Q&A: iVillage’s Lulu Phongmany on the business of building online communities

Lulu Phongmany is business development and marketing manager for the UK’s largest women’s website, She is responsible for planning, creating and executing all media partnerships for

Lulu will be taking part in our panel discussion Building user-driven projects: How can you use your audience to produce better reporting and special features? What are the benefits of letting users become part of the editorial process?

Follow this link to see the full agenda.

Click here to purchase tickets for news:rewired – the nouveau niche.

What do you do at iVillage?

I head up business development and marketing for iVillage UK and International.

At news:rewired you’ll be talking about building user-driven projects, does the iVillage audience contribute to the editorial process?

The iVillage community is an integral part of editorial process and has been throughout our 10 year history. Our community has always been a core resource in guiding our editorial team by way of voice and content themes. What we’ve also discovered over the past few years is that our audience consumes content on our message boards in the same manner as they consume content on the rest of the site, effectively casting our community in the role of content creators for us.

What are some of the ways iVillage goes about establishing communities around its content?

The main way we do this is extremely simple. We have a paid community team that sits with our editorial team. We ensure that there is constant dialogue between our editorial and community teams. The teams meet regularly and community is treated with equal weight to all other content on the site. We consider ourselves to be the leading content-driven online community for women, so our community is an integral part of our business as an online publisher. Because it’s core to our business, we invest in it, both from an HR and a technology perspective. When we looked at updating our technology for example, we didn’t just look at doing it for our CMS, we did it for our community product as well.

Do you think online communities will be essential to revenue going forward? If so, why?

Social media and online communities are extremely attractive to advertisers as it helps them to create their very own brand ambassadors. One person telling five friends about a product has a far more organic and authentic feel than five clicks to an online ad. It mimics offline behaviour that’s been driving purchasing decisions for years. Having said that, brands run marketing campaigns for a finite amount of time and online communities take years to build and maintain. Additionally, from a user perspective, a brand is still essentially trying to sell you a product, so it’s harder to fully buy into a branded community from a single brand.

For publishers like us, our community was there before the advertiser and it will be there long after. Our community is there to facilitate conversation and our users know that. We are transparent with our community with regards to how we fund the site. They know that we need advertisers to buy ads otherwise the community they love will cease to exist. When we need to run advertising or create a branded message board, they get it and most importantly they get behind it as long as it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the community. I have always maintained that for a publisher, integrating an advertiser into your community should be considered a premium product that is not available to every brand. We ran a very successful branded community for Nintendo’s Wii Fit, but we made sure that there was a brand affinity for the product and that there was a significant amount of ad spend before we agreed to it.

How important is the idea of niche publishing to the iVillage model?

We’re a pure play lifestyle web site that targets women, so we are a niche publisher. However, we cover a lot of content areas, we offer a variety of content types (video, articles, tools, message boards, games, etc.) and our audience of 1.5 million women per month range in age from 18 to 55, so we’re not as niche as say a Handbag or a Mumsnet. From the user behaviour research we did before we started our re-design process, we discovered women use multiple sites for very specific reasons. Most women have a web routine that consists mainly of search, email, social networking and niche sites for content. As a result, we’ve centred our re-design on re-launching our core channels so that they hold up well against other niche sites within their respective channels. What we’re seeing right now is the maturation of online audiences, which means they now access the information they need from various sources, using search and social media to navigate. This makes it harder for content publishers to deal in volume the way that we used to. Niche sites will continue to grow in numbers and in use, so it’s up to publishers to make the adjustments they need to make to ensure that they remain a part of their users’ online routine.

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