The Government's decision, a fortnight ago, to award £500,000 to parenting website Netmums - which has been dubbed the ‘Myspace' for mothers - has once again thrown online parenting forums into the spotlight.
This government backing highlights the growth in popularity that such forums have experienced over the past two years. The websites, which also include Mumsnet and Raisingkids, provide an opportunity for new and expectant mums to share experiences and receive advice on parenting issues. Indeed, it is Netmums' focus on invaluable advice that has earned it the government cash.
Such sites also create opportunities for PR professionals to promote their clients' products through reviews and forums on the websites.
Power to the forums
It is the forums, often full of lively chat between mothers, that PROs are particularly keen to monitor and influence. The power of a group of forum-posting parents was amply demonstrated earlier this year, when Woolworths was forced to withdraw its ‘Lolita' brand of children's bedroom furniture.
Mums posting on Raisingkids.co.uk railed against the retailer's poor taste. But the passion of forum contributors can sometimes go too far. Mumsnet was forced to pay a five-figure sum to childcare expert Gina Ford last year after a post on its forum was judged to be defamatory.
Despite her brush with Ford, Mumsnet's co-founder Justine Roberts relies on users to flag up libellous comment or free advertising.
But other website owners have become more vigilant in forum monitoring as a result of these high profile cases, with dedicated moderators checking messages.
However, for brands wanting to challenge comments about their products featuring on a forum, the options open to them need consideration.
‘Mums are a very captive audience. In some cases they are lonely and want advice. The forums are often very honest. The last thing you want to do is charge in there and say "look at our great product",' says Frank MD Frankie Cory.
Melissa Talago, MD of Peekaboo Communications, an agency that specialises in targeting mothers, says one option is to be honest and reveal that you represent the brand under discussion and would like to contribute.
But she cautions: ‘An open approach might be a slightly risky strategy as some members of the public do not mince their words.'
There are not product reviews on every site and some expect payment for them. On websites such as Mumsnet, where the reviews are written by the readers, it is understood that PROs have posted their own favourable reviews to counter the criticism.
A popular strategy for PROs is to jointly plan parent surveys. For example, Netmums recently partnered Nivea to run a survey around Mother's Day. It found that the ‘yummy mummy' image is unattainable and puts too much pressure on modern mothers. The story was picked up by GMTV, Vanessa Feltz's radio show and national papers including the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and Daily Star.
‘Mums love to give their opinion and surveys are a great opportunity for brands to get involved,' advises Siobhan Freegard, editor of Netmums.
Netmums was also approached by FMCG firm Aquados, to ask 100 members to trial its environmentally friendly washing powder Simply. After many positive suggestions, the brand decided to launch a sensitive skin product.
Other opportunities for PR professionals include competitions and newsletters. Providing experts to speak in the forums, or to give advice, is also useful. The sites can also attract wider
media coverage - Netmums is often approached by the media for case studies, including GMTV and BBC.
The website features a media request board and a ‘Netmums Media Mums' section.
Netmums also has a review section featuring reviews of the relative child friendliness of cafés and restaurants.
Alternatively, PROs can contribute to the ‘What's on' board, which includes the latest theatre, shows and movies that parents might be interested in.
While print coverage still holds court for most clients, it is clear that parenting websites are a valuable, if potentially risky, channel with which to engage.
TWO MINUTES WITH THE EDITOR
Catherine Hanly, editor, raisingkids.co.uk
What do PROs need to understand about Raisingkids.co.uk?
It gives members access to expert advice and covers parenting issues rather than promoting consumer goods.
Are there any sections that benefit particularly from help from PROs?
We do not do straightforward product reviews. If they give us a story about a interesting product then we may be able to use it as a news piece instead. We also work on a commercial basis with brands.
We recently teamed up with Cadbury's to create a corporate website called ‘Be Treatwise' to show parents how they can treat their kids to sweets as part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
We are helping to build traffic to the site and expect to have at least 100,000 page impressions by the time the campaign ends.
What else can you offer the PR industry?
There's a survey service, which allows PROs to ask our readership a question that would help to put a PR campaign together. This helps if they want to run an idea past mums first, to see what they think of it. We can also help create news hooks and can provide experts for radio and TV shows.
Editor - Catherine Hanly
020 8444 4852
Co-founder - Justine Roberts
020 7609 3370
Editor - Siobhan Freegard
020 8427 1951