Moms Gone Wired: One Woman's Journey Through the Mommy Blogosphere to Gain Parental Prowess and Free Stuff
People talk about the "magic of birth" and the "joys of parenthood" and, yeah, in my 12 months of mom experience, that stuff's all totally real and exists, but that part's like the Hallmark movie part. And in between those Hallmark movie moments, there's a reality-show marathon.
Sure, a baby is a gift. But it's also a giant poop sack.
When I found out I was pregnant, people told me that when I had my kid, all of a sudden I'd "know what to do" because, see, my "instincts would kick in." But I have no faith in my instincts. I've lived in Dallas since I was a kid, and I still don't know what direction I'm going when I take the Dallas North Tollway South. And I'm pretty sure my instincts were the ones who told me I wasn't ovulating in the first place, so I'm gonna go on record and say my instincts are a bunch of lazy, untrustworthy bastards.
And sure enough, when delivery day finally came a year ago and they handed me that bundle of joy, my instincts were like, "Peace out! Have fun with that." So I talked to my mom, but even she was pretty sure things had changed since 1980 when you'd give your kid "just a little whiskey" to help her fall asleep. I needed information from moms who were in the trenches right now, rock-star moms who were currently succeeding at the task of keeping baby happy.
I'm pretty sure I found one a while back when I went shopping in the Super Target in Northeast Dallas, after being told that Target is where all the moms who know what they're doing shop; that's where I saw one of these rock-star moms in the wild. She saw me pushing a cart with a baby in it and, since I was doing a pretty good job of pretending to be a real mom (picture Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist), she recognized me as one of her own and pulled her cart up to mine. Her baby sized up my baby. My baby waved. And then Target Rock-star Mom spoke to me and asked me out on a play date.
I said, "OK," figuring that's what you say to someone who is a) a normal mom just trying to meet other moms in the Target or b) a total crazy. And that's when it happened: She handed me her business card. Her business card that reads, "Sally Baker: Gregory's Mom." This wasn't handmade on construction paper or anything. This was a mass-produced Mommy Business Card. Whoa.
Those four words on that business card speak volumes about this woman. Some people will think, "Oh, that's sad that she feels like that's all she is now: Greg's Mommy." But I could tell this woman obviously thought her baby was the bomb, and she saw it as a real privilege to be attached to that radness. Seemed like the words on her card were there to say, "Yeah. I made that with my magic lady body. Jealous?" Or maybe she just made the cards as a public service to every frazzled mom she meets who's got zero chance of remembering her name, let alone her kid's name.
No matter her reasons, I suddenly felt out of the loop. "Wait—am I supposed to have these? I didn't get business cards from the hospital after I shot out my baby. What the deuce? Was there some membership fee I didn't pay?" She was really proud of them too. She'd seen a link on some mom blog, and she thought they were really cool, so she had some made. I began fantasizing about having one made for my daughter. "Penny: The Ultimate Grand Supreme of Badassery." And I'd hand them out to other moms, and people would think I'm totally on top of my shit, momwise. I mean, if I have business cards I must be a pro at this, right?
I wondered if that was how mom trends start. One blog links to a business card site, one mom creates some and then she starts handing them out to her friends, and her friends think they're cute and then, somehow, in order to be an awesome mom, you've got to have them.
And if mom blogs were good for business card info, maybe there was a blog that could help me be a more instinctive, more professional, more MILF-in-training mom. Just like rock-star mom.
I needed information. It was time to Google this shit.
Enter: The Mom Blog. Holy options. There are more mom blogs on the Internet than there are people on this planet who want to bone George Clooney. Google the word "mom" followed by any other word in any language and you'll find a mom blog dedicated to that.
And these aren't just women sitting at home posting photos of their baby's 11-month-and-1-day cupcake party. These women are reviewing products, making political change, teaching other moms how to change a diaper and still more moms just sharing their everyday successes and failures so that I can feel better about the fact that I'm not the only mom who let her cat eat her baby's crusty umbilical cord. They speak around the world about the power of moms in social media. Some of these mom bloggers have literally millions of followers and as many brand sponsors as a pro athlete.
