In the strange world of niche women’s websites one major Australian player, News Limited, has been conspicuously silent.

While Fairfax has cleaned up with the popular Essential Baby, News was left to ponder its future as an online player amid the massive 65% of total Australian consumption controlled by women.

But all that changed in late June when News ponied up a sweet $45 million for ex-Booz Allen Hamilton executive Katie May’s KidSpot group. Included in the group’s goldmines are Birth.com.au, The Spot and a cache of valuable marketing documents digging in to the psyche of the modern female consumer.

Crucially, the purchase included advertising middle-woman outfit SheSpot, which claims to reach 2.5 million people each month placing ads for Best Recipes, Easy Weddings and Weight Watchers.

But it was another SheSpot client that really set tongues wagging — Mamamia, the increasingly popular part-advertorial play run by former Cosmo editor Mia Freedman and husband Jason Lavigne. As a result of the KidSpot purchase, News had begun to control a large percentage of Freedman’s major revenue stream, said to be around $1 million a year.

Rumours that News will soon buy the entire Mamamia business — that captures 300,000 unique browsers a month — are circulating feverishly, with informed estimates putting the possible purchase price at around $2-5 million.

A story in this morning’s Fairfax-owned Business Review Weekly has poured petrol on the bonfire with Lavigne admitting “bigger publishers” were “circling” the site. Freedman is also a regular on Sky News (one-third owned by the News-controlled BSkyB) and recently popped up on Fridays with new episodes of her own Mamamia-branded program.

Neither Freedman nor News Limited spin doctor Greg Baxter responded to Crikey‘s requests for comment on this story.

One crucial site that went unmentioned in News’ KidSpot acquisition was justb, a Facebook-centric womens’ portal launched in August after being on the drawing board since May.

Crikey can reveal that Freedman was offered an equity stake and a possible editorial role with justb but that she turned it down. Katie May later decided to hire a full-time editor, former Madison deputy features editor Alex Carlton, to oversee the growing site that impressively features a daily media wrap.

(Justb was initially restricted to Facebook but has since been replicated on a blog platform, Justbaustralia.com.au, that allows for longer feature stories.)

The justb business model is, for now, purely participatory with advertisements absent from the website and the main Facebook page. May, who reports to News Magazines chief Sandra Hook, told Crikey that “there are no monetisation plans … it’s more the learnings, we can apply those back to a number of different properties. We see Facebook as fundamental to the future.”

May outlined the social media inspiration for justb, with so many sets of eyeballs gobbled up by Mark Zuckerberg: “We may not be losing the battle because we’re standing still in terms of time spent, but we can see who’s winning and that’s Facebook.”

In News Limited’s leaked strategy document published by Crikey two weeks ago, KidSpot featured under its listing of “hero brands”. And in a press release announcing the purchase, CEO John Hartigan said he was chuffed to capture 10% of the online “fast-moving consumer goods” advertising market worth — in total (both offline and online) — about $500 million a year according to Nielsen. A good proportion of that 10% is displayed on Mamamia through SheSpot.

Veteran media analyst Steve Allen from Fusion Strategy told Crikey the FMCG market was becoming increasingly crucial for News’ operation. Companies like Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark were champing at the bit to target stay-at-home mums.

“The ads are high-volume purchases spruiking items that are all available at the supermarket — the target market are all very strong supermarket shoppers,” he said. “And that’s before you get to products targeted at trying to make people attractive and beautiful.”

Allen reckons News will be very active in the digital space in the next five years and is strengthening its position to reign supreme over the mums market. Mamamia and its savvy former girls-mag editor is expected to figure prominently in those plans.

Peter Fray

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