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Connected, powerful 21st-century moms

Using the strength of their online networks, moms today communicate far beyond the backyard fence and at lightning-fast speed. And that means their influence is nothing to trifle with.

Illustration by Kali Ciesemier

IN JULY 2010, Elizabeth Gomez, a mother of three from Medford, had just finished her workout at Woburn’s North Suburban YMCA and went to pick up her kids from the day-care room. When she sat down and started nursing her 3-month-old son, Christian, two day-care workers approached Gomez and told her she was in violation of the “no food” policy. Incredulous, irate, she returned home, determined to spread the word to her fellow moms — and find out if what had happened was, as she suspected, illegal under the state’s newly passed breast-feeding law.

After a frustrating call to YMCA management, Gomez posted a description of the incident on several local parenting listservs. And they told two friends. And they told two friends. And so on and so on. The story ultimately rippled out to moms all over the Boston area, triggering widespread outrage. Gomez recalls hearing that “so many people started to call them that their phone lines were jammed.” By the end of the week, the YMCA reversed course, disciplining the instigating employee and saying it would retrain its 1,500 staff members across Boston on the issue. “If it weren’t for local online groups,” says Gomez, “this incident would have not have received any attention or response.”

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Chalk up another victory to the power of the mom network.

A generation ago, a new mom up all night with a screaming newborn had few places to turn: a tattered copy of Dr. Spock; an apologetic call to her pediatrician’s answering service; a desperate one to her own mother. Today, the new mom can flip open her laptop and solicit instantaneous opinions from others in the trenches, either on anonymous chat boards, like YouBeMom or UrbanBaby, or from her “intimate’’ circle of 350 Facebook friends. When she’s looking for a baby sitter, a Mama & Me class, a gluten-free bakery, she taps her local moms’ listserv. When she loves a product, she posts it on Pinterest. When it fails or frustrates her, she tweets, YouTubes, blogs all about it. And whatever she has to say, her fellow moms are listening.

“This need to connect, it’s a very palpable thing,” says Christine Koh, who founded Boston Mamas, a portal for all things parenting, six years ago. “We don’t have the benefit of a village anymore, as much as all of us would love one. The way people have coped is to look to the power of online to develop those connections and feel like you’re not alone.”

“Parenting boards were some of the first ones out there,” observes Anita Blanchard, an associate professor of psychology and organization science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who studies online communities such as the popular Dooce mommy blog. “Parents have less freedom to go out and mingle, but a strong desire to connect with other parents.”

And though the technology is always shifting — from Myspace to LinkedIn, from Meetup to GroupMe — the impulse remains the same. “If there is a will, there is a way to make a community on any technology,” says Blanchard. “Wherever there are women who want to have a group, there will be a group. The technology is less important than the determination. Technology can make it easier or harder to have a discussion. But the people are key to the success.”

However, with all this connection comes a note of caution. While a mom’s opinions once only stretched so far — to her local play group or over the backyard fence — now they are amplified and shot around the world with a keystroke. And if you make a mom mad, the power of her network is a force to be reckoned with.

“Everyone has a megaphone these days, everyone — moms, dads, the crackpot on the side of the road. You can’t ignore them anymore,” says Kristin Brandt, president of the marketing firm Sundin Associates, and co-host of the Manic Mommies podcast. “The moms, when they figure it out — stay out of their way,” Brandt says.

Illustration by KALI CIESEMIER

“There’s been a tremendous paradigm shift from top down to the first-person user,” agrees Stacy DeBroff, founder of Mom Central Consulting, a marketing firm in Newton. “Moms are driving this. We no longer trust the brand to tell us about your product. We’re like, you’re going to lie. We want someone who’s experienced it to tell us why we’ll love it. We’re seeing the rise of the recommendation culture.”

As a result, corporations have been forced to change strategies. “Marketers used to rely on carefully thought out messages that they would push in broadcast,’’ says DeBroff. “Now, moms — who control at least 85 percent of family spending — hijack the conversation.” For many companies, this isn’t always good news. “There is a tremendous amount of trepidation,” she adds. “They can’t control the process.”

DeBroff points to the 2010 debacle involving Pampers Dry Max diapers. A small group of parents, convinced the newly released diapers were causing rashes on their babies, created a Facebook page calling for the product’s recall.

“Procter & Gamble basically said, we don’t have to listen to you, we believe in our technology and we’re going to ignore you,” observes DeBroff. “So even though they had all the science, in the end, the product floundered because of the word-of-mouth of moms. Then they had to scramble and be in crisis mode. They stacked up a line of diaper scientists, and moms said: ‘I don’t care how many experts, I heard from 10 moms and they’re more credible. I don’t want to take the risk. So I’m going with Huggies.’ ” (Although the diapers received a clean bill from a US Consumer Product Safety Commission investigation, a group of parents filed a class-action suit, which was ultimately settled. Dry Max technology still remains in certain lines of the diapers today – although the company no longer touts it on the packaging.)

Of course, dads can spark social media campaigns of their own — recall their indignation over a Huggies TV spot in March portraying them as helplessly inept. But father-focused chat groups seem scarce; some dads do participate in their local moms’ or parents’ listserv, but the majority of active participants are women.

