Mommy bloggers and journalistic standards
Mommy blogs have become monetized and it's not hard to see why: Brands embrace bloggers who promote their products, and many bloggers are only too happy to accept compensation to promote brands they were going to be writing about anyway. Ira Basen looks into issues of transparency, ethics and reader expectation that come with accepting payment or products in exchange for words.
Unless you’re a mother with young children, chances are you don’t spend much time reading mommy blogs. If you are, then you probably do.
According to eMarketer, there are nearly four million American moms who blog and more than 17 million women with kids under 18 will read blogs at least once a month.
Mom blogs cover the full range of the parenting experience; from eating healthy meals to preventing colds, to dealing with a toddler’s tantrums, and everything in between. For millions of moms, blogging and other social media have helped break down the fear and isolation they often feel, but are sometimes reluctant to express.
But moms are shoppers too. According to one estimate, moms spend about two trillion dollars a year in the U.S., on products and services for their families.
So it’s no surprise that mom blogs are also filled with posts about food, clothing, toys, travel, health and beauty aids, and all the other trappings of North American parenthood.
And it’s no surprise that the companies who covet that mom market see bloggers as a direct line to their hearts, minds, and wallets. Marketing to moms through the blogosphere is cheaper and more effective than doing it through conventional advertising, and provides better value than “earned media” in the mainstream press. Bloggers are seen by many moms as being more authentic, more trustworthy and more credible than advertisers or journalists. "Moms have always trusted other moms," explains Danielle Donders of Ottawa, who blogs at Postcards from the Mothership.
The result is a match made in marketing heaven: Brands are embracing bloggers who will promote their products, and millions of bloggers are only too happy to accept compensation to promote brands they were going to be writing about anyway.
Except it’s not quite that simple. The mommy blogging phenomenon actually raises some intriguing questions about ethics, transparency, and the expectations of readers. And, it provides a window to explore some of the differences between blogging and traditional journalism.
Money for moms
Moms have been blogging for as long as there have been blogs (about ten years) but it has only been in the past few years that the commercial potential of mommy blogging became apparent to both brands and bloggers.
Mommy bloggers are compensated in several ways. The most common is through free products. Popular mom bloggers are inundated with offers of freebies (“blogola”) from PR companies. They come with no explicit strings attached; no obligation to say anything positive or even to say anything at all, although most mom bloggers acknowledge that rather than jeopardize a relationship with a negative review, they’ll simply choose not to write about products they don’t like.
And they’ll admit these freebies are hard to resist. Bloggers need content to drive traffic, and writing about products provides a quick and easy source of fresh content. Contests and giveaways are also popular with readers, and companies are always happy to provide extra products for that as well. Even car companies will sometimes offer free cars for influential bloggers to ride and review.
Some brands will also pay bloggers to write about them. The price for these “sponsored posts” can range anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred. Others will pay bloggers to provide input on product development and attend events as brand ambassadors. Some effectively become paid corporate spokespeople.
A nod from an influential blogger will carry more weight than anything a brand might say about itself or a journalist might write.
Enter the FTC
And it is precisely that power and influence that caught the attention of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. In the fall of 2009, the FTC issued guidelines that imposed fines of up to $11,000 on bloggers who didn’t disclose the receipt of money or gifts.
“The post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement,” the FTC declared. “Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.”
The guidelines angered many bloggers, partly because the disclosure of “material connections” did not apply to the mainstream media. When a blogger received cash or gifts to write about a product it was considered an “endorsement”. When a reporter received the same product, it was assumed it was for review purposes, not an endorsement.
Bloggers called it a double standard. Media critic Dan Gillmor described the guidelinesas “an attack on markets and free speech, based on a 20th century notion of media and advertising that simply doesn’t map in the new era.”
Transparency and disclosure
Of course, most major media outlets already have disclosure and conflict of interest guidelines in place.
The CBC’s journalistic policy book, for example, mandates that “gifts, benefits, money or other special considerations offered to CBC/Radio-Canada employees to influence, obligate or appear to influence a CBC/Radio-Canada decision must be refused.” The same applies to offers of free travel and accommodation.
But many newspapers and magazines still allow car and travel writers, especially if they are freelancers, to accept free travel and products, without disclosing the conflict to readers. It’s not hard to understand why. How much credibility would you give a review written by someone who you know has been bought and paid for?
Surprisingly, in the case of mommy bloggers, the answer is quite a lot.
In the two years since the FTC guidelines went into effect, compliance rates amongst mom bloggers in the U.S. and Canada (where they hold no legal sway) have been high. Most product reviews will declare that the blogger received product or payment from the manufacturer, but the writer will then invariably add the disclaimer “the opinions on this blog are my own.”
Such a claim would rightly be met with skepticism by readers of the mainstream media. But in the mom blogosphere, which prides itself on trust and authenticity, it is widely accepted that disclosure is all that’s needed to make conflicts of interest disappear. Even knowing that a blogger will never write a negative review is not enough to call their integrity into question.
Are they journalists?
The debate over whether bloggers are journalists has been waging ever since blogging began a decade ago. Late last year, a U.S. federal judge added fuel to the fire when he ruled that a state law that helped shield journalists against defamation suits did not apply to bloggers.
And although much of the content that appears on mommy blogs is similar to what readers might find in the Life section of their local newspaper, few mom bloggers consider themselves to be journalists.
“I am not a journalist,” explains Vancouver’s Janice Croze, who publishes the blog 5MinutesforMom. “I'm not representing a newspaper that is supposed to be presenting two views of something. I have far more in common with a celebrity than with a journalist.”
“A journalist's job is to remove themselves from the story, and a bloggers job is to insert themselves into the story. Everything I'm writing about is injected with my opinion and my world view and my perception, and most of us are doing everything we can to make sure that we are not damaging our integrity or our authenticity because we recognize that as bloggers that's what we have.”
Of course, integrity and authenticity are critical parts of the journalists’ tool kit as well. And journalists know better than most how easily those words can be misused, and how low the bar can sometimes be set for bloggers.
But what becomes clear when examining the mommy blogger phenomenon through a journalistic lens is that readers have very different expectations for bloggers and journalists, and in the end, journalists should not want it any other way.
This article is a follow-up to Basen's CBC Radio documentary "Monetizing Mommy-hood" that can be heard here.