April 13, 2010
 

Our Valentine's Day Special, Baby!

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By Wendy McHale, Publisher

Hope you have a Happy Valentine's Day weekend!

While we toast the spirit of romance in the season, there is nothing as so powerful as the deep connection between a mother and her young baby. It's difficult for a greeting card to put it into words. The source that comes closest to expressing the 360-degree emotional center of a Mom's heart just might be BabyCenter.com

Valentine's Day comes once a year. After a woman gives birth to her child, there is a love between mother and baby that lasts a lifetime. There's also a responsibility. The baby takes center stage in the family household long after you've been swept off your feet with a box of chocolates.

Recently, as I've watched my 11-year old daughter develop her own sweet tooth for chocolate, it reminded me of when she was just a baby. I reminisced about that experience, which led me to the idea of checking in with Tina Sharkey, Chairman, of BabyCenter, LLC, publishers of babyCenter.com. It's the number one global interactive site for pregnancy and parenting at each stage of a child's life.

Since its launch in 1997, BabyCenter.com has become the Web's #1 interactive parenting network and has nurtured more than 100 million parents globally. It provides support to parents through their journey of parenthood with a blend of expert advice and user-created wisdom. BabyCenter.com's goal is increase the enjoyment of parenting by providing a full and balanced picture of raising a child, leaving the decision making to the parents.

As Chairman and Global President of BabyCenter, LLC Tina is responsible for the oversight of all BabyCenter operations. Long before she joined BabyCenter.com, for 20 years Ms. Sharkey was nurturing the growth of digital media from its embryonic stage. As co-founder of iVillage and then later the leader of all social initiatives for AOL, Tina was at the center of the social media revolution before there was one. She coined the term, "social media" 10 years before the net gave birth to Facebook, among other communities.

In short, Tina is one special baby, herself. You could say I was tickled pink when she found time on her busy schedule to chat with me!

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Wendy: How's it going?

Tina: It's going very well, thanks!

Wendy: Before we get into the specifics of BabyCenter, how did you get involved in the world of digital marketing?

Tina: I've always been interested in the inflexion point where new technology and new ways of doing things don't match or change consumer behavior. There are a lot of technologies that are really complex, but the tipping point is when it is simplified and really helps consumers live and manage their everyday lives and connect with other people. It feels like such a human, organic way of living in the world. That's something that I've always felt passionate about and loved working on at i-Village. We were the first player to connect moms and kids to learning, education and entertainment. That is what is so exciting about helping create platforms to facilitate online communities. BabyCenter is just an extension of that because it's really about helping moms get great advice and connecting them to a tribe that they have a strong affiliation with, which is the tribe of motherhood.

Wendy: Okay, speaking of tribes, marketers are trying to crack the code on how to effectively advertise on social media sites right now. Knowing what you do about social media, how do marketers talk to their customers without interrupting the conversation?

Tina: People often give me credit for inventing "social media". I didn't invent it. What I did was coin the word because I was always fascinated by the different forms of interactive media and how each served a different purpose. Advertising works differently on social networks than on informational or transactional sites.

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Wendy: How so?

Tina: Well when people are in a social space they are chatting, they are hanging out and they are influencing each other. For an advertiser to have a place in that environment they need to create relevant messages and provide useful information. It could be asking questions, taking polls, allowing consumers to comment, maybe to play with the creative and create their own mash-ups. I think that is what marketers need to understand, and the best marketers use different creative based on the environment that they are in.

Wendy: Since this is where so much of our collective energy is going these days I'm sure we'll all figure out how to crack the code on the ad model. I look forward to seeing how it evolves.

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Tina: I think that what we saw in the most recent presidential election was probably the most prolific and profound use of social media engagement and advertising. My step-brother and his son volunteered to go door- to- door on the day of the election to encourage people to get out and vote. Earlier last year as Tina and her husband were sitting on the couch watching the results and a text message came from Barack Obama saying, "I'm back stage with Michelle, I'm about to go out and accept the nomination and it's because of your work on my campaign and you are now part of my team."

Wendy: Wow!

Tina: That text message went out to 4 million people while Obama was still walking onto the stage in Chicago. That was just one of the many I received from him there afterwards.

Wendy: It's been an incredible year for mobile

Tina: Yes, as a brand manager, he may be a genius.

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Wendy: I agree. Over the years I've had the opportunity to speak to a lot of people and the career path they've chosen. It seems that many are comfortable either in the corporate world or as entrepreneurs but not both. You're one of those rare exceptions. Could you comment on what you like about start-ups and how it compares to where you are now?

Tina: I'd say, I'm still the same me. I haven't changed. I like to work on brands that achieve large scale and mass reach which is why I love being at BabyCenter, and why I thrived at AOL and i-Village. I also like to win. At i-Village, we claimed victory on day one. We said we were going to create the largest and most engaging community online. We had no basis on which we thought we could do that other than courage and blind optimism. But it happened; we created a brand with huge scale. At BabyCenter victory is sort of assured because the scale is already there, but for me that's when the entrepreneurship comes in. You use your entrepreneurial skills to be innovative to be willing to take risks; leverage that scale and not be afraid of it. So the same entrepreneurial skills apply. You just have to be able to be an "intrepreneur" as well as an entrepreneur.

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Wendy: Interesting. There are sites out there who claim editorial "integrity" but then just end up becoming a "house organ" for the brands they represent. I'm curious, how did BabyCenter avoid that trap?

