About.com's CEO Tries To Maintain Momentum

Cella Irvine of The About GroupIn February, when Scott Meyer left as head of The About Group, The Times Co.'s digital unit was operating at the top of its game. By July, when Cella Irvine was tapped to take over, maintaining the unit's momentum amid mounting market troubles was just one of the challenges facing the ex-Digitas exec. Nearly six months later, Online Media Daily talked with Irvine about her success to date, new challenges going forward, and new and to-date unprecedented market troubles.

OMD: Firstly, we thought we'd give you the chance to clear up any misconceptions about the reasons for you leaving Digitas in June.

Irvine: I left Digitas in July of 2007 and joined About.com is July of 2008. In the year that I took off my son, who was then seven years old, woke up with a high fever. I hurried to my computer and visited four Web sites trying to find out what I was supposed to do. About.com was the only place that I was able to find the clear, credible and actionable answer, so when I received a call about this position at About.com, I was pretty thrilled.

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OMD: Now that you're about six months into the new job, would you give us your assessment of the company?

Irvine: The About Group is a healthy business--we continue to grow revenues at About.com by creating content that is helpful and interesting to users in managing the hills and valleys of everyday life. We also continue to nurture and grow our newer businesses--UCompareHealthCare.com, Calorie Count, ConsumerSearch.com and About China.

OMD: In particular, how is About.com faring in the key area of health and wellness, where you're up against increasing competition from heavyweights like Google, and (your onetime employer) Microsoft?

Irvine: About Health remains among the top five health sites. Our Guides, who are credentialed health experts, provide helpful and insightful information to our users. Our Guides also cultivate relationships with our readers. The abundance of original content and information on our site allows us to differentiate ourselves from the various forms of new competition.

OMD: Why hasn't About attempted to parlay its engaged community of readers and "guides" into a more structured social network a la Facebook or LinkedIn?

Irvine: About.com is actively pursuing a strategy of user engagement that we think makes the most sense for our audience. We're not looking to replicate the experience on any other site.

OMD: Six months ago, few could have anticipated that we'd be staring at such a bleak economic picture, today. How is that affecting business operations, planning, and investment?

Irvine: Advertising across all media is in a state of uncertainty right now. Internet marketing is probably one of the most stable media environments because of the accountable nature of the medium.

OMD: Could job cuts or reductions in "guide" compensation be necessary to weather what many are predicting will be a dismal ad market?

Irvine: As you know, About.com does not comment on rumors related to our current or future staffing plans. Thus far, in 2008, we've added 105 Guide sites and currently have over 770 Guides. We plan to add 10 additional Guides by end of year.

OMD: Do you think About.com is better insulated from the economic downturn than, say, (another onetime employer of yours) Hearst?

Irvine: Our strategy of improving content quality, building the brand and improving the site design all contribute to growing revenue. About.com has established itself as a leader in providing customized solutions to help marketers achieve their goals. The creation of the About.com Insight Network, which leverages insights and knowledge from our pool of over 770 expert Guides, has led to effective user-inspired solutions for our clients.

We will continue to develop new go-to-market programs based on insights garnered from our Guides and User Panels, and believe this will help increase our advertising revenue.

On the CPC side, it's about optimizing the design to make the advertisements as relevant as possible to the context of the page. It's important to remember that About.com has been in the CPC advertising business since 2001. As a result, we have a deep knowledge of how to optimize the large amount of traffic on our site. This was a driver behind our acquisition of ConsumerSearch.com in May of 2007. Our CPC expertise has accelerated the growth of this property significantly.

OMD: Are previous estimates that About.com is worth $600 million still accurate today?

Irvine: We are not going to comment on this.

OMD: Are there still any plans to integrate About content with content offering from The Times?

Irvine: We view the content on About.com to be complementary to other New York Times Company sites. NYTimes.com excels at foreign, national and local news and sports, cultural coverage and business news, while About.com excels at providing practical solutions to everyday questions.

OMD: When Scott Meyer stepped down as CEO of About in February, rumors were swirling that The Times Co. was considering a sale of the unit. What are the chances of a sale occurring today?

Irvine: As you know, we don't comment on rumors concerning potential acquisitions or divestitures. What I can tell you is that one of the pillars of the Times Company's strategy is to increase the percentage of revenues coming from its digital businesses. About is a very important part of this. Last year, we contributed more than $100 million in revenues, which was about a third of the Times Company's total digital revenues. And this year we've had very strong growth. We have very attractive margins. In short, we're doing well, and are part of the Times Company's future.

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