Last May, Nielsen Online (ya know, the guys who monitor consumer trends and surveyed you for months about your TV viewing. Can you believe you had to admit to watching The Deep End?) came out with the "Power Mom 50" list. It's a "collection of leading voices in the mom blogosphere based on a blend of blog posts, comments and link love developed through ongoing monitoring of more than 10,000 mom and parenting blogs as tracked by Nielsen Buzzmetrics. In addition to Web site engagement, the number of Twitter followers, ratings and other metrics were included in the calibration to provide a comprehensive sphere of authority and influence." Most of the moms and mom sites on this list fit into the following categories based on content (let it be known that the category names are straight from Nielsen, and if anyone ever called me a "Mamaste" to my face, I'd flip the dog straight in their manipura chakra):
Savvy Spenders: These moms blog about pinching pennies and make me think that maybe I'm not the only mom in DFW who can't resist a clearance aisle. Me: "They're 80 percent off!" My husband: "But we don't need a ferret." Sites like DealSeekingMom.com organize the week's latest coupons at a variety of stores ranging from Babies"R"Us to Victoria's Secret. Links and printable PDFs are right at your fingertips, which makes saving money on the Internet and in stores super easy for a newbie mom like me. With thousands of followers, these sites most definitely increase coupon traffic into the Wallymart.
Mom-Approved: These ladies review all the best family-friendly products. Usually though, their reviews are brand-sponsored. From what I've seen, they're marketers in mom's clothing who rarely trash the brands they're reviewing because they're getting shopping sprees and freebies as incentives to write reviews. And more power to 'em. Hey, CoverGirl: send me free shit so I can write about it too.
Queen Bees: Nielsen classifies these bloggers as moms who "anchor their writing around parenting, nesting, decor and food." I expected these blogs to all be sunshine and roses about pregnancy and motherhood, but some of them are way more entertaining and real than that. Blogs like Mom-101.com tell momhood like it is. An excerpt from my favorite post from Mom-101.com: "You want to know what games your 1-year-old really likes to play? ...Kick the Head...I Like to Put My Fingers in Poo...and Put Things in Your Mouth You Can Choke On." Not to brag, but my daughter's an Olympic Gold Medalist in the sport of Open Eyehole Stabbing. Gotta start 'em young.
Mamastes: Hippie mom bloggers. They focus on going green, spirituality and travel. These are the Angelina Jolies of the mom blogging world. Cloth diapers. Glass baby bottles. If they could find a way, these chicks would recycle barf. And they're politically active: The moms at OrganicMania.com wrote their Maryland senators to pass a bill that would ban BPA (used in plastics) in children's products. The bill passed 46 to 0. No idea where these chicks find the time to e-mail their senators—some days I don't even get to pee until 7 p.m.
Tech Moms: This group is a bunch of tech-savvy women who are now tech-savvy, plus a baby. Blogs focus on navigating technology with a family. Sites like TechMamas.com blog about cyberbullying, Twitter in the classroom and all kinds of baby gadgets. If you're looking for a post on how to get your infant into your MMORPG guild, this is the place.
CEO Moms: Mom bloggers who work at the office all day, come home to a baby, make dinner and somehow find time to blog about it. BizzieMommy.com interviews other "mompreneurs" like her and posts her advice on balancing work and being a mom. My balancing recipe requires a baby-sitter and a beer on Friday night. High five!
In addition to these power moms, Nielsen added a "Power Pack" of moms on their list who "pack too much of a punch to be categorized." (They sound more like box drinks than people, but whatev.) They have thousands of readers and followers, they travel the world speaking at conferences—they're professional bloggers, most of whom make a living at this.
