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Battle of the marketing sexes


No matter how much we hate to hear it, the scientific jury is in: The brains of men and women are different. They differ in size, structure and composition, and they function differently, as well. If that's the case, it's not so sexist to examine whether there might be certain things that one sex might be better at. Math, for example. Or marketing.

Before you go crazy on me, let's get a few things straight: First, nothing you're about to read applies to all women or all men. Scientists acknowledge that the range of individual differences is huge, and anyone might fall anywhere on the spectrum. Second, scientists use language like "tends to," indicates" and "seems to" in order to make clear that their studies almost never give an absolute answer. Moreover, the results of even a study of a large number subjects may not apply to people in general. I will pepper this article with "seems to's;" if I omit one, it's to streamline the language, not because I think it's an absolute.

This is your brain on marketing
Women's brains tend to have more gray matter, composed of nerve cell bodies, while men's brains, in addition to being bigger and heavier, tend to have more white matter, consisting of long nerve fibers that transmit impulses. This difference seems to be the basis of women's better verbal skills, and men's superior spatial abilities.

However, one area of women's brains has more white matter: the corpus callosum, a band of nerves connecting the two hemispheres. Some researchers think this might make it easier for them to integrate different modes of perception and thinking, as well as to providing better access to the non-verbal, intuitive right hemisphere. 

Being able to call on the unconscious may be especially important for marketers: It seems that there's a treasure trove of valuable data locked in the non-verbal right brain, a data store that can be used to make the right decisions. Psychologists from Northwestern University found that what people think of as lucky guesses may actually be based on unconscious knowledge.

Ken Paller, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and one of the study's authors, thinks that the choice from an array of consumer products may be driven by memories at the unconscious level. And so might the decisions of the marketer tasked with provoking the choice.

A creative edge?
Aimee Evans is director of marketing for Again Mobile, a mobile advertising, marketing and application development company. She's also a mother of three. After saying she doesn't believe either sex has an advantage when it comes to marketing, she mentions that women do seem to be attracted to it. Why?

"Because we're so creative and industrious," she explains. "We can see more shades of gray. Our creative skills are well suited to that career path."

There's something else. "Women -- particularly working mothers -- are particularly good at multitasking. We can handle a lot of different things at once. When it comes to online marketing, with all the channels and campaigns that go on at once, multitasking is an essential skill," Evans says.

Science shows Evans may be right. Psychologists Kelly Lambert and Craig Kinsley showed that being pregnant and giving birth remodeled the brains of female rats. Their memories improved, they got better at finding food, and they got stressed out less easily. These changes help a mother feed and protect her offspring; they also help when you're marketing.

As Evans says, "Between getting three kids ready for school, getting them dressed and fed, and then dropping them off at two different locations, by the time I get to work, there is nothing they can throw at me that's harder than what I've already done. I'm ready, I can take it on."

Wired to connect
"We're hardwired differently," says Joy Nordenstrom, CEO of Joy of Romance. Nordenstrom, an experienced marketer, also wears this hat for her startup, which uses neuroscience as the foundation for romance coaching and romantic party-planning. "In stressful situations where we need to get something done, men have a tendency to go into fight-or-flight. Women tend and befriend."

Nordenstrom is talking about UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor's theory that women evolved to depend on social connections for the survival of their children. When danger threatened, men would go out to fight, while women stayed to tend their children. The "befriend" part of the theory states that a woman who had more and deeper social connections could draw on them to help rear her children if she were injured or killed. Brain scans by the University of Pennsylvania confirmed this hypothesis, showing different patterns of activation when men and women were stressed.

Women are also better at empathy, Nordenstrom adds, which can provide an advantage when developing ad campaigns that resonate with a target market. "It's much easier for us to step into someone else's shoes."

