Getting Glam

Famous for its female-centric sites, Glam now has bigger dreams—maybe even an IPO

Call it the makeover of Glam Media. Since its launch in 2005, Glam has been many things: a media company, a tech company, an ad network, an owner and operator of its own stable of diverse websites, including the epicurean destination Foodie, which hit last month. But now, it would appear Glam is all grown up and ready for its next phase.

Foodie in particular has Glam “really feeling to me like what I would classify as the next generation of media companies, which is a very tightly meshed combination of curated content and social,” says the company’s founder and CEO Samir Arora, in full-on salesman mode. Foodie represents what Arora calls Glam 3.0, focused as much on cranking out content as erecting a social community around it.

While he might overstate Foodie’s position in the next-media vanguard, his description of the Epicurious-meets-Facebook social site also offers insight into how Arora—one of the most colorful personalities in a digital-media universe crammed with colorful personalities (just check out his Wikipedia page)—views Glam today. It is a crystallized identity the company is sorely in need of, and that would be essential considering buzz that the privately held company—whose value has been put in the neighborhood of $1 billion—is prepping an IPO.

Glam launched with a single fashion site, Glam.com, plus a network of a dozen publishers. The 46-year-old Arora—a native of New Delhi who, prior to Glam, was best known as the founder of Web design company NetObjects—today shepherds an enterprise that encompasses a handful of owned-and-operated sites, including not only Glam.com and Foodie but also parenting site Tend (which launches today) and the health-and-wellness site Bliss. In addition, it boasts some 2,500 publishers in its network of niche sites and blogs, including SHEfinds, Allie is Wired and Adventures in the Stiletto Jungle.

The network reaches more than 220 million unique visitors worldwide according to comScore, which pegs Glam’s U.S. uniques at 86.7 million. To attain that reach, Glam has expanded beyond its fashion and beauty roots to verticals including not only food but also entertainment and health. And it set out to court another new audience with the 2008 launch of the men’s lifestyle site Brash—a move that still puzzles media buyers and, it would appear, consumers. Growing from 219,000 uniques last September to 578,000 by December, Brash tumbled to 383,000 uniques in January and 184,000 by February, per comScore.

Brash is the latest example of Glam’s attempts to establish a cohesive identity. Another is last fall’s acquisition of DIY social-network builder Ning, whose platform powers 100,000 social nets, including band Linkin Park’s online fan community. This is a company that has its fingers in a lot of pies—but also one desperate to boost its rep in the marketplace. To that end, in February it tapped Erin Matts, formerly global director of digital connections at InBev’s Anheuser-Busch, as its first chief digital marketing officer—a signal to the ad community that Glam’s business model is maturing.


The launch of Foodie and the hire of Matts are representative of Glam’s strategy moving forward. In short, it’s going after brand advertisers. Hard.

“The Glam buy was almost like a cult buy among media buyers,” says Matts, who, having served as OMD’s chief digital officer, brings serious Madison Avenue cred to the company. To drive home that point, Josh Martin, svp and group director of media strategy at ID Media, instinctively thinks of Glam as “a female-focused, long-tail-based ad network.” Arora has tasked Matts with changing that perception.

Martin and other media execs including Vik Kathuria, managing partner of corporate strategy and digital investment at GroupM/MediaCom, applaud Matts’ hire, agreeing that it brings to the company someone who understands what agencies and their clients want.

Meanwhile, the opinions of others suggest that Arora and his team have their work cut out for them. Some buyers have questioned its opaque, often shifting business model.

Even if one believes Glam’s enormous audience numbers, the fact is that many ad networks have big reach. Isn’t Glam just another collection of thousands of long-tail sites most people have never heard of in a sea of similar collections? It seems fair to ask: What’s so special about Glam? And more to the point, is Glam really worthy of an IPO? On the flip side, as recent history has proven, the appetite for tech IPOs is voracious. For every Facebook, there’s a Demand Media or a Groupon.

Meanwhile, as is evident in the launch of the sites Foodie and Tend—which attempts to translate Foodie’s micro-social content community for an audience of parents—Glam is serious about pushing new verticals, though some would argue the food category is already oversaturated.

In the first quarter of last year, “we started to see an increasing number of [food] brands come to Glam and actually start to advertise with us even though we did not have a food channel,” Arora explains with characteristic aplomb. (Befitting the head of a company called Glam, Arora is known both for the flair with which he spins his business pursuits as well as his sartorial choices. A Forbes profile from 2007 called “Pretty in Pink” describes Arora as “a dandy on a mission” who “adorns himself in Italian suits, French shoes—don’t mistake them for Italian or he will correct you—and splashes of pink: a coral-pink plaid shirt, a deeper-pink patterned tie and a matching, ever-present, perfectly ironed pink pocket square.” It is a uniform he still favors in the dressed-down world of Silicon Valley, where Glam is based.)

Glam has also gotten requests from brands for the development of a parenting vertical, according to Arora. “What’s unusual about Foodie and Tend is these are our first two channels that are really Glam as a technology media company responding to the requests coming from brands and media agencies,” says the exec.

