Amid 2018’s platform changes, some small digital publishers are quietly growing active audiences. We talk to Motherly about their flourishing community.
The media landscape is crowded and noisy, much like having a roomful of newborns, all crying for your attention. So, how can a new media publisher stand out on digital, especially against those with more funds and established audiences?
We spoke to Motherly, a lifestyle parenting platform that through its two highly-passionate founders and a growing, all-remote team, has managed to reach a unique audience of 12 million weekly US viewers (Nielsen), with tens of millions of female viewers each month connecting with their content through the universal experience of becoming a mother.
Rather than driving video views and page views by publishing content that scares parents or engages in the ‘mommy wars,’ Motherly takes a new approach in supporting women—through uplifting articles and videos, online classes (including a free, personalized birth class), and stage-targeted newsletters—that guide and inspire women through the journey of motherhood.
We asked the cofounders, Jill Koziol, CEO, and Liz Tenety, CDO, how Motherly has built their engaged and connected tribe, one that’s super-powered by social.
NW: Can you tell us about Motherly’s mission and how you got your start? (We love the “you’ve got this” mission, by the way!)
Jill: Our story started with a simple observation, that today’s mom doesn’t fit into the traditional definition of “motherly”. We saw “motherly” as being this loving, but out-of-date, matronly, really tired, selfless woman, and that’s just not who today’s mother is.
We believe today’s mama is redefining what it means to be “motherly”, and she’s transforming outdated norms that don’t really fit her actual lifestyle. She’s been served in her life pretty well up to this point through life stages like going to college and getting married, but when she became a parent, she was disappointed by the resources and even the aesthetic and the tone that she was presented with.
This woman is looking for an entirely different support system, one that’s authentic, supportive, nonjudgmental, inspiring, and modern. We believe she sees possibility and she sees motherhood as aspirational.
So, that is Motherly. Through our content, we are a destination that encourages. We uplift and support moms from a perspective of someone who’s been there.
Liz, you cofounded Motherly after your work at the Washington Post, we’re interested to hear what brought you to Motherly.
Liz: I started Motherly with Jill, because honestly, it didn’t exist. I had two kids at the time, and professionally was looking to move in a more entrepreneurial direction.
At the Post, I learned a ton about digital strategy, and how to engage real communities of people with your online content. That’s served me really well in running Motherly, but it is a completely different thing to build a media property from the ground up and from just an idea.
For example, at the Washington Post, if I wrote a story and it went on the homepage, thousands of people would read it, just because there’s so much momentum at a place like that. It doesn’t work that way at a new media company.
At Motherly, we had to dig deep to really understand what mattered to our audience. We’re able to create highly engaging content now because we had to constantly study and iterate around how our audience was reading content, finding our content, and sharing it from Day 1.
In the end, that approach really helped us make sure all of our content was stellar. Before starting Motherly, I didn’t realize how much momentum I didn’t have to work for at the Post. It’s quite a different process [now], but I think it’s been one that refined our ultimate product.
Jill, what was your experience in starting Motherly? Why was there a need for it, right now?
Jill: Women deserved more than what was out there: A media landscape fuels “mommy wars” and makes women feel like they’re not enough. There’s this idea that the only way to do this right, is to sacrifice who you are, and devote your whole self and every moment of your life to being a mom, and that’s not realistic.
Previous generations have laid the groundwork for us to be here where we are today. This means we can be a multidimensional, really successful and empowered woman as a mom. This is our time.
This is so much happening around the women’s movement today but a lot of that [narrative] stops at motherhood, and we think that Motherly has an opportunity to bring voice to that and to grow this community defining what it means to be “motherly” for this generation. And, it’s not your grandma’s Motherly.
Liz: For too long, media companies talked at women and mothers, and not about their issues. At Motherly, it’s really representing these massively common experiences that we as women and mothers go through. That approach of telling their stories is foundational to our growth.
Can you tell me about a day in the life for you and the Motherly team?
Liz: We are entirely a remote organization, largely working parents. Typically, people on our team work core hours, but inherently we have flexibility built into their lives and around their parenting schedules, which I think is a really cool thing we’re able to do.
But there’s a lot that is similar from other media organizations: Every morning by 9 a.m., we have a trending topics report that comes out, where we’ll pulling from multiple sources. We always make space in our editorial calendar for covering news and trending topics.
The foundation for us is evergreen issues of deep importance to women and mothers that we cover every day. Topics that have profound and massive scale are really the foundation, while news and trending topics are a way for us to speak our core values into the media landscape, around supporting and empowering others.
What are some key attributes that your content absolutely has to have in order for you to create it?
Liz: There are two factors unique to Motherly. One, we focus primarily on shareability. Would I share it, would my friends share it? That’s a fundamental question that we’re always asking ourselves. There are exceptions to content that doesn’t fit that rubric but that’s the first question we ask.
Two, can we do this in a Motherly way? We say that all the time.
Motherly’s content is very intentionally positive, and uplifting, supportive, and helpful. For example, if there’s a new study on car seats, we ask how can we tell this story about car seats in a Motherly way? How can we help women feel less fear, and more empowered by the information we’re able to provide? Frankly, that’s unique in the parenting space.
We’re always looking for a way to make her feel more confident, and not feel worry or anxiety. That’s a very deliberate strategy and one we ask that at every editorial meeting.
How important is social media and distribution to your strategy, and why?
Liz: Today’s mom expects you to meet her where she is. When Millennial women become mothers, they actually increase their social media usage. She’s spending more time on these platforms, and she has a massive and acute need for inspiration and connection as she becomes a mom.
Our social audience is the number one driver of traffic for us, and that’s because women share our content at a really high rate, even compared to relevant publishers in the parenting space.
