Mumsnet is a digital fairy story. The UK parents network was founded 20 years ago after Justine Roberts, who had quit investment banking to become a freelance sports reporter, experienced a holiday from hell, her first with one-year-old twin daughters. Everything about the family’s choice of luggage, flights, hotel and resort seemed wrong: “As new parents, we knew nothing and ended up choosing the wrong destination, with a terribly long flight. We were sitting around the pool, with other families, all moaning, saying, ‘if only we had known’. “
So, at a time when many London friends were plunging into startups, her big idea in 2000 was helping mothers to tap into the wisdom of other parents via the new fangled internet.
Together with a TV producer friend, Carrie Longton, Roberts launched Mumsnet as an online forum with the co-founders, friends and family initially creating multiple nicknames, spelling out their problems and answering their own questions.
They had tried and failed to raise £4 million for the venture but the first dotcom crash intervened. The digital wannabes instead bootstrapped Mumsnet from a bedroom in Roberts’ family home. That is where the business stayed for eight years before renting its first office in 2008. By then, Facebook (launched in 2004) and Twitter (in 2006) were winning advertisers over to the idea of user generated content. Mumsnet could start making money.
Its audience grew by word of mouth and was soon marked by endless emails from people saying it had saved their lives, postings from new mothers with nobody else to talk to – and by unsolicited cash donations from grateful users. The site had real authenticity, not least because the co-founders were struggling as much as the young women who depended on it.
But, for all the dreams of digital wealth, Mumsnet has sometimes seemed more like a charity than a business. Its busy founders thought someone, something would help them make it profitable.
Perhaps it had been the same commercial afterthought which tolerated a rival launch (some months after Mumsnet) confusingly called “Netmums”. Although the French-owned competitor continues to be much smaller (less than 50% of Mumsnet’s revenue), it remains a source of confusion for advertisers. It gets in the way.
Mumsnet was busy piling up millions of regular users but two events gave it national status in the UK. First, a sustained legal attack by a childcare guru which was settled in 2006 after 12 months of acrimony and expense. It was messy fight and was been one of the first cases of a digital platform being held responsible for the views of its users. But the fame brought readers and advertisers flocking to Mumsnet.
The game changer, though, was the 2010 election of David Cameron as the UK’s youngest prime minister for almost 200 years. Ahead of the election, Mumsnet had started doing web chats with politicians and Cameron was among the keenest.
What became known as the “Mumsnet election” seemed to cast the new Prime Minister as a modern, digital guy – in the six years before he was blamed by half of the UK population for losing the Brexit referendum. Politicians love Mumsnet because it delivers a large share of a busy audience that is difficult to reach.
The headlining success made celebrities of the site and Justine Roberts. Mumsnet’s 10th birthday party was attended by the then prime minister and a host of other politicians and A-listers. Five years later, at Soho House, the 15th birthday was hosted by Boris Johnson. The founder-CEO was honoured by Queen Elizabeth and in countless lists of the country’s most powerful media, women and business people.
Mumsnet has built a big reputation with its campaigns including “Let Girls be Girls”, where retailers pledged not to sell clothing and goods that prematurely sexualised young girls.
The site is also known for its feisty discussions, including topics like unreasonable “bridezillas” or the fear of giving birth during Covid lockdown. It has always been good at getting into arguments on behalf of its users, and some advertisers have even boycotted the site because of user views.
Mumsnet has become famous for its distinctive language of acronyms including AIBU (Am I Being Unreasonable?), DC (darling children) and the ultimate relationship advice LTB (Leave The B……). You can see why users are captivated by it. But, more than anything else, they go to the site for advice on parenting or how to cope with relationship fallouts.
Millions have lived lockdown on Mumsnet: “I cannot understand how my husband can’t see that the laundry needs doing and the kids need entertaining, and he’ll do it if I ask him but why do I have to ask him?”
On the AIBU forum, women are looking for validation of their emotions. They’re checking to see whether their anger, guilt or relief is justified “and they want a wise crowd to tell them that”. Millions are looking for answers among the site’s bubbling pool of posts and blogs.
That’s why Mumsnet is the UK’s most popular parenting network. Its 10 million users spend an average of 9 minutes ‘dwell time’ on the site. That may mean it is regularly visited by more than 50% of British women aged 25-54. Some 1m are registered readers.
But the financials are less impressive.
In 2010, when the then 10-year-old Mumsnet was credited with mobilising millions of British mothers to vote, it was making only £146,000 of profit. By 2014, it was making £2 million a year.
But in 2019, operating profit fell back to £1.4 million on revenue of £9.3 million. And Covid plunged it into crisis. Mumsnet made “a small loss” in January-March 2020. It prompted the announcement of a “premium” subscription in a bid to offset an advertising slump that may reduce its revenue by 30% to £6m in 2020.
