Interview with Tina Sharkey
Tina Sharkey talks about the difference between vertical (BabyCenter) and horizontal (Facebook) social connections, why authenticity in social media matters, and how you can use social media to "think out loud" and leverage your business.
Tina Sharkey has more than 20 years of experience in the evolution of new media, ranging from the introduction of HDTV in 1986 to the forefront of Web 2.0 today. She has been featured as a Top Leader in Technology by Businessweek, Fast Company, and USA Today and currently serves on the boards of the Interactive Advertising Bureau and @d:tech.
BabyCenter is the Web’s #1 global interactive parenting brand, reaching 78% of new and expecting moms online in the United States, and reaching 15 million parents monthly across 18 markets worldwide. Recognized by Advertising Age’s 2008 Digital A-List, BabyCenter is the established leader in providing mom insights and innovative interactive marketing solutions to the world’s leading brands.
Prior to joining BabyCenter, Tina worked at America Online, Inc., where she led AOL’s social networking initiatives, including the AIM (Instant Messenger) and Social Media groups. Tina also led AOL’s network programming and directed the transformation of AOL.com into an open online destination. Before AOL, she served as Group President of Sesame Workshop's Online Services and prior as co-founder and chief community architect of iVillage.com. Prior to iVillage, Tina collaborated with Barry Diller on a new home shopping channel, Q2, a division of QVC, helped launch the Adobe Acrobat and New York 1 brands, and has managed corporate brand strategies for Time Warner, QVC and Sony.
Tina is a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute and a founding board member of Baby Buggy, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping New York City's families in need. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons.
An Interview with Tina Sharkey Chairman and Global President, BabyCenter LLC
Date: May 4, 2009
Tina Sharkey: Babycenter [intro music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi! This is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of the National Center for Women and Information Technology or NCWIT. This interview is part of a new series we're doing called the Entrepreneurial Toolbox. This is an interview series where we address a variety of issues that are important to entrepreneurship, everything ranging from the power of networking to learning from your failures to getting funding to navigating Silicon Valley. Today we're going to take on a topic concerning social media and how social media has changed over the years and how entrepreneurs can leverage social media. With me is Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Hi, Larry!
Larry Nelson: Hi! I'm really happy to be here. This is a very popular topic nowadays.
Lucy: Well, it certainly is. Why don't you tell people about w3w3 because you're in the middle of all this?
Larry: Yeah. Well, we're more than in the middle than I thought.
Larry: But yes. We started our Internet radio show 10 years ago, and we just launched our own IPTV: a live TV show, w3w3.com. We're surrounded from Twitter to Facebook to LinkedIn to all different types of social media, and there's a lot of questions out there.
Lucy: Well, we're excited today to be interviewing Tina Sharkey who has just a ton of experience in social media. She's the Chairman and Global President of BabyCenter. For listeners who are not familiar with BabyCenter, it is the web's number one interactive parenting network. And it's nurturing more than, get this, 100 million parents.
Lucy: I mean it's huge! It's just huge, and Tina really comes to this job with a wealth of experience in the evolution of new media, ranging from the introduction of HDTV in 1986 to really being at the forefront of the Web 2.0 today. So welcome, Tina.
Tina Sharkey: Hi! Thank you.
Lucy: We're really excited to have you here to talk to us about social media.
Tina: It's my pleasure, and so I am delighted to be here. There's nothing I like to talk more about. I'm very social, and right now we're creating some media. So let's go.
Lucy: OK. So why don't you catch us up just a minute about what's going on at BabyCenter?
Tina: BabyCenter? Wow! It's a very, very exciting time at BabyCenter right now. As you stated, we are the largest global interactive parenting network. We reach about 78 percent of new and expecting moms online here in the U. S., but what we've been very focused on over the last couple of years is our global expansion. So we're proud to say that now we are in 18 markets around the world. In probably 50 percent of those markets we're either the number one or number two site reaching new and expecting moms. We're seeing China and India and all of those areas really grow for us. We have greater reach in the UK and in Canada even than we have here in the U. S. if you can believe that. I think in the UK we reach about 90 percent of the new and expecting moms online in that region. We're in Australia, Switzerland, and Sweden. We just launched in Brazil. We're in Mexico. We're about to roll out France. We're really all over the place. It's really exciting to use technology as a way to connect the universality of motherhood. When we go into different regions, we take a different approach based on who those moms are, what the cultures are. But essentially the experience of becoming a parent and connecting around the advice and ultimately the friendship is universal. And it's exciting to see that take hold around the world.