Tina: Well, like any great publication content is king. As editors we have to figure out how to best serve moms with different needs and challenges. The secondary goal is how to serve that information and effectively reach them over the Internet. For example, we know that a millennium mom spends more of her time in social networks. We invested time to create an excellent social networking platform and now we have a very active and engaged social networking community as an integral part of the BabyCenter experience. We also know that this generation of mom's are very active and like to stay in touch when they are out and about so mobile is going to be a big initiative moving forward.

Wendy: Ok so how does advertising figure into the mix; there are other brands and some that compete with J&J advertising.

Tina: Well like other divisions of J&J BabyCenter is a stand-alone business. As Publishers our job is to figure out how to build a bridge to the consumer experience. We take our audience, their engagement with our pages, and we allow marketers to be in those conversations whether it's through traditional display advertising, integrated sponsorships or research. For example we have a panel of 70,000 moms in the US and millions of moms that engage in our polls in all the different interactions in our communities across our pages. As marketers we are deeply committed to this very important audience and want the brands who participate to win.

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Wendy: BabyCenter is a global brand. Is the editorial written to reflect the culture and needs of mothers in different countries?

Tina: Yes. The first thing we do before we ever write a line of code is figure out what the special "flavor" of parenting is in that region and get a sense of what parenting is like there. What are the common worries and taboos, and what does the health care system look like? What constitutes nutrition? We also need to understand the government laws and how they may impact the role of pregnancy. For example, in Sweden the guaranteed maternity leave is 12 months. Every country has its particular approach. We hire local editors and local community managers to take the BabyCenter formula and we either translate it or in most cases we localize it. We do use packages and share content if it makes sense but a lot of the pages are unique to each region or country.

Wendy: That's amazing. It's no surprise that you have 78% reach against moms in the U.S.

Tina: Yes, and in many of the global markets we are either number one or number two in that market. So we do enjoy tremendous leadership around the globe.

Wendy: That's fantastic. So when did you join BabyCenter?

Tina: Just over 2 years ago.

Wendy: So what was the tickle factor for you? Was there something that made you look at this opportunity and say hey that's the next thing I want to do?

Tina: Well, there were a variety of factors. First of all, I'm a true believer. I became a BabyCenter mom when my first son was born and have been an active participant in their community ever since. It's one of the secret formulas of my own parenting style. Professionally I have tremendous respect for the BabyCenter team and the incredible product that they've built. The second thing is that I've been fascinated as the web has rebuilt itself into Web 2.0. So many things have changed. Breakthrough web services, the disaggregation of portals, social networks and how important search has become. It's just really interesting to see how the Web is reforming and re-aggregating. One of the most fascinating parts for me is to watch the way it is forming around tribes and special interests groups.

Wendy: Right.

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Tina: So I feel like BabyCenter is one of those true gems where I have the unique opportunity to stay relevant with the same model in an ever-changing world. It felt like an institution that was right for the invention, building on the incredible reputation and history and credibility that I've enjoyed as a Mom in all of my years of being a parent.

Wendy: Okay.

Tina: And then lastly, I'm really excited about having an opportunity to reinvent a media company in an era where media is reinventing itself. I felt like BabyCenter gave me that opportunity. When I was at AOL we had a very broad focus. I ran AOL networks, where I was overseeing 120 million uniques per month. I oversaw all programming across that network, including social media applications and services like Bill Pay and things like that. It feels liberating to actually come here and turn the horizontal focus into a vertical focus and specifically in that stage where we could be so intimate with one specific demographic group and look at that holistically.

Wendy: It sounds like something you are perfectly suited for.

Tina: Well with BabyCenter I commit myself to a higher mission, which is what I want to do as well. I feel that helping Moms is part of my own personal journey. So not only do I have the opportunity to take my skills and apply it to a large scale business, but also to help people in their everyday lives.

Wendy: That's great. Which brings me to my next question. You are a standing board member of the charitable organization Baby Buggy. Can you tell us about the work they do?

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Tina: Baby Buggy was founded by Jessica Seinfeld and is a New York based non-profit organization whose mission is to help families in need. Our tag line is "Love. Recycled." Our mission is to help women living in poverty get the goods and services they need and help them in their journey of parenting. So we take donated equipment like strollers and cribs, recycle it and give it to women in homeless shelters. The organization has become an integral part of the New York social services system.

Wendy: That's great. Let's get back to BabyCenter for a moment. People always get married and have babies so those businesses are often thought to be recession-proof. Do you agree?

Tina: I think that one of the benefits of being in such a critical life stage is that as a marketer you have the opportunity to influence a new mom's purchasing decisions. Not only is the audience a good demographic in terms of their consumption around the birth of the baby, but on a much broader level as well. First time parents have many new decisions to make. It goes way beyond the crib and the stroller because there are other things to consider like life insurance, or maybe a new car, college savings plans. You get the picture.

Wendy: I agree. Okay final question. What the biggest challenges facing both the advertising business and specifically BabyCenter this year?

Tina: I think we are very privileged to be in the digital industry right now because marketers are being very judicious about how they are allocating their budgets. The dollars are coming from traditional media; mostly magazines and newspapers and the shift in budgets may be happening faster because of the soft economy. Having said that, being a Publisher in the digital space is complicated because you are both media partner as well as marketing partner for digital brands online and you really want to engage with your audience. The Publisher marketer relationship is more important than ever before.

Wendy: Good point. Thank you so much for sharing your views and insights.

Tina: It's been a pleasure Wendy.

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