The Talk City Gab weekly email: character, concept, and copy create buzz and sell

In 1999 and 2000, I wrote a biweekly chat events guide in the form of a gossipy email from a fictional Talk City staffer. She was Gabby, a spunky young Italian-Jewish girl in LA. She related all the chat events to her own life and even threw in diary excerpts — sort of a mini-soap-opera. The newsletter was a hit, Gabby got tons of email, and Talk City had her star in a second newsletter devoted to shopping.

Gabby’s Diary Well, last time I predicted Liam Neeson was gonna fall in love with me. Whoops! Go check the transcript. They wouldn’t even let me ask my question – “Liam, on our honeymoon, should I wear this vinyl teddy or my Chita Rivera get-up?” Well, maybe it’s for the best: I wouldn’t want to live in Ireland anyway. Not as sunny as LA.

Character Sells

USWeb came to me with an idea: an email newsletter from a character’s point of view. Tailor that character’s life to the audience’s aspirations. Let her deal with the same issues the audience is dealing with, both in life and with the product. Portray her as a peer with inside information – the ultimate knowledgeable friend. Talk City had a start, but we all agreed the character was off. So, we created Gabby Romer. She developed much like a character in a novel, but with feedback from the marketing department.

I started with a character sketch – details that suggested the story of where this person had been and where she was going. My first pass (based on my observations about the site users’ homepages) cast Gabby as a baby-boomer mother of three with an adventurous streak and a yenta’s spiel. It’s fair to say that she owed a lot to Paul Rudnick’s brilliant Libby Waxman-Gellner.

Meeting Gabby

Talk City wanted younger, so Gabby became a twenty-six year old half-Jewish half-Italian LA girl who took life head-on, with a laugh. She was a Talk City staffer, so yes, she had a job. She was totally self-confident except when she was absolutely mortified. She was interested in spirituality, especially if it involved incense and candles and freakiness (or was that her last date?) She had a turbulent relationship with her self-absorbed mom, a brother out in the valley with a little daughter she adored, a father with a girlfriend in Miami, an aunt who was not afraid to cut through all the scheisse, and an estranged sister on the East Coast. She had a life. (And sometimes she had a bit of my life as well…)

Gabby’s Diary

(Notes from my future-bestseller memoirs)

You can probably see why I got excited about this back-to-school thing from this entry. Oh, and Lisbeth is my little six-year-old niece, whom I love: hey Lisbeth, smile for Aunt Gabby  8^) !

“Lisbeth is going to start kindergarten in just a couple of weeks, and I think she’s going to fit in fine. I want her to be popular, but not TOO popular. Imagine what would’ve happened to me if Sam Castellana back in the eighth grade would’ve liked me! ‘Gabby Castellana …’”

Sam FYI was a HUNK – tall, wavy brown hair, green eyes, Italian. I sat right next to him in first-period science first semester. (What a way to start the year!) I was gaga – I actually wrote his name on my notebook. You know what I found out later? Sam was heir to the local Cosa Nostra boss. Now I like bad boys – but I also watch “The Sorpranos,”  and I could NEVER dress like a Mafia wife.

“I wouldn’t want Lisbeth hooking up with the next Al Capone. 

I guess I’m going back to school too. I actually signed up for the cardio kickboxing class at the gym! So crazy – so NOT ME, but it’s a challenge. And yes Wade the instructor is really CUTE! Oooohh Teacher, keep me after class! <g>”

I’ll tell you how the class goes next time. Wish me luck!

(The “Sam Castellana” part, not the kickboxing part.)

More Characters, More Stories

Gabby revealed herself over time. No, I’m serious. That’s part of the fun of fiction, and this newsletter as a specialized form of fiction; the characters start to take on lives of their own and suggest who they are and what they want to do. You just kinda steer.

