Plugged into parenting

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am


When Cherie Leung was pregnant with her first child in 2004, she had no idea how to prepare for the birth. 'None of my friends were parents back then. I read a lot of baby magazines to ease my worries about pregnancy and parenthood, but most of the articles were written like advertorials. I didn't know whether to trust the information,' she says.

Then Leung came across Baby Kingdom, a parenting portal that provided invaluable information and helped ease her concerns.

'I got all kinds of advice about prenatal care, nutrition and education. Mothers who give birth in the same month are grouped together on the site, and that's how I got to know others who were due to deliver in November 2004. The mother of a three-month-old faces different obstacles to one with a two-month-old. Sharing tips online and meeting one another once in a while, we brought up our kids together.'

Increasing numbers of parents are turning to online portals such as Geobaby, Little Steps and Peegaboo for peer support and the latest information on child-raising. And a crucial ingredient for success seems to be that the parents come up with the most relevant tips themselves.

Baby Kingdom is perhaps the most vibrant of Hong Kong's online parenting communities. Launched from the homes of two IT professionals in 2002, it has grown into a hugely popular portal with 400,000 members and 32 employees. According to a recent report by the Boston Consulting Group on Hong Kong's internet businesses, approximately 80,000 people visit daily and the site receives more than 40,000 posts a day.

Co-founder Winson Chow Wai-chung, a social worker turned technology entrepreneur, set up the portal with business partner Rainer Sip Ka-lung a decade ago because of a dearth of neonatal information on the web. Chow and his wife sorely felt the inadequacy as they ran into difficulties using Chinese herbal remedies for their young son's frequent stomach problems.

'We didn't know what to do. I found there was a severe lack of baby care information, especially those concerning Chinese prescriptions handed down from ancestors. Such information can make a big difference to first-time parents,' says Chow, whose son is now 15 years old.

And while the challenges of pregnancy and childbirth have changed little over time, Sip observes that new health-care products and ideas about child-raising are constantly emerging.

'Parents nowadays are so sophisticated, they want to keep abreast of the latest developments,' says Sip, who is about to become a father for the first time. 'How to discipline the child without stifling his creativity, whether formula milk should have more DHA, or omega-3 fatty acid, whether to store umbilical cord blood to ensure future health of babies, the latest hi-tech strollers ... there's no limit to what parents want to know to give the best to children.'

The range of parental concerns is revealed in the reams of questions and postings that the site gets on topics ranging from analyses of a child's brain to the trendiest haunts for new mothers and their babies.

Sip says the sites retains all such messages, so it has become an enormous repository of parenting information that can be accessed by anyone. 'Everything can be found by a search.'

At Peegaboo, founder Michelle Liu Schei-won reckons strong social media features that can connect the phalanx of web users are crucial to a successful portal.

'The future of parenting is on the web,' says Liu, who launched the venture in 2008 with her husband, David Tang Kwok-wai. 'Parents have a natural urge to share with others who are also parents. The empathy users get from one another sustains them in overcoming obstacles that come with pregnancy and parenthood.

'First-time parenting can be very tense. Parents need a platform to vent their frustration and know that they are not alone in committing mistakes.'

That's why Peegaboo recently acquired a parenting venture with a big following on Facebook, Liu says.

Quick responses from users also keeps their 100,000 members coming back. 'We have articles written by nutritionists, psychologists and other childcare experts on the site,' Liu says. 'But they cannot be ready 24 hours a day to answer users' queries. A parent tending to a baby who has just vomited needs quick advice.'

Baby Kingdom certainly ticks all the boxes for success. The site accommodates Facebook-like features such as user updates and instant messaging, members blogs' chronicling their children's development.

'Everything shared revolves around the family, from the care of the elderly to the health of pregnant women,' Sip says.

But ensuring localised content is just as important to parents. For all the plethora of online information, Sip says many people have difficulty finding the information they need.

'The results that pop up on a search engine come from all over the world. Education information about Taiwan wouldn't interest local parents. Search results are also not dated. They can be the most recent, but also from several years ago.'

At Baby Kingdom, parents are the main source of useful tips.

Jazzy Chiu says it was advice from fellow site users that helped her through the ordeal of securing a primary school place for her child.

'When I had to apply for a school place for my 10-year-old son three years ago, I was helpless,' she says. 'Other members who went through the trauma told me everything about the application deadline and how the scores are calculated in the two admission rounds.'

Chiu, who has two children, now declares herself addicted to the site.

'I am a full-time mum, but I spend three to four hours on the site daily. I have gained a lot from others' postings, I post a lot now. I have opened a forum on cooking tips. The recipes I post there get a lot of response from parents,' she says.

Creating separate forums within the portal for specific groups of people makes an enormous difference.

'The forums are divided into 18 districts,' says Chiu. 'The Kowloon City discussion group allowed me to compare schools in the district before my son advanced to Primary One. There's even a forum on the government school my son is attending now. Parents can grumble there about school policy or charges. It's worlds away from the standard fare and commendations you get from the school website.'

'If a forum is so big that it encompasses everything, users won't be able to find tidbits of information that are actually relevant to them,' Chow explains.

In 2006, the drive to specialise led Chow and Sip to set up Education Kingdom, a portal catering to parents with youngsters in primary and secondary school and those with special-needs children.

'Baby Kingdom is aimed at parents of newborns to six-year-olds, but we want to keep users with us until the child turns 12 or older. The education of young children is parents' biggest concern. Given frequent changes to the education system, they are always hungry for more information,' Chow says.

Like many popular sites, Baby Kingdom offers largely free content and must rely on advertising revenue. But rather than aggressively promoting baby and educational products, Sip says they make use of the sites' strong social media features as a cushion to reduce users' aversion to commercial content.

'One of our clients, Wyeth's, the formula milk maker, did not want to hard-sell their products to mothers. Instead we set up a forum, sponsored by Wyeth's, for users to talk about babies' milk feeds. Instead of making overt references to the brand, users talk about benefits of breast-feeding or compare various brands of formula. The most effective way to sell a product to parents is not to introduce some cheap coupons, but generate positive word-of-mouth as modern parents, affluent and sophisticated, spare no resources to give the best to their kids.'

Peegaboo, however, organises many fee-charging events aimed to provide entertainment for children and parents in addition to running advertisements,

'Our family concerts are hugely popular and sell out soon after tickets become available. Many parents, tired of all the birthday parties, want to do something fun and meaningful with their kids. They don't know where to look for such activities,' Liu says.

Baby Kingdom emphasises minimising staff involvement in creating content. 'The content should be user-generated,' Chow says. 'Our staff might initiate a forum topic. After that, it's left to the members to build up a discussion.'

What's more, Chow and his team have even recruited users to help them run the site. Chiu, for instance, is among 40 volunteer managers who help them monitor postings and forum discussions on Baby Kingdom. That's another reason she spends three to four hours a day on the site.