This is one in an occasional series on MediaShift where I discuss issues in-depth with thought leaders in online media. The format has changed to give you a profile of the person, as well as more of our dialogue. If you have suggestions for future Q&As or want to participate yourself, drop me a line via the Feedback Form.

Profile

Rufus Griscom

Age: 41

Hometown & Current Home Base: New York City

Favorite Websites: NYTimes.com, Slate, The Onion, TalkingPointsMemo, Fivethirtyeight.com, MotionBased.com (for cycling GPS data), iTunes.

Online Persona: Volkman Griscom Family on Ning; Facebook profile

What Makes Him a Thought Leader: Griscom founded the edgy site Nerve.com during the first dot-com boom, and figured out a way to make money with literate smut, surviving the bust years. He told the New York Times recently that Nerve brings in $3 million in revenues per year, including a premium $35 per year service.

He also spun out the online dating part of Nerve, Spring Street Networks, which powered personal ads on many sites, but hit hard times and was sold off in 2005 to Various Inc.. After becoming a parent, Griscom started Babble.com as a site that was brutally honest — and wry — about parenting, taking on established sites such as BabyCenter, iVillage and Urbanbaby.

What He’s Doing Now: He has spun off Babble.com as a separate company and is leading that effort, while searching for a new CEO to run Nerve. He received $2 million in venture funding for Babble from Village Ventures, and hopes to make it the top parenting site by creating thousands of resource pages for parents — covering everything from the croup to sleep schedules for babies.

Babble Stats: Babble was visited by 1.4 million uniques in the last 30 days; visitors are 80% female, median age 34, median household income $96,000.

Q&A

In your experience, how has the online business evolved since 1997 when you first launched Nerve.com?

Rufus Griscom: When we launched Nerve back then, it was really exciting because, much like the printing press several hundred years ago, people are suddenly empowered to share what they think. There were all these online magazines launched back then for people interested in publishing and writing. This seemed like a medium built for us. I was really effected by online magazines like Word and Feed, which was a magazine about science and culture started by a friend of mine. Of course all of them went out of business within a matter of a few years.

Then, by the late ’90s, online content was already very unsexy and unexciting and was an application of old media online. That remained the case until very recently. Still, online content, if it’s not user-aggregated or user-generated, is seen as rather old and creaky. But I would argue that there are lots of shades of gray. All of the online content sites are becoming a hybrid of user-aggregated, user-generated and edited content, because feedback and citizen journalism and ratings and suggestions are becoming part of these sites.

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Rufus Griscom

What’s exciting for me, as someone who’s done this for 11 years, is that the appetite for online content among media companies has increased quite a bit in the last 12 months or so. That’s because the trendlines for the print business are so clear and devastating, and they’ve been exacerbated by the recession. In the last six years, the print magazine business continued to grow through ’08, with $20 billion in ads in print magazines. But ’09 will be extremely painful with massive cuts in ad spending in print.

The economic pressure will accelerate a process that was already under way of advertisers saying, ‘We really can’t measure the effectiveness of our ads in print. We like to see a shiny picture of our brand in Vanity Fair and it makes us feel good, but we don’t know how many people see page 179 of Vanity Fair.’ What’s happened over the last several years is that marketers have become trained in a much more quantitative way, a more sophisticated way about advertising. There’s dramatically more value online.

It’s true that people go to social networking sites to communicate so it’s more difficult to get them to pay attention to ads there.

Griscom: It takes a long time for the print magazine metaphor to die off in people’s minds. We’ve always struggled with designing the home page. You want to create the impact of a cover of a magazine with a table of contents, and those are opposing agendas. The cover of a magazine has an impactful image on it to get attention, and the table of contents has clever descriptions to get people to click on them. And when you marry the two, both are kind of compromised in a way that’s painful.

What we realized — and everyone is realizing this — is that a smaller and smaller portion of traffic is coming from home pages because of the power of natural search and blog linking. And that changes the way we create content and the kind of content we choose to create. It also changes the way that the home page functions. It’s something that people refer to as the ‘mullet strategy,’ presenting the brand identity you’re most proud of in the front and having a party in the back.

As we redesign Babble.com, the reason we raised this funding was to build content that’s all about search optimization, by creating several thousand landing pages that answer parents’ most basic questions about everything from baby names to health and products. We’re doing it in a way that’s very different than the way we’ve approached content before.

How is it different?

Griscom: So let’s say the topic is vaccination. If we were a magazine, we’d run a piece about the latest thinking about vaccination, and reprint the piece every year with a slight update for the next 10 years. But what we’re going to do is create a page that will be the best page on the Internet for parents on vaccination, including links to other sites — it will be the dream vaccination page. And we’ll continue to update it every three months for eternity so it remains the dream vaccination page. And we’ll hire very smart people to make sure we present it in a way that’s friendly to Google and other search engines.

How has the online medium given you an opportunity to succeed where other traditional magazine publishers have failed?