When Talk City wanted a football promotion, though…  I had to draw the line. If the character’s enthusiastic about everything, she’s just a marketing puppet – and since this newsletter was a popular ad slot (especially Gabby’s personal endorsements) it was real work to keep her sounding authentic. But that’s why she’s got a family, and friends, and that’s why we gave her a boyfriend

Gabby’s Diary

(I kick up my heels and make a new ‘FRIEND’)

I actually love my kickboxing class! I didn’t think I could do it, but I said YES I CAN and POW! I’m Jean-Claude Van Damme! Okay, it’s still simple stuff but I’m so excited – I actually THANK my mom for the gym membership. This is personal power! And get this: I was in Talk City’s Gen-X Romance & Social chat room last week when I mentioned the kickboxing class – and I start getting lotsa questions from ‘BassWarrior’ – turns out he was a junior kickboxing champion in San Diego. We ended up in a private chat for TWO HOURS!

His name is Kevin, he lives in Long Beach, he’s 29, he’s a paramedic, and he plays bass in a ska band. He sent his picture – he kinda looks like Scott Evil from ‘Austin Powers’ but cuter. We’ve been chatting a lot lately. I’ll tell you when we set a wedding date <GRIN!> See where positive thinking gets you?

There’s the prelude, the meeting (online of course), dating, falling in love – months worth of stories, and Kevin the paramedic was safely installed by football season. A much richer solution than putting Gabby in a Raiders jersey.

So, I’ll take a little credit here: I pushed for creative solutions, richer plot twists, idiosyncracy. Talk City and USWeb recognized that, and we got along great – soon they trusted me to take the events we had to cover, and the plugs we had to make, and mold them into something with a theme and a shape that always left you with questions for next time.

Always Changing, Like Real Life

Gabby was interesting because she was always changing. She took on challenges – like kickboxing! – and she kept learning about herself and the world. She was always growing, and I think that’s her real appeal.

Taking her too seriously, you say? Just me and the audience. Gabby’s inbox is filled with mail – lots of questions about Talk City, lots of advice about her boyfriend Kevin, lots of “I love your newsletter!” stuff, and quite a few indecent proposals – like “Hey Gabby, do you like to cyber? Give me a holler.”

Dear Gabby,
    I just wanted to tell you that you are doing a 
wonderful job!  You are so awesome!  I always smile 
when I read the Talk City newsletters because they  
are so funny!  Keep up the good work, always!

Talk City even split the popular Ask Gabby section into a second newsletter, where Gabby handled all those site questions (and plugged more products.) and even an advice column. Gabby got a homepage on Talk City where she could really stretch out, and the newsletter moved from text to HTML to match the homepage. By the end of my time on The Gab, revenues per drop were anywhere from break-even to +$15k (on a $15k per-drop cost) every week. Not bad at all, coming from essentially zero.

Example: Turkey Time Is Family Time/Could You Wrap This, Please?

Here’ a couple consecutive newsletters from Thanksgiving, 1999 that see Gabby’s family embroiled in a bit of drama (formatted as delivered to the client.) I’ve highlighted the story-related parts, but the promo bits are full of character as well – really, they all blended together seamlessly.


Turkey Time is Family Time
November 5, 1999

Talk City Shopping Network: Shop, Chat and Save!

Gabby’s Talk City picks:
* Cindy Crawford(!)
* eFriends at Talk City
* Ask Gabby
* Gabby’s Diary
* Gabby’s New Homepage


Hey everybody, Gabby’s back with another plateful of steaming hot 
Thanksgiving chat. Pass it around at the big family gathering! (BTW -- 
this year my older sister is coming home – which NEVER happens. And 
she’s bringing a ‘friend.’ Has she got something to tell us (finally?))


This week’s Gab is brought to you by [[[a sponsor]]]

[[[Sponsor ad goes here]]]


Gabby’s Pick:
Cindy Crawford(!)

Wow – the most famous and beautiful woman in the world is coming to 
Talk City! (Oh no, wait, I already work here! ) It’s Cindy Crawford, 
and she’s here to talk about motherhood and the holidays. Come chat with 
Cindy about, a great source for gifts and fashions for mom 
and baby. (Cindy’s working on a brand-new family to have Thanksgiving 
with – say hello to 3-month-old Presley!)