Maria Bailey (of bluesuitmom.com) makes her living in Florida and is No. 2 on the Power Pack list. She's a working mom with four kids, who has made an international business out of helping marketers sell to moms. She calls herself the "Old Lady of the Internet" because, compared with a lot of the other moms on the list, she's been focused on empowering other moms for a really long time. Back in 1998, she launched bluesuitmom.com as a way to reach out to other working moms.
Bailey says, "Marketers weren't creating the products moms needed and weren't listening to moms." She was frustrated. "We're spending so much money, and nobody's listening." So she took matters into her own hands: She wrote a few books on the spending power of moms including Trillion Dollar Moms and Mom 3.0: Marketing With Today's Mothers by Leveraging New Media and Technology and launched BSM Media. Now an international company, BSM Media partners with marketers to help them specifically target moms.
"You can't just go after mom bloggers, you have to speak to moms through multiple channels, inclusive of Twitter, Facebook, in online communities—even at the playground," Bailey says. She regularly holds Mom Mixers where moms mingle, have a beer or three and get the chance to sample and review products. Seems to me that big brands might be afraid to host these types of sampling opportunities, for fear that if the moms hate the sample, they might trash the products. But in Bailey's experience, "Moms appreciate the fact that the brands are finally asking for their opinions," and so it's actually very rare that these moms talk smack about the products. "Usually, if moms like something at one of these mixers, they'll gush. If they don't like it, they'll just be quiet." They want to be called again to voice their opinions, after all.
Her company's most recent success was marketing ZhuZhu Pets, which apparently became the Tickle Me Elmo of the 2009 holiday season. ZhuZhu Pets are battery-powered hamster toys that sell for about 10 bucks a pop. You can buy ZhuZhu hamster tubes and all kinds of other accessories for this toy that make it just like owning a real hamster. Only, you don't have to own a live, dumping, barfing, stinking, peeing, sad-to-be-running-in-place-on-a-wheel hamster. That right there is a good idea. Mom gets to appease her kid with a "pet" without ever having to pick rodent feces out of her couch cushions. Sure, it's not a "real" pet, but are real hamsters real pets? You want a pet, get a dog.
When Bailey heard that she was at the top of this "Power Pack" list, she says, she was "quite humbled." She says this list has been great for moms in general because it's brought attention to moms as influencers, and it gives marketers an idea of how to market to moms in a more targeted way. "It's about identifying the power moms in your segment."
Bailey is right. There are certain types of moms in every circle who are hard-core, all-in about being a mom, and they tell everyone they know about every product they love. These people had these personality traits in the first place (ya know, that "I wanna be the best in my field at what I do no matter what it is that I'm doing" thing that some people just seem to be born with) and now are just translating that to being a mom. Just like the rock-star mom I met at Target.
It's obvious that there's been a shift of power from advertisers to moms. A couple weeks ago, there was even a Mom 2.0 Summit in Houston. A summit. This year was the second year of the conference, and full registration for the event went for $450 a head, with a cap at 300 attendees. (It was just like the movie 300, if you sub out the CG-abbed warriors for their moms.) Moms spoke openly and directly to marketers about exactly what they want and exactly how they want marketers to approach them. And this was hardly a one-of-a-kind conference. As a targeted group, moms have gone from having no influence at all over messaging to having marketers beg them to tell them what they want so that marketers can go create it.
If I'd had the 450 bones, I so would've been first in the mom-line in Houston telling marketers what toys to make. I'd be like, "Listen, Robin Williams from Toys, you make me some wooden toys for my baby that won't make her all BPA-ified, are big enough that her crazy everything-eating self won't choke on them, oh, and let them have rounded corners so her giant, 99th percentile head won't get stabbed when she forgets how standing works."
Bailey says marketing to moms only really works when you "identify the influencers in your segment and talk directly to them." And that's what she does on Twitter. On January 1, 2009, she tweeted that she wanted to have a Mom's Nite Out. From that one tweet, 8 million moms went out that year at 800 parties across the country. This year, they're looking to have 1,500 events sponsored by 55 Simon Malls across the country. You know how much white wine that is? Loooooooots. And all this from one tweet. Let's hope Bailey keeps tweeting about partying and never decides she wants to have a Mom's Go Batshit Nite. This Mama Bear has some serious influence.
