BabyCenter Bumps Mobile To The Top Of Its List

BabyCenterMobile is the mother of all invention at BabyCenter, an online content hub for pregnancy and parenting-related content.

Founded in 1997, BabyCenter has always maintained a digital-first mindset – but the changing consumption habits of its more than 40 million global monthly users, mainly current and expectant mothers, means that mobile is fertile ground for growth.

The Johnson & Johnson-owned publisher, which has a presence in 14 markets around the world, including Saudi Arabia, Brazil, China, India and the US – which makes up the bulk of its usership at 17 million uniques per month – saw a 51% year-over-year increase in consumption across its global sites and apps between 2013 and 2014. Site and app visits from smartphones went up 26% in the US alone, where mobile now constitutes 74% of BabyCenter’s overall traffic – a 10% increase over 2013.

“About five years ago we definitely noticed a trend in user behavior – more and more traffic was coming from mobile phones,” said Julie Michaelson, VP of sales at BabyCenter. “That’s when we started investing heavily in creating an optimized mobile experience.”

Mobile Moms

A joint study released Tuesday by BabyCenter and the Interactive Advertising Bureau found that moms aged 18 to 34 from the US, Canada, China, Brazil and the UK said they were likely to spend more time on their mobile devices than watching television every day.

That means BabyCenter has to be mobile-first or bust. Mobile web and apps work in tandem as traffic and awareness drivers, the apps serving as a springboard into the deeper content experience available on the mobile site or even the desktop.

“We think about mobile first and then we think about how to go back and rework it for the desktop,” Michaelson said.

BabyCenter runs a suite of apps: My Pregnancy Today and My Baby Today, both calendar-style iPhone apps that provide daily informational nuggets and baby-related advice, and BabyCenter Birth Class for iPad, which includes guidance from childbirth experts, lactation consultants and OB/GYNs on labor, pain management and other birthing tips.

Michaelson claimed that the vast majority of its traffic is organic and that the lion’s share of its app downloads happen organically through the various app stores. [Search “I’m pregnant” in Google and BabyCenter is the first hit. Search “pregnancy apps” in the Apple App Store and BabyCenter’s My Pregnancy Today is No. 2.]

When a mom downloads one of these apps, she’s only asked for her email address and due date.

“From that point starts a very personalized experience and relationship with the BabyCenter brand,” Michaelson said.

For example, simply by knowing when expectant mothers are due, advertisers can produce targeted native content relevant to the exact week or even day of development within the My Pregnancy Today app.

“One day, a mom might see a message that says, ‘This week you’ll start to feel your baby kick’ or ‘Here are some things to think about when you go to your week 27 doctor appointment,’” Michaelson said. “The day after that, the message might be around nutrition or special foods. Marketers use that as an opportunity to reach moms when it makes sense with retail opportunities or information about baby carriages or prenatal vitamins.”

When users tap on an in-app ad, they’re kept within the app experience itself rather than be sent to a marketer’s website. Users are taken to another screen within the app that’s completely owned by BabyCenter’s marketing partner, whoever it might be. BabyCenter has non-exclusive relationships with a slew of advertisers, including Babies”R”Us, Target, Walmart, and Pottery Barn Kids, as well as a number of other large retailers and CPG companies.

PII Mother Lode

Although BabyCenter has ready access to mountains of highly sensitive PII from the free online tools it provides – growth calculators, ovulation predictors, childhood illness symptom trackers and the like – the company is taking a page out of the Apple and Google respective playbooks and leaving health data alone. For the moment, at least.

JulieMichaelson“We don’t ask moms for a physical address and there are no health-specific questions upon registration, but we know through their use of our tools and other things on our site that moms are willing to tell us about themselves,” Michaelson said, noting that BabyCenter isn’t doing anything with consumer data other than using it as a means to deliver relevant content.

“It’s a very sensitive topic, but we are looking closely at our data strategy moving forward,” she said. “Privacy is our top concern, which is why we’re not doing anything with health-related data right now.”

Although Michaelson was unable to share details on any specific data the company might consider collecting – ”Honestly, we’re still thinking about it,” she said – she did note that using that data for advertising purposes wouldn’t be BabyCenter’s top priority.

“Our intent, first and foremost, is to enhance the experience that moms have with BabyCenter,” she said. “There may be additional ways marketers can use the data for targeting but, for us, that’s secondary to the user experience.”

And another thing is certain: Whatever happens, no data is ever leaving the BabyCenter playground. Even today, BabyCenter doesn’t give its advertisers access to user email addresses or due date information. If advertisers want to send a targeted message to a specific segment, BabyCenter will facilitate that for them directly.

While most of BabyCenter’s sales are direct, the company works with certain “premium ad networks,” Michaelson said.

“We’ve started to make premium programmatic deals with some of our larger consumer packaged good companies to supplement premium inventory,” she said. “We’re also testing some more programmatic-type buys to deliver incremental value on some of the premium-direct things we’re doing right now.”

But it’s mobile that has the most programmatic potential.

“We’re fortunate to have a high sell-through rate, but we’re looking at programmatic more for the mobile side, especially moving into next year,” Michaelson said. “We have so much mobile inventory we need to monetize.”

BabyCenter also helps brands get more targeted based on information from BabyCenter’s panel of roughly 50,000 active moms in the US and 100,000 moms globally. “We’re constantly listening to mom, talking to her and analyzing how she uses our site,” Michaelson said. “From there we can help marketers understand the best point in time to reach her with the best message.”

Baby-related products aren’t the only items moms are in the market for during their pregnancy or, as Michaelson called it, “this lucrative life stage.”

“It’s not just diaper or crib or bottle manufacturers that want to reach mom at this time in her life when she’s open and willing to reevaluate the brands she’s using,” Michaelson said. “She might want to start eating organic food, for example, or she might realize that she needs life insurance for the first time. If this is baby No. 2, she probably needs a new car. The list goes on and on beyond the obvious products.”

Data, Baby

As a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson – the umbrella for more than 275 independently operated entities, including Aveeno, Neutrogena and Tylenol manufacturer McNeil Consumer Products – one would be forgiven in making the assumption that BabyCenter serves as a data nerve center for its parent company. After all, Kraft uses to collect more than 22,000 visitor attributes, including favorite products and flavors.

Kraft gathers that data to inform ad campaigns – but that’s not BabyCenter’s bag.

“The relationship is not as close as you might expect at all,” Michaelson said. “Johnson & Johnson is one of our largest advertisers and media partners, but it ends there. We have dedicated sales teams for Johnson & Johnson in the US and around the world, but there’s no other overlap in terms of data sharing. We report up through their consumer group, but they give us a lot of autonomy and we operate completely independently.”

BabyCenter doesn’t publicize its relationship with Johnson & Johnson, and for good reason.

“We have a close relationship with moms that J & J could never have because they’re a manufacturer of products,” Michaelson said. “We have an intimate relationship with this audience and we do a lot of research work for Johnson & Johnson, as well as all of our other media partners.”

Keeping Johnson & Johnson on the DL also makes sense when you think about BabyCenter’s blue-chip client directory.

“We work with advertisers like P&G and Kimberly-Clark – they wouldn’t want to advertise with us if they thought that one of their competitors was getting special privileges,” Michaelson said, adding BabyCenter is 99% funded by its media and advertising revenue. “Johnson & Johnson lets us operate independently for that exact reason – so we can work with all the major brands.”

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