly describe your return policy and shipping charges.
  • Highlight your privacy policy and write it in terms non-attorneys can understand.
  • Add an “Email page to a friend” link to your pages.
  • Product reviews from other users are valuable because they focus on everyday experiences using the product—how it performs out in the real world, and not just how the designers thought people would use it.
  • Have a phone number on your site! Most customers will never call, but they like having it as an option.

Small businesses have real opportunities to build personal relationships with their customers. One of the advantages of the Internet is that it allows you to build these relationships with customers who may live half a world away through phone calls, emails, and online chat. Women comprise half the general population and 66% of them go online to shop and do research.

That’s a market no web business, large or small, can afford to ignore.

Christine Churchill is President of KeyRelevance.com, a full service search engine marketing firm. The Small Is Beautiful column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land.