“Ya know, if you don’t give me shoes – I could totally write something bad about you on my blog,” threatened the unnamed woman, according to Smith’s account on his own Web site.
The setting was July’s BlogHer conference in Chicago, where many attendees came away with the feeling that mommyblogging has become more about collecting swag bags and corporate sponsorships than about bonding over potty training stories. Smith gave away 350 pairs of Crocs flip-flops at a party there, but this blogger didn’t manage to grab a pair in her size. So she wanted him to procure her one. “I really hope it was an isolated incident, but it’s something to watch out for,” wrote Smith, who works with bloggers on behalf of Crocs.
Others see the incident as emblematic of a new breed of online mom: a social media tyrant so spoiled by marketers’ attentions that she expects companies to bow to her every whim. The “divas” are a minority by all accounts, but some say they’re spoiling mommyblogging for everyone.
Naturally, moms who have complained about companies online don’t see themselves as out-of-control tyrants, even when their comments snowball into a much larger hubbub than they’d intended. It’s more like they’re part of a grass-roots movement with the power to make things better for all consumers.
“Mommybloggers rightly feel empowered,” said Heather Armstrong, author of Dooce.com, one of the most popular blogs on the Internet. “We’re the ones spending the money; we are the ones talking to each other.”
Indeed, mothers control eighty-five percent of household spending nowadays, according to the Marketing to Moms Coalition. And online is where the moms are. New moms – a particularly delicious demographic because family spending jumps when children arrive – are more than twice as likely to visit blogging site Blogger than other Web users, and eighty-five percent more likely to visit Facebook, according to research firm Nielsen.
But one person’s empowered woman is another person’s bully – a word that came up repeatedly in comments about these three incidents where moms attacked brands online:
In August, Armstrong turned to her Twitter account in a rage about an unrepaired washing machine, lousy customer service and a growing stack of her newborn daughter’s poopy onesies. “DO NOT EVER BUY A MAYTAG,” she typed in a series of five angry missives. Some of her 1.25 million followers rallied in support; others, such as Linda, who Tweets as @sundry, called it “no-context corporate bashing.”
In July, two BlogHer attendees were turned away from an exclusive party thrown by Nikon because they had infants in tow and the event was adults-only. Esther Brady Crawford, who blogs at FaintStarlite, tweeted about getting turned down. Using a Twitter convention that marks a message as part of a group conversation, she tagged her complaint “#Nikonhatesbabies.” Crawford later wrote that she meant the message as a joke (http://www.faintstarlite.com/2009/07/babies-blogher-bars/), but many, many other moms who felt it was wrong to ban a nursing infant forwarded her original complaint with straight – indeed outraged – faces.
In November 2008, mom Jessica Gottlieb was dismayed by an ad from Motrin that implied that mothers are motivated to wear babies in slings for fashion reasons, and that the practice results in pain (hence the need for Motrin-brand ibuprofin). Her complaint quickly circulated around Twitter, and within a day the topic briefly became the top conversation there.
All these incidents got started on Twitter, the social networking site where messages can be disseminated to millions of people within minutes, especially when they originate from an account as popular as Armstrong’s, whose legion of followers dwarfs the population of Salt Lake City, where she lives.
All of these moms gone riled succeeded in getting action out of the companies targeted: Maytag parent Whirlpool dispatched a repairman for Armstrong’s washing machine, Nikon had a face-to-face talk with the snubbed moms, and Motrin swiftly eighty-sixed the offending ad.
The moms got action, and they – mainly the Motrin Moms – got some accolades for standing up to corporate America in a novel way.
“I thought it was an interesting and compelling and effective use of emerging media and Twitter,” said Jessica Hogue, research director in the online sector for Nielsen.
But the moms also got a lot of flack. Armstrong probably garnered the most hisses; she struck some as self-serving when she mobilized her followers over a broken household appliance.
“I just felt that was maybe crossing a line considering the amount of influence (Armstrong) has,” said Linda, who prefers not to use her last name.
Others said that the mommybloggers in these high-profile cases were wasting their considerable social influence on petty issues. They could have been gathering support for important social causes, instead of just throwing a “Twitter tantrum,” as one observer put it.
Social media marketing consultant Lynette Young complained that the women who went on the warpath against Motrin, Nikon and Maytag are giving moms online a bad name in the business world. First enchanted with the power of “word of mom” online, some marketers “have started to sour toward the momblogger,” said Young, who has advised companies on social media strategies through her company, Purple Stripe, for four and a half years.
“A lot of (marketers) are scared of mommybloggers,” Young said. The result is that some marketers who might have offered a blogger a lucrative partnership are now going it alone online, she said.
Hogue, who studies what she calls “power moms” for Nielsen, said she’s heard from nervous marketers too. “I can imagine it’s going to impact the course that they take,” Hogue said.
All kinds of companies are realizing that they no longer have sole control over their brands in a world where every customer potentially has a megaphone. The companies involved in these incidents do not, however, admit to being scared of mommybloggers. Monica Teague, senior manager of public relations for Maytag parent Whirlpool, stated, “Our recent interaction with Heather Armstrong through Twitter does not change the way we communicate with mommy bloggers or the way we work with social media venues in general.”
