How to Talk to Women (Through Marketing)
April 4, 2018
But you know all that. That’s not why you’re here. You’re here because you want to know how to talk to women. You clicked or tapped or search-engined your way here because you want to know what one woman in marketing has to say about marketing to women. Perhaps you’re looking for a sharp, pithy, of-the-moment conversation, or a simple solution to the problem of reaching roughly half the population—the half that, incidentally, holds so much more than half of the power to make or break a brand, product, or the reputation of either.
You want an insider’s perspective? Here it is: Stop acting like you know us.
Now, before you take that to mean you should make no effort to connect, allow me to explain. As a woman, I speak with some authority about a major messaging barrier that I’ve seen a lot of brands try (and often fail) to overcome. That is, when the effort to be authentic ends up looking more like an effort than anything real and true. Audience fragmentation is an undeniable fact, and it’s had an effect on well-meaning marketing efforts since the dawn of the internet—and has been exacerbated by the ubiquity of social media. Brand voice is being shouted down by consumer voice in most categories. How your brand expresses itself is somewhat less important than how you engage with the people who support (or despise) your brand. So, how do you engage?
A woman’s experience with a brand, whether it’s physical or digital, can echo through your target audience far and beyond a singular touchpoint.
Comparing men and women at an emotional level, we find that women are better than men, on average, at caring about a brand. A woman is more likely than a man to remember what an ad was advertising, which companies have had their reputations sullied by some public relations snafu or other, and which brands found a way to speak to her with an honest point of view and genuine care for her wants and needs. Our memories are long and our opinions are unforgiving, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to reimagine how you market your products and services to a demographic that’s becoming more varied, more discerning, and stronger by the day.
Building a Bridge Over the Uncanny Valley
There’s a theory in aesthetics about the sense of eeriness and unease we feel when something tries to look realistic and fails. This theory has been tested and supported by studying how our brains respond to the sight of a humanoid robot (think C-3PO), the same robot wrapped in synthetic human features (skin, hair, eyes, the works), and the actual flesh-and-blood human whose likeness served as the inspiration for the original robot. The Uncanny Valley theory refers to the dip (or “valley”) that appears when these reactions of “uncanny” feelings are plotted on a graph.
Humans are more likely to feel revulsion when they see the strangely-familiar-but-still-not-quite-right second robot, because we are naturally inclined to seek affinity with something we can relate to. An almost-human android is just far enough off the mark to put us off, and almost-human marketing can have the same effect. We see this happen when the convenience of bots bites big brands in the backside, when the tone of content feels flat-out forced or inauthentic, or when product developers make the shockingly common mistake of “pinking and shrinking” items that have no right to be gender-specific (often to hilarious effect in the realm of online product reviews).
The truth is, there’s really no reason to push your products, services, or overall brand experience right into women’s faces. We’ll see through it, and you’ll alienate men (and anyone who doesn’t identify as a woman) in the process. But understanding the way a lot of women think—and the way they act on those thoughts—can help you take huge strides toward making your brand more human, more empathetic, and more likely to become someone’s new favorite thing. Do the research as you would for any demographic, but don’t overthink it or make any assumptions about “what women want.” A nuanced approach will always be more effective commercially.
So, what does a truly nuanced approach look like? Of course, every brand will need to define it for themselves based on their specific target audiences, but here are a few things we know for certain about what works (and what falls short) when marketing to women.
The “Female Market” is Not Actually a Thing (Strictly Speaking)
Just as men, or Americans, or any sketchily defined groups of people dislike being seen as 100 percent homogeneous, women dislike having assumptions made about their similarities. Not all women adore pink, drive a certain type of vehicle, or choose/wish to have children. Women have diverse interests and wildly different life experiences. Marital status is no longer something to be assumed, and gender roles between couples and within family units are being bent and blended and obliterated all the time.
Yes, women do still tend to be the financial decision-makers in households, and they happen to control the majority of wealth in general, but to assume that all purchasing decisions are made the same way and reach the same conclusions across the board is to fall victim to a classic, fatal assumption. Women are not all the same. And even if you were to make that assumption, as pointed out by Elaine Clark of Cheap Accounting, “For many products and services, gender doesn’t even come into it. You actually need to go deeper to find out what motivates your target market. Issues such as age, circumstances, and pocket are often far more important.”
But there are some behaviors common enough to women to be worth noting.
If You Bungle It, They Will Share
Women are community-centered creatures, harmony seekers, connoisseurs of the commiserative arts. If something bothers us, delights us, or moves us in some way, we are inclined to share that experience and opinion with people around us. And anymore, the best platforms for that kind of sharing are (you guessed it) the social media kind.
A woman is more likely than a man to remember which brands found a way to speak to her with an honest point of view and genuine care for her wants and needs.