Lucy: What are the top topics that people are talking about with BabyCenter these days? When you say it's universal, what kinds of themes to you see over and over again?
Tina: Well, here in the U. S. one of the themes that we see consistently is how I get my baby to sleep through the night... [laughter]
Lucy: That's really important for sure!
Tina: ... where that doesn't come up a lot in our Asia-specific sites because co-sleeping is very common in Asia, and so it's really not an issue.
Tina: The thing that is so interesting: we just are doing a study right now in understanding what are the insights around social engagement for moms verses the women at large and then people at large? And how does a mom want to connect in a social environment that might complement or be different than how they might connect, let's say, on a platform like a Facebook or a MySpace? Then what do those conversations look like? What are the questions that they want to know? What types of people do they want to connect with? And how does a vertical social network like a BabyCenter, where you're specifically connecting around the tribe of motherhood, differ from, let's say, a horizontal network like a Facebook or a MySpace or other environments like that? What we see is that moms may have their BFFs, their best friends in the world, and they may have them on Facebook or MySpace or other places. But when they come into a network where they're in their same tribe, people that share the common affinity and the commonality of experience, they're making their NBFs, their new best friends. Because they're looking for not necessarily their sister, their mother, or their roommate from college. They're actually looking for a mom that is having a baby at the same month or has a four-year-old in the same age. So what we find is that mothers are connecting in the BabyCenter environment around very specific shared experiences in motherhood. From that advice they get through the mom-to-mom wisdom, the crowdsourcing, the insights from people who are going through something very similar that then builds a bridge to friendship. They may become your best friend forever, but it starts in a friendship based on sharing in common experiences.
Larry: Here we are talking to the President of BabyCenter, also the cofounder of iVillage. And I have to say we have a lot of listeners on w3w3.com that are curious about how do you really define social media? For example, I hear things like passionate and fear. I hear trust and distrust as it relates to social media. Or "I love it and I'm knowledgeable in it" or "I'm totally in the dark." So could you tell us what's the hype and what are the facts?
Tina: Absolutely. Well, the first thing I would tell you is that social media is not an end product unto itself, you know? Social media is really a facilitating and enabling platform about the tools, the services, and the applications that allow people to connect, communicate, and share with each other. So social media in and of itself is not a destination. It's really a collection of things that enable conversation, that enable sharing, that enable discovery. So just like there are people that you trust and there are ideas that you subscribe to, and then there are people you don't trust and there are ideas that don't resonate with you, you have to look at social media as really the media that's created by people. You have to figure out who do you trust, who's in your circle of friends, whose opinions do you relate to, and who do you have respect for. And what do you want to discard? Thinking about that is the best filter, the way you would think about walking into a party or walking into a bar or coming up to ask advice. Are you more likely to get advice from a manufacturer about a product? Or are you more likely to trust the mom that you're sitting on the bench with watching the soccer game if you're trying to figure out which minivan is really great for getting the most equipment in the back? So it's a blend. People look for advice through all different means. Word of mouth is enabled largely by social media, and you have to figure out how to do that crowdsourcing, how to find that wisdom, and how to generate that. Let's talk about eBay. Is eBay social media? Well, not really. eBay is transactional media, but eBay really made famous in the late nineties the seller reputations, right? And everyone wanted to have a great seller reputation because it became a way to filter who I could trust in this open marketplace. I think over time social media will start to have the same type of reputation management. Who's following who? Whose recommendations I like? Whose information is interesting? I think you look at the Wikipedia, there's a community of people around the world that are jointly creating this encyclopedia. The crowd talk correct all the time. When somebody publishes to it and the people who are watching that area of history or information and they don't agree with the information, you'll see it get rewritten. It's about filters, and it's about reputation, and it's about taste and trust.
