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Hey, How'd You Launch an Online Network of User-Generated Content for Women?

For this CEO, the key to a vibrant online community is truly integrating editorial and user-generated content

By Andrea K. Hammer - October 14, 2009
Kate Everett Thorp, chief executive officer of Real Girls Media (RGM) in San Francisco, has had quite the diverse career. There's her start as a TV news reporter, a stint in politics as a congressional aide, the founding of the digital advertising firm Lot21, and more recently, a role as president of worldwide advertising for AKQA. But, it was her time at a venture capital firm that birthed her true passion: developing user-generated content for women online.

"I was able to work closely with past investors who had confidence in me to take on this venture," Thorp recalled. "What we did was pretty unique; we didn't start a small site and show it worked and then try to get money -- the traditional route. Instead, we boldly walked in and asked for $6 million to start a network from scratch with nothing going yet."

Launched in 2007 with the assistance of strategic investors Walden Venture Capital and 3i and now the Meredith Corp., RGM's flagship site DivineCaroline reported 5.3 million users in May. Cracking Quantcast's Top 200 sites in the world, the site's users generate the daily articles -- from relationships to travel and money -- along with some editorial contributions, which "guide" in tone and content. Thorp, a featured speaker at mediabistro.com's upcoming UGCX conference, tells how empowering readers to express personal experiences while still offering them publishing validation is the key to a vibrant online community.


How did you conceive and develop the idea for Real Girls Media?
With DivineCaroline, we sought to empower women's voices on the Web. So 70 percent of DivineCaroline's content is UGC [user-generated content], and you're free to publish. We wanted a broad range of channels and sections, so there are many places you might want to contribute, and others you might want to resource. Then, we wanted it to be a beautiful destination, where you would be proud to be published [and] advertisers would be eager to be involved in a clean, well-lighted place.

Is the material edited, or does the site post text as submitted?
We read the articles and give a complimentary proofread. We want the women, and some of the men, to be super-proud of their contributions. We look for the usual mistakes. It's more along the lines of making sure it's real, not offensive to any person or group and not just "brochure-ware."

We've had people published, getting book deals because they can show some audience traction. So we work hard to send millions of people through DivineCaroline to give people access. Starting a blog, creating content and getting an audience is a full-time job; a lot of people have wonderful things to share, but that's not their overall passion.

"Our publishing platform allows for all of this editorial management on the fly. We can manage 175,000 authors; you can't do that with a staff of six in editorial, who are also writing their own articles and moderating everything."

Are the other 30 percent of contributors professional writers?
Yes, we have a small editorial staff to ensure that we're covering some topics that require depth, as well as some fun, current events that would be interested people. We still write from a first-person and/or a narrative, so we try to write in the same way that our audience does.

Why did you select the title of your company?
More than half the people on the Web are female, so we're looking at that target market. The feeling and passion at RGM is to empower the voices [of] women and girls. We want to remove the traditional barriers to that, which was the world of the gatekeeper. We have a lot of people ask how much it costs to publish with us. We say, "It's free; just go."

How were you able to get Meredith and the other investors involved?
I was with Walden, who invested in Lot21, so they had known me for years. We met with 3i, which is a global fund. We were able to raise the money in about a month and a half. We launched our beta within three months, from scratch, on a full technical network platform. It's pretty sophisticated because our publishing platform allows for all of this editorial management on the fly. We can manage 175,000 authors; you can't do that with a staff of six in editorial, who are also writing their own articles and moderating everything. Technology was very important to us.

Does the financial backing free you from the pressure of getting advertising?
We brought on a strategic investor Meredith Corp. We joined our sales force with their much larger sales force, and we co-sell both their properties and ours. Now, we have a very large sales force to monetize all of that inventory. Through that relationship, we were able to enjoy their sales prowess; alternatively, we were then able to share our platform with them.

So we have launched More.com on the RGM platform. They have the auto-publishing; they have the ability to do their layouts and everything on their own with no Web team.

