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SMALL BUSINESS / Small-Business Makeover

Zen and the art of websites

The founder of Chill Out LA wants to attract more viewers and advertisers to the online guide. A marketing expert suggests she first focus on aesthetics.

September 27, 2007|Cyndia Zwahlen | Special to The Times

Trying out the latest spa offerings -- caviar wraps, coconut oil and honey masks, brown-sugar body scrubs -- is a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

That's the thinking of Chill Out LA founder Erin Mahoney-Harris. She launched the website, at www.chilloutla.com, three years ago to focus on uncovering affordable spa deals in Los Angeles for health and beauty devotees.

Though the perks are great -- weekly massages, anyone? -- the pay has been minimal.

Revenue at the business may hit $20,000 this year. That level was fine when Mahoney-Harris pulled in a full-time paycheck as an editor at Citysearch. But she quit her day job last spring to jump-start her online venture.

"The readers love us; the businesses love us. I know the potential is there, but I need somebody with the business acumen to take us to the next level," says the 30-year-old new mother.

Her focus has been first-person reviews of local spas, yoga studios and Pilates classes. Businesses don't pay for reviews, but most of them offer an exclusive deal to Chill Out LA visitors and the 4,600 subscribers to the site's weekly e-mail newsletter. She charges her business clients $150 for short, paid advertorials that run below the first-person reviews.

That formula has worked to an extent. The website, which grew out of a failed book proposal on affordable spas, now gets 25,000 page views each month, Mahoney-Harris says.

Traffic and revenue are growing, but more slowly than they had been. So the sole proprietor is dreaming of a site redesign with enhanced functions, possibly snaring national advertisers and perhaps parlaying her chic polar bear logo into a line of related products

To do it all, Mahoney-Harris has $15,000 to $20,000.

Internet marketing expert David Towers was enthusiastic about Chill Out LA and offered a broader vision for the online effort and a more targeted approach for its owner. Towers, vice president and managing director of the Los Angeles office of Avenue A/Razorfish, reviewed Mahoney-Harris' operation with the help of his creative team at the Internet services firm.

"We loved the concept. She's definitely on the right track," says Towers, a former vice president of e-commerce at retailers Liz Claiborne Inc. and J. Crew Group Inc. "But there are some things to consider."

First, the health and beauty site needs a little polishing. Adding images to the site is also crucial, Towers says.

"Being able to communicate the look, the feel, the beauty" of the spa experience "is kind of fundamental. We all thought that was the No. 1 thing." Think spa colors, sexy photographs and a Zen-like appeal, he suggests.

In addition, Mahoney-Harris should concentrate on what visitors to the site are getting rather than focus on national advertisers and revenue sources, Towers says. That would include taking a fresh look at why users go to her site and then developing content and functions to meet their needs. Improvements to navigation, aesthetics and overall site design also would help. The goal is to create a personality for the site and a loyal user community.

"It's all about interacting with people, developing something people want to see and want to use and want to interact with," Towers says. "You do that right, and the revenue will come."

Towers also suggests that Mahoney-Harris downplay the discount and deals aspect of the site. Instead, she should educate visitors and subscribers about local offerings and then let any discount be a bonus.

His point: A visit to a spa or a yoga studio is not a commodity item in the eyes of users, unlike, say, DVDs or groceries. Although there is a price element, it's not the overwhelming deciding factor for fans of beauty, health and fitness services.

"Be local to L.A.; that's your advantage," Towers says.

Mahoney-Harris was surprised by Towers' advice because she considers the hunt for deals to be the heart of her site.

"I agree that it shouldn't be the sole focus, but I want to continue to offer that type of content because I think that is a differentiator and I know that my readers value that," she says.

To help achieve the local focus, it's essential to add the ability to search by neighborhood, Towers says. A mapping function can then be used to show location details and directions.

Once a user has found a nearby spa, Chill Out LA should have deep content about it: images, contact information, hours, descriptions, bios of the staff, as well as the treatments offered.

The key is to add personality to the site and to create a community of users, Towers emphasizes. Let visitors know who you are and what makes you an expert on L.A. spas and yoga.

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