Justine Roberts came up with the idea of Mumsnet back in 2000 after a disastrous family holiday. Originally conceived as a website where parents could simply swap family holiday and other advice, it has since grown into an online phenomenon, championing high profile campaigns which challenge both businesses and government over attitudes to children and parenting. Mumsnet is now the UK’s busiest social network for parents, generating almost 7 million visits and 50 million page views every month.
Easyspace was delighted to get the chance to chat to Justine Roberts recently. We hope her success story inspires you to turn your own ideas for an online business into reality:
Q1. Justine, tell us a little bit about your background and what led to you setting up Mumsnet?
I left my job at an investment bank in London when I first got pregnant because I knew I didn’t want to work in an environment in which I had to pretend my family didn’t matter in order to get on. I had my ‘eureka’ moment when my twins were nearly a year old. We took our first family holiday and the so called family-friendly resort was anything but. It was also a bad choice of holiday destination – too far – and a terrible choice of time zone. I realised I could have done with asking other parents advice before embarking and that there was this amazing new thing called the internet which would help me tap into to other parents’ wisdom from the comfort of my own home.
Q2. What did you want Mumsnet to achieve at that stage and what was your marketing strategy in those early days?
Our aim was, and continues to be, to make parents’ lives easier. None of us are trained for this parenting business, yet it’s arguably the most important thing we ever do. What’s more, as we live in increasingly disparate communities, people didn’t have access to support networks of friends and family that they used to, and all too often the professionals are too stretched to offer any help. Gone were the days when you could go and have a lengthy friendly chat over a cuppa with a sympathetic GP when the baby blues struck – they’ve got their targets and 10 minutes is all you’d be allotted. Someone once said that Mumsnet was like having 24 hour access to a million big sisters, and in a way that’s what you really need when you become a parent (and even when you don’t).
In the early days we would accost new mums on the street and ask them to review their pushchairs. We had no marketing budget – the dotcom bubble burst a couple of months after I started so we never did manage to raise any cash. We relied on users to spread the word, and they did.
Q3. How did you create content for the original website and what turned out to be the most effective way to drive traffic to it?
I got friends to write articles and mined the talkboards for nuggets of wisdom. To spread the word I wrote as many press features as I could. The Saturday Times magazine featured a big full colour spread on my diary of a dotcom startup during the crash, six months after we launched, and that really helped.
Q4. What role did networking with other websites and bloggers play in your online success?
I went along to a rather famous networking event called First Tuesday in the early days, which put start-ups in touch with venture capitalists and the like. It was completely terrifying. Everybody was about 17 and talking a load of jargon I’d never heard of (about burn rates and land grab and the like). Most of those who successfully raised cash – and I certainly didn’t – had spent it and gone bankrupt in 24 months. So I was quite relieved not to have been that good at networking.
Bloggers hadn’t really got going back then but now of course bloggers are brilliant marketers. These days, the Mumsnet Bloggers’ Network has around 3,000 blogging members and they are brilliant at amplifying an issue or campaign.
Q5. As word spread and Mumsnet became hugely popular, what steps did you take to increase the use of your chatrooms and forums and how did you manage them?
We didn’t really have to take any steps to increase use of our forums as word caught on. In fact very often we’d do the opposite and find ourselves banning members at their own request because they were “addicted” and spent too much time online. Nowadays, of course, I think we all accept the fact that we’re “always on” social media but back then people were seriously worried that they were neglecting real life. Our policy with regard to managing our forums is to listen to our members and respond to their needs – most of the changes we’ve made have been user-led. Beyond that we try, as far as possible, to let the conversation flow and not to-over moderate. Mumsnet is a discussion site for grown-ups, so beyond some basic rules around personal abuse, spamming and hate speech there’s not much we disallow.
Q6. How does your website make money?
Our revenue model is advertising, sponsorship and we also do some market research and product testing for brands.
Q7. Are the discussions and campaigns that Mumsnet initiates driven by the Mumsnet team or your audience?
Campaigns are driven by Mumsnet users. Our We Believe You rape awareness campaign began with a post asking how many Mumsnet members had been raped or sexually assaulted and grew as pages and pages of women shared their stories. Likewise, Let Girls Be Girls originated from parents’ concerns about sexualised products aimed at children, and fed into the government’s Bailey Report into the commercialisation and sexualisation of children. And when our users told us that Britain’s businesses weren’t family friendly enough, we launched the Mumsnet Family Friendly Programme, working with companies who commit to being family friendly in their treatment of their staff and their customers.
Q8. What are the main ways in which you engage with followers? Is there a particular aspect of social media that you think works better for Mumsnet – Twitter/Facebook etc – and why?
Listening to and engaging with our audience is crucial, so our presence on Twitter and Facebook (and not forgetting Pinterest and Google+) is particularly important to us in addition to the contact we have with our users via Mumsnet.
Q9. Mumsnet has over 600,000 signed-up members. Why did you decide to adopt a membership arrangement for your website, and how do you encourage people to join?
Many of our users don’t become members; we have about twenty times as many lurkers as posters. But to be able to post on our forums, you have to register.
Q10. How has Mumsnet changed from those early days in terms of its staff, its audience, its content and its mission and are you still hands-on with the website?
Mumsnet has grown from a makeshift office in a back bedroom to a team of 60 plus and offshoots in Gransnet, our Bloggers Network and the Mumsnet Academy. I work pretty much all hours and have done for a while, but many of our staff work flexibly and part time. That was the original vision – to set up the company to create a work/life balance. Of course the irony is that I work longer hours than I ever have before.
Q11. What do you think are the key reasons for the success of Mumsnet and would you do anything differently if you were starting it today?
Listening, in a nutshell. Mumsnet isn’t a top down orgnanisation. Our users are a huge stakeholder in Mumsnet and without them not only would we not have an audience, we’d have a lot less content! So we consult about major business decisions and we try to remain transparent and authentic in everything that we do.
The dotcom bubble burst just as we launched in 2000, so we had to change our entire business model, grow the business organically and it took at least five years before anyone earned a salary to trouble the taxman. Meantime dotcom businesses were failing all around us. In retrospect I think this made us a bit over-cautious when it came time to grow and expand. I didn’t quite appreciate the size, strength and loyalty of our community – I always worried they might just disappear overnight. Plus we’d spent so long not making any money it was hard to believe we ever could.
Q12. For anyone wanting to turn a great idea into an online business what advice would you give with regards to web design, domain names, social media, etc?
Know what your USP is – make sure it’s really fulfilling a need or gap and then execute as well as you can. Beg, borrow and steal as many favours as you can, listen constantly to feedback and evolve accordingly.
Q13. Mumsnet is now the UK’s busiest social network for parents, what do you think it can achieve in the future?
World domination (Mwah-hah-hah). No really, I think we will carry on listening to our audience and hopefully achieve what they want us to, whether it be in terms of campaigns or policy or events they want us to put on. Or maybe some new emoticons.
Thanks Justine. Everyone here at Easyspace wishes you and Mumsnet all the best for 2013.
Lastly, the video below shows a great talk Justine gave at StartUp Britain on 16th July 2012:
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