Mumsnet founder on anonymity, authenticity and influence
Justine Roberts tells Ellen Hammett how she turned a humble forum for parenting into a multi-million pound phenomenon
Over the last 17 years, Justine Roberts has managed to turn a simple online parenting forum into a valuable and profitable online community of more than 10 million - and growing.
In 2016, Mumsnet generated a turnover of £7.2 million, and with year-on-year monthly user growth at 13%, it has become somewhere advertisers increasingly want to be.
What makes her audience - largely made up of women between 26 and 45 (78%) - especially unique, Roberts says, is its anonymity - something that separates it from social networks such as Facebook.
"This is a place where there's enormous dwell-time, where they're highly engaged and speak the truth," Roberts told Newsline.
"Partly because they're anonymous - so you're likely to get really heart-felt confessions on Mumsnet and Gransnet in a way that you possibly aren't on Facebook."
Some of the most recent discussion topics, which stretch far beyond parenting, include 'Upset with friend over wedding. WWYD?', 'Poor Pussy is really poorly', 'Who to vote for in General Election?' and 'Has anyone tried not washing their hair for a long time?'.
As Roberts says, this is an especially "busy and engaged" group of people with a variety of interests and needs.
What perhaps also makes Mumsnet unique is the inclusion of its users when it comes to making business decisions.
"We try and bring the users along in anything we do commercially so we will have ongoing conversations about who are the best partners for Mumsnet to work with," Roberts says.
"The best relationships are the ones where brands or commercial enterprises are willing to engage with our audience in an authentic fashion."
These authentic brand-to-consumer conversations that Roberts wants the Mumsnet forum to facilitate can be anything from sponsored threads which brands can pay for, to product testing, surveys and native content.
User-generated content is also popular and, while this kind of content isn't up for sale to advertisers, it is still something that Mumsnet wants to monetise - whether that's "through affiliates or offers".
However, the Mumsnet community isn't entirely faceless; and over the years Roberts, alongside Mumsnet co-founder Carrie Longton, has built a lucrative events business for brands to tap into.
Alongside its online and social audience, Mumsnet also has a network of over 10,000 'influencers' - bloggers, vloggers and instagrammers who specialise in the 'mum space'.
The most recent partnership was with beauty brand No7, which teamed up with Mumsnet to create a bespoke event for 100 social influencers and Mumsnet users on returning to work with confidence.
"We want to work with brands to give them access to all of our multiple audiences, and face-to-face works very well for certain brands so we expect to do more of that," Roberts says.
"Face-to-face is an important part of what we offer. What we want to do is get our audiences' opinions because they're smart, they're engaged and they make the most of the purchases in the household so we think that's a useful thing for us to offer brands."
Roberts anticipates more events like this in future - but "more thought-leadership from influencers with multiple sponsors on top of that".
"You can also expect us to make content and offer products in a way that's accessible for users that fits the bill," Roberts added. "There are things in the pipeline...mostly online but offline as well."
But for many of its users, Mumsnet is more than just a forum; it is a place where women, and men, go to confide in one another and develop trusting relationships with their peers.
When asked why users were grateful for Mumsnet, one post read: "The support and knowing that people have been through the same shitty situations as me. Also just being able to ask any question, however ridiculous! Sometimes I'll see a thread and think 'I've always wondered about that'."
Another user wrote: "For keeping me relatively sane. And the laughs. The knowledge base here is incredible."
After realising the success of Mumsnet, in 2011 Roberts and Longton launched a sister site for the over 50s, Gransnet, which is currently experiencing exponential user growth - up 40% year-on-year.
Roberts says the major difference between the Mumsnet and Gransnet is the type of conversations that users have, and the manner in which they have them.
"In general, [Gransnet users] tend to be more polite, they swear a lot less, and they have more time to talk about some of the wider world issues, so politics is one of the most common discussion topics, whereas Mumsnet is focused on people's relationships largely."
Mumsnet users are also more likely to access the website via mobile (70%), while Gransnet users are much heavier tablet users.
Advertisers might be tricked into thinking they're only targeting women, however 15% of Mumsnet's audience is male.
Despite this, Roberts says efforts to create an independent male equivalent haven't gained traction.
"[Men] tend to come more for search than for actual posting on the forums," Roberts says. "The last thing I want to do is pigeon-hole the act of parenting as a female-only space so there are no rules; we have a Dadsnet forum on Mumsnet and many of the questions are relevant irrespective of gender."