More than a million UK parents each month log onto parenting websites such as Mumsnet and Netmums. They discuss everything from child behaviour to the book of the month to social and political affairs. But these “social parenting” sites have evolved beyond gossip and support to become recommendation tools for everyday purchases.
In user polls conducted separately by both Mumsnet and Netmums, about 80% of users said they would not make a purchase without first consulting the website and the opinions of their peers. Since women make 80% of all purchasing decisions, including 65% of all cars and 90% of holidays and homes according to research from agency Iris, marketers need to take note of these findings.
Cate Hunt, insight director for brand development firm Added Value, predicts Mumsnet and Netmums could become so powerful that we may even begin to see signs with messages such as “8 out of 10 Netmums users recommend…” in retail areas such as beauty counters.
The statistics of both Mumsnet and Netmums speak for themselves. According to Comscore, in January, Mumsnet had 527,000 total visitors, with the average visitor spending 10 minutes. In the same time, Netmums had 1.3 million visitors, spending an average of 7 minutes on the site.
Netmums co-founder Siobhan Freegard, who also runs the brand’s sponsorships and advertising, explains what draws users to the service. She says: “The problem with being a mum, and one of the reasons Netmums came to be, is the strong feeling of being disenfranchised. There are lots of issues in the news or to do with the government that relate to you but you don’t get a voice.
“Society has become more fragmented so our website and others like it give mums the chance to have a say. No one cares what a few mums at the school gate have to say, but put 1 million of them together and everyone takes notice.”
The detailed understanding that these communities have of their user base – their interests, income and motivations – are all valuable for marketers. Around half of Mumsnet members have an income of over £50,000, two-thirds are in full or part-time employment and about 70% are degree educated. Nearly half live in London and the South-east. The profile of Netmums users is slightly different: about 40% have an income of £20,000 to £40,000, and about 60% claim to work full-time, part-time or be self-employed. They also tend to be further spread across the country.
While Netmums has been recommended in the press as a useful parenting tool, focused on being a support network, Mumsnet is famed for airing its opinions in the press, most recently to criticise the Outdoor Advertising Association’s profile-raising “Career women make bad mothers” marketing, which was eventually pulled. It also campaigned against an ad about Madeleine McCann’s disappearance being shown in screenings of children’s movies. The ASA cleared the ad, but in July 2007 cinema chains eventually banned its showing during kids’ films.
With so much willingness from social parenting users to speak up, it is no surprise these services are being courted by politicians. Potential prime minister David Cameron has said that, if elected, he would promote sites such as Mumsnet to encourage their mantra of “social action” as an alternative to state action. And current Secretary of State for Health Alan Johnson took part in a Mumsnet webchat and said he would like the site to be part of a forthcoming review of infant formula advertising.
Head of insight for marketing agency Haygarth, Anthony Donaldson, says: “Politicians have been attracted to talk on websites like Mumsnet because it is a media channel with a significant reach to an audience that is hard to find because they are so busy.”
If politicians can spread their word via Mumsnet, so too can brands. Jane Cunningham, co-founder of Pretty Little Head, an agency which specialises in marketing to women, says if the right conversations are sparked, the benefits for companies can be enormous.
“If brands can get users of these communities saying good things about them, the word would spread like wildfire. We have looked at the impact of word of mouth and found that women typically will tell 23 people about an experience, while men will tell two,” she says.
Robin Grant, managing director of social media agency We Are Social, adds that active members of websites such as Mumsnet are likely to be the same kind of people that spread word-of-mouth in the real world. He says: “They are influencers in every sense of the word. It goes beyond raw numbers and the effect is impressive. But you need to give people a reason to talk about what you are doing.”
It is not easy to prompt social parenting users to talk about a brand or products in a positive way. Both Mumsnet and Netmums refuse to work with companies that fall foul of their users’ favour, such as junk-food brands. Both websites have also taken a stance against Nestlé’s marketing of baby milk formula in developing countries. Netmums relented briefly and allowed Nescafé coffee to run a campaign, but after an outcry from its users it ended the relationship.
