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Mumsnet Founder & CEO on 'constant beta' & engaging brands with the community

Justine Roberts is the Co-Founder and CEO of Mumsnet, and was one of the speakers at Digital Content Monetisation.

We asked Justine about the secrets of building a thriving online community, and how Mumsnet works with clients and advertisers.

In your experience, from building Mumsnet from scratch, to a site which attracts 25k posts per day, what would you say have been the key factors in growing and maintaining a successful online community?

Essentially, we started with a blank piece of paper, viewing ourselves as a platform provider, with the understanding the site had to be developed in collaboration with mumsnetters at every stage.

The most important factor has been letting the community direct progress and listening to what they want – almost all innovations, new site and product developments at Mumsnet are derived from members suggestions.

This happens on a day-to-day basis: we view the site as an ongoing beta or focus group. Most recently this has led to our 'Off the Beaten Track' section, covering sensitive issues which which users’ requested not to be indexed by Google. Their feedback and suggestions have also been instrumental to the design of our soon-to-launch mobile app.

This ‘constant beta’ approach has also lead us down some unconventional paths were design is concerned. Following a redesign four years ago, there was such an uproar from users, that within half a day, the old design had to be put back. So we now have four different designs available, including the ‘classic’ view.

You have to understand that for people who are really engaged in the community, the site’s design becomes like their wallpaper at home.

Mumsnet describes itself as akin to a social enterprise, its “overarching aim not the pursuit of profits” but rather serving your community in an ethical manner. But what are the challenges around serving your shareholders as well as the community, and who has the last say?

Mumsnet has been fortunate enough to never have outside shareholders, and to be funded through cashflow and the original founders taking no salary for many years, so we’ve never been obliged to chase cash.

We are very aware people don’t have to be on mumsnet, and of how connected to the brand people feel – the community members calling themselves mumsnetters, for instance. This wouldn’t work if we tried to flog things to them all the time.

We work with transparent, open brands, and we got to the position we are in today by being selective about who we work with.

Also, the most successful clients we find are those willing to engage with the community - recognising there’s a new world out there, not just putting up an ad and stepping back. It can be incredibly powerful for both product testing and market research.

It’s not about using meaningless celebrities to sell a product, or patronising mothers along the 1950s lines of ‘women want whites whiter’, in fact there are brands involved you might not expect on Mumsnet: Ford, for instance, who gave a Galaxy vehicle to some of our users for a month, with a video camera to record their experiences, the videos later going up on Mumsnet.

Other brands make good use of web chat on the message boards – Bernard Matthews, for instance, engaging in discussion around reservations people might have around their products.

The Census of our members last year showed that 80% said they wouldn’t make a major purchase without checking with the Mumsnet community first. We see part of our role here as helping brands become part of that discussion in non-partisan way.

Mumsnet is soon to release an iPhone app, developed in association with Vodafone. The app will be free and ad supported, and the iPhone launch will be followed by other mobile platforms.

Justine is speaking at Digital Content Monetisation, which takes place 24-26 January in London. AOP is an supporting partner of this event.

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