Nikon, for its part, was not specifically targeting mommybloggers with its event, but rather bloggers who like to take pictures. And this blow-up shouldn’t “scare big brands away from the increasingly real-time digital world,” wrote Althea Haigh, who worked on the Nikon event through its marketing agency, in a post about the incident. Spokespeople for Nikon and Motrin did not comment.
To be sure, mommybloggers aren’t the only ones that bash brands online, and companies that target mothers aren’t the only ones with reason to worry. All kinds of companies are realizing that they no longer have sole control over their brands in a world where every customer potentially has a megaphone.
Ad Age recently mused that Walmart can’t – and shouldn’t – stop the popularity of the People of Walmart Web site, which posts photos of the big box chain’s most mockable shoppers. Musician David Carroll used YouTube to circulate songs complaining that “United Breaks Guitars” after his $3,500 Taylor was damaged.
Most online comments about Carroll’s story are supportive of him (some questioned the wisdom of checking an expensive guitar, but no one seemed to think he was a bully), so why is Gottlieb a bully for calling out Motrin’s ad, Armstrong for pleading for Maytag service, or Crawford’s followers for saying that a party for women bloggers at a baby-friendly conference should accommodate nursing infants?
Sexism is in play here, some of the targeted moms assert – even when the critics are other women. Gottlieb remembers a series of comments and posts from one critic who said, “Somebody needs a Midol.” She responds, “It was :misogynistic [to] chalk everything up to PMS, hysteria – from another woman.”
Mommybloggers have attracted sneers this year for more than starting Twitstorms. Many attendees of the BlogHer conference this summer complained that the event featured too many marketers showering too many presents aimed at mommybloggers alone – even though many of the 1,400 women in attendance blog about nothing to do with babies. “The marketers need to step back and be a little bit careful about spoiling the moms,” said Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000. “The BlogHer event took it to an extreme . . . It was a bit of a black eye for the blogger moms.”
Marketers commonly offer products to bloggers in the hopes of getting free publicity from online reviews. But in the past couple of years, the freebies have gone beyond free samples, with companies treating bloggers to trips to Disney World and stays at the Four Seasons, and picking up their expenses for conferences and more. It’s not just mommybloggers who get these perks, but they are heavily targeted by companies who know the spending power moms control.
Many bloggers are very gracious recipients of these treats – but not all. “A good number of these women who find themselves in this situation don’t have the professional PR or media background to handle this,” said Young, a marketing consultant who blogs about motherhood at Lynette Radio.
Regulation – from the blogging community and the government – is arriving to lay some ground rules when it comes to “blogola.” The Federal Trade Commission is working on guidelines requiring bloggers to disclose when they have received payment or free products in exchange for plugs. A voluntary pledge called Blog With Integrity emerged around the time of the BlogHer conference, its founders noting “an alarming increase in ethical lapses” and “a growing backlash against poor blogger relations practices.”
The Blog With Integrity pledge calls for disclosure of payment and other consideration bloggers may be getting from marketers. It also says: “When collaborating with marketers and PR professionals, I handle myself professionally and abide by basic journalistic standards.” That doesn’t leave much room for blackmail-for-shoes. But the ethics of the other cases are more nuanced.
The dust-ups between online moms and companies have been full of unexpected consequences and lessons learned on both sides. Armstrong, for one, maintains she did nothing wrong when she wielded her Twitter stature against Whirlpool. “I got my washing machine fixed. I would not go back and do it differently,” she said. “I think it’s funny that people think I as an individual am bullying a multi-billion-dollar corporation.”
Armstrong’s life as an Internet celebrity is uncharted territory – what other housewife can complain about a broken appliance and be heard by over a million people? If a major media personality – say, Oprah – used her platform to settle such a domestic problem, it would be seen as an abuse. But Armstrong’s fame is based on her writing about her personal domestic problems. So how could writing about this one be wrong?
In this case, Armstrong ended up using her power not just to get her own washer fixed but to procure a brand new one for a local homeless shelter. That came about when Bosch saw her complaints about Maytag and offered her a free machine, and a follower suggested she donate it.
Since then, Armstrong used her Twitter account to help locate a missing person, a relative of her assistant. Armstrong and her husband, who works with her on the site, want to leverage her large audience to do good in other ways. “We’re working on some things,” she said, declining to reveal details.
But she can’t just turn her platform over to other people’s causes, no matter how noble, Armstrong said. “People call on me all the time to say, oh please Tweet about this charitable thing . . . once you open that gate, people will say, ‘Why don’t you do mine?’”
The dust-ups between online moms and companies have been full of unexpected consequences and – as Nikon rep Haigh noted in her post – lessons learned on both sides. The moms turned away from the Nikon party saw that any Twitter message – even one meant to be humorous – can get out of hand.
Armstrong, meanwhile, hopes that marketers learn that in the age of social media, “You can’t get away with crappy service and you can’t get away with bad products. Because we now have this big platform to get together and talk about the quality of things.”
When those conversations go on, marketers had better be listening – whether they love mommybloggers or fear them. That’s just what Nielsen expert Hogue took from the Motrin moms incident: Instead of focusing on how much stuff to give online moms so they’ll broadcast the corporate message, companies should be paying attention to the online conversations already going on among their target customers. “It is time to move away from developing ‘messaging’ to integrating ‘listening,’” Hogue wrote in a Nielsen report.
Every mom wants to be heard – no doubt about that. It just remains to be seen whether we want to be heard more than we want free shoes.