Mumsnet co-founder Justine Roberts explains: “The brands that successfully engage with us are the ones that think about Mumsnet as a community. There is a real sense among the Mumsnet community that it’s their space. We’re like an extension of their living room; we can’t put things on the site that someone wouldn’t want in their living room.”
Marketers who wish to approach Mumsnet and Netmums have to be prepared to create a partnership that is time and resource intensive. Since the services are based around conversation, traditional banner ads and straightforward sponsorships are not so effective. Roberts says product reviews, with samples distributed among Mumsnet members, have so far proven successful. Brands can also host webchats, choosing to make them open to the public or limited to selected members.
“We don’t want to do cheesy endorsements. We are happy to do product tests and pass on the message if our members genuinely liked the product, but it is important that product reviews don’t interfere with actual editorial content,” says Roberts. “We don’t want to be underhand and look like we are endorsing things we don’t like. The reason the site works is that it’s trustworthy and not about endorsing the product that gives us the most money.”
Netmums’ Freegard raises the point that mums want to hear useful information from brands rather than a bald commercial message. She says that done properly, relationships with brands through the social parenting sites can be positive and help influence manufacturers about the interests and tastes of women.
“We have annual sponsors who are not just advertising, but partnering and supporting us, such as Haven Holidays, Sainsbury’s (see case study, below), Robinsons and McCain. They are paying quite a lot of money for the opportunity to do more, such as advertorials, competitions, sponsored forums and sampling,” she says.
Because this is relatively new territory for marketers, there are plenty of potholes to fall into. Pretty Little Head’s Cunningham suggests that brands approaching social parenting communities for the first time ask for help in developing products, not just marketing them. Getting users involved from the beginning is more likely to have an impact.
Being so open, however, also leaves brands vulnerable to opinions that might not always be positive and they may not want published. With users having so much influence on these social parenting sites, a negative comment may hold more sway than it would on other sites.
Jane Asscher, chief executive of consumer engagement consultancy 23red, adds: “An organisation needs to think very carefully about what it is trying to get out of a relationship with a social parenting site. Not only do you need to be comfortable with your brand but share the objectives and goals of the website. There are reputational risks: these users will tell it the way they see it.”
Huggies, Nick Jr and Dyson are examples of brands that have managed to forge successful relationships with parenting networks. Dyson sent review samples of its Ball vacuum cleaner to Mumsnet users and hosted an open, live webchat to hear their views. Huggies is to elevate its Mumsnet partnership this year with the creation of a “hub” to house Huggies-sponsored advertorial, a monthly presence in the newsletters, as well as regular promotions and a sponsored forum in the message board section.
Television channel Nick Jr also supplies a monthly advertorial piece to the Netmums newsletter discussing educational aspects of programmes such as Dora the Explorer, as well as competitions and promotions. Nick Jr senior brand manager Andy Whiting says: “You have to consider your tone of voice and be clear on who you are talking to. If you are overtly corporate you can turn them off. We work closely with Netmums to make sure the message we deliver brings them added value and benefit rather than being blatantly commercial.”
Increasingly, brands not traditionally aimed at parents have begun to see the value of using social parenting sites to reach women. For example, car manufacturer Ford runs a programme with the Mumsnet site (see case study, below).
But Kayas Fayyaz, head of digital strategy at marketing agency 2Cs, warns that such brands must tailor their messaging for this new audience without resorting to female stereotypes. He says: “The most crucial thing is offering some kind of incentive because this particular audience is not primary territory so you have to offer a welcome gesture. Not just a discount, but something that has been thought through and which would benefit the target audience.”
While social parenting communities undoubtedly hold sway with parents, companies should not consider these alone to be enough to target women effectively. For companies seeking to influence women in general, 23red’s Asscher, who has worked with Netmums to implement Government campaigns such as Change4Life and 5 A Day, says brands need to consider all the areas where mothers meet, including schools and GP practices.
