It’s been a couple of years since the “mommy blogger” phenomenon really took off, though it still leaves me wondering where it took off to. According to Forbes, in 2011 there were over 3.9 Million mommy bloggers floating like jetsam on the digital ocean. More recent information is unavailable (or it’s simply late and my Google-Fu is weak), but if I know anything about mommies, bloggers, and the condition of human vanity in the 21st century, that number has probably grown significantly in the last few years.
Still, the question remains – do mommy bloggers matter? Are they really anywhere near as important to cater to as many marketers (especially in the toy and CPG space) assume they are? I’m going to go ahead and say no. In fact, if I have to elaborate, I’m going to say “hell, no”. In fact, the mommy blogger phenomenon has not only been grossly overstated (both in size and importance), it has actually killed off itself. Oh the irony – a blogging movement dedicated to creating new life, has inadvertently caused its own death. In this post, I will proceed to give some very reasonable arguments for why you can essentially ignore the entirety of the mommy-blog-o-sphere, supported by facts (and some assumptions), and will conclude by being sacrificed at the altar of truth by a legion of screaming narcissists. Sounds fun, right? Let’s go!
A Heartfelt Disclaimer
First, let me just clarify: I have nothing against mothers. I have a mother, and she’s pretty groovy. Nor do I have the avowed anti-breeder hatred for children that has become so en vogue these days. I actually have a child, and enjoy being that obnoxious over-sharing parent on occasion.
Take it a step further – I actually have no problems with people who want to keep a blog and catalog their motherhood (or fatherhood, as the daddy-blog phenomenon is quickly gaining steam). By all means, post all the youtube videos of little Timmy eating lead paint and running headfirst into a wall you want. Accompany them with as many trite, repetitive, unoriginal anecdotes and narratives you want. Hell, feel free to even jump on the social medias and proclaim your love of changing diapers to the world.
No, what I have a problem with is the shady, underhanded, and ROI-destroying practice of pretending that running a mommy blog is somehow akin to real journalism, and should be treated with PR reps and goodie bags. The phenomenon that one author at a so-called “digital magazine” gushes over as “Many of these mom bloggers are savvy businesses women with strategies and marketing plans.”
Weighed Down With History
But we’re not here to discuss the mommy bloggers’ business plans. Instead, we’re looking at the relationship between [parent]-bloggers and brands. See, many large companies are still floundering hopelessly in the world of social media (although they’re getting better). We just can’t quite seem to leave behind the anchors of a past advertising age, and in this particular case the anchor is the paid spokesperson. You might know them better as “key influencers”.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of key influencers. It makes sense that if you throw millions of people together, eventually they’ll break apart into little fiefdoms ruled by the strongest, smartest, cleverest, funniest, or whatever the desirable quality of any given group is. Finding these people, engaging them, and turning them to your side is a perfectly acceptable way to get your brand recognized on social. The problems begin when you develop an entire segment of “influencers” whose only purpose in life has been to become an influencer in order to reap the PR rewards. The Kim Kardashians of the internet – famous only for being famous.
This phenomenon is most clearly seen in two words that should make every honest marketer, journalist, and consumer want to vomit, and that appear in the Twitter bios of almost all mommy bloggers: “PR Friendly”. For those who haven’t made a living mooching off of companies and misleading readers, that translates roughly to “give me free stuff, and I’ll be whatever kind of person you want me to be.” Or, to cut back on the flowery analogies, there is a growing trend among [parent]-bloggers to operate solely for the sake of a) increasing their own page views to make money off of advertising, and b) to receive free promotional items, samples, review units, and other “swag” from brands. This is not only counter to most standards of journalistic ethics (and most standards of PR ethics, though you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who cares about those), it is also harmful to brands and, even worse, to consumers.
PR In The Age Of Self-Publishing
The standard PR relationship between brand and journalist is pretty straightforward – brand gives journalist item (praying for a good review), journalist uses item and writes an honest review, consumers read review. This relationship works because journalists are under a massive spotlight – from their immediate editor to the publications ethics committee, to the editor-in-chief, to competitors, to the public, and the government. There are a lot of eyes going over what may be termed “traditional journalism”, which keeps it honest, and largely prevents problems like payola and pay-to-play. In fact, when a traditional publication is found to be in breach of review ethics, it creates big news. Everyone notices.
This system of checks and balances generally keeps things on the straight and narrow, and everyone’s interests are more or less lined up. A reviewer at a magazine has a strong incentive to give an honest review of a product, because a poor review will harm his credibility and reduce readership. Brands have a strong incentive to play ball, because passing up publicity with a legitimate publisher, even if they wrote something bad about you last year, causes obvious harm to the company. Meanwhile, consumers read these reviews and go on to purchase products, because the previously mentioned checks and balances lend a strong air of authority and credibility to the whole process.
