Mommy blogger Lori Cunningham isn't paid for writing about how to make technology simple for busy moms, but her children -- a 5-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl -- reap the benefits and look forward to the mailman arriving.
Cunningham, who lives outside of Los Angeles, is coveted by technology and toy companies for her blog and the parties she throws to test out their toys and give them away to kids. She was part of the viral marketing campaign to spread the word about the popular Zhu Zhu pets last Christmas -- which are still going strong this year. She was recently given eight free Zhu Zhu pets to give away at her son's birthday party, after which she planned to blog about it and post photos and videos of the party."My kids love it," she said of her hobby. "They love getting these packages in the mail and having the chance to look and play with all of these toys."
She hasn't been asked yet to help market Squinkies, which is one of the hottest toys of the year and is heavily using mommy bloggers and other viral merchandising methods to get the gumball-machine-like toys into the hands of 4- and 5-year olds, said Ed Crotty, co-founder of zooLert, a website that tracks popular toys.
According to Kami Bryant, a spokesperson for Blip Toys, which makes Squinkies, the company doesn't pay the hundreds of mommy bloggers it engages. Rather, it sends them free toys in the hopes that the bloggers will help them get the word out using their vast social media contacts. The company also has a television advertising budget, said Bryant. More conventional perhaps, but it's the mommy bloggers who can really make a toy go big, and the toy companies are increasingly utilizing this.
"When you get the endorsement of a mommy blogger, it just spreads like wildfire," Bryant said.
The Federal Trade Commission came out with new rules last year requiring bloggers to disclose if they're paid or received free products in exchange for writing about them. Cunningham, for example, always discloses on her blog that the products she gets are free. And she insists she doesn't look at the few hours she spends setting up a Toy Story 3 party as work, but as a fun hobby.
"It gives me an excuse to have a party and give something fun for everyone who comes," she said.
Some bloggers are found by companies, but other bloggers go looking for companies through websites such as House Party, which looks to match bloggers with companies making brands they want people to know about. It looks for people to host parties on diapers, flatbread, and Mardis Gras, among others.
For companies looking to push their brands virally, it's an excellent deal.
For about $20 worth of product, a toy company can reach 50,000 people through an established mommy blogger, who will usually also have a Facebook page and a Twitter following, according to Maria Bailey, an author who has written books about marketing with moms.
And the smaller the better; A toy company can reach more people with Squinkies, which are only a few dollars, than with a more expensive toy, such as the Nintendo Wii, Bailey said. A $6 toy might be sent to 250 to 350 moms, while a Wii, which was also sent to mommy bloggers, might only go to about 50 moms, she said.
"It allows them to do something that has high impact but at a low price," she said.
Through her research, Bailey said she has found that 90% of moms will go to another mom for information when researching a product, and 75% will buy it if they see it supported on Twitter, and 65% if on Facebook.
Think of that the next time you see a Zhu Zhu pet or the Squinkies at the toy store and try to avoid buying it. Your child's nagging might not convince you to buy it, but a recommendation from another parent? You'll be reaching for your wallet. And that's just what toy companies are banking on this holiday season.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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