What’s the Big “O” in Social Media for Women

According to the 2009 Women and Social Media Study conducted by BlogHer, iVillage and Compass Partners, 79 million women are actively using social media, and 49 million U.S. women are engaging in online social media such as blogging, reading blogs, commenting on blogs, and participating in message boards and forums as well as providing status updates on Twitter, etc. Today, women make up the majority of users on most social media sites.

As the social media landscape continues to evolve, this is just further proof that women are not only latching on to social media as an important part of their overall strategy, but applying the new tools to their everyday business and personal practices.

In a recent article on Mashable, Jessica Faye Carter writes: “Women have firmly established their presence on the social web, and account for the majority of users on many popular social media sites. But what does this mean for the future of women in social media? One word: Opportunity.”

Women: entrepreneurs, marketers, speakers, mothers, etc. can seize new opportunities using these abundant social tools to build thought leadership, share content, connect and engage to further their agenda and enhance business and personal brand. The question remains, while 79 million of women are using social media, how many of them are taking the right approach, creating that distinct voice in the online community and impacting change?

While social media presents great opportunities for women to connect, lead, effect change, innovate, and build strong relationships across different communities and target groups, there are important fundamental elements that are essential to succeeding in social media. To get greater insight, I reached out to Charlene Li, foremost expert on social media and technologies and consultant on leadership, strategy, social technologies, interactive media and marketing. Charlene is the founder of Altimeter Group and coauthor of the critically acclaimed bestselling book Groundswell. I had the distinct pleasure of working with her on this blog Q&A to learn about how best to approach social media both personally and professionally while expanding influence to build a personal brand. I asked Charlene about how women fare in social media when it comes to influence, how they can build a stronger presence, what key fundamental elements they need and why? Also, she lists her top 10 pick for the most influential social media voices in the community.   

While women may represent the majority of users on social media sites, some of the top influencers in social media are men such as Chris Brogan, Jeremiah Owyang (partner at Altimeter), David Scott Meerman, etc. Do you think women are on par with men when it comes to driving social media and innovation?  

I don’t think we are— yet. We definitely have the capability and the skill, but thought leadership also requires getting out there and exerting your influence, especially from a business perspective. And that’s tough for many people, regardless of gender, because it’s more than social media — it’s also about sticking your neck out and oftentimes, getting burned. But with the right support and encouragement, I think we can not only be on par, but pull ahead. 

In the age of “She-conomy,” how are women doing when it comes to social media and social networking? Do you see a gap? 

In general, women are on par if not ahead in the adoption of social media, and especially social networking. There really isn’t much of a gap at all in terms of adoption and usage.  

Today, it’s about building your personal brand and thought leadership to build influence and effect change. What is your recommendation for women who are looking to build expertise in the industry?  

I believe curiosity, guts and most importantly, common sense and humility are all essential to know that you *aren’t* an expert. Curiosity is needed because there is always something new to learn — and you need to ask really good questions. You need guts because you need to make bets on which strategies and technologies your clients/audience should pursue, and which to ignore. And finally, if you don’t keep your ego in check, there are thousands of people standing in line to pop your bubble! 

There is a lot of debate in the business world around who should own social media within an organization. Who do you think should own it? Is it marketing, PR or some other department/individual?  

You can’t really “own” social media. It’s more an issue of “owning” the relationship at a particular point in time. So, who owns the customer relationship? In well-run companies, it’s every single employee. So I believe that every employee should feel empowered to own social media, to be able to talk directly with customers if and when it is appropriate.  

Oftentimes social media tends to be a standalone function within an organization? Is it best to centralize the social media efforts?

It’s good to centralize coordination, but the sooner you can make it the responsibility of every department and person, the more widespread and effective your social media efforts will be. Social media can be highly labor intensive because you want to present a more personal side of the company to your customers. To do that, you need to enlist the help of every employee. 

Many organizations use social media as an internal tool to communicate and connect with their employees. Do you think this is necessary and why?

Internal social media is basically external social media with excellent permission controls layered on top of it. It’s crucial because your employees are the front line in interactions with your customers. It makes natural sense to also engage them deeply.  

Integrating social media into marketing and PR functions can oftentimes prove to be a challenging task. What is your recommendation for integrating that into the fold?

What, they aren’t integrated already? For shame! Seriously, though, the best way to integrate is to do it from the customer’s perspective. What kind of relationship do they want with you, and how do you want to grow and develop that relationship?  

What advice do you have for women who are starting or are in social media already?

It’s the same advice for a man or woman — grow and invest in your network. But for women, it’s especially important because that is how you will build your skills and your business fastest. 

When it comes to social media, authenticity is a major factor when communicating, connecting and engaging online. I see a lot of social competitiveness and lack of authenticity? What is the most important thing to remember when it comes to managing social media — i.e., authenticity — and why?

