Are You Writing to a Female Audience?

Well, here’s something I am uniquely unqualified to write about. But the subject just keeps cropping up.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I had the pleasure of being a speaker at an event in Indianapolis put on by Bryant Heating & Cooling Systems for its dealers. It was a great and classy event, culminating in some terrific seats for the Indy 500.

One of the speakers who spoke before I did was Sharon Roberts of Selling To Women. She gave a great presentation. Remember, air-conditioning and heating engineers are probably not at the head of the pack when it comes to having gender-sensitive behavior beaten into their daily routines. (I know, that’s a terrible generalization but not entirely untrue.) Sharon reminded us of how easy it is to condescend to and insult women when you sell to them.

She offered some obvious but useful tips — like the fact that eye contact with a female is best practiced by keeping your eyes above her neck, not below it.

Less obvious are those little things guys might do when selling to a husband and wife together. At the end of a visit, the dealer might hand the husband a business card, pause, and then hand one to the wife, while saying something like, “You can have one, too.”

Pretty nice insult.

Sharon’s presentation wasn’t focused on the online experience, but it did strike a chord with me. A recent thread of discussion on the always-excellent I-Copywriting Discussion List (moderated by my good self) has focused specifically on the subject of gender issues when writing for the Web. The thread was started by Marcia Yudkin, who asked whether the word “makeover” in a book title would be perceived as being too “female.” Marcia received dozens of replies to her question, most of which she has posted on her site.

So here are a few questions for you: How much of your audience is composed of women? How many of your email or newsletter subscribers are female? How many of the people who actually make a purchase or complete some other kind of action at your site are female? If the number is significant, and it probably is, do you write your copy with this in mind?

There are some cut-and-dried cases in which you know that the majority of your readers are either male or female and then write accordingly. And, hopefully, sites that are visited mostly by women are also written mostly by women.

But there are also a lot of gray areas. Should a travel site be written with female buyers in mind? How about financial sites? Or sites that sell consumer electronics?

On one hand, my sense is that copywriting online is at such an early stage of development that it just isn’t ready for the nuances necessary to differentiate the gender of its visitors. It’s tough enough for writers to get it right at all, regardless of gender issues.

On the other hand, I know that view to be wrong. The Web is a very personal communication space, and its users are generally more sensitive to slights and insults than in the offline world. If there is anywhere that writers should write with a clear sense of the gender of their audience, it’s the Web.

Whatever the longer-term best practices for gender-sensitive writing styles, all of us should probably go through our sites and check for some of those less-subtle issues that Sharon Roberts warns about.

For instance, if you’re selling lawn equipment, you might want to avoid phrases like: “He’ll love the easy handling of our top-of-the-line lawn mower.”

Or if you publish a cooking newsletter, you should avoid comments like: “Here’s a cookbook that every mother will enjoy.”

At the end of the day, this isn’t just about being politically correct; it’s about making more sales. The better you connect with your audience, the more likely you are to secure the action you’re hoping for.

As always, I want to hear from you. If you know of great writing out there that is showing unusual sensitivity to gender issues online, please let me know.

Related reading