But as a starting point for companies hoping to attract new female users, the social parenting phenomenon shows no signs of fading. In the US, “mummy blogging” is very active and Susanna Scott, founder of the British Mummy Bloggers networks, predicts that PR firms are buying into the “reality factor” of these sites. Scott even predicts that mum bloggers will eventually become paid brand ambassadors.
The brands already experimenting in this area are those which are likely to benefit from the potential for mothers to become brand advocates. As We Are Social’s Grant says: “There is a real opportunity for the right brand to get amazing results. And those who get in early can achieve more than they will be able to in some years’ time when the market is more crowded.”
Car companies are often accused of ignoring women in their communications, which tend to feature sleek vehicles whizzing around mountain corners. But in the past five years, Ford claims it has wised up to the purchasing power of women.
Ford Britain communications manager Lisa Brankin explains that it began by advertising in glossy women’s magazines, which aided brand awareness but did little in terms of allowing the brand to “speak” to women.
“The ads just weren’t doing the job with a female audience. We know women like to recommend and discuss, but our ads just weren’t reaching them,” Brankin recalls.
Realising that women operate in different ways to men, Ford met with online community Mumsnet to discuss an appropriate partnership. As a result, five “Mumsnetters” were chosen to test-drive either a Ford S-Max or Galaxy. It was treated in a light-hearted way, with reference to popular car TV show Top Gear. The rest of the Mumsnet world was then able to follow the experiences of the test-drivers through a video diary and forum discussions.
“Men and women aren’t interested in the same things in cars. Men like to talk about engine performance but mums talk about how they use the car, its safety and what’s good or bad about it,” Brankin explains.
Brands are tapping into the “social parenting” phenomenon by hosting their own parenting communities. The idea is that by promoting themselves as helpful and caring to this group, they will enhance customer loyalty.
But can businesses really provide parents with information and guidance without being tempted to over-commercialise these resources? Leigh Rengger, head of marketing for Sainsbury’s online, says that the important thing is to be transparent in every way. He says that while the supermarket’s “Little Ones” club offers nutritional advice which links back to content on the Netmums website, it’s clear that the supermarket’s aim is to sell the food it is talking about.
“Customers understand we are a retailer. It’s a mix of rich information and the natural conclusion that we sell the product too. We give mums credit that they understand what it’s about,” he says.
Rival Tesco’s Baby and Toddler Club hosts a Mums’ Choice panel of about 4,000 mums which it uses to gain insight into their needs for parenting and baby products. Recommended products are then highlighted on the homepage. The club’s 430,000 members use the website for advice but also receive exclusive Tesco offers and regular magazines that are tailored to their child’s lifestage.
Club manager Jenna Bannerman echoes Rengger’s acknowledgement that members understand that while the site provides parenting advice, it is part of the company’s retail platform. “Tesco is a supermarket and site visitors want to take advantage of our expert retail knowledge when it comes to buying for their babies and toddlers,” she says.
“Our customer research has shown that our members want the website to provide information about the best products to buy so there is a strong trade-driving element. We also have partnerships with leading baby brands which benefit from the conversions about products showcased on the site.”
Heinz has also muscled in on the space, claiming it aims to deliver “advanced nutritional information and advice to mum… supplemented by added value offers, free products, third-party tie-ups, charity associations and added-value content”.
However, brands looking to enter this space must choose their niche carefully. Is the website going to cover all aspects of parenting, like Mumsnet and Netmums; or focus on a specific area, such as Heinz positioning itself as a nutritional knowledge bank?
“There is evidence to show that mums do join multiple baby clubs, but once the baby comes, they have less time to find the knowledge they want, so you need to design ways to convincingly and efficiently provide that information,” says Donaldson. “She will turn off if you ask too much of her.”