Dodge sent a letter to Chicago mom Jessica Ashley and the first sentence made her laugh.
"We think you are one of the just 50 socially and professionally influential women in Chicago."
"I am?" she thought.
The automaker was inviting Ashley, the mother of a 3-year-old who works from home, to test drive a new, fully loaded, 2008 Dodge Caravan for an entire week. They would even deliver it to her at her house. No strings attached.
Why her? Because Ashley's a popular "mommy blogger," -- a woman who writes about mother-related matters on a Web blog. Ashley posts her thoughts on everything from trick-or-treating to women's shoes at www.sassafrass.typepad.com and www.chicagomomsblog.com.
Dodge's hope is that Ashley will love the minivan, write a glowing review about it, and thus generate buzz among the 1,000 women who read her blog each week.
"People were asking me, 'How did you get this van for the week?' And I said, "I am just socially and professionally influential!' It was a boost to my blog esteem," she said.
Such perks are no longer unique in the online momosphere. Once viewed as a boring group of writers who droned on and on about diapers and car pools, these bloggers have evolved into a savvy and powerful group of women whom companies want to woo.
In recent years, they've organized into different umbrella groups, including Parent Bloggers Network, Chicago Moms Blog and BlogHer, and represent the modern day "soccer mom" demographic.
"(Mothers) no longer watch the soaps. When they have down time, they're online," says Elisa Camahort, co-founder of BlogHer and a writer for eight different blogs.
Politicians are getting wise to the scene, too -- Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, was the keynote speaker at this summer's BlogHer convention in Chicago, attended by 800 female bloggers from around the country.
In the past year, though, it's the retail companies who have come-a-courtin' most aggressively. Local mommy bloggers report getting anywhere from a few to a few dozen invitations every week to review children's books, DVDs, toys, clothes and other kids' products. Sometimes the items are sent to them unsolicited, and sometimes it's stuff that has nothing to do with parenting, like fiction novels.
Some of the well-established mommy bloggers have been invited to go on all-expenses-paid trips to the LeapFrog factory in California, or to the set of the Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom, "The New Adventures of Old Christine."
"Mom review blogs are becoming, like, 'What's the buzz?' '' says blogger Amy Mueller, of Aurora, co-author of www.mumsthewurd.com and contributor to www.chicagomomsblog.com. "We're a pretty cheap form of advertising for these companies, actually."
To us, they're mommy bloggers. To corporate marketing departments, they're "mom-fluentials."
A study last year by Burson-Marsteller showed that 92 percent of "mom-fluentials" influence the products their family, friends and colleagues buy.
"Some moms don't stop to think about it, but they have these busy active lives and they're in contact with a lot of people. That's valuable to us," says Mark Spencer, senior manager of Dodge's advertising.
Spencer added that their mommy blogger test drive strategy has been a success.
Mommy bloggers' opinions hold more weight than, say, magazine or television ads because readers trust the writers.
"(The readers) see the bloggers as people just like them. I call it the over-the-fence syndrome. What happens now is the same word-of-mouth effect, but it affects millions instead of dozens," says Don Crowther, an Internet marketing expert with www.101PublicRelations.com.
If you Google a certain product -- say, the name of a certain stroller -- you'll get the company's Web site and links to mommy blogs discussing that product. Companies are conscious of this, which is why they're trying so hard to schmooze this group of women.
While bloggers of all types are now being courted by corporate America, mommy bloggers are perhaps the most powerful because they spend the most money -- doing the shopping for their families.
"There's real money in working with bloggers these days," Crowther said.
How they started
Mommy blogging began in the mid-1990s. Women began writing blogs to seek support from other moms or just to journal about their mothering experiences. It was only a hobby, with no expectations of pay or free products.
"Parenting, particularly in the suburbs, can be so isolating. So this was a way for them to get some support," says Devra Renner, who writes www.parentopia.net and co-authored the book "Mommy Guilt."
As the Web expanded, the number of mommy bloggers quickly increased and the quality of the sites improved. Today, the most popular mommy bloggers get book deals, thousands of dollars worth of free merchandise, and six-figure incomes from advertising.
While there are no hard statistics, BlogHer executives estimate the number of mommy bloggers to be in the thousands. Not all of the blogs are well-written or well-read, however.
"There are plenty of mommy bloggers out there who are only read by the grandparents, but it's still a perfectly good way to communicate," says Sara Fisher of Chicago, who writes http://selfmademom.net.
The retail and political power of these blogging moms is rivaled only by the emotional power they hold. Most bloggers have at least one heartwarming story of someone who found inspiration, support and strength from their sites.
One working mom wrote to blogger Wendy Piersall of West Chicago to thank her for providing the encouragement she needed to pursue her career goals. Thanks to Piersall's blog, she went out and achieved life-changing success.
"I read (the e-mail) and I absolutely bawled," says Piersall, who writes www.emomsathome.com.
Sending moms free products or paying them to post positive product reviews can backfire -- both for the companies and the bloggers.
Wal-Mart made a famous flop last year with its "Wal-Marting Across America" campaign. The company selected a couple to drive around the country, visit all of the Wal-Marts and blog it. The problem was, Wal-Mart paid them to do it, and once that came to light, no one wanted to read their blog.
Among mommy bloggers, the problem arises when they get swept up in the freebies and lose their impartiality. While many mommy blog readers want to read about new products, they also want the truth about them.
None of the bloggers interviewed wanted to name names, but all seemed to know of a blogger who lost credibility -- and readership -- by shilling for companies. They also knew of women who started blogs just to get free stuff.
This is a hot topic among mommy bloggers now. On one hand, readers want information on new products. On the other hand, they don't want to be "used" for free advertising.
"Some women have sworn (freebies) off altogether. Some create a separate space so it doesn't interfere with their content," Piersall said. "Some bloggers think, I don't want to pimp my children for a set of free DVDs."
Mueller, who blogs about new products, recently received a kids T-shirt from a boutique which she found to be "nothing special." So rather than write a negative review of the shirt, she blogged about the boutique itself, making no mention of the T-shirt. That way, she didn't offend the boutique and didn't lie to her readers.
That's the key, bloggers say. Be genuine, and make sure the products are relevant to readers.
"As long as I give my honest opinion and don't shill, I'm just another source of word-of-mouth -- albeit a searchable source that lives online," says Alma Klein, of Oak Park, who writes www.marketingmommy.net and contributes to www.chicagomomsblog.com.
This issue was debated at the BlogHer convention, and mommy bloggers agreed that it's important to maintain their integrity as a group or else lose respect in the blogosphere.
"We want all boats rising together. It doesn't have to be all the boats smashing into other boats," said Camahort. "When women come together and blog, they can do a lot of things. They can raise a lot of money. They can galvanize people to action. And they're anxious to do it."
Hey mamas, wanna start a blog? Before you do, consider this:
1. Remember what you write, and photos of your children or family, could end up anywhere.
2. If you want anyone to read your blog, you have to be a good writer and write often.
3. Don't think you can post your thoughts and not get a reaction from strangers, some of whom might not be completely sane.
4. How will your kids feel when they get old enough to read what you wrote?
5. The laws haven't caught up with technology yet.
6. Will companies send you free stuff? Probably. But most of it is stuff you have little use for.
Source: Daily Herald interviews