Marketers realize that they have to earn the trust of savvy online mothers. To do so, they've gotten creative, ushering in a new -- and new-media -- era of advertising transparency and interactivity. "Companies are putting thought into strategically reaching the holy grail of moms," says Megan Calhoun, founder of TwitterMoms, which works with marketers to create custom campaigns. Stacy DeBroff, CEO of Mom Central, a social-media publicity agency specializing in the mom market, agrees. "Moms are controlling the dialogue. We're not listening to ads that tell us what we should think and feel and do."
But those companies want to participate in the conversation. Some of the biggies have recruited "real" moms as product testers or company spokespeople. Witness, for example, the Frito-Lay Moms, Walmart Moms, Frigidaire Moms, and six McDonald's Moms' Quality Correspondents, who explore the inner workings of the company and blog, uncensored (and unpaid) about what they find.
But not everyone is 100 percent comfortable with the deals that are being struck. "Many mom bloggers gained a large following of people who really trusted them and their opinions. Sponsored posts, giveaways, compensated reviews, free stuff, and trips are changing all that -- and not for the better," says Tiffany Washko, of NatureMoms.com. "Some of us love the community and hate to see it overtaken with corporate shills and paid endorsements."
Others worry that companies "partnering with" moms is basically code for "scoring cheap labor." Jo-Lynne Shane, of MusingsOfAHousewife.com, wonders, "How much does a company pay to put an ad in a magazine? Sure,it gets millions of views, but a trusted mom's personal recommendation has a sought-after influence and credibility that many view as priceless. Ironically, that raises the thorny question: Aren't our reviews worth some monetary compensation?" Adds Jessica Gottlieb, of JessicaGottlieb.com (the Motrin Moms instigator), "Yes, it's a good thing that the big corporations realize that moms wield influence, though I imagine there's a middle-aged man in a boardroom giggling like a tween at the low price he got them for."
Much of the criticism, however, of mom blogs and their evolving business model comes from outside the community. Many call it ill-informed and inaccurate -- and often driven by unflattering stereotypes of mothers. Example: The FTC has long required print and television to disclose any paid relationships with advertisers; last fall, the commission updated those guidelines to include blogs. Now, nowhere does that new 81-page document mention mothers or mom blogs; it's about all blogs. However, in their coverage, media outlets including Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and ABC News stated incorrectly that the FTC was targeting mom blogs. Mom bloggers were outraged by the unfounded accusation. "These guidelines are not about moms. They are about evolving media," says Gumbinner. "It's not that stupid or conniving moms need a whole new government department to regulate them. We're influential, but we're not that influential."
To some, the mainstream media's seemingly knee-jerk reaction reveals something persistent, and pernicious, in our 21st-century culture: that there's still -- still! -- something people find threatening about mothers who wield influence outside, say, the kitchen or the nursery. "We have a power so profound that it's actually frightening," says Dooce.com's Armstrong. "We are the people making the important decisions in our family. We're having a voice and sharing it with one another -- and the reaction is 'Oh, here are all the uppity women thinking they can come online and talk and ... say things!'?"
Even as mothers online increase and explore their own power, some speed bumps and hurdles remain, usually tracking right along with our ambivalent cultural attitudes about mothers: On the one hand, Mother knows best; on the other, Mother's to blame. But if anything, say those in the know, it's mothers speaking out online -- about motherhood and everything else important to them -- who stand to not only increase their own power but also the power of mothers in general to command respect and make a difference. Says Armstrong: "This is just the beginning of what this community is capable of."