The process for mommy-bloggers (and to a lesser extent, other niche bloggers), is slightly different. These bloggers often have audiences that reach 5,000-10,000 unique readers a month on the high end. The level of scrutiny is incredibly low. Moreover, there is no strict chain of command or organizational body to hold writers accountable to any standard of ethics whatsoever. So the process goes as follows – Brand approaches PR agency specializing in mommy-blogs, PR agency vets the blogs for those that will produce a positive review in exchange for products and sometimes cash, accepted bloggers give glowing reviews to items (whether they actually liked them or not, and whether they actually even used them or not) while ignoring any actual problems with the items, INSTANT POSITIVE REVIEW!
Because there are 3.9 million+ mommy bloggers, brands can be incredibly picky about who they send review units to. Meanwhile on the other side of the equation, because mommy bloggers have so much competition, they know they need to pimp that product out as hard as possible, lest they get passed over for the next review or the next giveaway (more on that a little later). This creates a vicious cycle of reviewers terrified to offend PR reps, and brands that get to pick and chose reviewers who will give them the best coverage.
Giving It All Away
Now lets talk about the giveaways. As previously mentioned, the goal of any mommy-blogger is to get enough visitors to make an ad-supported blog a viable proposition. Since most mommy-blogs are functionally identical, and since most people can barely stand listening to their friends and relatives drone on and on about the mundane goings on of various spawn, and since most mommy-bloggers are not writers (except by the loosest definition of the term)…well, long story short, it’ difficult to attract a following that cares. The trick to getting around this is giveaways. I don’t have hard numbers, but my suspicion is that the source of most mommy-bloggers’ traffic is people looking to get free stuff (which speaks to a major demographic problem, more later).
To attract the most traffic, a mommy blogger needs to have more giveaways and better giveaways than the next mommy blogger. In order to secure giveaways, bloggers will often perform a favor for a major brand – either positive coverage, a glowing review of a product, or perhaps having visitors mention the brand in a giveaway entry tweet. Long story short, the bloggers are entirely at the mercy of PR companies – you play by their rules, or you stop getting giveaway swag and lose your income stream. Can you say conflict of interests?
Demography, Demography, Demography
Lets start diving into the heart of why the mommy-blogger phenomenon is useless to brands. The first issue is one of demography – quite frankly, the readership of mommy blogs sucks. By all accounts, they fall squarely into the “Walmart Demographic” – low income, low loyalty to brands, poor product feature comprehension, low propensity for early adoption, small to non-existent disposable budget, and a tendency to stick to traditional, low-margin products. Granted, there is variance, and there are some mommy-bloggers that cater specifically to a much more enticing audience, but those are few, far-between, and (generally) are far more focused on a specific aspect of life other than motherhood.
The audience for the majority of mommy blogs is not there to read informative reviews that will help them to make smart, interesting purchases. They are there to score some free stuff from giveaways. Stuff that more than likely would not fit into their budget normally. Stuff that, had they seen it at a store, they would have likely ignored altogether or (perhaps) drooled over for a minute or two before passing on. In other words, window shoppers. Why would you want to attract window shoppers, unless you were playing the long game and hoping the law of large numbers meant one or two of those people turned into customers. In which case you need to have a sit down and seriously rethink your ability to formulate a marketing strategy.
This is especially damning when you realize that there are a large number of much more attractive options that generally fit the same category – the niche product/hobby/activity blogger ecosystem. Why would you shill your brand new camera, or phone, or laptop to a mommy blogger hoping that one out of a million of her followers will buy it, when you can instead hit up some specific technology bloggers and social media personalities who have an audience that is much more in tune with your product and is much more likely to convert? I understand the idea of diversifying your audience and entering new markets, but it’s patently stupid to try to sell an $800 smartphone to an audience made up of people who have $200 a month of disposable income to split between a family of five.
The most damning piece of evidence, though, comes from some in-house research we’ve been doing here at Stunt&Gimmick’s. We’re not yet sure whether we can fully release the research yet or not, or whether we’ll ever make it public (obviously, the brands involved want to not offend the mommy community). What we can do is talk about it broadly and in vague terms.
Essentially, mommy bloggers contribute almost nothing to the bottom line. We have overseen product launches by a couple of companies over the last year – probably about 10 products total. These have been fairly diverse, from technology to CPG to toys, and have hit a broad group of mommy bloggers, including some of the biggest names in the industry. The campaigns have resulted in tens of thousands of Tweets and Facebook messages, countless likes and follows, and a large number of positive reviews. What they have not resulted in is long-term engagement or sales. In fact, we could take all the money that was spent on these campaigns, buy a couple of each product for ourselves, and pocket the rest. The results would be essentially the same.