Catch Cindy Wednesday, December 1 at 5 PM ET/2 PM PT
Brought to you by Talk City and




Gabby’s Pick:
eFriends at Talk City

Are your friends and family spread across the country? 
Only see ‘em at the holidays? eFriends is a pretty cool 
way to keep everybody on the same ‘page’ (Hoo!! Rimshot 
please!!!) year-round. You can set up a group calendar, 
post announcements, put up pictures and have discussions 
and chats, all for free. It’s all the stuff you’d want 
on a ‘keep-in-touch’ page, and it’s super-easy to use. 
Check it out!




Ask Gabby

Geez, you guys have been writing me soooooo much, I just 
can’t keep up! I really appreciate the great questions and 
I’ll try to respond to you as fast as I can, but please 
don't be upset if it takes me a while...meanwhile, I'll 
keep posting my fav questions here.

Also, if you’ve got a technical question, you should really 
head straight to They might 
already have your answers online in an FAQ. If you don’t 
find the info you need, you can mail the help staff there 
directly. You’ll get a quicker response, and they know a whole 
lot more than me!

“Dear Gabby:
“I have a ferret, and I love it very much. Do you have
any care advice and games that we can play to get
closer? Some training advice would be nice as
well. Thanx, Michelle a.k.a. 'Nicky'”

Wow – a ferret? I thought they were for hunting cobras or 
something! I bet you could play hide-and-seek with your 
ferret, but they run really fast and they can hind their 
bendy little bodies anywhere – so the game could go on for 
days! I bet you can find more ferret owners in Talk City’s 
Pets chats. Here’s the address for all things pet-related:

Knock yourself out, ‘Nicky!’

Send me your questions at!


Gabby’s Diary
Jane’s Getting Serious

Well my never-calls-home sister Jane is coming back from 
Virginia for Thanksgiving. She’s like 33, she’s an 
oceanographer at some research lab, and she’s never had a 
boyfriend. Now she tells my mom she’s bringing this ‘friend’ 
named ‘Jo’ home. (‘Friend!’ >8-O Shock! Just call Jo your 
GIRLFRIEND, you uptight geek!) It’s about time. I wanna 
introduce Jane and Jo to my gay friend Chloe, and we can 
all go to coffeehouses or something together. We’ll see 
what happens.

If you’re looking for somebody to take home for the holidays 
yourself, try the Romance & Social chat rooms at Talk City. 
Romance or just conversation, man or woman, you can find your 
own ‘Jo’ there. (Or your own ‘Gabby’ – just ask my BF Kevin!)

See for yourself!



Win Winter Getaways!

Talk City Reindeer Games - $10,000 Trip to Finland

If it’s not COLD ENOUGH for ya, Talk City’s giving away a big 
trip to the home of the reindeer in the Reindeer Games 
Sweepstakes – plus instant prizes from March your
galoshes over to

and start packin’!

OnNow Bahama-rama Sweepstakes

If you need to get away from winter, head to OnNow RIGHT NOW 
to win a $10,000 trip to the Bahamas! It’s true – answer a 
trivia question and you could be soaking up the rays in no 
time. Plus there’s tons of instant prizes! Check it out:


Gabby’s New Homepage

Hey – have you had a chance to look at my new homepage yet? 
(I know it’s a little rude but I figure hey, I’ll plug myself!) 
Check out my page “I’m Not Martha” to see why I’ll definitely 
try to stay OUT of the kitchen this year. LOL!!!


Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. Give your in-laws a hug.

‘Til next time -- BYE!!



Could You Wrap This, Please?
December 9, 1999

Talk City Shopping Network: Shop, Chat and Save!

Gabby’s Talk City picks:
* Marshall Faulk, St. Louis Rams
* Holiday Fun at Talk City
* Ask Gabby
* Gabby’s Diary
* Gabby’s Shopping List


Holiday time! Gabby always does a little Christmas, a little 
Hanukkah, and a LOT of shopping, so I hardly had time to write 
– but here’s some hot chat AND some great ideas for holiday gifts.

