July 12, 2009— -- There are the free trips to Sea World and Disney World and free hotels and car rentals, not to mention the free products that pour in through the mail every day.
Turns out, being a mommy blogger can really pay off.
By some estimates, there are as many as ten thousand mommy blogs on the Internet now. They share advice on everything from baby care and parenting to the best burp cloths or strollers. And as these blogs have evolved over the past few years, many have now become minibusinesses with little oversight by the government.
Colleen Padilla is the mother of two behind classymommy.com, a product review site she started from her house in suburban Philadelphia just for fun.
"I thought, let's write about products, because I knew when you're navigating new motherhood there's this overwhelming sea of new baby products," Padilla says. "You go to Babies 'R' Us when you're pregnant and think, 'They even have a product for this? My 7-pound baby might need this product.' And so I thought let's talk about products."
Her front room is filled with free products she's gotten in recent days. There's the new Nintendo Wii right in front. Toys and baby products are stacked up three feet high. Her freezer is filled with microwave meals from Healthy Choice.
Padilla never expected or asked for any of it. But after she'd been blogging on her own for a little while about the products she used and liked, her mailbox started to fill. First it was mom inventors sending products. But then larger and larger companies started sending her things for free.
"I think as far as companies sending me products, it would be too many to count," Padilla said. "If I were to think in the last couple years, I would say hundreds."
And now she's taken it to the next level.
Padilla is paid by Energizer to be "an official online brand advocate" for their rechargeable batteries. Better Homes and Gardens paid her to make over her kitchen. And a blog about her son drinking chocolate milk turns out to be "sponsored by Healthy Choice."
Cheap, Effective Marketing
Companies will pay anything from thirty bucks to hundreds of dollars for a favorable post by a mommy blogger.
It's hard to pin down just how many bloggers are being paid -- certainly not everyone is. But Maria Bailey, who specializes in marketing to moms, says her research shows about 85 percent of mom bloggers are receiving checks or freebies.
For the companies, it's cheap, effective marketing. They know that moms who read the blogs trust the opinion of a fellow mom.
"If they're a mom like me, they know my personality, it's out there. I'm there with my kids, I'm a fast talker, they can watch my video reviews with me and my children," Padilla says.
"I put myself out there, I say what I like. And I think if they're a mom that thinks that they're a little like me or that their children are the same ages or the same sex as my kids and it's a toy that my kids are crazy about, that they might like it too," she adds.
John Abell of Wired.com says, "In the old days, they had a circle of friends you could probably count on two hands and they were influential within the sound of their voice. Now with the Internet they can have thousands and thousands of people that they influence. And they do."
But for some blog readers the practice can feel deceptive. Christine Schirmer is a frequent reader of mommy blogs. She was relying on their advice while deciding which baby carrier she should buy for her newborn.
"There was a particular carrier that one blogger recommended as being the best one," Schirmer says. "And lo and behold I recently found out that she had a paid relationship with that company and suddenly that makes a whole lot of sense."
The mommy blogging world is mixed on whether accepting payment "per post" is a good idea. One of the pioneers of mommy blogging, Heather Armstrong, who writes the blog dooce.com, has banner ads from companies on her Web site but refuses to take products or money in exchange for content.
"I have a special relationship with my readers. I had a very bad bout of postpartum depression about five years ago, and I credit them with saving my life. My relationship and my blog is based on whether or not they can trust me. And so doing that sort of thing, I think, sort of threatens that relationship," Armstrong said in a live interview with "Good Morning America Weekend."
Lack of Disclosure Could 'Threaten Medium'
Responsible bloggers such as Colleen Padilla are careful to disclose who is paying them and whether they received products for free or bought them. Padilla even consulted a lawyer recently, who advised her to beef up her disclosure language on the site. But she says there are no rules.
"I think we're writing them as we go along. But I think a really important rule for bloggers is that you need to disclose. If there is a relationship with a company, if you're paid, you need to disclose that," Padilla says.
But the truth is, no one is requiring Padilla to post such disclosures.
"There are no rules about what a mommy blogger or even a mainstream publication can do. There are no laws, you're not breaking the law if you accept a free PlayStation and say you love that PlayStation," Abell says.
But the rules may be changing. The Federal Trade Commission is considering expanding false advertising guidelines to include blog testimonials. New guidelines could be approved later this summer.
Padilla and others worry that it will turn a casual hobby for many moms into a dangerous activity.
"That's alarming, for something that you're doing for fun or for a mom who's getting a free box of cereal or free yogurt, that they could be liable. That could put a halt to some of the conversation that's happening," Padilla says.
But Armstrong said she would welcome regulation.
"I think that there should be full disclosure because it sort of threatens the medium. I think mommy blogging is built on the relationship between the mommy blogger and the audience because we're sort of sharing our stories, and we're starting to trust each other. And if you don't disclose that you're being paid or accepting gifts, it sort of threatens that relationship," she said.
For her part, Christine Schirmer has started turning to friends and family for free advice instead of the blogs.