IN LATE SEPTEMBER, a gaggle of 50-odd bloggers gathered 36 floors above Central Park in a conference room at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, snapping pics of the dramatic views. The writers were moms and dads mostly, all anxiously awaiting a product that promised to change their lives. “What happens when you try to chop veggies in a food processor?” celeb chef Robin Miller asked the crowd. “Mushy!” someone called back. “Mushy!” Miller agreed, stuffing the Ninja Master Prep with mushrooms. “Look at that! One, two, three pulses. Your mushrooms? Done.” The crowd murmured appreciatively. “Wow, is that going to make my life so much easier!” blogged one mom later that day. “I so want to make the curry chicken salad!” tweeted another.
Infomercial? Sort of. But this isn’t late-night TV. It’s the new reality of parental blogging: shilling for companies in exchange for freebies and trips to fun locales.
It used to be the definition of a mommy (or daddy) blogger was a parent anxious to navigate the tricky shoals of child-rearing by confiding in the outside world, chatting away in the internet’s electronic sandbox. That was before audiences exploded.
With some sites boasting 500,000 readers a month, these bloggers have become coveted corporate mouthpieces, showered in everything from onesies and granola bars to strollers and video game consoles.
That’s not to say every mom blogger has sold out to big business. At this point, conservative estimates place the number of mom and dad bloggers in the millions—and most of them still post about the agonies of potty training and sleep, or lack thereof. But it’s not so much their content as their prospective audiences that have made corporate America take notice. “Moms control about 2.1 trillion dollars in the United States,” says Maria Bailey, whose marketing and consulting firm BSM Media specializes in marketing to mothers, “and about eighty-six percent of all household income.”
More important, the blogs are incredibly influential. “One of the appeals for companies working with bloggers is that it is not advertising,” says Greg Allen, the dad behind Daddy Types, a smart site for new fathers that boasts just under 250,000 unique visitors each month and eschews paid posts. “It undercuts all the suspiciousness about ads because it is ‘real people’ talking about ‘real things.’”
“Initially, we were blogging because we enjoyed the community aspect of it and the feedback, and a lot of us wrote to feel less alone,” says Heather Armstrong of Dooce (a relative old-timer, having blogged the better part of the last decade). With nearly a half-million unique visitors a month, the site carries ads from Verizon and Starbucks and earns enough to support Armstrong’s family. “Public relations reps are now reaching out to women saying ‘talk about this’ and ‘link to this,’ and the bloggers figure, ‘Oh, my God. They think I’m important!’ not realizing they are giving away free advertising,” she says. Armstrong keeps advertising and editorial content separate, but not everyone colors within those careful ethical lines.
Take Amy Clark, who launched MomAdvice almost six years ago. At first she focused on her own family’s techniques for “living well, on less.” Her blog brought in a slew of readers. That’s when Walmart came knocking. “They want moms who live those values,” she says of being frugal, adding, “I only accept campaigns that fit with my audience.” She became one of Walmart’s ElevenMoms—mothers who’ve agreed to endorse Walmart and blog on the company’s website (the number is now well above the initial 11). Clark has also worked with Pantene, the shampoo company, on a challenge to see if home hair can look as good as salon hair, and she’s a spokeswoman for Cascade. But back on her blog, stories are still true to her initial intent: family life on the cheap. “I only want really good-quality content for my readers,” she says. “As long as you’re authentic and you have integrity and aren’t just out to get a freebie, your readers will know that.”
At MommyGoggles, the FAQ page issues requests for sponsorships, conference invites, free family trips and other gimmes. “I put a LOT of energy and thought into my posts,” the author promises corporations seeking reviews of their wares. “I want to promote your product the best that I can.” While she reserves the right not to post about a product that does not seem relevant, she adds quickly, “To date, I have not received an item for review that I did not feel fit my website or my readers.”
“It started with coupons,” says Lynette Young, whose marketing firm, Purple Stripe Productions, focuses on social media. “Then samples. Then it was the full product, and then it went on to sending samples to give away in sponsored contests.” For instance, Nicole Feliciano of MomTrends, a New York City–based shopping site for moms that gets 15,000 visitors a month, has received upward of 60 strollers for review. “Everything I write about, I’ve touched, seen and worked with personally,” she explains.
“I wish that, at this point, I did a little more just writing,” sighs Naomi Shapiro, an attendee of the Ninja Prep demo who writes SuperDumbSuperVillain. “The review part has kind of, over time, taken over the personal blogging more than I would like. We are all reviewing the same things these days.”
Some are taking the idea of “reviews” even further. Over at ClassyMommy, Colleen Padilla’s disclosure page states upfront that posts can be purchased.
Is ClassyMommy, which has received more than 1,500 products for review, still a blog or a new kind of advertising? And what about Frito-Lay’s “Fab15” bloggers and the “Frigidaire Test Drive Moms,” gaggles of hand-selected mom bloggers who regularly receive goods from these brands to post about them?
“It used to be the majority of mom bloggers were really great quality,” says Ellen Diamant, half of the über-successful duo behind Skip*Hop, creators of a ubiquitous diaper bag and other baby gear. “But now we get crazy requests like, ‘Here is my blog. Send me stuff.’ And you go and look, and it’s really poorly done.”
“We vet so many requests a day,” says Tricia Chan, whose PR firm Public Group reps big names including Maclaren strollers. Many a parent, Chan says, salivates at the thought of a free buggy. “It went from ten or twenty requests a month to forty a week.” At the beginning of the mommy/daddy blogging boom the requests were no big deal. “Before, we’d just send it,” she says. “Now you have to look into analytics and see who they’re hyperlinked to.”
The situation has raised eyebrows over at the Federal Trade Commission, which recently announced that it was changing the rules governing blogs (not just the mommy blogs), as well as Facebook and Twitter. Beginning December 1, bloggers must disclose paid posts, sponsored posts and items received for free.
“Is it really possible that someone could attend an all-expenses-paid trip to a desirable location to see a fifty dollar product demonstration, leave and write that they hated it?” wonders Jeremiah McNichols, half of the duo behind Z Recommends, a consumer-advocacy parenting blog. “I suppose it’s possible. But it does not appear to happen.” That’s what worried the FTC: Even if such posts aren’t advertising per se, it can be hard to separate the sponsored from the genuine.
Predictably, the rules change has come under furious assault on First Amendment grounds. But whatever happens with the new mandate, marketers are learning to tread carefully on the info superhighway.
It turns out, not all bloggers are equally malleable. “There are mom bloggers who will go and bash a product, and people are worried about that,” says Diamant.
Take McNichols and his wife, Jennifer, at Z Recommends. The site, which began in 2006 as a way for the couple to discuss the products they were using while raising now-five-year-old Zella, has become the Upton Sinclair of parent blogs, spending months researching, for instance, which companies were using BPA—a compound that has been shown to damage the endrocrine system when ingested in large quantities—in the production of sippy cups and bottles.
The couple found that a number of companies promoted as green were using the chemical and administered a tough-love digital spanking.
Recently, a number of mom bloggers have been promoting a voluntary code of ethical conduct called Blog with Integrity. It reads, in part, “When collaborating with marketers and PR professionals, I handle myself professionally and abide by basic journalistic standards.” Presumably they also play nice and keep their hands to themselves, too, just as mom and dad always said.
SARAH WILDMAN writes for some of the world’s top newspapers, but her baby kind of wishes she got more swag.