FEATURE1 August 2011

Mum’s the word

Carrie Longton, co-founder of Mumsnet, speaks to Robert Bain about how the business is driven by its community, and how brands are tapping into it for insight and engagement.


Of all the things that Carrie Longton has to worry about in running Mumsnet, knowing what the site’s members think is not one of them. “We do try quite hard to reflect and to be aware of what our members feel about things,” she says. “But if we don’t they’ll soon tell us anyway.”

Longton set up Mumsnet in 2000 with Justine Roberts, after the two met in antenatal classes. The idea was to extend the support, knowledge and camaraderie that those groups gave them to a wider network. Originally designed mainly as a reviews site, Mumsnet expanded to include forums, and its users soon gave it a life of its own, candidly discussing anything and everything to do with parenting and life.

Mumsnet now gets 34 million page impressions every month from 1.6 million unique visitors, and has become a powerful force representing a part of society that previously struggled to make its collective voice heard. It has run petitions, boycotts and advocacy campaigns whose affects have been felt by advertisers and politicians.

As a result, Longton says, Mumsnet tends to be seen either as “a wonderful lobbying organisation” or “a band of harridans”. For her, it’s a site that has been completely shaped by its users (or Mumsnetters, as they are known). “The community is everything,” she says, “absolutely everything.”

Longton’s own children are five, nine and twelve, making her “a typical old-timer Mumsnetter” – just coming into what she sees as the second really difficult period of parenting, once potty training and the other crises of the early years are out of the way. Her personal experience, and running the site for over a decade, have given her a good feel for how Mumsnetters think.

To keep up with what they’re saying, the site’s community management teams track the 25,000 posts that appear each day and a “census” is conducted every two years which Longton says produces “some amazing insight”.

“The best bits of mumsnet have always been the mumsnetters and their comments, and that’s partly the reason why it emerged that research was going to work. if you had to sum the community up in one word, it was opinionated”

Speaking their minds
The willingness of Mumsnetters to talk and share, combined with the highly targeted and relatively affluent audience, has also made the site a valuable source of research participants for other organisations. Mumsnet runs a panel of 2,500 people – all recruited within the community itself – and gets about a third of its revenue from research work, including surveys and product tests. It is in the process of establishing a second panel on spin-off site Gransnet, which launched in May.

Longton, whose responsibilities include heading the insight team, says: “The best bits of Mumsnet have always been the Mumsnetters and their comments, and I think that’s partly the reason why it gradually emerged that research was going to be something that was going to work. If you had to sum up [the community] in one word, it’s opinionated. These are people who did not mind sharing their opinions. Whether it was about teething or Boden, they had a view and they weren’t afraid to share it.”

The company started offering research services in response to client requests, says Longton. “I had a few friends who were making their living in research, so we started the community work. Then one of the Mumsnetters actually contacted us and said that she’d set up the ICM omnibus and run it, then she’d left and had children.” That was Ann McIntyre, who quickly came on board and has worked for Mumsnet ever since. The other members of the team is Helen Rowley, formerly of Ipsos Mori, and Vicki Shotbolt.

Most of Mumsnet’s research work so far has been with end clients and advertising and PR agencies, but Longton says she hopes to do more in partnership with research agencies too. Mumsnet’s research outfit, she says, is “not trying to be Ipsos Mori or YouGov”. “To some extent we are competitive, but what we are is so niche. We’re looking forward to being able to do more collaborating.”

Longton was never much attracted by the traditional focus group model of “eight people round a table talking about olive oil for £30”. “As a mother I knew that’s something I wouldn’t ever want to do,” she said, “because that £30 I’m being paid is going to cost me £25 in childcare, so what’s the point? Whereas actually if I could fill in a survey while my two-year-old’s having their lunchtime nap, then I’m much more likely to do it, and I don’t need paying £30, I’ll do it for a chance of winning £100.”

As far as methodology goes, Longton still considers herself a layperson, which she says helps to weed out badly made surveys. Maintaining a respondent’s-eye view is important, because Mumsnetters are just as opinionated about the quality and content of research as they are about everything else (and there are some clients they just won’t deal with at all – see at end).

What not to say
“When I first started this, some of the questions that you got in surveys were a bit like legalese,” says Longton. “You needed a degree in research to work out what on earth they were talking about, and parents haven’t got time for that.” As a result she often has to be tough with clients about the quality of their research and the tone with which they address the Mumsnet audience.

“We learned through trial and error what makes people’s hackles rise,” Longton explains. For example: “Everybody is a full-time mother. Whether you work full-time or part-time or not at all – I’m still a full-time mother even though I’m at work all the time.” As if on cue, her phone rings, and it’s her eldest daughter, currently in the midst of exams. Longton takes the call with a look that says “see what I mean”.

Knowing what not to say has proved to be an important skill. “It’s interesting because it’s not usually the questions, it’s sometimes the way the questions are phrased, that makes people not answer. So actually you’re not even getting good research, because if you ask it their hackles are already up. They already don’t like your product, because you’re talking to them in a way that is patronising or irritating. There are times where we say to clients, you really don’t want to say that. Especially when it gets to “yummy mummy”, “me time”, “be time”, all that stuff… They won’t like it!”

“If you do a bad survey, they tell you. They get really cross if it’s badly put together. We’re almost at the stage now [where we can say], I really wouldn’t put that out. Very occasionally we’ll say OK, on your head be it. Most clients don’t want that because it reflects badly on them, and it reflects badly on us as well – this is our protected community. We try not to do it, but sometimes a government agency, for instance, will come in and say we’ve done this survey, we haven’t got much money, can you put our survey up? It’s usually ridiculously long with a lousy incentive and badly put together. And you think, if only they’d come to us first.”

