New York, NY - May 8, 2006 - Like neglectful sons, Internet executives seem to pay attention to mothers only in May, when they can milk the Mother’s Day holiday for short-term gains.
This year, though, their best May behavior might actually stick. Web sites aimed at mothers of school-age children are popping up quickly, while existing sites are adding features they hope will draw new users interested in connecting with one another. Most of these sites earn money from advertisers selling minivans, children’s medications, school supplies and such, although some are selling goods directly to their users.
ClubMom, a company previously focused on offline rewards programs for mothers, will introduce an online social networking service next week, after finding quick success earlier this year with a blogging site of sorts. JotSpot, a site started by the founders of Excite.com, recently introduced a free Web site-building service aimed largely at mothers. And earlier this year, LillianVernon.com, the housewares site, spun off Lilly’s Kids, a site marketed to mothers who want to buy children’s gifts.
But Web sites and advertisers should step carefully, analysts said.
“It’s a good time to reach moms, but it’s not a good time to pretend to be their friend,” said Clay Shirky, an Internet analyst and adviser to MeetUp Inc., a social networking business with a Web site that helps groups organize offline events. “Marketers often tell themselves that moms want a relationship with them, when in fact all moms want to do is buy their products.”
Mr. Shirky said he first became aware of the trend at a recent advisory board meeting at MeetUp, when executives reported that stay-at-home mothers composed the most active group on the Web site. The company said that more than 50,000 mothers had joined groups through the site since its inception. “We all just sat bolt upright,” Mr. Shirky said.
Groups of stay-at-home mothers are especially active, with nearly 34,000 members. Many of those are in sprawling cities like Houston and San Diego.
“They’re using the Internet to reconstitute the social capital that would come from physical interaction in a dense urban environment,” Mr. Shirky said. “These are busy, busy people who don’t adopt any technology unless itmakes their lives materially better in the short term.”
A spokesman for MeetUp.com, Myles Weissleder, said the company had not done anything to court mothers. “They’ve played around with other social networking services, and here’s one opportunity to actually meet people, not screen names,” he said.
ClubMom executives see plenty of demand for on-screen relationships as well. The company is using the mommytech wave to revamp a business that until last year was devoted to grocery rewards programs.
“Moms have always looked to other moms for advice and tips,” said Michael Sanchez, ClubMom’s chief executive. “It occurred to us 9 or 10 months ago that that mom-to-mom information hadn’t been aggregated anyplace on the Internet.”
The site started by inviting some of its two million rewards program members to submit stories and tips about topics like parenting and shopping in exchange for points that could be redeemed for gift cards. So far this year, the company has compiled more than 20,000 articles, editing them down to about 500 words each.
The company said that on Mother’s Day it would introduce the Mom- Network, in which users post anonymous profiles, including their biggest challenges as mothers. Users will be able to connect with others who are experiencing similar challenges. Over the last month the company tested the network with about 5,000 users. The feedback has so far been extremely positive, Mr. Sanchez said.
Advertisers, including Johnson & Johnson and Home Depot, are involved as well. “Moms are their key customers, and they’re extremely interested in figuring out an authentic way to fit into social networks and sites with user-generated content,” he said. Advertiser interest in mothers does not stop at networking sites, of course. Be Jane (www.be-jane.com), a home improvement site for women, announced an agreement last week to license its content to MSN, starting in July. Eden Jarrin, Be Jane’s chief executive, said that starting in July she would also devote a section specifically to mothers, and that she had several well-known advertisers already lined up. And last week, Kaboose, a Toronto-based company that runs a collection of Web sites focused on mothers, announced plans to buy the parenting site BabyZone.com for an undisclosed sum.
Oddly enough, while media sites are expecting more interest from mothers, most commerce sites have seen little, if any, increase in traffic from this group in the last year. In March, traffic to retail sites among women 25 to 54 years old was nearly flat or down in every category compared with a year ago, according to comScore Networks, an Internet research firm, which does not track the Web visits of mothers specifically.
There are some exceptions, of course. Pejman Hanafi Sr., marketing manager for Direct Holdings Worldwide, which owns Lillian Vernon, said the company started the Lilly’s Kids site because it found that most of its online sales were from mothers buying gifts for children. Mr. Hanafi would not disclose sales of the new site, but he deemed it a success. “This is the direction our customers are pushing us,” he said.
Many industry executives said the growing proportion of Internet users with high-speed connections at home, currently 69 percent according to Nielsen/NetRatings, had done much to connect mothers more firmly to the Internet than in the past. But Joe Kraus, chief executive of JotSpot, based in Palo Alto, Calif., said technology companies had taken a backward approach to marketing their services to mothers in the past.
Mr. Kraus said that, like a car company that talked about horsepower no matter who it was advertising to, Silicon Valley had approached all consumers as if they cared about the technology behind their services. So when JotSpot recently introduced a free site-building tool, at FamilySite.Jot.com, the word “wiki,” which refers to the technology that allows users to edit and add to a Web page, was omitted from the site, although the technology is central to the service.
“In targeting this to moms, we focused on the benefits to the family exclusively,” Mr. Kraus said. “We never mentioned the technology used to collaborate. Even using the word ‘collaborate’ was forbidden. It’s just a little nerdy.”