The counter-intuitive challenge for Mumsnet lies in its novelty as an established, much-loved 20-year-old digital business, still managed by its founder, but so under-exploited commercially. It has taken Covid to underline the risks of its dependance on advertising.
Ironically, back in 2013, the founder was recalling the startup’s weakness: “It is a rubbish business model. We started just as the dotcom bubble burst and we raised no money at all. Advertising rates crashed. It was done on no cost – but a lot of hours.” If only she had started working on a subscription strategy all those years ago…
But even the “voluntary” subscription has seemed to be a mix of panic and apology. Mumsnet is asking users for a “donation” of £4.99 per month. What they get for the price is access to the same site but without the banner ads, and some ho-hum discount offers. Roberts said: “At the moment, it is very limited, more like an appeal, but we are very committed to bringing in partners who offer really great exclusive discounts that make it a good value exchange for our users.”
Despite the fact that only a few thousand Mumsnet users have so far signed up to become “premium” members, the CEO hopes the subscription will become “a sustainable and reliable source of funds”. But there’s a lot to do.
Mumsnet is an unmistakeably strong franchise but the site’s design and functionality are an echo of WordPress from 2005. It has little video and seems not to have discovered podcasts. For advertisers, the site gives outdated information and it is impossible to find anything about the potentially huge endorsement programme through which manufacturers can get their products tested and approved by a panel of 13,000 users. Such “insights” currently account for some 10% of revenue. Would-be advertisers are not even offered the name of someone to contact.
Justine Roberts has seemed to downplay the commercial opportunity of endorsements: “We don’t want to do cheesy endorsements. We are happy to do product tests and pass on the message if our members genuinely liked the product, but it is important that product reviews don’t interfere with actual editorial content. We don’t want to be underhand and look like we are endorsing things we don’t like. The reason the site works is that it’s trustworthy and not about endorsing the product that gives us the most money.” It’s a fair point, of course, but might just frighten away even legitimate customers.
Mumsnet is a potential powerhouse. Some 75% of its 10 million monthly uniques say they want advice, and 96% trust its product recommendations. But you can’t easily find this or the fact that 80% of Mumsnet users say they would not make a purchase without consulting either the website or a friend.
The estimable Ms Roberts seems to have been less motivated by the revenue, which has increased by less than 50% during 2014-19.
This year, revenue will be back to the 2014 level and its headcount is 65, down from 100 a year ago. The redundancies and cost savings have been painful but the company has stopped short of closing Gransnet (for grandparents) after nine consecutive years of losses.
It is tempting to contrast Mumsnet with the commercial performance and chutzpah of MamaMia, the 13-year-old site launched in Australia by former Cosmopolitan magazine editor Mia Freedman. It now claims to be the country’s leading women’s media brand and (with 21 different shows) the world’s largest women’s podcast network.
MamaMia has some 5 million monthly uniques and its podcasts are downloaded 5 million times every month. The company is estimated to have some A$30-40 million revenue and, perhaps, 15% profit margins.
Like Mumsnet, MamaMia provides inspiration, motivation and advice for women, especially parents. But the Aussie site is packed with stuff to Read, Listen and Watch. Mumsnet is still stuck on the reading.
That is the challenge.
Justine Roberts is proud of her modern digital brand which has a “purpose” beyond making money and communicates with customers on an emotional level. That is a good place to be in 2020 when the post-Covid instincts of consumers may yet lead to the unravelling of some large companies that lack “purpose” and a clear sense of social responsibility.
It is an especially potent message at a time when women may have been most impacted by Covid. Mumsnet’s mission is very much alive.
But forecasts that the site will breakeven (at best) in 2020 are a reminder that its survival for the next 20 years will depend on a more robust strategy.
While Roberts is doubtful about trying to impose a regular subscription price, she might build paid membership by using the valuable content previously used in its series of successful books. There’s obvious scope also to sell data and sponsorship of lists, league tables and events. They could keep the forums free and charge users for access to the archives, experts and virtual events.
Now with 25% of Mumsnet shares owned by a friendly investment company (which bought-out Roberts’ co-founders in 2018), we may not be the only ones suggesting that the site’s mission can best be maintained by ramping up its commercial activities. It is now spending on web site functionality.
Like consumer media everywhere, Mumsnet can safely capitalise on its highly committed audience with testing and endorsements. Why not establish a branded operation like Hearst’s Good Housekeeping Institute? Mumsnet is a strong brand and should be a longterm winner. That may depend on more investment from (and shares for) its investing partner. Way to go.