Using a dedicated research panel means members who don’t want to take part in surveys aren’t inundated with invites. If a client does want to post a survey in one of the general sections of the site, they must be prepared to receive frank and open feedback about content and quality.

“When we first started we made quite a few of those mistakes,” says Longton. “I would like to think now we don’t make those mistakes, because we’ve learned.” As for product tests, she warns that if clients aren’t ready to hear what people think, “don’t come to us. Because they will tell you.”

What the Mumsnet audience wants most of all, Longton believes, is to be heard. “They want brands to listen to them. They’ve got some great things to say and the fact that a brand cares enough to ask them in the first place is already building up that brand love.”

Innocent Drinks, for instance, a brand that Longton sees as a particularly good fit with Mumsnet, managed to create considerable positive buzz simply by asking members to take part in some research. “As well as getting some great research out of people, which they genuinely want to know, they [clients] are also being seen to be getting that research. Innocent are now getting quite a lot of publicity out of it as well – they are now able to market their new drink and say they tested it with Mumsnetters. So it works both ways, it works for the client and it works for us.”

Biscuitgate – a lesson in authenticity

Gordon Brown’s failure to answer the question “What’s your favourite biscuit?” in a 2009 Mumsnet chat session showed where a lack of authenticity can land you. While David Cameron revealed that he liked oatcakes and Nick Clegg said he prefered Rich Teas if dunked and Hobnobs if not, Brown ignored the user who repeatedly asked about his biscuit preference, focusing instead on questions about serious matters like the economy and Afghanistan. But the next morning’s headlines were all about Brown’s dithering over a choice of biscuit. What ‘Biscuitgate’ showed, Longton believes, was that Brown wasn’t engaging properly with the Mumsnetters – he wasn’t being authentic.

By the time he revealed the following day that he liked “anything with a bit of chocolate on it”, minds were already made up, and since then a biscuit symbol has become shorthand on Mumsnet for ‘no comment’.

The real thing
Longton’s advice for engaging with the Mumsnet audience is simple. “The big word for everybody – marketers or politicians – is authenticity,” she says. “These people can spot inauthenticity a mile off. I think in the olden days marketing was very much about exclamation marks and shouting. It was very much a shouty thing. But if you shout on the internet, they go, ‘Shut up. Go away.’

hich is why a lot of the more engaging research, asking people to test things, to talk about things, to give qual as well as quant at the same time, feels more ‘internetty’.”

Authenticity has helped Mumsnet make tricky decisions about what advertising to accept, Longton explains. “Early on there was a Renault advert that was really quite irritating – it expanded all over the flipping page. But it was £23 CPM.” She ended up going round the forums talking to members and telling them that, although they might find the ad intrusive, it would allow the site to invest in more staff who could help improve it in other ways. They let her do it.

She emphasises that was a long time ago, but she’s still committed to authenticity and transparency. “That’s what they expect. That’s what they’ve had from us and that’s what they equally expect from marketers. And when they get it right, they love it.”

Unfortunately, a lot of marketers remain “frightened of telling the truth” and these tend to be the ones that don’t fare well on Mumsnet. But if a brand can succeed in engaging authentically with the audience, “they’ll do your work for you, they’ll market it for you”. At the moment, for instance, Mumsnetters are obsessed with the Babyliss Big Hair hairdryer. “Everybody is talking about it – mums in the office, on the site… It’s just a product that works, you know, and gets them talking about stuff.”

But it’s not necessarily easy to foster this sort of genuine engagement. Pollster Deborah Mattinson had predicted that 2010 would be “the Mumsnet election”, but in an article she wrote for the site later, she said the campaign had failed on that front, because the parties ignored the lessons of how to engage women in politics. In future, Mattinson said, women voters will favour whoever “shows a real understanding of the Mumsnet ethos”.

Does Longton believe that marketers understand that Mumsnet ethos? “I don’t mean to sound like we know everything,” she says. “Marketing people know their products and they know what they are trying to achieve, hopefully, and there are always new ways of doing things. The times when I get on my high horse, I suppose, are when it doesn’t feel authentic and it feels patronising and stereotyped – when people say, we’re not going to market to you about cars or money or alcohol or mortgages, because you’re a woman. That gets people’s hackles up. I suppose those are the mistakes. Don’t underestimate women, don’t underestimate their intelligence, because the price if you get it wrong is quite high. On the other hand, get it right and they will tell everybody, they will be completely on your side – and they absolutely love, they love to be asked.”

A community that’s not afraid to say no

There are some companies that Mumsnetters won’t deal with at all, for research or advertising.

Longton recalls in the early days accepting a lucrative ad campaign from a formula milk company that was also promoting a breastfeeding ‘helpline’. Mumsnetters smelled a rat and made clear their displeasure, which Longton now concedes was “fair enough”. Since then the site has been careful to make sure that any companies running ads or product tests have the community’s approval. No-go areas include cosmetic surgery, high-interest loans and slimming pills. One of the biggest advertisers it shuns is Nestlé, because of how it markets baby milk in the developing world – and the strength of feeling means that is unlikely to change any time soon, Longton says.

When the News International phone-hacking scandal blew up last month, Mumsnet was one of the first organisations to distance itself from the Rupert Murdoch-owned businesses – ditching £35,000-worth of advertising and product-testing deals with Sky at a time when protests were still only targeting the News of the World newspaper.

Some decisions on who not to work with are “no-brainers”, says Longton, while others require a bit of internal debate, and “anything we’re really concerned about, we’ll go to the boards and say, what do you think?”