There are several ways to encourage positive word-of-mouth recommendations, but we’re partial to a pretty simple one: Provide topnotch service. People flock to Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere to vent their frustrations about a company’s practices, products, or performance, and it’s best to be prepared to react to that when it happens. You’ll most likely be tagged, so finding out about those woes shouldn’t be the hard part. But tactfully, and authentically, replying to an irate customer can make a huge difference. If enough people are up in arms, a grander gesture might be the way to go. But empty words will get you nowhere with women (in marketing and in life).
On the plus side, women will also tout the positive attributes of your brand and products for all the world to hear. Most of the brilliant brands I’ve been introduced to for the first time have been brought to my attention by women, and female social media influencers have more sway than their male counterparts. So whether you’re actively enlisting influencers or just transforming customers into brand ambassadors by delivering praiseworthy goods and services, you can expect women to be the right people to share that love around.
Focus on Collaboration, Not Competition
Women are taught at a young age that competition is part and parcel of being female. Young girls are inundated with examples of grown women judging others harshly and tearing down the ones who seem to be enjoying more success than themselves. But it goes against what comes naturally to many of us: offering support, sharing the work, and celebrating each other’s successes.
Of late, women are speaking out about this unfortunate social standard and have made pleas for women to start building one another up. Since that’s what’s happening in the social and political spheres, it would behoove brands to sit up and take notice.
Negative campaigns, then, will not fly with most women. We believe that if you’re intent on disparaging someone (or something) by declaring how much better, more attractive, or more effective you (or your products) are, it’s probably due to insecurity, flat-out deceitfulness, or both. Whether you’re badmouthing a coworker’s attire or running ads that specifically call out your direct competitor’s shortcomings, the negative attention you’re most likely to draw will not be directed at your supposed target. It’ll be aimed at you.
Empty words will get you nowhere with women (in marketing and in life).
If you want to inspire a positive action (like social engagement or, better yet, conversion), give women a positive reason to consider your brand. Women are more likely to engage with a brand that stands for something and supports a cause, brands that are inspiring change for the better in their respective industries or championing individuals who are doing the same. Setting yourself apart by being socially involved, as counterintuitive as that sounds, can go a long way toward building affinity—that magical, mutual sense of shared values—between women and your brand.
Do Your Research, Because They Will
Women do their homework. They ask for directions. They’ll take to heart the opinions they gather from people they know and strangers they appeal to on the internet. They’re on the lookout for key differentiators of whatever it is they’re researching: after-care service, warranties, quality, longevity, social awareness/advocacy, innovation, you name it. When they find their way to your brand, they demand that the content they find will walk the line between informational and inspirational, and that you’ll be able to speak with some authority on your industry or what your brand adds to it.
Margarita Hakobyan of Inc. cites the terminology used in the sewing community as an example: “While older people prefer to call themselves ‘sewers,’ many younger hobbyists refer to themselves as sewists. If you’re writing a piece talking about sewers and targeting it toward millennial women, you may not get the reaction you want.” In other words, you need to know what you’re talking about, be it current affairs, the latest trends, or even the features and benefits of your product and what customers have to say about them. Stay up to date and engaged within your industry to avoid coming across ignorant or tone-deaf. If your consumers are more passionate and knowledgeable about what you do than you are, it’ll show.
Women do their homework. They as for directions. They’ll take to heart the opinions they gather from people they know and strangers they appeal to on the internet.
Hakobyan also suggests something called “un-marketing.” This is the practice of deprioritizing some traditional marketing methods (like catchy taglines, branded graphics, etc.) in favor of stripping your brand down to the bare essentials. By explaining who you are, what your products do, and what you stand for, you can get people talking about the core of your brand and not just a flashy exterior or funny ad (which, as we know, certainly have their place). With un-marketing, a woman looking up your brand will find everything she needs to know about you front and center, and have the satisfaction of knowing that what she sees is what she’ll get with you.
Drop the Act
A woman’s experience with a brand, whether it’s physical or digital, can echo through your target audience far beyond a singular touchpoint. Which is why it’s so important to stay true to your brand, listen to your audience, and make every interaction a positive one, so that when people are first introduced to your brand, even the secondhand information is favorable.
Engagement, participation, and sharing need to be built into your core marketing strategy. It’s that simple. A recent article in Scientific American about Facebook’s effects on our psychology explains something called the bandwagon effect. The gist of it is, the more we, as individuals, interact with each other within social media channels or in the context of product reviews, the wider our sphere of influence becomes.
By sharing opinions and establishing consensus, consumers are now “part of online communities that form around ideas, events, movements, stories and products—which can ultimately enhance [a] sense of belonging.” Humans are hardwired to seek out this sense of community; and women especially so.
So, once again: Stop acting like you know us. Actually get to know us on a fundamental level. We’re people. Our opinions are powerful. We value authenticity. And we’ll know it in an instant if your brand is anything but.