Highly social media
In this environment of social marketing, it seems that women might have an even bigger advantage. "It isn't a stereotype or a generalization: Research backs up that women are the social connectors and the social conduits in their families," says Laura Triplet, head of the entertainment studies concentration at Cal State University, Fullerton. "It makes sense that we would be predisposed to be better communicators in any situation."

In fact, women are heavier users of social media than men are, by a small percentage. According to Hitwise, the gender breakdown for all social media is more than 51 percent women, compared to approximately 48 percent men. Those numbers are consistent for the largest social media sites -- even YouTube, which received slightly more visits from women than from men. MySpace has the biggest gender gap, Hitwise says, with 58.63 percent women and 45.24 percent men.

Quantcast shows similar splits for blogging sites, with Typepad.com, Blogger.com and Wordpress.com all skewing a few points toward the feminine side.

Nordenstrom believes that women are more careful about adding value to participatory media; there's less chest-thumping. She says women consider, "Is this Twitter update relevant to other people? Does this comment give people good insight? If it's a brand, is it adding value?"

Tara Greco, director of marketing for How2Heroes, identifies another strong point for women in social media: being genuine and personal. How2Heroes is an online video destination where professional and amateur foodies gather. "We get excited about new recipes on the site," Greco says, "but we also love the back story. What are the cooks' inspirations?"

The site skews heavily female, as does the company's staff. In that respect, Greco believes she has an additional advantage. "When you are the target, when you live and breathe it, you have a slight edge over someone else." Certainly this doesn't mean that women should stick to marketing women-oriented products while men handle the marketing for guy stuff, she's quick to add. "A good marketer is a good marketer, gender aside."

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Your social life, laid bare
But there's a counter-argument to the idea that highly social women are therefore better at social media. Although men and women use the internet about equally, getting online used to be really hard. Men who dealt in the old hard logic of programming had an easier time of debugging the pre-WWW internet. And, in today's world, if they don't have an advantage when it comes to interactive media, at least it's allowed them to catch up.

Social media make connections explicit and quantifiable -- things men love. While women may excel at understanding the subtleties of real-world social networks, online, it's all laid out for you. You know exactly how many connections you have. Blogging may have been the first interactive medium to lay bare one's social connections, even as it allowed us more ways to find each other and connect.

Remember how obsessed the first (mostly male) bloggers were with their trackbacks and links? How jealously they eyed each other's blogrolls? How gleefully they monitored their rising Technorati rankings? It's not an accident that they often call one blogger linking to another's story giving some "link love." And remember "A-list bloggers?" Blogging let people not only quantify their traffic but also understand their social position in their niche and in the wider world of online content. These days, we can also see how we stack up in terms of friends and followers.

The concept of the social graph is another example of how online media can clarify confusing human relationships. The idea of the social graph is to combine information from all the social networking and media tools an individual might use to form a complete model of his connections. The appeal for marketers is that accessing someone's social graph will make it easier to understand the person and his place in the universe of users.

But it's just as appealing for those of us without an innate social sense. In real life, we may be confused about where we stand at work or whether someone is a friend. In social media, it's as plain as day. Who needs intuition?

Triplett of U.C. Riverside thinks that women's sociability actually can be a detriment online.

"Research has shown that [women's communication style] is backfiring in computer-mediated communication," she says.

Yes, science says that women have an edge in face-to-face situations, because they tend to be better than men at processing information holistically. During a conversation, they're not only listening to the meaning of the words, they're taking in a flood of physical and social clues: facial expressions, tone of voice, the ebb and flow of eye contact. Their brains are madly playing your words against the clothes you're wearing to determine whether a statement is ironic or dead serious, for example. Probably unconsciously, a woman notices your smell, estimates how tired you are, and adds that into the equation. What happens when the computer strips all that away?

"There's a reversal when it comes to any sort of social networking or media," Triplett says. "All the qualities that make women so successful in most media work against them online." For example, women often seem to provide too many details when they're interacting online. Stripped of so many of those physical cues, the bare words seem like too much information.

