BabyCenter blues: A massive millennial publisher with growing pains

BabyCenter is known for its baby-name lists and pregnancy-related tracking tools. But increasingly, it’s been jumping in on topics of the day, as it did with this post on vaccines. The result is new levels of engagement for the legacy publisher. The vaccine post alone got north of 40 comments, including these:

“I’m lucky enough not to know any of these morons in real life, but if I were to meet one face-to-face, I would shame, ridicule, and bully them. Not vaccinating your kids is CHILD ABUSE and any mother who doesn’t “believe” in vaccinating should permanently lose custody of her kids,” wrote Lauren.

“Until you can guarantee that my kids will not have any lasting harm from vaccinations, I will decide what I put in my body and the bodies of my children,” wrote Lana Fink.

 At a time when publishers are straining for the attention of millennial consumers, BabyCenter occupies an enviable position. Its content is aimed squarely at new moms, 83 percent of whom are millennials. Nearly 60 percent of its percent of its audience is 18-34, according to comScore, putting it on a par with BuzzFeed and Vice. It ranks No. 4 in comScore’s Family and Parenting category, with 15.9 million U.S. uniques in February, up 13 percent year over year.

But the site needs to evolve. Since BabyCenter launched 17 years ago, making it practically ancient in Internet terms, the use of social media has exploded and edgier, sleeker-looking online communities like The Bump and CafeMom have proliferated. Sites like What to Expect and PopSugar Moms are growing faster.

Eighty percent of BabyCenter’s traffic comes over smartphones, and the small screen makes it hard to keep users on the site. BabyCenter was an early adapter of mobile and is responsively designed to adapt to smaller screens. But you wouldn’t know it looking at the site today; the visuals are sparse, and heavy on the stock art. BabyCenter does the job for an audience that’s looking for information about pregnancy or childcare question but doesn’t necessarily encourage them to linger or stay with the site for years.

“They no longer hold the monopoly over where you connect with people,” Danielle Wiley, CEO of Sway Group, a company that matches brands to bloggers, said of BabyCenter. “You can easily find people due the same month you are, but there are so many places you can connect with that person. You can go to Facebook or Instagram take your conversation over there. It’s still a great place to find people, but they no longer have to remain at the center at their relationship. They have to work a little harder to keep people coming back.”

Millennial marketing mojo
BabyCenter is owned by Johnson & Johnson, which paid $10 million to buy it from eToys in 2001. But at a time when many brands are trying position themselves as media companies, J&J takes an altogether different tack. It gives the San Francisco-based BabyCenter independence rather than using it to push its products or brand. J&J appears on the site like any other advertiser, and you have to read to the end of the BabyCenter company overview to find out that it’s owned by J&J.

This separation lets BabyCenter run ads from the gamut of advertisers (BabyCenter’s only source of revenue, since it closed its e-commerce arm years ago). Its independence also gives BabyCenter permission to collect a plethora of data about new mothers that it can use to inform its own marketing.

That approach could work to BabyCenter’s advantage when it comes to millennials, who resist overt marketing messages.

“Moms are a very specific group and very knowledgeable of products they buy and very connected to moms who are in the same place,” said Jamie Gutfreund, the CMO of Deep Focus. “But bottom line, they do not want to be sold. They want to be collaborated with, especially when you’re talking about parenting.” 

BabyCenter isn’t shy about using its data on moms to advertisers’ benefit, though. When women register on BabyCenter, they provide an email and due date. BabyCenter calls it that “one magic point of information.” From there, it can deliver personalized experience with a woman. One way is to sign them up for BabyCenter’s online Birth Clubs, which are based on their due date.

These clubs have turned out to be a goldmine of information. BabyCenter eavesdrops on comments in the clubs to search for keywords’ occurrence. BabyCenter does this with a tool it developed called “The Talk Tracker.” The findings can help marketers figure out when is the best point in the pregnancy cycle to target moms.

For a diaper manufacturer, for example, BabyCenter combed its chat boards for uses of the word “diapers” and found women were talking about them most after giving birth, when they were actually using them. BabyCenter will recruit moms for one- to two-day focus groups for advertisers. For a retailer, BabyCenter recently brought in 15 to 20 moms in various stages of parenthood to get ideas for improving its baby registry.