Skype and Schwinn have signed on as Tend’s launch sponsors. Lori Peters, Schwinn’s director of consumer activation for North America, points to both brands’ female target, notably moms with active lifestyles. While Schwinn’s customer base is largely consumers under 18, Peters notes, moms are responsible for most of those purchases, adding that Glam is also putting together a focus group to inform Schwinn’s product development and marketing. “We’ve just started really driving a very broad-based consumer insights program around Schwinn…so the more opportunities we have to do that and the more data we can glean through opportunities like Tend is fantastic,” she says.

Backed with a network of more than 100 editors and writers from sites like Modern Day Moms, Once A Month Mom and MOMfinds, Glam projects that Tend’s network will deliver in excess of 20 million visitors at launch. How many will visit the domain Tend.com remains a question. A look at traffic numbers for Glam’s other owned-and-operated sites may temper expectations. As noted, Brash has struggled to keep monthly domestic visitors in the low-to-mid six figures, while Bliss delivered just 304,000 uniques in the U.S. in the month of February. Meanwhile, Glam.com itself has endured ups and downs in visitors throughout the second half of last year, hitting 1.2 million U.S. uniques in July before dropping to 529,000 in August and then climbing back to 1.5 million by February of this year.

That roller-coaster trend underscores a central reason Glam, whose audiences are distributed so broadly, is seen as an ad network. Foodie and Tend are attempts to consolidate that audience around a central hub, the assumption being that consumers would rather spend time on social networks like Facebook—and now, Pinterest—rather than portals like AOL and Yahoo because of the interactivity that social adds. With that in mind, Schwinn will sponsor content on Tend dedicated to family fun. But Glam still has to answer to advertisers that would rather reach Tend’s audience across the network—even as they may question the effectiveness of that reach.

Deanna Brown, CEO of Glam rival Federated Media, says it is possible that broader verticals will dilute the relevancy of a marketer’s message. Federated offers what it calls “conversation targeting” so ads can be served according to keywords on a page’s content. “They’re selling audiences; we’re selling context,” says Brown, referring to Glam and other players like NetShelter and iVillage.

As Arora sees it, Glam sells audiences and context. While audience and context filtering are common to any niche site, Glam has been especially stringent in controlling the ads that appear across its network. It recently migrated its entire network to the GlamAdapt ad platform, which provides advertisers with campaign management, automation, delivery, data and analytics. Also through the platform, advertisers can target audiences by behavior, context, geolocation and even UV/pollen count. And since all of Glam’s sites are on the network (all that’s required is adding a couple lines of Javascript to a site’s code), Glam is able to run premium ad units across the network without concern about whether an ad will render properly.

Art Schram, Glam’s vp of ad platform, says GlamAdapt aims to make the buying of premium ads as seamless as that of nonpremium inventory, bringing the efficiency and scale of programmatic buying to the world of brand advertising. For example, Nike can run a reskinned takeover ad on Bliss.com and on Glam network site StyleBakery.com, but rather than work with a Glam salesperson, the brand or its agency can create the campaign through the self-serve GlamAdapt platform, which resembles those of DSPs that traditionally serve nonpremium 300 x 250 units.

James Kreckler, vp of ad sales at iVillage—which can deliver any unit from the IAB’s standard ad portfolio—counters that premium advertising at scale is something he is “pretty sure everyone can deliver at this stage of the game.” While that assessment may be somewhat generous, media companies are certainly ramping up efforts to control how ads are run on their sites. A notable example is magazine publisher Condé Nast, which last year launched a private exchange for its ad inventory. That push aligns with a trend toward advertisers viewing their display campaigns as advertising efforts as much as research initiatives.

“From our perspective, a lot of the display business is moving toward more gathering data and insights from your campaigns,” says GroupM’s Kathuria.

Matts says that’s precisely her goal at Glam.

“Glam is sitting on an incredible amount [of] very compelling data, and so the ability for us to mine that data for consumer insights, for publisher insights, for industry insights, given the position of where we are in the marketplace, is incredibly exciting because Glam hasn’t done that in a big, kind of scalable way,” she says. “It was sort of done more on an ad hoc, client-by-client basis.”

Its data-based dreams are just the latest example of the freedom Glam has had experimenting with various initiatives as it grows its business—without having to answer to the whims of Wall Street. That could change, as rumors heat up that Glam will file to go public sometime during the second quarter. (When Glam acquired Ning last fall, Reuters estimated Glam’s value at $950 million.)

Arora’s ambitions for his already-ambitious-with-a-capital-A company? Arora sees Glam becoming like major media companies operating across multiple verticals—think Condé Nast or Viacom, except with inherent tech prowess. But as Brash bears out, building a new vertical doesn’t necessarily have the same results as building the field of dreams—which is why Glam is taking its “build it and they will come” cues from advertisers.

Arora says he hasn’t yet settled on the next vertical he’ll tackle, but points out that of late, auto advertisers have flocked to its sites.

Time will tell whether the company roars past its competition or is merely spinning its wheels.