Questions of pay, disclosure arise for mom bloggers


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The kitchen in Rachel Cunningham's Latrobe home started out the year with "an orange sherbet-colored bulkhead, a dingy beige-colored backsplash and an ugly green wallpaper." But now, redone in PPG Paint's light sage and cream puff shades, it "actually looks presentable."

We know this because Ms. Cunningham is what is casually known as a mom blogger, one of the tens of thousands who have merged parenthood and technology to create online publications that talk about their lives, their frustrations and, yes, products like PPG Paint.

She and her Third Stop on the Right blog with 1,500 unique visitors per month, were recruited by public relations agency Burson-Marsteller's Pittsburgh office for a PPG Industries' Pittsburgh Paints project. She agreed to talk about the company's product in return for brushes, a T-shirt and free paint chosen from a selection of trendy shades.

That's been the traditional way that mom bloggers have worked with companies. But the business model that connects advertisers and the blogosphere is changing.

Public relations agencies now incorporate blogs into their overall marketing plans for clients; networks of bloggers help identify the most appropriate ones to recruit for those marketing efforts; and then bloggers, aware of the value they bring to the deal, consider how they want to be rewarded.

Five years ago, paying a blogger wasn't something that came up often, said Caroline Friedman, senior associate at Burson-Marsteller. Now, she said, many more are responding to promotional inquiries with explanations of the rates that they charge for their time and access to their reader base.

"It's a very noticeable shift every few months," said Ms. Friedman, who works on various programs involving bloggers, including an ongoing project with Hormel Foods.

The marketing community has done enough tracking of mom blogs to respect the power in them. H&R Block found almost 4 million mom blogs in North America last year, with 500 having built a large enough audience to have significant influence.

Cooper Munroe and Emily McKhann saw the opportunity in the medium early on, co-founding The Motherhood, a social media marketing agency, in 2006. The two women, both with backgrounds as marketing and public relations executives, thought they could be effective matching clients with bloggers.

Now they have a network of about 14,000 bloggers, working mainly with 3,000 who are part of a database targeting the blogger's interests and strengths. "We work with them and get to know them," said Ms. Munroe, who is based out of Aspinwall.

The Motherhood has worked with brands such as Huggies, Hebrew National Hot Dogs, Johnson & Johnson and the Centers for Disease Control.

The Motherhood co-founders recall some controversy around their push early on to do deals that acknowledged the time and expense that bloggers were going to with things like stipends. Ms. McKhann, who works in New York, recalls they made the decision: "We are going to set up a professional relationship."

Some people pointed out that traditional reporters don't get paid for stories. But bloggers don't have an ad staff to separate the money-generating side from the editorial side.

"We were kind of figuring it out as we went along," said Ms. Munroe.

The Motherhood, according to its blog, hosted a talk last summer about the blogger-brand relationship that covered issues such as deadlines, understanding each party's needs and compensation. Participants said being paid to do a review felt wrong but so did "being asked to do legitimate consulting work while being treated as a 'free message board' for the brand," reported the post written by Becki King.

Companies have different levels of comfort with the idea of directly paying for mentions -- neither PPG nor Hormel paid bloggers for their recent projects -- but the Federal Trade Commission has long seen such interactions as a business relationship that must be disclosed.

In March, the FTC staff updated online advertising disclosure guidelines first published in 2000, adding new requirements meant to make it as obvious as possible when there is a connection between the writer and the company or product being discussed. Even if money doesn't change hands, accepting free products must be disclosed.

Under the updated guidelines, that means putting disclosures as close as possible to the relevant information, not just statements at the bottom of a Web page, as well as considering the various devices such as tablets and smartphones that consumers might be using.

Working with bloggers presents its own unique quirks for those in marketing.

Jamie Bujakowski, a client executive at Burson-Marsteller, noted that lining up bloggers to participate in the PPG paint program meant not only finding the most appropriate people but then seeing if they actually had a room they wanted to paint.

The push, which started in February, also came at a tough time of year. Ms. Bujakowski said some painting was delayed by the quite valid excuse: "Hey, my kids have the flu."

Mothers -- and some fathers -- often fit the work in around their families, so emails tend to come late at night after the kids have gone to bed. Ms. Cunningham, in Latrobe, confirms that some days her 18-month-old son needs more attention than others and that can affect how much she posts.

A former reporter and public relations professional, Ms. Cunningham admits motherhood is a big change and the blog helps her feel like she's contributing, even if her remuneration comes mainly through free products that she is sent to review. The blog also helps her keep using her professional skills.

Brands that have paid for her work -- a textbook rental company and a college saving program -- have been less known names that may feel they need to pay or don't have products to give away.

When she's reviewing a product and ends up having problems with it, she said she has alerted her public relations contacts. Sometimes they'll offer information that clears up the issue, or they may want to hear both the good and bad points.

Meanwhile, marketing professionals are want to show clients that this kind of placement works. Burson-Marsteller put together the results for client H.J. Heinz Co. on a campaign done last fall for Classico pasta sauces. The project involved sending 24 bloggers a package that included a pasta pot, tongs, a cheese grater, recipes, coupons and Classico Seasonal Selections Creamy Spinach & Parmesan Sauce.

The agency estimated the project picked up more than 1 million media impressions, through blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

That was a one-time project, but Burson-Marsteller sees potential for more such work with Classico, a natural fit for mom blogs, said Gretchen Toy, client staff assistant.

The Post-Gazette is affiliated with two parenting blogs, PittsburghMom.com and PlayGround.

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Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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