My suspicion is that this is the norm rather than an outlier. There are lots of studies, usually based on very limited surveys, that tout the merits of using social media and the mommy blogger network for marketing. Articles like this and like this tout the effectiveness of mom-to-mom recommendations, and claim they produce much higher probabilities of purchasing. Others, like this breathless piece from HeraldNet talk about how giving product samples to mommy-bloggers resulted in “thousands of mentions online”, and vaguely imply that this particular strategy has resulted in booming sales.
My concern with the studies is that they are almost exclusively published either by PR companies specifically dealing in mommy-blogs, mommy-blogger advocacy/trade organizations, and self-proclaimed mommy-blog gurus. The same people who would stand to gain the most if you decided to take your entire print budget and throw it into an expensive “mommy-blogger’ consultant. Meanwhile, large PR companies (usually a never-ending font of white-papers and studies) seem very reluctant to show any kind of real bottom-line impact. In fact, in about two days worth of Googling, I couldn’t find a single economic impact assessment for using mommy-bloggers for publicity. The closest I got was a news article intimating that because LeapFrog tapped the mommy-blog market, their leap pad had a great Christmas a year or two ago. Nowhere in that, by the way, did they talk about other advertisement, controls, or any kind of isolation or experimental procedure. Nothing more than two out-of-context and quite likely coincidental factoids: LeapFrog sold a lot of Leap Pads, and they shipped 500 units out for review by mommy bloggers.
When you DO get some hard numbers, they usually come in the guise of top-line stats like “Number of tweets” or “Retweets” or “Brand mentions” or “Reviews” or “Exposure”. These can all be useful items, but are hardly all that important. Perhaps in the launch of a new product by an unknown brand, exposure might be the key to having great sales. Meanwhile, there is absolutely no reason why Verizon Wireless needs to raise their exposure. Large brands have already saturated the market. I very much doubt they get any kind of serious boost from having “VZW Ambassadors” on Twitter talking about how great the new Whatever is for mothers on the go.
Let me restate my original point from this section: over 10 or so product launches with many different brands using well-known and well-read mommy-blog networks, we’ve seen almost no economic impact. For many of them, we never even saw a single visit to the site from several top-50 [parent]-blogs that featured the products. The ROI from all of these mommy-centric campaigns has been firmly in the negatives.
I would love to be wrong. I would love for someone to read this and say, “Well, hey, this isn’t right at all. Here’s some sales data from my last mommy-blog campaign that shows a great return.” I want someone to say this because using mommy-bloggers for social marketing is so easy it feels like cheating. You send them a package with a note, they give you a glowing review and a thousand retweets, you wash your hands, and pop out of the office by 2pm for an early night of drinking. You don’t even have to really engage with them or butter them up like you do “real” journalists.
I don’t think I’m wrong though. I think that marketers suffer from group-think to a level that is virtually unheard-of in other fields. I think that much of what we do as an industry is based on watching what everyone else does and copying it as closely as possible. And since we’re all so tight-lipped about our professional secrets, no one knows that the whole thing is based on idiocy. Everyone simply assumes that no one else would do it if it didn’t work, so clearly it must work. I think the “mommy-blogger as PR outlet” strategy fits into that mold perfectly. Again, if you disagree, and if you have some numbers (even if you aren’t willing to share the exact details) that show that tapping into the mom-o-sphere results in real, trackable, attributable sales, please tell me about it in the comments.
Meanwhile, we need to start focusing on other strategies and tactics that will actually produce results for our clients. As I mentioned earlier, focusing on activity-based bloggers and social media influencers produces high conversions and high sales. Similarly, focusing on developing awesome customer service and turning a lot of not-very-influential people into brand advocates is a great suggestion. It’s a lot harder, and requires more work, but it’s also cheaper and builds a real following instead of relying on what is essentially a paid spokesperson and their freebie-hunting entourage.
Meanwhile, for the mommy-bloggers out there: just stop. Stop blatantly accepting gifts for good press. Stop pretending to be real journalists. Stop trying to make your hobby into a business. Stop being unethical and filling the internet with crap. At the end of the day, your very own greed is going to be the death of you. I already have a feeling based on what I’ve seen that most of your readers don’t trust your reviews. Stop and give them a reason to actually, before you run into a credibility problem that takes down not only the mom-o-sphere but the entire blogging community. Your readers aren’t stupid, and neither is the rest of the internet – recognizing pay-to-play and gifts-for-good-reviews isn’t difficult, and you aren’t very good at hiding it (not like network television. They’re pros at charging guests thousands to appear on a show without anyone knowing, but that’s another blog post.) Stop, and think to yourselves – if I had an Editor-In-Chief, and said EIC was Walter Cronkite, what would he say to me if I wrote this drooling review of a new toy that I want to hang on to?