You need chutzpah to launch a parenting website when three well-heeled competitors are already up and running and attracting audiences. But Rufus Griscom is known as a risk taker, having turned Nerve.com into a success. In 2007, he launched Babble to take on BabyCenter, iVillage, and Parents.com.
Indeed, independent Babble (www.babble.com) is competing against heavyweights. BabyCenter (www.babycenter.com) is owned by Johnson & Johnson; iVillage (www.ivillage.com) by NBC Universal, a division of General Electric; and Parents (www.parents.com) by the Meredith Corp.
Nonetheless, Babble's audience is growing. Based on statistics from Google Analytics, it attracted 1.6 million visitors in February 2009, up from 1.2 million in December 2008. In a tough economic climate, it raised $2 million from Village Ventures to capitalize the site. Everything on Babble-its articles, columns, and blogs-is free to its readers since revenue is raised through banner ads. Clearly, Babble, which is based in SoHo in New York City, is striking a chord.
In launching the site, Griscom described Babble as a "revolution in parent magazines, a publication that talks to parents not just as caregivers, but as fun, smart, intellectually curious people." It aspires to avoid the usual "hyper-judgmental tone or acquisitive baby-as-accessory bent" of most publications. It promised to offer more than the usual how-to service pieces and the latest in video, photos, blogs, and interactive capabilities.
What's Babble's niche? Babble editor Ada Calhoun said its competitors concentrate on presenting articles on "teething," but Babble specializes on how raising a child changes your life, how humorous and unexpected parenting can be, and covers all the mixed feelings about parenthood that you didn't expect to feel. "Most sites focus on decorating your nursery and the magic of parenting, but not on the difficult parts," she said.
Calhoun, a former New York magazine writer, describes Babble's tone as "smart and funny" and might have added sassy. "We're straightforward, but not condescending, and we get the absurdity of raising a child and the humorous aspects of it," she said. Instead of the condescending tone of several of the sites that offer academic experts who tell parents what they must do, Babble establishes a more adult and person-to-person tone. "Our articles engage parents, level with them, and try to figure issues out with them," she said, herself a parent of a 2-year-old son and a 15-year-old stepson.
Though The New York Times described Babble as appealing to "urban hipsters," Calhoun said its target audience has changed. "We have readers in Nebraska, Kansas, and Florida who aren't hip or urban. We discovered that all new parents, no matter where they live, have similar needs and want to be talked to as adults," she said.
Many Babble articles take a contrarian tone to conventional wisdom. One recent article, "In Praise of Junk," by marketer Brett Berk, explained that junk food can be alluring "[b]ecause life is a soul-crushing mission designed to destroy you, and moments of wanton happiness are our deserved refuge." Hence, Berk says occasional Cheetos or Oreos for preschoolers can be a reward and won't turn them obese. Like many Babble articles, it avoids experts and offers common sense solutions.
Another article concerned a woman who faced a tough time bonding with her child, a piece that generated many sympathetic responses of identification. "Not everyone feels this magical, instant love," Calhoun added.
Babble isn't just talking to the usual audience of mommies but reaches out to that often forgotten parent: men. Reader surveys indicate that 25% of Babble's audience is men, a figure that Calhoun says exceeds most publications. Men are no longer bystanders or solo breadwinners and are increasingly engaged in child rearing. "It's not the '50s anymore. Men and women are both working. We don't let men get off the hook; I try to make sure our articles apply to men and women," Calhoun said. Articles have included why more men are having children in their golden years and the pains of being an at-home father.
While much of its content revolves around personal essays with a strong point of view, Babble also offers investigative exposés and solid news stories. One 7,000-word tome by Liza Featherstone on the necessity of vaccinating children and the potential dangers of not vaccinating them generated considerable reader response, as did a Susan Gregory Thomas piece on how Generation X and Y, often raised in divorced households, adapt to parenthood.
Moreover, Babble also tackles taboos such as a recurring column on being a bad parent. A parent based in Park Slope, Brooklyn, N.Y., asked whether she was a racist by sending her child to a predominantly all-white private school. Recent columns have discussed the economic crisis and how parents deal with the repercussions of not buying their children toys because they're broke and can't pay the rent.
One recurring theme that has captivated Babble's readers entails balance. Juggling work and parenting, making hard choices about child care, and negotiating friends and free time with child rearing have become serious issues in these economically strapped times. "Our tone is often reassuring, letting people know they're not alone," Calhoun noted.
Though Babble initially vowed to avoid formulaic service pieces, recent articles appeared concerning car seats and organic baby food. Calhoun acknowledged, "We want to offer one-stop shopping," so she added how-to articles to match the archives of iVillage and Baby Center.
Its name, Babble-denoting the meaningless chatter of babies-is perfect for the site. Of course, parents have been known to babble about their beloved offspring as well.
Is Calhoun concerned that some parents avoid Babble because its publisher also produces Nerve, known for its articles on sadomasochism, free love, and sexy personal ads? No, she replied. In fact, she thinks they're a good fit. "Sex makes babies. It's a natural evolution," she says. Touché.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.