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When Conde Nast builds Web 2.0

I continue to think that attending another industry’s conference is one of the most surreal experiences you can have. I’m at the Editor and Publisher and Adweek “Interactive Media” conference at the invitation of the Knight Foundation. Despite the fact that I’ve been working in interactive media, more or less, since 1994, this conference is a reminder of how vast the world of “media” is. I spend a lot of time talking with people who are looking at the big conceptual issues of media and lots of time with folks who work in the citizen media space. But I don’t generally get to hang out with magazine editors, suburban newspaper publishers or the folks on the front lines of monetizing content in newspapers and online. It’s very enlightening.

The first speaker of the day was Sarah Chubb, the president of Condenet, the set of CondeNast magazine websites and eight standalone sites produced by Conde Nast, designed to allow the company to reach new audiences. Chubb walks us through the creation of flip.com, a site designed to target teenage girls. She points out that this is an incredibly competitive market, where Conde Nast had already introduced Teen Vogue. Her goal was to create a site designed for digital natives, for kids who are as comfortable creating media as consuming it.

The site is the result of a great deal of quantitative and qualitative research, based on interviews with 1400 teen girls. The researchers concluded that teen girls live in three media worlds – the outer world of television, music, movies and other media; a world of social connections; and an inner world of creativity, self-expression and imagination. Two of those circles are highly competitive – there’s a lot of media competing for teen attention in the space of movies and music, and there’s dozens of sites like MySpace, Xanga and Facebook which want to help teens connect with each other. Condenet saw an opportunity to build a tool focused on this inner space – the creativity and self-expression world.

Chubb’s researchers observed that teen girls end up constructing “shrines to themselves”, wall and paper collages of pictures from magazines that portray images and ideas they’re interested in. They customize their clothing and their tools, “badging” to anounce their afilliations. They are “socially aware, driven and ambitious” – with the rise of programs like American Idol, they all think they could be famous. Chubb tells the story of her teenage daughter’s summer vacation: “She spent the whole thing taking camphone photographs of herself on the beach and sending them to her friends.”

So flip.com is designed to “fuels girl’s ambition to define themselves through celebrity” and market them as much as possible in the process. Flip does this by letting girls build “flipbooks” – digital scrapbooks where they can include audio, video, pictures from around the web… or from Flip’s media library. That library is richly stocked with popular images and “pictures of cool things, fonts letters” as well as “advertiser assets” connected with brands that sponsor the site. “Girls like brands,” Chubb tell us, and her goal is to tap into that enthusiasm. “How do we help girls pull brands into their own bubbles?”

It’s hard to miss the branding on the site – it’s everywhere. But Chubb believes this isn’t a turnoff for the users – one feature that every tester supported was the ability for users to choose the ad that was placed on their userpage. (She enthuses about a post from a girl who chose acne medicine Clean and Clear – “She’d picked Clean and Clear because she liked what they stand for,” a message that Chubb immediately passed to the advertiser. There are now 60,000 users, about 30,000 active flipbooks, and Condenet sees the ability to “grow them into style.com” users.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a project quite so carefully target-marketed. Talking with friends over lunch, I offered the thought that Flip might fail because the technology is insufficiently flexible. Sites like MySpace probably didn’t expect to become the new space for bands to launch themselves, but their tool was sufficiently flexible to let that new behavior thrive. One of my friends argued that Flip is actually targetted less to teens than to tweens, and the constraints on the tools might well be appealing to parents as they decide how to let their kids use the tool.

I’m used to watching tools be created by geeks, usually tools that they want to use themselves, like Joshua Schachter‘s creation of del.icio.us. Flip’s about as far as you can get from this… which makes sense as most tween girls don’t write software. But it’s fascinating and a little disconcerting to watch the full power of consumer anthropology and targetted advertising aimed at kids, even in a way that encourages and rewards a certain form of creative self-expression…

2 thoughts on “When Conde Nast builds Web 2.0”

  1. I had no idea that Conde Nast was behind flip.com. The first time I came across Flip.com was via Salam Adil’s latest wrap-up of the Iraqi blogosphere. He pointed to an interview with Iraqi teen blogger Sunshine.

    I was impressed not only by the intimate look into her life (more intimate, somehow, than her blog posts), but also by the comments she received from other teen girls around the world. One that really stood out was by a teenage girl in Medellín, Colombia who wrote:

    Hi!!! I write you from Medellin Colombia in South America. I’m also 15 years old and I want to tell you that I think your flipbook is great. In my country we also have to live with the wrong image that media send to the rest of the world. ByE!! Naty…

    It’s an interesting paradox to feel both enthusiastic about these kinds of exchanges between teenage girls in Colombia and Iraq while also feeling somewhat disgusted by the advertising focus of the site.

    I also stumbled across a flipbook about Darfur.

  2. Pingback: El Oso, El Moreno, and El Abogado » Blog Archive » Mostly Random Thoughts From the 2007 Conference of the International Communications Association

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