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FEATURE6 July 2015

Mum’s the word

Features Impact

Mumsnet’s educated member base has evolved over its 15 years from swapping parenting advice to a major political force whose advocacy is coveted by politicians and brands alike. Chief executive Justine Roberts talks campaigning and commerce with Jane Bainbridge.

A scan through the forum threads on community website Mumsnet is tantamount to taking a mini tour of the highs and lows of parenting. The topics give an insight into family life – from the sublime to the ridiculous.

So for every highbrow ‘do you call yourself  a feminist?’ type thread or discussion on the Labour party’s proposed extension to paid paternity leave, there are the ‘how to treat head lice’ or ‘unexpected joys of parenting’ type posts. Recipes and party themes sit comfortably side-by-side with online cross-questioning of politicians.

Which is part of the secret of the success of Mumsnet; it reflects the myriad of issues and concerns that run through any mother’s mind. One minute it’s will this baby ever sleep, next it’s why in 2015 do politician’s still think they have to paint a bus pink to attract women’s attention?

And, when first setting up the site in 2000 – along with her co-founder Carrie Longton – Justine Roberts, chief executive of Mumsnet, was very much in the mother-of-young-kids mind-set.

Tried and tested advice

“Initially we expected Mumsnet to be more like Which? for parents. The idea was to create a place to tap into tried and tested advice but largely about products and services. My initial inspiration was my failed family holiday and thinking it would have been nice if people who had been there could have advised me before I left,” she says.

“The social networking aspect was slightly stumbled upon; I remember a tech guy saying ‘do you want a forum’ and I asked how much it would be. He found me a piece of software for $50,” she adds. This was four years before Facebook started.

Roberts has come a long way since the back-bedroom, internet start-up days; she’s a regular feature in most influential women lists, in particular appearing in the top 10 in the Woman’s Hour Power List, and every self-respecting party leader wants to do a live Q&A on the site as part of their electioneering.

As every aspect of child-rearing spawns its own mini-industry, parental advice has also become best-selling material, but the important differentiator for Mumsnet was that it wasn’t grey-haired old men telling women what to do with their babies.

Wise crowd

“Parenting is just one of the things that you’re not trained for and so many people were relying on their mum for information. We all know the amount of iterations of advice through those generations, so it was a case of who are the best people trained to help you? And that slight rejection of the expert-led view – so often the male doctor – which came with the democratisation of the internet and allowed people to tap into the wise crowd,” explains Roberts.

One of the reasons politicians have been so keen to reach the Mumsnet audience is this “wise crowd” factor but it’s also meant that in some quarters Mumsnet has become synonymous with opinionated, middle-class mothers.

“Collective anonymity gives people – particularly women – an opportunity to express themselves in a way that perhaps society doesn’t normally allow them to. So it’s not just about them being entitled mums, it’s also about them being able to do this collectively,” says Roberts.

Online anonymity has got a bad press in many quarters, not helped by the vile extremes of some trolls. But Roberts thinks anonymity is essential in the Mumsnet environment.

“What’s been lost in the anonymity debate is the plus side of it,” she says. “On Mumsnet people often have real problems and issues to which they get really good advice. That’s partly because they can be honest about their problem but also because people writing under an anonymous name can be really truthful about their experiences. Or they may be a professional and be able to talk about things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to, or simply say ‘yes I hated my mother in law’ or ‘I had a problem with my youngest child in the same way’ and really bear all. It gets to the heart of truthfulness which is a real benefit of Mumsnet.”

Another benefit is one that returns to the “wise crowd” element of Mumsnet. So while it has ensured Mumsnet could sustain its supporting role for parents, it also generated opinions and headlines but as importantly it generated revenue by allowing brands to reach this wise crowd.

Mumsnet Insight

To that end, Mumsnet Insight is the vehicle that allows companies to test products, run online surveys and start sponsored discussions with members. 

Roberts explains how this form of market research became their preferred mode of monetisation. “It was partly about trying to find a business model that works when you’re producing a free website.  We found that market research is a not-unpopular way for brands to interact, so compared with a really intrusive advert, asking users what they think has proven to be really popular.

