There can be little doubt that Mumsnet is a marketing and media phenomenon. Founded only 17 years ago, the site now attracts in excess of 10 million users a year and continues to maintain a double-digit annual growth rate. Aside from its sheer scale, the Mumsnet audience is also a tasty prospect for marketers because of its demographic and behavioural uniformity.
In an age of fragmented media and markets that fail to follow the traditional demographic stereotypes, Mumsnet is that rarest of things – a site that is predominantly occupied by a single specific type of consumer: mums. While a small proportion of the visitors to the site are male, the rest of its user base is the marketing equivalent of gold dust.
Almost 80% of its users are women, mostly mothers, aged between 26 and 45. These are the target consumers often too busy to consume other media as they juggle jobs, family commitments and children. Yet this is the audience that Mumsnet has built its business around. These women use the site to share experiences, provide advice and generally behave like an old-fashioned online community.
But there is a growing problem with this community. Browse the site for barely a minute and its becomes readily apparent: the first F-bomb is usually only three or four clicks in. And the bombs keep dropping. And dropping with such frequency and vehemence that Mumsnet begins to take on an almost Tarantino-like vibe. Posts like ‘Is this totally fucked?’ and ‘Can we talk about spunk’ are commonplace.
Most users appear comfortable dropping Anglo Saxon epithets into seemingly every possible conversation. An apparently harmless debate about married life detours into: “Fuck off you stupid prick of a husband, who is now giving me the silent treatment because I dared to go to a final wedding dress fitting with my only sister, for whom I am chief bridesmaid.”
A discussion of parenting begins with the disarming header: ‘To be so fucked off with my toddler’s behaviour’.
Regular readers of this column will know that I take a very dim view of swearing. But, when the time is right, I do feel a decent application of a well-placed and very occasional bit of the Anglo Saxon lexicon has its place in the lyrical wonderland we all know as the English language.
Unfortunately for Mumsnet I don’t have any ad budget and, worse still, the companies that do are increasingly unhappy with the fruity vernacular that pervades Mumsnet. Big advertisers like Bulgari, the National Trust and price comparison site Confused.com are among the big brands reconsidering their presence on Mumsnet, according to a report in The Times.
At first sight this does all rather make sense. I can see why a majestic luxury brand like Bulgari might flinch if an ad for its iconic fragrance Jasmin Noir appears alongside a post from a mum who wants to put up ‘No wanking’ signs above her toilet to stop her teenage progeny from masturbating repeatedly in the downstairs loo. And it’s understandable that the National Trust, which advertises on Mumsnet to raise funds for some of Britain’s most iconic stately homes, might bridle at the thought of their logo appearing next to a graphic and rather salacious description of “crotch bling”.
Brands reconsidering their presence on Mumsnet appear comfortable inserting TV ads into programmes with foul language, sexual context and violence.
But crotch bling and teenage ejaculate are just two of the many millions of crosses that marketers must now bear in the brave and grave new era of programmatic buying. As the digital proportion of advertising becomes ever greater, the dependence on programmatic will only increase. That means the era of carefully matching not only the audience target but also the title and specific content placement of advertising is likely to become a thing of the past.
The careful pre-selection of media channels to match our message and brand position has been replaced by post-hoc recriminations when our much vaunted brand and hot new digital display ads start popping up in all the wrong places. Thanks to programmatic, marketers are now much more likely to concern themselves with inappropriate media placements and content risks; but only after the branded horse has long since bolted from the media buying stable.
Mumsnet is hardly a jihadi cell
That said, I’m not even sure that Mumsnet poses any brand risk. More likely, the recent brand safety saga has just got marketing directors worried – or ‘shitting their pants’ as a Mumsnet user might put it – and made them overly sensitive to any digital media transgression.
There is a world of difference between your ad appearing next to a digital video for jihadi recruitment – and paying that organisation a small slice of the media action for the privilege – and a placement next to the plaintive, frustrated pleas of an exhausted mother asking others for advice on how to get her useless “fuckwitt” [sic] husband to pull his weight in the kitchen, albeit using metaphors that would make a deep sea fisherman blush.
Most of the brands currently reconsidering their presence on Mumsnet because of the language issue appear to be more than comfortable inserting their TV ads into programmes that contain just as much foul language, along with sexual context and violence to boot. Have we perhaps become too sensitive about brand safety and digital media?
And, in reality, is any of the industrial language on Mumsnet even a bad thing? I suspect this is how many, perhaps most, mothers communicate with each other – especially after three hours’ sleep and a row with a husband who does not get it. Maybe Mumsnet has a realistic, vibrant and entirely representative community of British mums, and it is the brands that consider the site a brand risk which have the real marketing issue.
Have they built their brand strategies around an unrealistic, non-representative vision of female consumers, who lose their baby weight immediately, smile adoringly at their two perfect children every eight seconds and never lose their temper with the handsome, supportive dreamboat they are lucky enough to be married to?
This may be inappropriately introspective on my part, but I hear the women on Mumsnet and I immediately encounter women that I know. Then I look at the slightly malnourished, idealised customers pictured with the latest Bulgari bag, or vigorously raking the leaves alongside their labrador and perfectly coiffured son in an ad for the National Trust, and I don’t recognise a soul.
Perhaps these brands are right to depart from Mumsnet and spend their money elsewhere. The good news is that the Mumsnet team also have a site for older consumers called Gransnet that is also growing like the clappers. And that lot hardly ever talk about wanking or crotch bling. Trade a bit of lifetime value for brand safety and everybody can be happy.
Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next class on the Marketing Week Mini MBA in Marketing from September 2017. To find out how it could make you a more confident, more effective and more inspired marketer, and to book your place, click here.