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Breaking through virtual ceilings

The digital game is like a long-distance race, says Woolworths Online's Nikki Cockcroft – you need preparation, training, support and stamina to win.

The public face of IT has always been overwhelmingly male, from Silicon Valley legends like Bill Gates, to cult figures like Steve Jobs and new upstarts like Mark Zuckerberg.

But on the ground, a silent revolution is taking place, with women taking the lead in everything from gadgets to social gaming. A study of consumers conducted in late 2011 asked 2 000 women and men aged 18 and older about the products they intended to buy before January this year. Women were more likely than men to buy laptops, tablets and smartphones – three out of the four top consumer electronics categories – with men only surpassing women in the flat-screen LCD TV category.

The study also found that women engage in more digital media activities, including watching movies online, downloading music and uploading pictures to the Internet, than their male counterparts. Recent studies by Comscore, Nielsen, and the Pew Internet Research Centre all show women are powering the social Web, as they make up the majority of social networking site users and spend 30% more time on these sites than men.

But women's dominance in the purchasing and use of digital media is not necessarily reflected in their presence at leadership level in IT companies. Women make up less than 10% of California tech company boards and 9.1% of Silicon Valley boards, according to a 2011 study by the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

This is an issue for companies not only from an equity point of view, but from a business one as well. As venture firm partner Aileen Lee writes: “Women are the power users of many products and it's just smart business to have an understanding of key customers around the table. Could you imagine a game company without any gamers on the leadership team or board?”

Say it like it is

Social media is making me a 'you say it, and I'll get it sorted out regardless' type of girl.

Here in SA, much emphasis has been placed on creating equal opportunities for women across industries. But do women find it easier to advance in the local digital media space – and should it matter? Melissa Attree, founder of GetOn eMarketing, doesn't think so.

“I've never encountered any problems due to my being a woman, or used it to get business. We just need more good people, not necessarily more good women.”

She adds, however, that she has noticed a shift from what was once seen as something of a 'boys club', when the digital media industry in SA was fairly small.

“Traditionally – and I don't want to gender stereotype – women have been better at public relations than men, and what's happening is that PR, customer service and so on are all advancing into the digital space.”

A lot of women doing great things in digital are working behind the scenes, says GetOn's Melissa Attree.

The transition of these disciplines onto digital platforms could mean women are more represented in the industry, although Andrea Mitchell, founder of digital marketing company DigiVox, points to its variety as a key feature: “This space is very diverse and attracts a range of different personalities. There's creative work, admin, coding, all of which require different skills and attract members from both genders.”

Tanja Lategan, CEO of Primedia Online's 365 Digital division, says it was while working in the UK that she became aware of the many empowered women in the digital industry, versus more traditional sectors like banking. “It got me excited about the opportunities available for young, dynamic, creative females – opportunities which are also present here, although we're a couple of steps behind the UK.”

Lategan says it's often difficult to change mindsets in older, conventionally male-dominated industries that have been around for decades. “It takes time to change those sectors and digital has a special advantage in that it wasn't around until a few years ago – it's a very different medium that appeals to a new generation with different norms and structures.”

She argues that the digital industry allows for far more flexibility and experimentation because of its relative infancy. “You've got a generation of people coming in that are the first to be using these channels on a day-to-day basis, so the space is full of new ideas. They may be younger but they understand things better – there's an opportunity to progress further and faster.”

Nikki Cockcroft, head of online at Woolworths, agrees: “Unlike other professions this space is about technology, innovation, speed and agility to move in a completely different direction at any given point. This makes it less about learning the trade from previous generations and more about being dynamic, quick to learn and operationally strong enough to implement, all while educating along the way.

While it's difficult to change older industries, the digital world offers great opportunities due to its youth, says Tanja Lategan from 365 Digital.

“Sadly gender always plays a role, but personally I don't let it get in the way and simply don't tolerate it.”

Everybody's doing it

They all agree that while there's been huge growth in the appetite for digital, a lot has to be done in terms of educating companies on how to use new media tools effectively.

“There are still a lot of brands which shouldn't be on Twitter, or which just rushed onto Facebook without considering whether it meets their marketing objectives,” says Attree. “They need to understand it as a whole other channel and look at it from a strategic point of view.”

Mitchell agrees: “Companies must know why they are going into something in the first place. There's nothing more frustrating than someone coming to you and saying: 'We need to be online. How much is it going to cost?'”

Cockcroft advises starting by understanding the need – whether it's an existing customer requirement or created need – and then examining investment issues, preparing the strategy, scoping the project and mapping out the structure.

No preference

We just need more good people, not necessarily more good women.

“Creating the appropriate organisational structure is arguably the greatest challenge facing companies entering the digital space. Invest in a strong leader and employ knowledgeable people that can implement your strategy using the chosen platforms.”

If the above makes the space seem daunting, Mitchell notes that digital has also made it possible to collect and analyse far more marketing data, and that number-crunching pays off in terms of planning and response.

“You can test things and see if they work and if they don't you can stop. That's the beauty of digital – because of all the measuring you can easily see how initiatives are performing and be innovative.”

As a runner, Cockcroft compares the world of digital to an ultra-distance running race: “Brands must prepare, they must have the right skills mix, the right strategy and a vision of the end line.

“Secondly, you must train. You can't rock up and expect to finish the race if you haven't trained. It's the same in digital; you have to keep training as in reading, learning, sharing to play in the game, if you miss one day you are behind.

“And finally it's about winning, to win in the long run you have to have stamina and be brave, just as you need to be in digital.”

From customer to community

Social media isn't about chasing sales, says Digivox's Andrea Mitchell, it's about building relationships.

Social media has provided a whole rash of new platforms on which consumers can air their views, leaving many brands dazed and confused – or just plain petrified.

“Social media is changing the game; it's created a platform with a louder and faster 'voice' that is making all players stand like meerkats and pay attention. If one doesn't, your reader, customer, and friends will be having one-sided conversations,” says Cockcroft, who has had to learn first-hand about dealing with customer conversations after moving to Woolworths.

“In seven months I have learnt some pretty hard lessons: 1. People say things they would never normally say using their social-pseudo self as the gateway – it makes the comments harsher. 2. It's no small challenge – social media means customers can say what they want, when they want to, and if we don't step in the conversation runs out of control. It not only means faster response, it also means faster decision-making. 3. It's not a one-man job.” Social media teams need leaders to help respond in times of crisis and support from existing customer service teams, she explains.

 “Your customers are becoming like a community and you have to take them more seriously,” notes Lategan. She adds that social media has changed companies' approach from 'pushing' messages to a much more engaging environment.

Mitchell notes that listening can often be more important than constantly trying to say something. “Some see social media as a vehicle for sales but what it's really about is building relationships. Be interactive, ask people to tell their story.”

But Cockcroft stresses that brands can't stop there.

“It's not just about engagement and response; it's the next step that is most important: react. It's real-time, so give a real-time response and react based on insight, research and feedback coming through the social media channels.”

She also learned the validity of the old adage that the customer is always right. “I have always been a 'say it like it is' kind of girl, but social media is making me a 'you say it, and I'll get it sorted out regardless' type of girl.”

Whatever type of girl you are, it's evident the digital media industry is wide open if you are driven, passionate, and savvy enough. As Attree says, the local digital space is full of “smart women doing great things”, although she adds that many don't put themselves in the spotlight, or receive prominent coverage.

The silent revolution continues, it seems, and perhaps there's nothing wrong with that; women are turning the cogs and getting things done right at the digital coalface, without fuss or favour, notes Attree. “A lot of women are doing great things behind the scenes, and more and more, people will come to realise that.”


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