Griscom: The opportunity I see in a lot of categories is that the old publishing model is the Conde Nast aspirational model. People want a fantasy they can immerse themselves in at the end of the day. You create this beautiful magazine that will present to the reader the life that he or she wishes they had. Cookie, the Conde Nast parenting magazine, is interesting. The median annual income of readers of Cookie is $88,000, but you couldn’t experience the life of people inside the magazine for less than $500,000 a year. This is pure fantasy. That’s the model for Vogue and most everything else.

The problem these companies are having is that the Internet emerges, and the thought of all the Vogue readers being able to see each other would destroy the fantasy. I remember Tina Brown had hired a consultant, and the consultant said, ‘For starters, I would put up your email address,’ and she said, ‘What?!’ The idea that you would be accessible to your readers and that they would be accessible to each other short-circuits the aspirational model. But what it does do is create a candid, honest communication between huge quantities of people. We were very excited about talking about the truth of sex and culture and dating with Nerve, and with Babble we’re excited about speaking bluntly about parenting, and there are actually more taboos with parenting than with sex.

When you started Babble, you were trying to be hip and include humor and take a different angle than a typical parenting magazine. But these types of resource pages sound like they’re targeted at an audience beyond the urban hipster. How do you balance that?

Griscom: We definitely want to retain our sense of humor and fresh tone that permeates the site. When we first started Babble, my wife and I had just had a baby boy and we looked at all the parenting magazines, and they seemed to all be about cupcake recipes with the sun streaming into kitchen windows with a mother and daughter gleefully making cupcakes. That was nothing like our experience being parents. Being parents is really really hard, and really funny, and it’s really surprising and intense. It’s more like trekking in Nepal than sitting around the living room baking cookies. So why isn’t the real experience of parenting in any of these magazines or websites?

The original mission was to speak the truth about parenting, and retain the humor and poignancy and challenge of the parenting experience. So we’ll continue to do that and it will always be a central part of our site. In fact, we just closed a three-book deal with Chronicle Books based on the Babble site.

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We also realize that as parents it’s a luxury to have the time to scratch one’s head and reflect on the parenting experience, and you want the community of parents to do that with, like the Babble Playground. We give ourselves an A- in the parenting experience side but a C+ on the service side, answering those basic questions. If Hillary Clinton was obsessed with the 3 am phone call, we’ve been obsessed by the 3 am web search by the mom who is trying to get her baby to stop crying.

A generation ago, there was a single source of authority for parents. You asked your pediatrician, and what the pediatrician said, you did. Or you called your mom or consulted the Dr. Spock book for reference. But today, every subject you can think of is controversial. Co-sleeping, how long you should breast-feed, elective C-sections — there’s an incredibly long list of things that are insanely controversial and there’s no one right answer. So what we’ve tried to do is provide a landscape of expert opinion on every subject. If you go to most of the leading parenting sites, they will have a resident authority saying how to do it. But we think that’s patronizing. Most parents today want to understand all the different shades of gray in opinions.

But if you want to create a site that is authoritative, would the people who are attracted to that information be put off by the rest of the site that is geared toward a hipster audience with edgy material that might rub them the wrong way?

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Discussion topics on Babble

“Among all the different columns we have published is one called Bad Parent, and in fact one of the books being published by Chronicle is based on those columns.”

Griscom: Among all the different columns we have published, the most popular one is called Bad Parent, and in fact one of the books being published by Chronicle is based on those columns. I think these are really universal experiences. If they say something like ‘This Park Slope hipster mom is full of baloney,’ then they will be joining a chorus of other people saying the same thing already and we welcome that kind of response. We want Babble to be a place where people can hash out their differences.

So can we be a quote-unquote cool publication and also be the #1 parenting site, which is part of our mission? I think we can. What we’re after is the simultaneous high/low brow. Some of the great moments in media happen with the simultaneous high/low brow. Like “The Simpsons,” which had a sophisticated level of social satire and a visceral sense of humor that everyone gets. With “Seinfeld” you have the duality also, with Kramer’s physical humor and some of the linguistic humor that was pretty sophisticated. And “The Sopranos” with a visceral level of enjoyment, and beautiful cinematography. And when that happens, the critics feel populist and the masses feel smart and there’s a huge orgy of affection.

And HBO has really nailed this, too. They go after Emmys and Nielsen ratings separately. They have boxing and popular movies and they have created the most amazing programming of the past decade. I think the model can work, and there can be a certain elasticity of the brand. For a cable channel, that would mean different times of day; and for a website you can succeed at doing different things at the same time.

Following on the HBO example, you’ve had success with paid content with Nerve, but paid content has had a sorry history recently online. It’s been difficult for people to charge for content. Do you think it’s possible to have paid content on Babble?

Griscom: We definitely want to introduce a subscription revenue stream to the business in the next year. At the same time, I think that walling off content to portions of your site online is not a sustainable model. The Wall Street Journal can succeed at that, and Consumer Reports is perhaps an anomaly. But overall in the online content space, you can’t get away with walling off content. It blocks web crawlers and cuts down on natural search; it takes away blogger links because they don’t like linking to articles behind a pay wall. It’s also a bad user experience.