Speaking of influence in the world of mom bloggers, Heather Armstrong of dooce.com is Oprah-famous. She's actually been on Oprah and also ABC News Nightline, NPR, PBS, ABC World News Tonight and The Today Show. Her book, It Sucked and Then I Cried made it to No. 16 on The New York Times Best-Seller List. She's got a brand new design opportunity in the works with HGTV, and she has more than 1.6 million followers on Twitter (that's way more than the Dalai Lama).
She's also the numero uno mom on Nielsen's Power Pack list. Visit her blog and you'll immediately see why: Her honest voice breaks through a world of Pepto-pink, a baby is a gift and everything about being a Mom is perfect. And whether they agree with her or not, millions of people are reading. Armstrong was famous pre-momhood for blogging so much about her co-workers in the late '90s that she was fired from her job. She had a ton of readers before she got pregnant with her first daughter. "When I had Leta, I thought I would give up my Web site," she told me. "Who has the time, right?" But she says that from the time she announced her first pregnancy to the time she gave birth, traffic on her site quadrupled. Just by talking about pregnancy and impending momdom, she gained a whole new pack of readers. Armstrong says, "These women, they came to my rescue." As she blogged about the stresses of being a new mom, "all these women came out of the woodwork to help me. I truly believe this audience saved my life." Sounds like a big ol' Internet kumbaya moment, right?
At this point, I'm thinking, "Man, being a celebrity blogga-mama is where it's at: I'd get free samples of all my favorite stuff, counseling from strangers, big brands would want to pay me just to stay at home in my PJs and write about that time I money-shot my baby in the face with my own boob milk [for the record, that was the straw that made the camel switch to formula]. Sounds like all the good parts of celebrity without the creepy underbelly part."
And that's when Armstrong started talking about the creepy underbelly part: A hate site that had just been taken down that trashed her every blog post every single day for three years. Every time she posted something, they posted a hateful response. Just straight mean stuff like, "Your kid's ugly," and "You're a horrible mom." Armstrong had plans to meet up with a woman who'd been following her on Twitter. Just before she went out to meet the follower, she realized that the woman had been participating in this hate site and had said something about wanting to physically hurt her. So yeah, cancelled that coffee date.
Armstrong admits her blog is pretty polarizing—that's what made her popular in the first place. She stands out because she doesn't say that parenting is pretty and she drops the occasional F-bomb. But to hear that she had stalkers in the past and that there are moms out there who hate her was shocking. I mean, it's a mom blog, people. Was it the hi-res close-ups of an infant that made you go ape-shit? No, it was those damned letters to her daughter she's been writing for six years? Everybody knows her daughter can't even read! At least the crazies showing up is a sign that Armstrong is officially a legit celebrity.
But her influence doesn't just stop with her blog readers. What Armstrong says on Twitter is read by millions of people (probably including some crazies and some penile enhancer spammers). And advertisers are fully aware of her potential to persuade those millions.
Emily Voigt, director of public relations at Moroch Dallas, says, "What intrigues big brands about working with a mom blogger is that the partnership gets them direct access to the moms they've been trying to talk to for years. On the other hand, they have a fear of partnering with these mom bloggers because they hold so much influence over so many."
Armstrong did get some backlash for what she refers to as "The Maytag Incident." In August of last year, she was preparing for the arrival of her second child, and she figured buying a new washing machine was probably a good idea. (If you don't know, newborn baby humans dump a lot.) So, she buys the top-of-the-line Maytag and two weeks in, the thing breaks. She calls a repair guy, and after many weeks of broken washing machine, she calls corporate to complain. After talking to two different people there and getting nowhere, she finally had had enough:
"And here's where I say, 'Do you know what Twitter is? Because I have over a million followers on Twitter. If I say something about my terrible experience on Twitter, do you think someone will help me?' And [the woman from Maytag] says in the most condescending tone and hiss ever uttered, 'Yes, I know what Twitter is. And no, that will not matter.""
