Newborn photo service grows into direct force

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Like the millions of babies it photographs, Growing Family is changing with age. The former First Foto was born in 1947 as an in-hospital infant photo service relying on direct selling and direct mail. It was rebranded online this year as Growing Family to extend the relationships it forms with new mothers hours after they give birth.

"Talk about direct marketing -- this is the ultimate," said Dave Van Vliet, Growing Family's president-CEO. "How many companies have a one-to-one service agent in someone's room during a major life event?"

SAMPLES AND DISCOUNTS

The company capitalized on those relationships in 1998 with its launch of New Moms Bonus Club -- now the Growing Family Network -- which distributes baby-product samples, information and discounts to moms in the hospital and through direct mail. The cooperative mail product is sent to more than 10 million mothers a year -- with their permission and with no obligation to buy anything -- when their babies are 3, 6, 9, 12 and 24 months old. It includes discounts from eight marketing partners such as Beech-Nut, Procter & Gamble Co. and Sears Portrait Studio. Growing Family added 2.4 million new mothers this year to its list, which now includes 15 million names.

Growing Family "is so effective at establishing a high-quality relationship early in the hospital, when mom is there with the new child, and they have set up an effective structure to maintain that relationship," said Karen Leeker, director of marketing at Beech-Nut Nutritional Products. Beech-Nut signed on with Growing Family in January to more than double the number of mothers it reached via its own direct mail effort.

While clinging to its direct marketing roots, Growing Family is following the trend of offering consumers and marketers multimedia options.

"Online marketing is direct marketing; it's just another channel," said Jerry Shereshewsky at Yahoo!, who heads its direct marketing efforts.

BABY GIFT CENTER

This fall, Growing Family will launch an e-commerce baby gift center through BabyGear, a baby-product e-tailer that sells branded merchandise from partners like Fisher-Price and Laura Ashley. Growing Family will handle transactions on its own site for the 100 items provided by Babygear.com, which will use Growing Family's direct mail product to distribute discounts.

Growing Family "is there at a moment when nobody else is there. Getting admitted to the hospital room while [women] are in bed just giving birth is true magic," said Preston Bealle, CEO of BabyGear.

"As opposed to bricks-and-mortar retailers, where you tend to look for customers for your product, here the idea is to look for products to serve your customer," Mr. Shereshewsky said.

Web-based gift buying is an outgrowth of Growing Family's Web Nursery, another new online service that provides personalized Web pages for newborns with images uploaded by the hospitals. New parents can send personalized e-mail birth announcements to family and friends, who can post instant messages on the baby's Web page.

GENERATING TRAFFIC

The typical baby Web page gets about 10 visitors, which Growing Family sees as a built-in traffic generator for e-commerce. "If you look at the potential set of partners interested in reaching this highly desirable niche, the market is huge," said Deb Arpert, Growing Family's VP-electronic commerce. "Our ability to pinpoint a family at a specific lifestage with a specific offer is pretty unique."

But Growing Family will not abandon its lifestage direct mailings, which are important to mothers and marketers alike. Eventually, some mothers might choose to receive these offers via e-mail, but "the vast majority still like receiving the mailings," Mr. Van Vliet said. "We want to be in the position to do whatever the family wants."

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