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There’s a certain amount of momentum with whatever’s evolving into the norm. When we introducted Nerve Premium in 2002, we needed to do it to survive, and it wasn’t long after Salon introduced Salon Premium, and the New York Times had its pay site [TimesSelect], and it was becoming a cultural norm. Today the opposite is the case and it’s hard to go against the grain. But I do think you can charge for high quality email subscriptions. The great example of this is Waterfront Media, which is backed by Village Ventures, which has invested in Babble. And Waterfront is now the biggest health site, bigger than WebMD, and they have created a phenomenal business with paid email subscriptions along with a successful destination site.

Increasingly the best way to approach a subscription line of revenue is through services, like an iPhone app or very valuable functionality that your constituency would like. We’re looking at that, along with small acquistion opportunities. This [tough economic] environment reminds us how important it is to have diversified revenue streams, and Nerve has four revenue streams.

What about registration? I noticed that you do that on Nerve and wondered what the value/user experience tradeoff is with forcing registration. Many sites have removed registration requirements because they slow people down. What do you think?

Griscom: I agree with that 100%. I think registration walls are to be avoided whenever possible. In Nerve’s case, we need a barrier between the [more adult] photo content and the more mainstream portion of the site for advertisers, but we are looking at new approaches that would enable us to remove those walls. You will notice that Babble.com doesn’t have any reg walls, and we don’t intend to add them. I think they are only justified for newsletter subscriptions and special interactive features.

I know you hoped to bring in more traffic from dads on Babble. How is that working out so far and how are you reaching out to them?

Griscom: We’re about 80% women and 20% men, and while that’s a relatively small proportion of men, that’s actually better than some other sites. I think we’ve been humbled by the demographic reality that moms are more active in looking for parenting information and trading parenting experiences than dads. With Nerve, it was important for us to have a more female audience than the obvious male audience. For Babble, we wanted to design it so it didn’t look like an exploded Easter Egg, pink and powder blue. These super feminine sites are kind of patronizing to the moms and totally unattractive to the dads. I would give us a B- in the attracting-dads department.

One of my favorite pieces we ever published was by Walter Kirn, who wrote “Thumbsucker.” He wrote this wonderful piece for Babble about his kids on his ranch in Montana discovering dead animals and how you have to explain dead animals and deal with their nightmares. It’s one of many examples of something that no other parenting website would publish. We definitely have posted a range of stuff that’s interesting to dads, and over time, dads are parenting more than they did 20 years ago, and that trend will continue.

You mentioned search engine optimization (SEO), and I’m wondering where your promotion efforts are going now.

Griscom: We have not spent any significant funds marketing. My view is that it’s impossible to overstate the importance of SEO in the current stage of the Internet. Whatever one’s allocation is for SEO consultation is probably not big enough (though I hope this isn’t read by the guy I’m doing SEO consultation with!). It’s so important, and it affects the order in which you create content and how you present it. I think one of the things that works for us — and we went from 300,000 readers per month at the beginning of last year and have had 1.4 million visitors in the past 30 days — one of the competitive advantages we’ve had is the more honest approach to the subject.

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We’ve also used blogs more effectively than our competitors. We have three group blogs, including Stroller Derby, a general interest parenting blog; Fame Crawler, which is about the intersection of parenting and celebrity; and Droolicious, which is about products.

As Jason Calacanis [who founded Weblogs Inc.] and [Gawker Media founder] Nick Denton know, the beauty of blogs is that they’re naturally search engine optimized. With so many posts and titles that are descriptive of the subject matter — and if the bloggers have traffic incentive — you quickly create a database of relevant information that parents are searching for. Our social network is on Ning, and it’s growing very quickly. It’s still a relatively small percentage of our overall traffic [with just 2,162 members] so we have a lot of work to do there. But we’re excited about the trendlines.

You said someone had approached you for a buyout. Is that something you would consider at some point, or would you prefer being independent?

Griscom: Our plan is to be very focused on growing Babble for the next several years. Since we just received financing from a VC, we have some work to do before there’s a change of ownership. But I think when you do decide to take VC money, then you are very serious about increasing the value of your property, with an ultimate end of making an exit for shareholders. I ran Nerve financed only with private investors, and on that side, we are focused on doing well for those investors. But looking a few years out, [a buyout] is certainly the objective.

I find it funny when a Big Media company contacts you about an acquisition, they will always refer to it as a ‘strategic relationship’ when they really mean ‘we’re thinking about buying you.’ There are a lot of euphemisms around this kind of talk because it’s considered untoward to say ‘we expect to sell this company to the highest bidder,’ because people view that as greedy. I think the reality is that you can do things as a hobby, which I admire and might do again one day, or you’re building value for shareholders, and I like to do it in a culturally fascinating way. The bottom line is that the objective is to grow it and sell it in a couple of years, or take it public if it’s wildly successful. People rarely speak that bluntly, but that’s pretty much the case for everyone, unless you’re funded by your best friend and mother.

*****

What do you think about Babble’s business model (and that of Nerve)? Do you like their sites or not and why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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