From Book to Blog to Business: The BabyNameWizard.com Case Study
What we learned, how we succeeded and where we failed
The subject of BabyNameWizard.com has come up several times at work in the past few weeks, so I spent some time over the weekend to put together this case study. (If you don’t know me and you’ve never heard of BabyName Wizard, I am now the head of Product at News Corp, but for six years I was a bootstrapped entrepreneur helming the cult baby naming website. Read on for more!)
Background: An Author and a Product Exec Meet on the Internet
Laura Wattenberg was a friend and the author of the bestselling baby name book on the market: The Baby Name Wizard. I had worked in big corporate Internet jobs, but always felt there was an entrepreneur inside of me just waiting to get out.
In February 2008, we established a partnership with the goal of turning Laura’s promotional website for her book into a full-fledged digital media business that we would operate together. Laura had already started to blog and had developed an interactive baby name graph, but we knew we needed more than that — and we needed it before Mother’s Day when the Social Security Department would release its annual list of the most popular baby names in the U.S.
Challenges: No Cash, No Content, and an Unbeatable Competitor
What could possibly go wrong with our plan? Having built and managed large-scale websites in the past, I was pretty confident in my ability to research and select a tech stack, manage a design and development team, and operate a business — after all, I’d seen others do it! But we also faced some pretty big obstacles.
- We had no funding and launched the site in 2008, just as the ad market for high-CPM contextual Internet advertising was cratering.
- Laura wanted the website to promote her book, but she didn’t want to cannibalize her book sales, so content from the book itself was off-limits.
- We knew from Google Trends that “baby names” was a top-searched term in the lifestyle category for several years running. But we also knew that “BabyNames.com” had a lock on the head term “baby names”, thanks to its unbeatable domain that was a direct match to the search query.
Experience / Process:
Designing a Product that Would Stand Out
Our site couldn’t be like the dozens of pink and purple commodity baby name dictionaries that already existed. It needed to serve a new generation of parents who’d become accustomed to conducting deep research on the Internet and who approached parenting as partners. Laura’s name expertise coupled with my experience building digital products in the Personal Finance category led us to create a website that one reviewer described as “Bloomberg for BabyNames,” offering the richest, most data-intensive research and tools for the name obsessed parent-to-be.
It was also important to us that the site appealed to both moms and dads, so unlike the competition, overtly “feminine” design elements were off-limits.
Discoverability: If a Baby Name Website Exists on the Internet, But No One Can Find It in Google, Does It Exist At All?
Capturing search traffic was absolutely necessary to grow an audience, and we hypothesized that while “baby names” might be a top-5 search term, there were probably even more searches in aggregate for the long tail of thousands of baby names users might be looking up.
So, our first order of business was to design the best, most search-optimized individual name pages so people would find us first when they Googled any baby name. We called this product, which was ultimately the core of BabyNameWizard.com, Namipedia. We designed search-optimized container pages that leveraged the power of H2 and H3 headers (HTML tags for section headers that web crawlers weight more heavily than untagged body text) to maximize search discoverability, and with the help of three high school students on spring break, we pre-populated 3000 pages with name “origins and definitions” we’d licensed from the author of a lesser known, but highly-regarded baby name encyclopedia.
Namipedia pages contained content blocks with headers like:
- Pronunciation of the Name XX:
- Origins and Meaning of the Name XX:
- Baby Names Related to the Name XX:
- Sibling Names for the Name XX:
- Baby Name XX in Song, Story, and Film:
- History of the Baby Name XX:
- Impressions of the Baby Name XX:
Tapping the Power of Community to Develop Content at Scale
But the power of the Namipedia was in opening it up to our community. Registered users could add new names to Namipedia or enrich the content of existing names. By the time we sold BabyNameWizard.com in 2014, there were over 25k robust, search-optimized names listed in Namipedia, most of them ranking at #1 or #2 on Google SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages).
Those individual Namipedia pages also became the atomic unit of content for our site. Every tool, blog post or comment on the site that included a name also included a link back to that name’s Namipedia entry in the same way that financial and market data tools like Portfolios and Watchlists always link ticker symbols back to a foundational stock quote page. This strategy creates a virtuous user experience with no dead-ends that is also rewarded by Google, whose search algorithm looks favorably on internal linking.