Lucy: Well Tina, you really understand a lot about social media. I think people would be curious to know what it is about social media that grabbed you in the first place.
Tina: I think that what grabs me about social media is the access, the authenticity. I'm very much someone who likes to feel connected to the many communities I belong in. As a working mom raising two boys, two young children, I have a lot of roles in my life. I'm a class mom for the first grade. I'm chairman and global president of BabyCenter. I am the spouse to my husband. I play so many different roles and it allows me to connect in authentic ways to the communities that I'm engaged it. It's very many different communities. For me, social media gives me an opportunity to stay connected, to stay authentic and to scale myself and my relationships with people for whom if I had all the time in the world with me maybe I'd have face to face and long conversations with. I can't be in every place that I want to be and so I use social media as a leverage way to get closer to the people I care about and to the things I'm interested in and as a filter to find out what's interesting. One of the things that's been fantastic recently in my engagement around Twitter has been that the people that I follow are becoming my editors. For example, the other day somebody tweeted that Obama was having a Seder in the White House. We're Jewish; we were actually preparing a Seder in our own house. I saw that tweet come up and it was a link to an article that was in the New York Times. I read the New York Times everyday but I don't read every single article and I missed it. I was so happy that I was able to find that. A week ago, I follow a friend of mine John Battelle who co founded the Web Tool Conference and runs Federated Media. John is really one of my filters and one of my editors. He, Mary Meeker from Morgan Stanley had just released her big benchmark report that had I gone to Morgan Stanley that calm, I would have downloaded it. I hadn't done that. John tweeted that he was reading her new report or it was in his Facebook status. Right there I downloaded the report. I use social media not just to connect but I also use social media for user curated content. It's about discovery of things. The people I follow become my curators of the web, whether it's the moms I'm friends with from school, or whether it's my colleagues in the industry, or whether it's journalists that I'm following. I use social media not only to read what other people are writing but also what other people are reading and engaged in.
Larry: Of course social media really has evolved a great deal over the past few years.
Tina: I mean over the past few weeks. [laughter]
Lucy: That's the truth.
Tina: It's happening at light speed.
Larry: Good correction there.
Larry: Now over these past few years and maybe the past few weeks, are there things that are maybe better than before or maybe some things that have not improved too much.
Tina: I think there are things that are better than before which is that I think that Twitter and Facebook; the concept of introducing the social graph, using Facebook as sort of the best discoverer of social graph. The way they help you connect to people that you are connected to but you didn't necessarily know you were connected to. For example, my best friend in Kindergarten Lisa Hellenger who I haven't spoken to literally since fourth grade showed up and friended me on Facebook. It just was so wonderful to know that she was out there and I haven't spoken to her since fourth grade. I was so happy to see pictures of her kids and to reconnect and to be talking to her. It brought my past into my present and creates opportunities for me in my future. I think the construct of the social graph and the way they've engineered that has been just a phenomenal, new development in social media that we didn't see before Facebook really came onto the scene. We didn't see that. Twitter just took off from there.
Larry: Is there anything that's maybe less positive?
Tina: Well, it depends. I think that you have to accept that we live in public today. For people who don't want to live in public. For people for whom they want to have lots of walls between their different lives; social media is challenging because it's very exposing. I think that, I was on a call the other day for a panel that I was putting together, one of the panelists said, "Are there going to be journalists at this panel"? I said, "Gosh, I assume that because we live in public today, everyone's a journalist". Your Facebook status is publishing right?
Lucy: [laughs] That's right. They all have an audience, they're all...
Tina: I assume there is no such thing as not living in public. You have to assume that everything you say is on the record. You have to manage through that and that can be tricky sometimes. That becomes tricky inside an office environment. That becomes tricky in terms of just knowing that your life is now officially on the record.
Lucy: That's a great point. More and more anytime you give a talk, everybody's a reporter. I mean it's really the case.
Larry: You bet.
