Early in the life of the Internet, iVillage and Women.com emerged as two leading places for females to meet, then followed by niche sites like Urban Mommy and Chattygirl.
But many sites aimed at men, such as TheMan.com, never took off and shut down. One site, though, has become a leader: Ask Men.
Launched in 1999 by three graduates of Concordia Business School in Montreal, Ask Men (www.askmen.com) employs a mix of dating, fitness, and fashion advice blended with celebrity updates to attract men. It was acquired by IGN and then sold to News Corporation for $650 million in September 2005. According to ComScore, which tracks Internet sites, it attracted 10.1 million unique visitors in February 2010.
Editor-in-chief James Bassil says Ask Men has developed its audience by offering frank and sincere advice. He says men gravitate to it "to improve themselves and take steps to become a better man and make changes in their life. We take men seriously and don't treat them as frat boys or in a sophomoric way."
Bassil describes the prototypical Ask Men users as guys in their late twenties who are going through a transitional stage in their life and grappling with changes in career and relationships. "The typical reader has been through a series of dating encounters," he explains, "and wants to settle down and find a mate. At the same time, he's advancing his career. Ask Men provides specific tips to help them navigate these changes."
The site's readers are 52 percent married and 48 percent single. Until recently, most articles focused on single men. But Bassil says his readers are getting older and marrying, and "now we're playing catch up. Expect more articles on married men in the future."
Each article offers what Bassil terms "a takeaway." The reader learns something specific about dating or fashion that he hadn't known before. Bassil finds most articles on the Internet are snarky, negative, and cynical but Ask Men's articles are positive and constructive.
"Guys don't feel comfortable talking about break-up disasters. They're reluctant to show weakness," Bassil says. Ask Men steps in and fills in the gaps. "We're like an older brother or uncle," he says.
Stories such as "10 Simple Ways to Impress a Woman" are reminiscent of Cosmopolitan magazine's past articles like "10 Best Ways to Catch a Man."
Recent entertainment news provided updates on Courtney Love, Drew Barrymore, and the three Jennifer's-Love Hewitt, Lopez and Aniston. How-to articles included a better way to shave, the best lawn mowers to buy in spring, how watching porn can get a guy in the mood for love, and staying healthy on a Muslim diet.
Humor is an ingredient in many articles. In "Top 10 Things Not to Eat on a First Date," writer Chris Illuminati says on a first date "women are taking notice of everything-especially what a man eats and how he eats it." Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he advises against bringing your date for a Big Mac because no woman wants to start a relationship at McDonald's. He also recommends not ordering vanilla ice-cream for dessert or she'll think you're boring, and suggests ordering the catch of the day but never fish sticks--also boring.
Ask Men's rankings of 99 Most Desirable Women and Top 49 Men have generated publicity and buzz and have done for the site what the best colleges did for U.S. News and World Report. Bassil says women are selected not necessarily by looks but as potential wives or girlfriends by its readers.
Bassil has no illusions about the intellectual depth of most articles, which tend to be light and conversational. Ask Men won't be confused with New Yorker or Atlantic. "Our Top 10 lists are easy to digest, as are the pictures of pretty woman. You can surf the site quickly but also learn about how to make changes in your wardrobe, relationship or career," he says.
Edited in Montreal, Ask Men is a global site that offers country variations. Hence, there's a Canadian, American, Australian, and British version of Ask Men, though some of the content overlaps. The Canadian and American sites often carry the same articles because the cultures are similar.
Users don't just read articles--they engage with each other. Message boards on the site trigger a million page views a month, so Ask Men has formed a community of guys who talk to each other and respond to articles.
A select group of women also visit the site to see what their boyfriend or husband might be thinking about. Some females compliment articles, while others accuse the site of degrading women. Men sometimes chastise them and say, "You don't belong here. This is a site for men."
Owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, Ask Men runs independently with little interference from its parent company. Harper Collins, part of News Corporation, has published several Ask Men books including From the Bar to the Bedroom, about how to meet and date women, and The Guy's Guide to Romance.
To keep pace with its users, Ask Men is hooking up with Foursquare (http://foursquare.com), the rapidly growing web and mobile application that enables its members to connect with friends and update their location. Foursquare users can access Ask Men reviews on their mobile phones and tap its restaurant and club recommendations.
Competition is heating up--GQ (www.gq.com) and Esquire (www.esquire.com) have strengthened their online presence. But Ask Men's mix of advice, humor, and tips has captured the allegiance of many men and looks as if it's here to stay.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.