Putting the “Fun” in Functionality: Developing Viral Hooks
While Namipedia was a practical and tactical research tool that took its cues from traditional name dictionaries, the Name Voyager was more whimsical and unexpected. An interactive graph that was inspired by financial markets tools, the Name Voyager allowed users to enter a name letter by letter and “surf” the popularity of individual names over time. (We also built a backend tool off the back of Name Voyager’s interactive graphing functionality that auto-generated thousands of static thumbnail charts, one for each name in our database as of the current date, providing easy graphics for Namipedia pages and to illustrate blog posts). People loved the Name Voyager and every few months it enjoyed renewed popularity as one influencer or another discovered and shared it.
A Blog With Appeal Beyond Baby Namers
Laura’s weekly blog posts were an essential part of our content strategy. Her unique anthropological take on names was often pegged to a newsworthy event or a pop culture phenomenon, creating natural opportunities for our core community members to share with friends whose interests might not otherwise tend towards names. We also kept a running roster of reporters and influencers who had written about names in the past and would email them with blog posts when appropriate.
Business Model or Bust!
But even as our audience for BabyNameWizard.com grew over time, we were operating in an environment of declining ad values that meant revenue did not rise proportionately with traffic. We needed to rethink our original business model. While we wouldn’t give up on advertising, it was clear we would need multiple streams of revenue to keep our enterprise afloat.
A mentor at an earlier job had once described the media business as a stool with three legs: advertising, subscriptions, and licensing. We would follow that model. Thanks to the quality of our content, we quickly struck a couple of licensing deals, contributing a weekly name advice column (Ask the Name Lady) to some bigger web portals, including AOL. We also pursued an opportunity to produce a pilot for a company that produced reality TV shows for cable television, but it didn’t pan out.
Eventually, we added “premium” tools to the site for serious namers willing to shell out a few bucks for the perfect name. The “Name Matchmaker,” was an algorithmic-driven name recommendation engine. Users could enter one, two or three names they liked — as well as important personal and style criteria like “not too popular” or “French” — and the NameMatchMaker would return a weighted list of names they would also like.
Laura had written this algorithm years before. It was initially what got me interested in her book, and she used it regularly to develop content for her blog and other research projects. Productizing it allowed us to collect direct revenue from individual users — and eventually, it became a tool we used to wow potential buyers when we decided to sell the company.
BabyNameWizard.com received numerous accolades, notably we were named one of TIME Magazine’s 50 Best Websites of 2009, alongside the likes of Amazon,Twitter, Netflix, and Spotify.
By the time we sold the company in 2014, traffic on BabyNameWizard.com had grown to over 2 million monthly unique visitors — with no paid marketing. With fewer than 4 million babies born in the U.S. that year, that means that we probably captured the eyeballs of every American parent-to-be — plus a lot of their friends and families, not to mention pet namers and writers of fiction seeking just the right character name.
We’d also managed to stay afloat — and remain profitable every year — without taking an outside investment. Laura’s book remained the top-seller in its category (now in its fourth edition). And in the end, when it mattered most, the Name Matchmaker came through — correctly guessing the name of the third child of the CEO who eventually bought our company, a nifty parlor trick that probably sealed the deal.
Looking back with a dozen years of hindsight on a business I started with a friend, what would I do differently? Lots of things. But they were things I learned along the way and at subsequent jobs. Laura was a writer and researcher. I was a product executive and editor. Neither of us had a strong enough background in sales or marketing to take our business to the next level. We were invested in the quality of our product and the engagement of our audience, but neither of us was a killer when it came to self-promotion or monetization.
I’m probably more of a killer and more strategic today than I was then. A subsequent stint at a direct-to-consumer startup incubator taught me a lot about direct revenue generation and marketing funnels. And if I still owned BabyNameWizard.com today, I think I could do more with it. I would probably invest in social marketing to grow the base audience; I’d focus on free registrations and partner with direct marketing and advertising clients to deliver highly targeted marketing messages to an engaged audience; I’d self-produce a weekly video series based on our Name Lady character; and I might experiment with some alternative business models. All that said, the advent of “snippets” and the rise of zero-click searches (50% of Google searches result in no clicks to a third-party website) may have been too much for us to survive.