Lucy: Let's turn our attention a minute to entrepreneurship and social media. What advice would you give entrepreneurs about the use of social media in their businesses?
Tina: That's a great bridge from this idea of living in public. I think that entrepreneurs, the great thing about social media for entrepreneurs who embrace it is that the scale and the reach that they can get turns it from it's not who I know. In the old days, everything is about who you know. I think in today's world it's about who knows you. The question is, how many friends? Are you using Twitter as a platform to expose your ideas, to engage people in the conversation? To build the right tribe and interest around the things you're passionate about, to use that as a leverage point. Not all entrepreneurs and small business owners have marketing budgets. You can be your own best advocate if you build that fan base and you use other people to get the information out there. The wisdom of crowds, the crowd sourcing, getting people to get behind and advocate for the things that you're advocating for. Getting in the middle of conversations where you actually have access to people that you may never have access to before. Put your ideas out there in the world and see what you're thinking about. The other day I tweeted that I'm thinking about how to access women that are not on the Internet in India to give them support and guidance through their pregnancy and looking at mobile. I was just thinking out loud because we are working on that here at BabyCenter. One of my followers pinged me and said, "Hey we have a whole mobile solution in India, let's talk". By thinking out loud I was able to create scale, build a relationship. We ended up meeting with him and his team and I think we may do something with them to supplement what we're doing with our mobile alerts in Indian regions. I think that there's tremendous opportunity if you use it for scale.
Larry: I love it. That's great. I know if I'm going to go tweet, what I think I have about 140 characters, a lot of people also want to make sure that you're not sending out commercials so much on it. What are some of the biggest mistakes that people make when they are using social networking?
Tina: I think the number one mistake that people make when they use social networking is to think they can somehow be behind the curtain. Then somebody else can be a spokesperson on their behalf. I think if you are going to get into it and you are really going to do it, you have to do it yourself. That has to be authentic. People can't script you, you know, it has to be in your voice. I think that people can see through that a mile away. You know, where people say: "You know, the reason why I don't have a personal blog and why I don't blog is because I don't have the time." I have had PR people come to me, not [Zena], but others, and say, "Hey, we can blog for you. We can write your posts." And I say, "No." Like, if I don't have time to do it then I rather not do it at all, then, have somebody do it on my behalf. So I am choosing... I can tweet a little bit and I have Facebook, and that's how I manage my social communications with my friends, my family and my colleagues. But I don't have time right now in this stage of my life to do something else. So therefore, better not to get in the pool than to get in in an inauthentic way.
Lucy: Good advice, I think. I don't have a blog either. [laughter] And actually Larry has a blog but we have a guest editorial, so people are writing in their own voice. So now I am glad I don't even to attempt to do it. I want to turn philosophical for a moment and ask you about an article I had read in the Wall Street Journal, about, what they call "Generation F" the Facebook generation, where they live in a social networking, social media world in their personal lives. And some of the characteristics of that world they expect to then see in the physical world of work, you know, in the office, for example. What do you think about that? Is it just too fuzzy to even answer this question? But it was really all about managing, you know, leading people at work today who have grown up in this social media environment.
Tina: I think that going back to what we talked about, about living in public. And I think that you have to except it and you have to incorporate it into your conversations. I think you have to think about: Look, there is stuff that's confidential when you are in the workplace; people have to understand that they are working. You have to understand that your employees are on Facebook, right, and your employees have to know that you know that they are on Facebook, or Twitter or other places, and you have to create some rules on the road and rules of engagement, and you have to establish those rules. But you have to deal with it - in my opinion - very proactively, and actively talk about what's acceptable and what's not acceptable. Just like in the old days, you would say, "OK, these are employees that are allowed to go on the record with the Wall Street Journal and others, but if any press inquiries come in, please forward them to our corporate communications department." In the same way, if you assume that every employee is a blogger or is a twitter or has a Facebook status update, then you have to let them know that when a meeting is confidential, when information is confidential, and be proactively and aggressively communicating that.