"The definition of community for us was that it all had to be one community. It wasn't going to be, 'Here's editorial, and then you guys are over there.'"

What was appealing about establishing this online community?
You were either fully censored and not able to participate, or you were able to participate, but you were over in this thing called "community," which was never going to be the home page. All these sites were launching a section called "community," which said, 'Okay, you guys go over there.' It was generally forums and boards, but there was no audience over there; they weren't investing into it. You can see on these major properties that they basically fizzled. The last update was a day ago. It doesn't feel vibrant.

The definition of community for us was that it all had to be one community. It wasn't going to be, 'Here's editorial, and then you guys are over there.' So the home page of DivineCaroline is UGC; it's whatever are the featured stories and not about "who." So we don't tag an ID and say, 'Here's an editor or expert with 10 stars.' It's just one community; people can give each other props, but that's not how things are selected.

Could you elaborate on the decision not to focus on men?
Publications and brands need to have a focus. Gender is one of those top demographic things you check off as to what need you want to fulfill and for whom. For us, we felt that women have a lot to say and didn't have a clear-cut venue to provide that online. Those peoples' voices as well as the power bloggers deserved a place to come to both read and absorb information as well as have the opportunity to share on an equal level.

That nuclear family is dispersed. Now, online you can find communities that make sense to you and find people who provide you that access.

What are your thoughts about equalizing the playing field for professional writers?
I think the opportunity is equalized, so the platform is there on equal terms for everyone. One writer over another is based on topic, quality and reaching an audience that resonates with them; they will have different groupings. One woman, for instance, has 90 articles, and every time she publishes, over a thousand people come because they all have alerts on her. The opportunity is there; knowing who is a pro and who isn't, seeing the uptake in the audience is completely based on the content in the community.

But there's a different ill effect that's happening, especially in news coverage. I've spoken at the Knight Ridder School in Berkeley a couple of times with some amazing newspaper reporters who have all won Pulitzers. This investigative reporting aspect, it scares me that it could go away or not be valued with the decrease in newspapers.

Who is going to investigate the hospital and tell everybody they sent people away out the back door, and nobody knew? I don't believe that professional journalism is going away. I think there's a push happening, but I'm not sure that's anything new since blog software was invented because everyone can do it. But not everyone can get [an] audience, and the institutions were the ones who drove audience. So that's what gave those brands the ability to move their message.

One person writes, and another copies it; then, they go get the audience. That to me is not okay. That's where, collectively, publishers of any content [need] to protect [it] fiercely. For instance, if we're ever notified that something is not original, then things go tearing down. We're happy to fully support the originating authors. If something looks familiar to us, we Google it instantly.

With an inundation of sites and blogs, how do you draw a large audience?
We view ourselves as the platform that's open and providing opportunity. When people publish, we send them a "Congratulations, you're published" email, and they send it to everyone they know because they're proud. It's a validation to be published; it's something we've all grown up with wanting to do. Each of the different community members and authors often share their contributions extensively. We work very hard to drive audience. We have many syndication relationships from Yahoo! to Huffington Post. We also provide content to them, which is even greater because if we syndicate a piece on the home page of Yahoo!, it's pretty exciting.

Are professional freelance writers paid for published articles?
We have a small pool of freelancers that we tap for specialized content, so yes. But it's less than one percent. If we have a topic regarding psychiatry... it has to be specialized. The work has to be requisitioned.

We have a lot of popular bloggers who publish on the site. We also have 450 content partners, who we have no financial relationship with who publish on the site, and that's everybody from Mental Floss to Forbes -- from the profit to nonprofit variety.

Do you have plans to launch other sites?
We're looking at a couple more brands coming in the year. Part of our mission is to always look for different age groups, as well. Currently, DivineCaroline nails the 25 to 54 age group. As those markets become more identifiable to us, we're definitely interested in doing this across different age groups.


Andrea K. Hammer, a freelance writer specializing in arts and business, is the founder and director of Artsphoria: Visual Word Artistry.

[This interview was edited for length and clarity.]

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