This week’s Gab is brought to you by [[[a sponsor]]]

[[[Sponsor ad goes here]]]


Gabby’s Pick:
Marshall Faulk, St. Louis Rams

Well, we’re all rushing around at this time of year, but nobody 
rushes quite like Marshall Faulk of the St. Louis Rams. Come 
play ‘catch the running back’ with Marshall!

That’s Tuesday, December 14 at 8 PM ET/5 PM PT
Brought to you by Talk City and Totino’s




Gabby’s Pick: Holiday Fun at Talk City

We’ve got some special stuff going on for the holidays at Talk
City. For the kids (and their parents) we’ve got Santa’s 
Workshop, which has all sorts of fun stuff like holiday advice, 
a place to write to Santa, toy reviews, and of course chats.

And if you see reindeer popping up around Talk City, they’re 
just playing Reindeer Games! If you play you could win a 
$10,000 trip to Finland or an instant $20 gift certificate '

After that, go check out the New Year’s Eve party guide for the 
Millennium over at Talk City 2000. It’s the kick-off for Talk 
City’s yearlong celebration of the big two-oh-oh-oh, with polls, 
chats, discussions and more.

Whooh! I think Kevin and I are gonna ring in the Millennium
in Venice Beach. THAT should be freaky.




Ask Gabby:
Where’s ‘Ask Gabby?’

‘Ask Gabby’ was SO popular I decided to create a new newsletter
called ‘Gabby Gives Advice’. It’s twice the Gabby, every other 
week! Look for it next Thursday.

If you need an answer RIGHT NOW, try 
Good luck!


Gabby’s Diary
Some Packages are Hard to Wrap

Have you ever been REALLY confused? My sister Jane is coming home 
for the holidays with a ‘special friend’ named ‘Jo’. “Yeah I get 
it,” I said, “a GIRLFRIEND - JoAnne!” But Jane sends my Mom a 
picture, and get this – ‘Jo’ turned out to be ‘Joe’ and he’s a 
GUY! WHAAA??? Mom says Jane’s been to her share of women’s music 
festivals, but now she’s in love with someone who just happens to 
be a man. That’s great, but this screws up my holiday shopping! 
I hope JOE likes Melissa Etheridge, because he’s getting the box 
set. Sheesh!

You can find a community at Talk City no matter what you call 
yourself. Check out the ‘Alternative Lifestyles’ section!

And if you’re still looking for love:




Gabby’s Shopping List

Well, at least I didn’t have to choose between chatting and 
shopping. On Talk City Shopping Network, I can do both. Go 
check it out if you haven’t been there already – it’s these 
chat events where you get big discounts on stuff while you 
chat with your friends and ask the hosts and guests questions 
about what’s on sale.

I figured “What the heck!” and tried it out, and don’t you 
know I wiped out half my shopping list at once! Woo-hoo! 
Plus you can visit the Talk City Shopping Network Store 
anytime you want and get the same great deals.

There’s basically a gift for everybody at the Store. Here’s 
what I’m getting for the fam [don’t read this if you’re 
related to me or dating me (-; ]:

For Granma and Granpa Romer, a Sony W150 Web TV Internet 
Terminal, so they can get in on chatting and email.

For my little niece Lisbeth, a Babe Pig in the City 
Plush Talking Doll.

For my BF Kevin, an Olympus D-340R Digital Camera (to take
pictures of me.)

But I can’t decide what to get for Mom! She always loves fashion 
stuff, but she’s also got a computer that needs upgrading. Take 
a look at these thingies and help me choose which one I should 
give my mom at

Tefal Avanté Electronic White Toaster

Creative Labs 3D Blaster Annihilator

Smokey Quartz Earrings

Nina Ricci Clutch Purse

MIXMAN Technologies Mixman Studio 3.0 (Win)

Tough choices! Help me out!

Here are those addresses again.
Talk City Shopping Network
TCSN Store
Help Gabby choose a gift for Mom!


Only, um, a few more shopping days to go. Remember to breathe!

‘Til next time -- BYE!!


I have to say that if we did this now, Gabby would be different – less boy-crazy, more career-oriented, definitely more “woke” – because the audience has changed. She would also probably just live on Twitter.