Actually, it’s a little contrarian. The most important thing to remember is that you really *can’t* be completely open. You can’t be truly transparent all time. You will always hold something back, which is smart. But you *can* be authentic and always should be. On the point of letting go, if you really think about what you need to hold back to be true to yourself, and to protect your interests, it’s really not all that much. I’ve found throughout my career that each time I give up more than I thought I should, it comes back in spades. The competitiveness comes when people think of themselves rather than the clients/audiences they are trying to serve. So keep your focus external, because if it’s about them and not me, I’ll be more inclined to be work with competitors. 

Do you have a top 10 list of women in social media who are doing it right?

Only 10?!?

Beth Kanter (www.twitter.com/kanter)

Laura Fitton (www.twitter.com/pistachio)

Lisa Stone, Elisa Camahort, Jory Desjardin (BlogHer) (www.twitter.com/blogher)

Tara Hunt (www.twitter.com/missrogue)

Sarah Lacy (www.twitter.com/sarahcuda)

Kami Huyse (www.twitter.com/kamichat

Danah Boyd (www.twitter.com/zephoria)

Sandy Carter (www.twitter.com/sandy_carter)

Debbie Weil (www.twitter.com/debbieweil)

Ann Handley (www.twitter.com/MarketingProfs)

Who is your favorite? Add to this list.

About Charlene Li

Charlene Li is the founder of Altimeter Group and coauthor of the critically acclaimed bestselling book Groundswell. She is one of the foremost experts on social media and technologies and a consultant on leadership, strategy, social technologies, interactive media and marketing. She is currently working on her next book, “Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform How You Lead” to be published in May 2010 by Jossey-Bass. She is also launching open-leadership.com, which will go live in May.

Charlene was named one of the 12 most creative minds of 2008 by Fast Company, and one of the most influential women in technology in 2009. She frequently consults and speaks on disruptive technologies and publishes a blog at blog.altimetergroup.com.

Charlene is a frequently quoted expert and has appeared on 60 Minutes, The McNeil NewsHour, ABC News, CNN and CNBC. She is also frequently quoted by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Economist, Businessweek, USAToday, Reuters and The Associated Press. She is a much-sought after public speaker and will be appearing at the World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall in October 2010. She has also presented frequently at top conferences such the American Society of Association Executives, SXSW, Web 2.0 Expo and Search Engine Strategies.

Previously, Charlene was a Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research. She joined Forrester in 1999, after spending five years in online and newspaper publishing with the San Jose Mercury News and Community Newspaper Company. She was also a consultant with Monitor Group in Boston and Amsterdam.

Charlene is a graduate of Harvard Business School and received a magna cum laude degree from Harvard College.



  1. Glad to see the issue of few women in social media thought leadership addressed. Most of the conferences I attend have male speakers, but I know that there are plenty of female experts out there.

    • Linda,
      This issue has been on my mind for quite some time. While the number of women using social networking sites is astounding, there is a lot to be done to get the profiles of women elevated. I see a lot of concerted effort by women to make this happen and I think that is a great first step but more importantly, we need to bridge that gap and work to help each other out and raise as much awareness on how to achieve success. I think what Charlene said is spot on – women need to step up more and share their expertise but also for women who are covering this area – we need to work together to educate on best practices and help more women take their voices out to the community. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Thrilled to be on the list – my twitter handle is http://www.twitter.com/kanter

    • Beth,
      Thank you for your comment and I have corrected your Twitter handle. I hope you enjoyed the article and congrats on being named on the top 10 list. Keep up the great work.

  3. Toby Bloomberg…she’s just intuitively social media and sees how consumer behavior will be affected by it, as well as how we communicate with one another. Yet, she’s not blind-sided by it at all, and would be the first to say that social media belongs within an entire company’s culture..not just a marketing strategy. @tobydiva

    • Kelley,
      Thank you for the suggestion. I checked out @tobydiva Twitter profile and blog. Love what she is doing. She’s got some interesting content on there, as well as interesting interviews with not your usual social media suspects. I love that. It’s about helping to reach a new of understanding around social media – there are a ton of people out there who are in the trenches with some very deep war stories. Our mission as bloggers and social media folks to uncover those stories and share them. Thank you. What is your Twitter handle?

  4. Three women immediately come to mind that deserve to be included on this great list. Robin Carey – CEO and Founder of Social Media Today (http://socialmediatoday.com), and Anita Campbell – Publisher of Small Business Trends (http://smallbiztrends.com), and Angela Benton – CEO of BlackWeb 2.0 (http://blackweb20.com).

    All three are doing great things in this area. Thanks for the very interesting post.

    Brent Leary

    • Thank you Brent,
      I’m doing a follow up blog post and will certainly look them up. Robin Carey is definitely a person to watch. If you are on Twitter, let’s connect so I can update you on my future blog post of women in social media. I’m @CindyKimPR.

  5. @kelley & @cindy – appreciate your very kind words. for me, social media is the ultimate in building and nurturing relationships; that crosses all business areas and impacts all customers touch points.
    thanks for the great post cindy!

    • Thanks Toby. Glad you liked the post. Customer word of mouth is probably the most powerful marketing tool that’s out there and helps to validate from a third party standpoint on why your brand is superior. Leveraging your customers in the right way can reap some great benefits. Thanks for the comment.

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