On the other hand, according to Triplett, the same things that drive women mad about men actually aid men online. For example, their greater reluctance to express themselves serves them well. "Men never cross that line of saying too much," she says. "They see it's going to get them into a sticky situation."

This difference could be related to the divergence in parental roles that evolved to improve the likelihood that children would survive long enough to pass on the parents' genes -- and the resulting differences in brain chemistry. Women's brains are more susceptible to oxytocin, a neurochemical that causes us to bond. A baby in prehistoric times couldn't survive without his mother to nurse him, so the father took a more actively protective role, standing his ground and fighting off attackers. His brain is less susceptible to oxytocin; his bond is influenced by vasopressin, the brain chemical that induces protective behavior.

Max your mojo
No matter where we fall on the spectrum between misanthropy and connectedness, we don't need to accept some inalterable biological destiny. As marketers, we can use the explicit information provided by social graphing tools to be better marketers.

We can also honor our strengths and accept our failings. Maybe this is a good time to learn to collaborate. Nordenstrom from Joy of Romance suggests building marketing teams of individuals with complementary skills.

As we continue to learn more about the biological differences between men and women we can stop failing to be alike as we fight about our differences. She says, "We don't have to think we can do everything all the time. We can draw on other people's assets -- and it won't be such a big struggle to get things done."

More reading for you science geeks

Susan Kuchinskas wrote The Chemistry of Connection: How the oxytocin response can help you find trust, intimacy and love. She has written for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com.

Susan Kuchinskas has covered internet technology since the mid 1990s, when e-commerce was kind of a wacky idea. As a senior writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com, she's watched the interactive advertising grow from a tiny...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Aileen Pincus

2009, April 02

Not so fast----I'm afraid you're connecting dots that just aren't there. And quoting other marketers who agree with you doesn't make it so. Your conclusions about this research, and what this research means for marketers--has little to do with science. To my reading, it doesn't even have much to do with logic. What the research actually shows as the researchers THEMSELVES were careful to say i(but as you quickly dismissed) is that the differences between individuals far outweighs any differences between genders. That's right. Far outweighs. As in not even close. That means as desperately as so many of us may want to believe in "hard-wiring" and easy answers, we really are individuals. (and where would marketing be without the belief we can ignore that one)-- So by all means, base your campaigns on assumptions about how the majority of women or the majority of men will react to any given campaign.if you can't figure out a more sophisticated way of reaching your audience --but at least do so with your eyes open. Marketing is not a science or this would be the slam dunk you seem to think it is . These are guesses. Educated, focus-grouped, ad-dollar experienced guesses, but guesses. Science, Susan, is a very different thing.

Commenter: Tom Kasperski

2009, April 02

Excellent article and nicely referenced - you actually made me laugh a couple times. I think you're onto something here. Women definately have an innate social sense, and ultimately it should translate into how women use social media. I wouldn't be surprised if women didn't have better sensibilities in how to leverage social media for marketing purposes. Good stuff Susan.

Commenter: Mark Palony

2009, April 02

Wonderful article and I agree with everything. I have to add that the premise would not be accepted as readily if it were written by a man. Recall Larry Summers getting bounced from Harvard for pondering if biological differences were at the the root of imbalance between men and women who work in math and science. We all exeprience, everyday, the difference between the sexes. But we cringe when someone suggests those differences might be hardwired. We would all be a lot better off if we would just believe our own eyes.

Commenter: Mary Dean

2009, April 02

Susan, this is really great info. One of the most interesting findings in this field is that women store memories as emotions. In my experience, a lot of otherwise savvy marketers misconstrue this info and assume they need to make every touch point with a female consumer "emotional" which they then further misconstrue as sappy. What it really means is that you should pay attention to how your website, or store or commercial makes them feel when they see it. In the case of websites, our research shows they want a site that feels organized and calming. I often suggest that our Clients read the book, The Female Brain, by Dr. Louann Brizendine. It's and easy and informative read.