Julie Michaelson, BabyCenter’s head of global sales, said while advertisers can mine its data in the aggregate, it’s hard-core about protecting users’ identity. BabyCenter also sells native ads that are created in consultation with the editorial side. “We do draw a fine line between what we’ll do for an advertiser versus what we do for the consumer side,” she said. “We’ve spent 17 years building up our trust for moms, and we will not violate that trust.”

Stonyfield recently used BabyCenter to pinpoint the moment when new mothers were talking about introducing yogurt to their babies’ diet, to promote its line of baby yogurts. The point turned out to be the five-month point. Stonyfield wanted to impress on moms that while 6 months is too early for a baby to have whole milk, yogurt is fine. The marketer used the information to create an extensive campaign that used various parts of BabyCenter’s platform.

The ‘Super Bowl for moms’
“With any new baby product, you have an extremely short window of time to reach moms and help her discover your product,” said Julia Khodabandeh, brand manager for Stonyfield. “What I love as a marketer is I can work with BabyCenter to mine their community for insights about moms’ misperceptions about yogurt. Their remarkably precise targeting allows us to introduce to moms that message.”

Facebook has become an important way to reach parents on an emotional level, but it can’t pinpoint women at a specific point in their pregnancy in the way that BabyCenter can. For Stonyfield, said Liza Dube, director of PR and digital marketing for the company, “BabyCenter is a TV spot on the Super Bowl.”

But to stay relevant to millennial moms, BabyCenter can’t sit still, as the site knows from its own extensive research on its audience. This year’s State of Modern Motherhood, its signature research report conducted with the IAB, discussed how millennial moms are multitaskers, more likely to use a smartphone than a desktop and care deeply about peer recommendations. 

BabyCenter embraced mobile early on, and its designers work on the site in the mobile view, not the desktop, given that’s how most users will access the site. Aware that moms want fathers’ expanded role in parenting to be acknowledged, the site has been including more images of dads.

The blog, with its potential to generate attention for the site on the wider Web, is one way BabyCenter is trying to stay current. Thirty freelancers feed the blog, and the subject matter ranges from topical to evergreen. One recent day, subjects included picky eaters, inappropriate places people take their babies and Lego giving makeup tips to girls.

The bulk of the traffic to the site is coming from women seeking information on topics like fetal development and labor and delivery, feeding and toilet training. But on some days, the blog can rival the popularity of the site’s staff-written editorial content.

The blog also covers celebrity moms, with posts like Melissa Joan Hart is ready to punch over pacifier criticism and ‘Synthetic’ babies? Elton John fights back against IVF criticism, although the blog is more earnest and supportive than gossipy or snarky in tone.

Scaling on social media
Publishers today have to figure out how much they should use other platforms to distribute their content without being beholden to them. BabyCenter takes the middle ground, waiting until it sees scale on a platform to develop a presence there.

“We know it’s part of the discovery process and there’s an expectation that we have a presence,” said Linda Murray, BabyCenter’s global editor-in-chief, adding, “there’s little to no business to be had operating on somebody else’s platform.”

Murray’s community managers also keep an eye on topics that are trending in the community boards, because sometimes those conversations spark blogs or articles, as was the case when BabyCenter’s community managers noticed conversation spiking around suicide relating to postpartum depression.

“Women know they’re depressed,” said Murray, a New York native who worked at traditional women’s monthlies like Cosmopolitan and Self before she came to BabyCenter in 2001. “But they’re not seeking treatment. Some of it’s practical: ‘I just had a baby. I can’t get out of the house.’ And some of it’s shame-based.”

Millennial moms had a lot to say about marijuana, too.

“It’s legal almost everywhere, and we’re seeing all this conversation about this topic: Is this a pot treatment for extreme nausea during pregnancy? Can it help me with my pain after a C-section?” Murray said.

But there’s more work to do. The site’s heavy reliance on generic art makes it feel dated. The site could use more video and visuals overall.

Murray said she’s cognizant of the fact that BabyCenter is no longer the new kid on the block and has to fight the perception of being seen as old.

“One of our community directors said to us last year, one of our first BabyCenter babies could be having babies today,” she said. “That was a real eye-opener for people. We’ve got to keep up. We’re going to have to do a little more spoon-feeding to find the next step for someone.”