We also were pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of brands want to share our content. Brands like supermarkets, baby product manufacturers, even education companies, who want to connect to mothers, want to share our content, because the content is positive—and because when they share it, their engagement with their community goes up.
We are tracking these brands and pitching them on a weekly basis, so that they have great content to share. But at our core, we’re about creating content that women feel represents them, and their challenges and their joys.
Can you tell us about your work with branded content, and what you offer brands?
Liz: When we’re working with brands, we’re helping them reach our highly-engaged audience and we try really hard to find win-wins. We don’t choose to work with every brand, we have our own set of internal guidelines.
We’re looking to create branded content that is constructive, that teaches our moms something that they didn’t already know, or that inspires them in a real and emotional way that frankly, the brand couldn’t otherwise do on its own.
We’re all about creating that direct connection to moms and that’s something that really works for our brand partners because we have a super-engaged, premium and well-defined audience. What’s kind of interesting about this moment in publishing, is that “specialized” publishers like Motherly are able to speak to a massive population through a particular lens.
Motherhood is not a niche — most women will become mothers. Speaking to women through that experience that and the way that motherhood shapes all aspects of her life, gives us a lot of freedom to create content for brands across a whole variety of categories.
What makes Motherly unique on social media?
Jill: We believe there is so much about the experience of motherhood that is universal, and there’s more that binds us together than that pushes us apart. We create content that resonates across stages of motherhood and across countries and cultures.
These are really universal things that Motherly is able to touch on and create a sense of “attainable aspiration” around motherhood.
Liz: We want women to feel better and more empowered after reading our content. We get comments every day, saying things like, “I needed this today, I had a really hard day and this makes me feel better.”
That’s something that’s so important to us—not drowning mothers in the sadness or hardship, but always helping her feel a degree of hope. We’re always trying to validate women, regardless of the platform.
How do you measure your impact? How does that data change what you produce?
Liz: We have daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, quarterly goals. We have a growth team that’s watching content in real time, and they’re able to build out and constantly iterate in editorial. That’s made a real difference for us.
We found that there are certain areas of content that our audience doesn’t respond to, and the next time that we see a story trending in that area, we have data to show that’s not a core topic for our audience.
We do a ton of content research. We’re studying NewsWhip and other tools to understand how content is being shared, and look at the full picture of topics that our audience is engaging with.
We’re always taking data in, as you know the digital behavior constantly changes and something that worked six months ago isn’t necessarily going to work today. We try to use all the tools at our disposal to make those informed choices.
It’s all about building a loyal audience these days. What does Motherly’s community look like?
Jill: We have a really strong captive audience. According to our Nielsen data for March, we had a unique US audience of 12 million viewers per week. We’re punching a lot above our weight in a lot of ways, especially for raising only $2 million so far—compared with other publishers of our audience.
A lot of it is because of Motherly’s brand and what we represent, which is really resonating with our audience. Our Motherly audience is sharing our content, and they are our #1 distribution channel.
They also becoming contributors. We believe everyone has something to share. Our MotherlyStories franchise is a great place for women to share first-person essays about their experiences.
Sample of comments from a Motherly Facebook video
We have a MotherlyInsights panel where we bring some of our highly-engaged users in provide feedback and test things out, and we’ll be leveraging that for our upcoming consumer products line.
We are building our community — TeamMotherly — to be our co-storytellers, co-conspirators, and our co-creators of Motherly. We’re all in this together.
That’s exciting, branching out into real products! Can you tell us more about this consumer products line?
Jill: The whitespace in [parenting] media, absolutely also exists in CPG for motherhood. We feel uniquely positioned because of our audience to bring Motherly’s attainable aspiration brand to product. Our goal is unexpected quality and design at an affordable price, for every mom.
Like we did in building a content-led community, we’ll again take a women-centered design for products in this category, all created in collaboration with TeamMotherly.
What are your challenges? How have you overcome them?
Jill: We have a lot of challenges that are similar to any startup that’s scaling quickly. There’s no blueprint to what we’re doing. Similar to parenthood, there’s no guide.
Our biggest challenge right now is funding — it’s the number one thing holding us back. We’re addressing the challenge in an upcoming Series A raise because we believe it’s time to add fuel to the fire with Motherly, with what we offer in video, CPG, and our data analytics.
Motherly has really engaging video content — can you tell us a bit about the process there?
Liz: Recently our approach on video is to leverage our high-performing articles and turn those into video. We create video with submissions from our community. We had an example on breastfeeding, and we were able to use photos and video from our community showing mothers breastfeeding.
Video allows us to visually represent the stories we’re telling from real moms. We had tremendous growth in video, because the stories we are telling are so emotional and so universal, and our audience feels validated.
These stories were not being told, especially in video, and they’re such intensely hard, beautiful and meaningful experiences to go through, and being able to depict that natively on a platform like Facebook, where our audience is and where she wants to share, is where a lot of our traction in 2018 has come from.
Is there anything you’re excited about this year, in terms of your content strategy?
Liz: Overall, we’re really excited to be transforming the ecosystem of parenting brands. There are so many interesting stories to tell, it can be overwhelming to decide what to publish. Once we decided to ask ourselves, “is this shareable?”, that was a game-changer for us. Not every piece of content we publish needs to be share-worthy, but each piece of content needs a strategy to reach our audience.
What are you most proud of?
Jill: We get to go to work every day and inspire millions of women, which is pretty awesome.
I’m really also proud that we’re creating a next-generation employer, where parents can thrive. We are very purposeful and intentional about having a remote workforce that allows for flexible roles, with co-working, and whether that’s mothers or fathers or just humans. I’m really proud we’ve been able to do that and maintain a culture at Motherly that is user-centered and mission-driven.
Thank you, Jill and Liz! To find the stories making an impact right now, across any industry or topic, take a demo of NewsWhip Spike.