Mothers are arming themselves with the tools of social media and using their growing virtual power personally, commercially, and politically. Will the hands that rock the cradle finally rock the world?
Moms Making a Difference
Loralee Choate used to describe herself as "a stay-at-home mother who often hangs around in her spit-up-covered pajamas and blogs about things that are rather pointless and silly." But one year ago, the normally sardonic and self-effacing mother from Utah wrote on her blog -- Loralee's Looney Tunes (loraleeslooneytunes.com) -- about something extremely serious: being denied insurance coverage because of a high-risk pregnancy. "I have been sobbing all day," she wrote. "We're barely making it as it is."
Soon, Choate was telling her story in person to Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama. Someone had forwarded Choate's post to Jarrett, who then invited her to a small luncheon at the 2009 BlogHer conference, which annually brings together more than one thousand female bloggers. After the event, Jarrett blogged about meeting Choate and invited Choate and her husband to visit the White House to talk about health-care reform. Since then, Choate has been to the West Wing, discussed policy with Obama's senior advisors, hung out petting the First Dog, and been inspired to be civically engaged.
Choate's blog is the perfect illustration of the slogan "the personal is political"; the power of the Internet makes one individual's impact exponential, dare we say presidential. Indeed, the number of blogs like Choate's, and of mothers using online social media to share and opine, educate and organize, has exploded. More to the point, mothers online have become powerful: raising and honing their voices, writing best-sellers, moving products, stepping up as spokesmoms, and transforming culture. Call it Because I Said So 2.0: The trusted authority of Mom, plus the platform of the Internet, times 35 million (according to eMarketer's 2010 projections of mothers online) equals a collective voice that's not only self-affirming but that politicians and others in power are also listening to. "Being courted online is extremely empowering. Mothers are realizing that they have a voice, and it has impact when they raise it," says Elisa Camahort Page, cofounder and COO of BlogHer. "There's tremendous opportunity. It can be personal, professional, or political, but it's definitely powerful."
Of course, moms have always been socially and politically active. And they've been hanging out online since the first message boards cropped up more than 20 years ago. But their growing sophistication, combined with ever-developing technology, is now adding up to moment-defining mom-power blasts such as the case of the "Motrin Moms," who in November 2008 took offense at an online painkiller ad they believed portrayed mothers as shallow and slightly unglued. The company responded quickly by apologizing for the ad and removing it. The impromptu campaign got results -- and the attention of mainstream media. Same goes for "nursing gate," when moms launched the "Facebook Sucks" campaign to get the social network to reverse its policy banning photos of breastfeeding mothers; mobilization was swift, huge, and creative, leading to nursing videos on YouTube and even the formation of the Facebook group "Hey Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!" The group boasts close to 250,000 members and prominently features pictures of happy nursers -- despite the fact that Facebook never officially reversed the policy.
Even legislation has been affected: Political megaphone MomsRising.org, modeled on the powerful progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org, counts among its victories passage of bills that made Washington and New Jersey the second and third states to mandate paid family leave.
Before the full-on "discovery" of mom blogs by marketers, the community was a smaller, more motley crew of writers embracing both the sheer power of chronicling their lives and the mighty resonance of "me too." Now there's no such thing as "just" writing about the trials and foibles of parenting or Precious's first potty poop. Anyone who confesses, cathartically, to having locked the baby in the car along with her keys, is likely to receive instant amnesty. ("You should hear what I did.") "Mommy blogging is a radical act," Alice Bradley, of Finslippy.com, said in an off-the-cuff but now oft-quoted statement at the first gathering of mom bloggers at BlogHer in 2005. Her point: "By telling your story, you can help other people. You can change the world by just telling the truth."
Liz Gumbinner, author of the personal blog Mom-101.com and publisher/editor-in-chief of CoolMomPicks.com, agrees. "The online mother community has created a huge shift in the parenting zeitgeist from expert experts to peer experts. There's the sense that other moms are more likely to tell it like it is. That trust creates authority, which creates power."
The fact that people will buy what these women write about has created a feeding frenzy among companies and advertisers, who are well aware that mothers control family finances and that, therefore, trusted moms online wield great influence over where those dollars go. "Brands looking to tap the influence of mom blogs have changed the dynamics of the community," says Gumbinner. "It used to be that moms were blogging to express themselves and connect with other moms. Now there's a new generation blogging specifically to connect with companies who want to sell stuff.
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."
Parents Power Moms
They have thousands -- even millions -- of fans and Twitter followers. Media and marketers seek their opinions and imprimatur. In short, when these moms speak, people listen.
The irreverent humor and candor (along with amazing photographs) with which she documents her life as a SAHM has created a devoted audience -- she has 1.5 million followers on Twitter alone.
Her site focuses on the many places where motherhood, crafts, and design intersect. Blair's a mom of five and a cofounder of Kirtsy.com, a women focused alternative to the male-dominated Internet rating sites like Digg.com.
Blecherman spots trends and reviews family friendly gadgets. She's also a cofounder of the Silicon Valley Moms Group, a family of collaborative mom blogs covering local issues and events in cities across the country.
Stefania Pomponi Butler
The influential parenting blog that she founded has a West Coast foodie meets snarky pop-culture vibe. She's also cofounder of the blog MOMocrats, which puts a progressive spin on family-related political issues.
Amy Allen Clark
Walmart mom and Kenmore Keep It Simple Team leader, Clark is the Interweb's frugal living and household and family-management expert. She founded the mom-empowerment site MomAdvice.com.
Liz Gumbinner & Kristen Chase
Their cheeky-but practical shopping/ trend-spotting blog is a trusted brand. With Gumbinner's Mom-101.com and Chase's Motherhood Uncensored.net, they've each carved out a personal following.
Kallman's brainchild combines momcentric lifestyle content, curated posts from other blogs, product reviews, and an "alphamom lab" that matches moms with companies who want their opinions.
Cooper Munroe & Emily McKhann
Their community site has a change-the-world spirit. This vibrant space broadcasts constantly updated blog posts, news, and stories; it also advocates and champions issues that matter to mothers.
Jyl Johnson Pattee
This community is for moms who want to make a difference -- from raising kids with character to bettering communities through social responsibility. She also hosts the popular weekly virtual Girls' Night Out (#gno) parties on Twitter
One of the 11 Walmart Moms recruited by the company to create content and buzz. After less than two years of blogging she has become a featured national speaker on blogging, marketing, and women of color
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Parents magazine.