Not many people will have the experience of travelling on Walt Disney’s dime — although if you’re a mommy blogger, you may just get the call. Last year, Lynette Robinson, who lives in Halifax, was flown to Los Angeles for the red carpet premiere of The Lion King 3D. Disney put her up at the Four Seasons Hotel on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive. “You know,” says Robinson, “the one from Pretty Woman.”
Thanks to the success of her blog, My Wee View, which she started three years ago after her daughter (and only child) was born, Robinson is a frequent flyer. Pampers invited her to Cincinnati for a party at the home of their company vice-president; she was in Toronto to film a Dove commercial, starring women in social media; and she did a test drive of the Nissan Quest in Mont-Tremblant, Que. But Disney events, Robinson says, are the best: “They take care of every detail you can imagine. Just like how Disney movies fill you with that warmth in your heart, when you go on these trips, they pretty much do the same.”
Mom bloggers (the term they prefer) can get pretty sentimental about companies like Disney, Fisher-Price or even Dyson, the vacuum-maker. And you have to wonder if it has something to do with the fact that big corporations are taking a personal interest in moms and reaching out to this community of bloggers: offering products, asking for opinions and hosting events where moms are wined, dined and loaded with freebies.
“I think mothers have historically felt quite isolated and alienated,” says May Friedman, an assistant professor of social work at Toronto’s Ryerson University and co-editor of Mothering and Blogging: The Radical Act of the MommyBlog. Companies are capitalizing on that isolation, she says; they’re desperate to harness that “word of mom” — the passing along of tips and recommendations that used to happen over tea and cookies, but now happens on a much grander scale through blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
From “mom blog” to big business
That’s not to say these digital moms — and there are about 1,000 to 1,500 influential ones in Canada — are corporate dupes or pawns. Many of them are leveraging their relationships with brands to turn their personal blogging sites, often started as a hobby, into successful online businesses.
Women like Erica Ehm, founder and publisher of yummymummyclub.ca, and Maureen Dennis, of Wee Welcome, started one-woman websites and now have fully staffed online enterprises, paid advertisers and tens of thousands of subscribers. They’ve become, in essence, their own brands. These bloggers are called upon as social media experts (former MuchMusic VJ Ehm speaks at conferences about the power of Twitter) and as parenting experts (Maureen Dennis has a regular gig on Marilyn Denis’s TV talk show). And they’ve been working with brands in one way or another from the start. “It’s mutually beneficial,” says Dennis. The companies get buzz about their products, the bloggers get the financial support they need to keep their sites running, and their audiences get access to information they wouldn’t otherwise.
Moms vs. companies: Who’s getting the better deal?
It’s arguable who is getting the better deal out of the partnership. Concordia marketing professor Brent Pearce says social media influencers, like mom bloggers, seem to have the upper hand; they have forced companies to change the way they advertise and market. “The traditional paradigm said the companies create the message, they choose the medium by which it will be disseminated, and out it goes,” Pearce notes. “But in the last five years, companies have lost control of the message. It is now controlled and dictated by the consumer.” Ehm marvels at how Twitter, Facebook and blogs have given moms the power to speak out against brands they don’t like: “I think it’s a really interesting time in the way that women are being empowered.”
Read on to learn how specific Canadian brands are utilizing mom bloggers.
It certainly is interesting how mainstream media are being pushed aside so companies can focus their energy on laptop-wielding moms. Ford Canada sponsored this year’s ShesConnected Conference, an annual social media gathering for Canadian women. Ford has also loaned cars to some bloggers.
GM Canada went whole hog recently when it launched the Chevy Orlando, a seven-seat vehicle aimed at families. By partnering with the tourism marketing organization Visit Orlando, they hosted more than a dozen mommy bloggers and their families in Orlando, Fla., with overnight accommodation in five-bedroom vacation homes and tickets to theme parks of their choice. (Today’s Parent was one of only two mainstream media outlets invited on the trip.) The blogger families drove Orlandos on the trip, tweeting their impressions of the vehicle along the way. For Adria MacKenzie, GM’s corporate communications manager, the kind of Internet chatter these bloggers whip up provides a healthy return on investment in a new medium, though it’s still very hard to measure success.
McDonald’s is another big corporation pulling out all the stops to align itself with mom bloggers. Last year, the fast-food chain recruited four moms with high-traffic websites to go “behind the scenes” of their operations. These “All-Access Moms” visit headquarters, production plants, and farms where potatoes for the french fries are grown, then report back to their audiences. Dennis signed on out of curiosity: “Where does that food come from? Is it that bad? Should I maybe not be going as often as I do?” She knew her online audience had the same kinds of questions. As a result, though, she has taken some abuse on Twitter from people who see this program as an example of “healthwashing” — in this case, using the real-mom connection to make the food seem healthier than it actually is. Dennis responds: “This is an opportunity to say to my community, ‘Hey, what do you want to know and I’ll go ask?’ They trust me and, in most cases, don’t trust the brands. Honestly, all I have is my reputation. If you don’t believe what I’m going to say, then I’m done.”
But even the blogging moms are divided on his campaign. While not specifically calling out McDonald’s, Nicole Christen, a Vancouverite and editor-in-chief of My Real Review, says, “I’ve turned down major food brands or restaurant brands that I don’t feel are doing what’s right for families.” Robinson’s take is, “I’m sure those poor moms got a lot of flak. I didn’t apply, probably for that reason. It’s not worth the couple grand they pay.”
Paid-for marketing or casual conversation?
That’s right: McDonald’s pays its moms (insiders say the All-Access Moms each received as much as $15,000 for a year’s part-time commitment). In fact, many brands pay. And when asked about it, bloggers and companies toe the party line: The writers are being paid for their time and their social networking reach, not to give positive reviews.
Mom bloggers uniformly insist they partner only with brands they like and that are relevant to their audience. Most of their sites have a disclosure page where they state that they get free products to test, and sometimes compensation. But according to Christen, “My team’s favourable opinion cannot be bought.” Mom Central Canada, an online company that connects brands with mom bloggers, states they expect the moms they work with always to identify a sponsored post and even add a sponsor hashtag (such as #spon) to any tweets about brands they receive payment from.
Some bloggers are more diligent about it than others, however, and it’s often hard to tell what’s paid-for marketing and what’s casual conversation. When a mom blogger tweets, “Has anyone tried the new Tim Hortons lattes?” is that an innocent question or a gentle nudge?
We’re still in the early days of the alliance between mom bloggers and brands — and, according to Pearce, the marketing professor, it’s not a fad. “Moms aren’t going anywhere. They have a sacred trust, they’re a powerful lobby group. And all that social media is doing is giving mom another weapon to fight for what she truly believes in.” Whether that be a community of other moms to connect with, the vacuum she can’t live without, or the wonderful world of Disney.