Stephanie Precourt will tell you that having your toddler son swallow an unknown quantity of pennies and locking your baby girl in the car in the same week may cause your heart to drop through your legs and out your toes. She'll also admit she felt like such a bad mama that she almost didn't write about either incident on her three-year-old blog, Adventures in Baby Wearing.
But she's glad she did. After Precourt posted each item, her readers commiserated on the blog with their own confessions of accidentally dropping the baby on his or her head or finding a screw up their kid's nose. "[When I first became a mom] I was picking up the parenting magazines, and that's just not real," says Precourt, now a mother of four. "Those moms have clean homes and perfect kids. As a stay-at-home mom, [blogging] gave me a connection with other real moms, with the outside world."
Being a "real mom" has a way of earning a mommy blogger some serious virtual cred. So if someone like Precourt suggests that Fiber One bars are great for, um, helping a kid pass a few pennies, her readers take that to heart. Now companies are betting that mommy bloggers are the gatekeepers to a female segment that spends about $2 trillion a year for their families. Already, the active U.S. female Internet population hovers around 42 million, according to the 2009 Social Media Study by BlogHer, iVillage and Compass Partners. Of those women, 43 percent visit blogs for advice or to get recommendations.
Among the first big companies to work with this segment was Wal-Mart. Last year the retailer recruited a group of mom bloggers to provide feedback on programs, products, stores, and services and to help build a "money-saving community." Most are as popular as Tara Kuczykowski of DealSeekingMom.com, a blog that focuses primarily on printable coupons, product samples, and giveaways. She has 25,000 subscribers and almost 7,000 followers on Twitter. This is an insta-audience for the mega-retailer, one that's happy to hear what any mom in their blogging group has to say about their merchandise. To be clear, none of the mommy bloggers are paid by Wal-Mart, says Melissa O'Brien, senior manager of PR and brand reputation. Nor do they have to blog about anything that's Wal-Mart-related, although Kuczykowski says many of them often do. That's one of the benefits, she says. They get products they can review from vendors, plus extras to give away on their sites. "There have been a couple of situations where we've also been asked to do a video for a vendor and have gotten paid," she says. "You're giving your opinions on [a product], but they're not paying you for a positive opinion."
But that's debatable. Earlier this year, General Mills created its own formal network of more than 900 bloggers, of whom about 80 percent are moms. The group receives products for review, coupons, and giveaways. According to an Adweek article, there's a good chance that a chunk of the blogger buzz these folks create will be positive. The fine print for participation includes a line that reads: "If you feel you cannot write a positive post regarding the product or service, please contact the MyBlogSpark team before posting any content." General Mills declined NEWSWEEK's request for an interview, but in an e-mail statement, said it works to be overtly transparent and does not try to control what bloggers write.
The history of how mom bloggers went from women looking for camaraderie to brand mavens is a hazy one, says Jessica Hogue, research director of Nielsen Online. A handful have been around since the late 1990s, but their online line presence really started to grow in the mid-2000s. By 2005, during the first annual BlogHer Business conference, some of the attendees remained skeptical about the segment's potential reach. A few even suggested that they might have a greater impact if they wrote about heavier topics like politics. In response, Alice Bradley, author of Finslippy, stood up and declared that "mommy blogging [was] a radical act." "Radical" in that one woman writing about her life could benefit other mothers in a way that was not possible before. "[Prior to blogging]," she says, "you didn't necessarily get the raw honest truth of motherhood in both its hilarious and horrifying moments."
By 2007, as these blogs amassed larger audiences, radical statements became less important as many moms began to realize, "Hey, maybe my blog could be my business," Hogue says. Today, there are thousands of self-described mom bloggers. A large subset work with marketers or companies, and in most cases, the items they review have grown beyond baby food and diaper bags. Some test-drive cars for months, are flown in for tours of company headquarters, or sent on lavish paid trips to places like Disney World. "Now there are these new set of mom bloggers, but they're really bloggers who happen to be moms," says Danielle Wiley, senior vice president for social media and consumer brands at Edelman, a PR firm. "They aren't really writing about juggling work and home and kids. These blogs are created to get products or to make money."
That becomes problematic when the bloggers accepting the money for reviews, the paid trips, and the free products write favorable posts without disclosing that they've been compensated. So unsuspecting readers—ones who come looking for a blogger's personal opinion—are getting what amounts to an ad. For companies and marketers, paying for a post also puts a certain amount of power over content—intentional or not—in their hands.
That commercial divide is pitting women against one another. It's no all-out virtual mommy war, but several prominent bloggers have written posts ripping into this new, brand-conscious breed. Erin Kotecki Vest, of Queen of Spain, called them "carpetbagging mommy bloggers" who peddle their "snake oil" whenever and wherever they like. Lindsay Ferrier, of Suburban Turmoil, posted, "I no longer believe that mommy blogging is a radical act. It is a commercial act."
However anyone cuts it, Christine Young, of FromDatestoDiapers.com, thinks her time is worth a few bucks. She's parlayed her online success into consulting work for companies like Johnson & Johnson and other writing assignments. She also charges to do giveaways on her site. Right now, Young doesn't have a monetary charge for product reviews, but she does request a sample, although that does not guarantee she will write about it. Her policy is to be very transparent about the process to her readers.
That works out nicely, since the Federal Trade Commission recently announced it is considering new guidelines so that bloggers will have to disclose in their post when they are paid by an advertiser to talk about a product. While some bloggers are already calling this "Big Brother–like," Bradley disagrees. "Some feel like the mommy blogger per se is being targeted in all of this, but I think they're being protected," she says. "There are people who aren't that savvy, and they're going to write that kind of stuff and their credibility will get destroyed."
That will change. And while no one can really tame the blogosphere, tossing in ethics-laden guidelines is probably necessary. Some might even say radical.