“Our members quite like having their opinions asked on stuff, and I think the process of being asked an opinion, as opposed to broadcasting, does wonders for brands in this social media age. So we thought it was a good idea and rapidly found that it worked for all parties – our users and the brands.

“The first thing we say to companies if they want to come and engage with Mumsnet is you need to take the rough with the smooth – we’re never going to censor, or even direct, conversations – that’s not the way Mumsnet works. You’ve got to be confident of your product and you’ve got to also be genuine about your wish for, and responsiveness to, feedback,” says Roberts.

But for brands with the nerve to dip their toes into the Mumsnet discussion boards, if they gain a seal of approval from members there are clear rewards to be reaped.

“Our users tell us that most of them – 8/10 – wouldn’t make a major purchase without consulting Mumsnet boards. It’s such a trusted environment. That’s its strength really,” says Roberts. “So if you do engage people in a conversation and they like your product, that’s a fantastic way of gaining advocates. But obviously if the users turn round and say we hate this packaging or marketing then you’ve got to take it on board as that’s quite good feedback. We never interfere with the outcome, it’s a true and honest interaction.”

Banned brands

But with a vision behind the site to “make families’ lives easier” there are a number of brands and sectors that would never be allowed to take part in online marketing activities because they don’t sit well with its philosophy.

“Payday loans would be an example, cosmetic surgery, gambling – things where we think ultimately this will cause problems for people,” explains Roberts. Then there are also those brands that Mumsnet, in consultation with its users, have deemed as unethical – “Nestle being an obvious one”.

But none of this is set in stone. “An interesting one is McDonald’s which was on the list, until a couple of years ago, and then came off the list; we think that’s a fairly good barometer of some of the work it’s done.”

Reaching a point where market research was a viable proposition did take some time but this wasn’t necessarily down to a lack of business strategy but rather circumstance.

“To be fair, for the first five years very little happened because of the dotcom crash; we had no money and it was a back-bedroom job being fitted around very cheap childcare and achieving very little,” she says.

Market research opportunity

It was once Mumsnet achieved enough scale – she thinks when it reached around 500,000 uniques a month – it could look more seriously as marketing itself as a market research opportunity. “What we want to create is brand or product advocates. And then we want a big area to spread the word in, to a large audience that’s listening to them.”

As well as brands using its member base for research, Mumsnet surveys its users with an annual census that it conducts itself. “We normally get 6 – 7,000 users to fill in [the questionnaires] so we think it’s pretty robust. And we have Google and other analytics packages, so we know what they’re doing in a data-led sense.”

Through this research it has a clear outline of its members and given the subject matter of the site much of the demographics are hardly a surprise.

“Mumsnet is essentially 25- to 45-year-olds, largely women and mothers, but by no means all because we have pockets of teachers and childminders and people trying to conceive. It is geographically pretty representative of the UK – about 10% overseas – it’s slightly London and SE but then I suspect that internet use is too.  Household income level is more than average but not significantly,” explains Roberts.

“One area where it’s standout different is education levels – when we last did our big census, 72% of them have a degree education or equivalent – a further qualification after school. So is it middle class? It’s certainly more educated that your average and you can tell that from the conversation.”  

Mumsnet is a child of the digital era – despite its faltering start it then found its footing as social media took off. If the closest pre-digital era equivalent was the Women’s Institute, it only demonstrates just how much progress has been made in women’s lives, not just in term of networking.  

But despite its campaigning and collectivism, there are times when reading headlines, it’s easy to despair at how little feminism has achieved despite entering its supposed forth wave. Roberts, however, remains upbeat.

“I think there has been genuine change over the past 10 years. I don’t think it’s all down to Mumsnet but I do think social media has helped. There was a lot of stuff that went unnoticed that doesn’t go unnoticed now. There is a debate about the number of women in roles – there is a pressure in large organisations and politics to be more diverse and representative. Some of the campaigns we run about rape and sexual assault awareness, some of the conversations on Mumsnet on domestic violence empowers the people on Mumsnet.

“People feel empowered by the internet – it gives you an easy and cheap route to campaigning and in that sense it’s quite democratising. But also because women traditionally, and particular mothers, have been really busy, they just haven’t had the time to go marching and making placards,” adds Roberts.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in Impact magazine, Issue 9 April 2015.

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