Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why Brands Love Mommy Bloggers

Big companies find word-of-mouth value in currying favor with digital-savvy mothers

By Brian Morrissey
March 30, 2009 

Gretchen Vogelzang and Paige Heninger are much like other suburban mothers, with seven children between them and busy schedules. The difference is they also have a high-powered Hollywood agent, ad campaigns with some of the world's top brands and distribution through Google's vast network.

Welcome to the world of mommy blogging, where women juggle the demands of childcare with building audiences online. It's also, increasingly, a place where top brands battle for their attention, hoping for reviews from "real moms" and access to the valuable power of word of mouth. Being a player in the mommy blogger world can mean access to free products, getting big media buys and even trips to the red carpet in Hollywood and Caribbean cruises.

Vogelzang and Heninger are among the mommy blogging elite. Their sponsors include Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and, most recently, State Farm. The insurance giant has contracted with the women to create 10 episodes of their video series, MommyCast (available on iTunes, and YouTube), around themes like home buying, the need for mothers to get life insurance and making a house safe for babies. The videos will appear as well on a State Farm-branded YouTube channel and, through a distribution deal with Google, will potentially reach tens of millions of Web users through parenting and mom sites in the AdSense network.

Ed Gold, director of digital strategy for State Farm, said Vogelzang and Heninger have an authenticity that wouldn't be there in "authority-driven" media content.

There's plenty of research to back up the potential power of mommy bloggers. Mothers are estimated to be responsible for $2.1 trillion of U.S. consumer spending, controlling about 80 percent of household expenditures, according to BSM Media. They're also active online: 87 percent use the Web regularly, per comScore. What's more, 60 percent of their online conversations—the type of discussions also heard at playgrounds everywhere—include a mention of brands or products, according to a study done last year by BabyCenter and Keller Fay Group.

"When you're up in middle of the night nursing, the best way to get advice is to go online," says Sarah Hofstetter, vp of emerging media and client strategy at digital shop 360i, who has run influencer campaigns targeting mommy bloggers. "You're going to identify with that person. If that person says, 'Get XYZ stroller,' you're going to do that."

Brands, particularly consumer packaged-goods companies, have taken note. P&G and Walmart have mommy-blogger outreach programs. J&J has a wide-ranging mommy-blogger strategy that includes sending out product samples and bringing select bloggers to its headquarters. Its new YouTube contest, "Big Bubblin' Stars!," which solicits bath time videos, is hosted by mommy blogger Christine Young, a homeschooling mother of six.

"We thought it was important to have a real voice," says Lori Dolginoff, director of communications at J&J.

Not all mommy bloggers get such high-profile gigs. The most common tactic for brands is sending out product samples in the hopes of a review. It's gotten so popular that the avalanche of offers has led some mom bloggers to create separate sites or sections dedicated to reviews. The benefits of brand attention can go up from there. Frito-Lay, looking for online buzz for its new line of snacks, last month flew mommy bloggers out to Los Angeles to meet Brooke Burke and preview its "Only in a woman's world" ad campaign. Disney in January took a group of mom bloggers on a trip to the Bahamas to showcase its cruise line.

Participants in both instances blogged about their trips and the brands.

"Nurturing relationships is one of the core values of a mom," says Maria Bailey, author of Mom 3.0 and CEO of BSM Media, which advises Disney and other brands on reaching moms online. "It's an inherent need of a mother to share information."

For mommy bloggers, just like for any independent content creator hooking up with brands, the question may come down to how much is too much. The Web is already debating the value of sponsored posts by top bloggers, with Google suggesting sites could be penalized in its search results because such posts are thinly disguised ads. Also, the Federal Trade Commission has suggested such integrations could be misleading. Vogelzang says MommyCast, in the past, had to push back on brands that wanted to script them.

"This is not just an infomercial for their products," she explains of their upcoming work with State Farm. "It needs to be a topic that, while it promotes the State Farm issues, is relevant to our audience."

If the direct ROI on mommy blogger word-of-mouth programs is not entirely clear, there is the risk of ending up on the wrong side of the buzz. The classic case: "Motrin Moms." The pain reliever's commercial depicting carrying babies as a fashion choice ignited an online storm last November among mommy bloggers on Twitter. The furor built over a single weekend to the point where Motrin pulled the ad and apologized. The lesson: mommy bloggers can scuttle your brand's best-laid plans.

The power some have accrued can be surprising. Three years ago, Hollywood talent agency Endeavor signed Vogelzang and Heninger, helping the duo move MommyCast from a popular audio podcast into video. They subsequently struck a deal with Media Rights Capital, the firm that brokered the Burger King-Seth MacFarlane deal that drew 37 million video views in a similar distribution deal with Google.

The MommyCast-State Farm videos should reach similar numbers, according to Alexandra Levy, director of branded entertainment at Google, thanks to MommyCast episodes already drawing 250,000 views and the reach of Google's network. "They have a huge install base of mommies," she says.