So Armstrong hung up the phone and wrote this tweet:
"So that you may not have to suffer like we have: DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG. I repeat: OUR MAYTAG EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE."
And three minutes later she tweeted:
"Have I mentioned what a nightmare our experience was with Maytag? No? A TOTAL NIGHTMARE."
And six minutes later:
"That brand new washing machine from MAYTAG? That someone has been out to fix three times? STILL BROKEN. DO NOT BUY MAYTAG."
And another three minutes later:
"Oh, also. I have a newborn. So we do, what, three loads of laundry a day? Except, our brand new washing machine IS BROKEN. DO NOT BUY MAYTAG."
And then three minutes after that, her final post on the subject:
"RIP: OUR BRAND NEW MAYTAG WASHING MACHINE."
Her posts were re-tweeted countless times, and the S did indeed hit the F. Because of Armstrong's posts, a group of mom bloggers flipped their collective shit. But not at Maytag—at Armstrong. They were mad at her for using her power for her own personal gain. For using her voice to actually get something done. Really? These women had zero influence over big brands for so many years and expect one of their own to be silent when she finally has the power to stick it to The Man? That's like having X-ray vision and not using it to find out what Gary Coleman's packin'. And it's not like she was asking for a free washer. She was just asking Maytag to do their freaking job.
And they did do their job the very next day. Armstrong received a call from the execs at Whirlpool, Maytag's owner, and someone came out and fixed her washing machine. And she thanked them profusely. Even on the World Wide Web.
Whether she was right to do what she did isn't why I brought this up: The point is that she tweeted and, though the Maytag rep said it wouldn't matter, it mattered so much that other brands were kissing her feet—Bosch had offered her a free washing machine, but instead of accepting it for herself, she donated it to charity. And Maytag was actually worried that one little mommy might become a huge problem. As Armstrong herself puts it, "Social media is a beast that's trying to be controlled by PR and can't be."
More validation of the marketing power of bloggers came in December when the Federal Trade Commission began requiring full disclosures in all blog posts. There's even a hash tag requirement of #spon (sponsored), #paid (paid) or #samp (sample) on sites like Twitter that have character restrictions. Failure to disclose your relationship with a brand in a blog post can now get you an $11,000 fine. Until now, the FTC had just kept the same old guidelines for disclosure that it had since 1980. But with Twitter and Facebook and blogs, consumers now have the power to create their own marketing channels. Social media has taken the power of marketing influence from the advertiser and given it to the user. The rules of the game have changed.
Armstrong does run ads on her site, and her online community is sponsored by Suave. I asked if getting brand sponsors has forced her to censor herself a bit, change the way she writes to please her sponsors. She said, "Getting paid to do this has made my writing and work ethic more serious, but it hasn't censored me at all." A favorite e-mail from a reader responding to the addition of ads to her site said, "Your website sux sweaty goat balls now." Her response: to change the masthead of the site to read, "This website sux sweaty goat balls." That's right. Mommy 2.0 comes with added "goat balls" vocabulary. She said a few advertisers dropped at that point, but that it was totally worth it.
Some of her readers say that by making money off her blog with these sponsorships, she's exploiting her family. I say that if you can make a legit salary so that you and your husband can both stay home and get free counseling from your readers by writing about your kids, ride that choo-choo as far as it'll take you.
When I asked Armstrong if she plans to use her powerful power mom powers for good or for evil, she just laughed. But it was a nice person laugh, not a "bwa-ha-ha-ha" Dr. Evil laugh, so I figure we're all safe. All kidding aside, marketers beware: These moms may seem super cute when they show up to your product samplings with their brag books, but they can knee your brand straight in the grundle with one tweet.
Yet I hope to a higher power that these women keep blogging. Because if there's one thing I know about having my own kid, it's that I'm a total child-rearing expert up until yesterday. As far as today goes, I'm totally screwed.