Lucy: Well, and some of what this article went on to postulate was that in the online world, in many ways, ideas count more than credentials, and maybe, more than rank, and that people are more on an equal footing. People are contributing and consuming. Sometimes in the world of work, at the office, that's just not quite the case. So some of this was around the norms that are established in the social networking world and how they affect leadership at work.
Tina: Well, I think that good ideas can come from anywhere. And I think that social media has created sort of a democratization of ideas and media, but there still are rules and responsibilities, and people have to know what they are and where they fit into those. But I think any good leader knows how to solicit those ideas to create and engage the collaborative and democratized environment that stills has goals, objectives, priorities, and people need to know what they are meant to focus on and how to how to focus their priorities.
Lucy: I agree totally. It's a reflection of what good leadership should be about anyway.
Tina: Yeah, I think it's just about leaders embracing that. Rather than saying, you know, "This isn't the rule of the day" to say "This is." We live in public. But that doesn't mean that chaos ensues, that just means you have to embrace into your style and into understanding, you know, how to manage your team and manage your staff, and what the expectations are and what's acceptable and not acceptable. What's sanctioned and what's not sanctioned. What's appropriate and inappropriate. You just need to communicate that and make that part of your training or your engagement, and what the expectations are. It's all about setting the right expectation and communicating that and being consistent with that communication.
Larry: Well, I must say this has been some very good advice for me personally, thank you. And I say this because you just mentioned the word "chaos". I just finished writing a book called, "Mastering Change in the Midst of Chaos". And we are going to setting up some social media thing, so we can maybe get enough information from the folks outside for the book number two.
Tina: And I think the people need to know... and to build on that, is that: you run but you can't hide. I think there are a lot of examples where companies have... every company at some point in its lifecycle will have a crisis, whether its communication crisis, or a product crisis, or some kind of gaffe. That's just the world. Not the world we live in today, but just the world, right?
Tina: So what's the best thing to do in environments like that, given that we live in a world with instant communication and new filters, is to deal with head on, to go right out there. I remember, I think it was a year and half ago, maybe two years now, when Jet Blue had that problem on the runways, where all these people got stuck. And, look, that was a problem. They had a problem on their hands. Their brand and the way people felt about them. It was so empathetical to how people felt about Jet Blue. But, that CEO, he got out there. He went on to every talk show, interview, Yutube. I mean, this was two years ago. But he... you cannot hide from that stuff. You have got to actively communicate it. How to weather a Twitter storm? Those are skills that CEOs and corporate communications departments need, because it happens and happens fast. Just this weekend, there was some glitch on Amazon, where the gay and lesbian book titles were somehow pulled off the database and a Twitter storm ensued. You have to just deal with it and get right out there and talk to people. And I think consumers will be very accepting of these things if they feel like the company is authentically dealing with it. If they feel like people are spinning or hiding or any of those things, that's when the attack starts.
Lucy: It's really fascinating. We have some great new words these days too, like Twitter storm. That's really great. Well, Tina, thanks you very much for talking to us. One final question. I really appreciated the answers to the questions that we have asked so far. Is there something we should have asked you that we didn't?
Tina: I don't know. But if I think of something I can tweet you. [Lucy laughs]
Larry: Oh, very good then. Sounds wonderful.
Tina: Oh, it's funny but the other day, [inaudible 23:27], that's one of my friends Facebook. She was doing an interview. I think she was doing one of the Sunday morning Washington shows, and she was the interviewer. And her Facebook status was: "I am interviewing the following politicians tomorrow morning, what questions do you want me to ask?" And I thought that was fantastic filter crowd-sourcing. She was asking her friends at her network, what questions they wanted her to ask before she went on and did that. So I think that's evolving question, and I look forward to coming back and continuing the conversation.
Lucy: Well, thank you very much Tina. We really appreciated it. I want to remind listeners that they can find these podcasts on w3w3.com and also ncwit.org; also iTunes, I must say.
Larry: All right, there we go.
Lucy: Well, thank you very Tina. We appreciate it.
Tina: Thank you. Have a great one.
Larry: We will see you soon.
Lucy: OK, thanks Tina. [concluding music] Transcription by CastingWords