Ion Sokhos

“Marketers used to rely on carefully thought out messages... Now, moms — who control at least 85 percent of family spending — hijack the conversation.” - Stacy Debroff, founder, Mom Central Consulting

For small businesses, a few mentions from a mom on her local listserv can have a powerful effect on sales. “If there is someone who is a respected member and giving honest opinions, that opinion is going to carry an enormous amount of weight, and we will get a rush of people into the store,” observes Sheri Gurock, founder and owner of Magic Beans, a local chain of kid-related gear.

Lauren Monahan, founder of the popular Hingham-based UPPAbaby stroller and gear company, recalls the moment in 2006 when she knew her upstart product was legit — when it was being chatted up across the country in a California moms’ listserv. “Friends in San Francisco forwarded me the info posted, saying, ‘Hey, they’re talking about your stroller!’ That was the first [realization] that this isn’t just us talking about this. People were really talking about it — people that we don’t know.”

A business doesn’t even have to be kid-related to curry favor within a given moms’ group. Suzanne Logan found the power of the Belmont Family Group helpful in boosting her Cambridge-based interior design business to the point that the town has become a significant part of her revenue. After reconnecting with an old friend over Facebook in 2009 for a home renovation project, Logan started getting calls from other Belmont parents based on her friend’s enthusiastic recommendations. “The power of the mommy network is pretty crazy,” concludes Logan, who is not a mother herself.

On the flip side, a negative encounter gone viral can damage a business’s reputation. Gurock recalls arriving at Logan, ready to take off on a vacation, when she got an urgent call from a manager at her Wellesley store. In what Gurock describes as a moment of poor judgment, an employee had accused a regular customer of being a stroller thief — wrongly, as it turned out.

Ion Sokhos

“If it weren’t for local online groups, this incident would have not have received any attention or response.” — Elizabeth Gomex, Medford mom

The irate mom, detained and interrogated by the police, returned home and blasted about the incident on the Wellesley Mothers Forum listserv. “We were inundated with angry e-mails,” recalls Gurock, who leapt into damage control, e-mailing out an apology to the moms’ groups and ultimately firing the employee. She later held an in-person meeting with the Wellesley moms’ group. Most telling that she handled it right? The wronged mom is still a customer.

Still, she shudders to think what the impact could have been if that call had come when she was already in the air and unreachable. “There are social-media lynch mobs all the time,” says Gurock. “I think anybody who has a prayer of making it is listening acutely to moms. The follow-up is important. If they’re upset and you handle it badly, you’ve sealed your fate. Handle it well, you can maybe take a disaster and turn it into something positive.”

She points to the failure of the makers of the Jane PowerTwin to correct a design flaw in a highly anticipated stroller model. “Once it started to get out there, that completely killed the product. Even though they made fixes, the damage had been done.” The European company ended up pulling its US distribution. “The strength of the mom network has forced a lot of companies to up their customer service,” she says. “They can’t afford to make a mistake.”

***

A TESTAMENT TO THE MOM NETWORK is that many decade-old listservs are still going strong, despite parents moving on or aging out, and newer, shinier forms of communication emerging. An endorsement by a neighborhood mom retains a level of credibility that high-profile mommy bloggers may have lost, with so many of them blatantly taking freebies from marketers in exchange for “reviewing” the products.

“There’s a reason why [listservs] continue to be active year after year — that connection you have with moms that live right in your community,” says Isis Parenting’s former director of community and social media Cindy Meltzer. “People don’t want to come on [the nationwide] Baby Center, they want to go to the mom around the corner.”

According to Fiona O’Donnell, an analyst at Mintel, a market research firm that puts out the annual report Marketing to Moms, use of chat boards had hit 11 percent in 2011, compared with 5 percent four years earlier. Meanwhile, even though 93 percent of Internet-using moms aged 18 to 44 employ social media sites to connect, the growth seems finally to be leveling off. “Social networking is a quick hit, where you announce good news,” O’Donnell says. “What if you need advice, like, my child is doing drugs? The chat forums are for moms who really want to talk about issues with people who are like them.”

One of the earliest of these private, neighborhood-based parenting e-mail groups was the Berkeley Parents Network, founded in 1993 by a University of California at Berkeley grad student; it continues today with 30,000 members. Many more seem to have sprung up a decade ago, such as the often vocal Park Slope Parents in Brooklyn, and DC Urban Moms and Dads, and in Boston, GardenMoms and SomervilleMoms.

SomervilleMoms, named by online parenting site Babble as one of its “Top 30” parenting listservs in 2011, started 10 years ago when a new moms’ group offered by Jewish Child and Family Services in Somerville formed an e-mail list to keep the group connected. “The list was unwieldy and fraught with spelling errors and missing names,” recalls Erin McKenna, a Somerville mom. “I volunteered to set up a Yahoo group that we could let people join if they were interested. The group grew each week, and soon moms were asking more questions, offering advice, setting up play dates, and telling one another about events in the community. There were regular threaded discussions happening, and people seemed pleased to have this venue.”

Boston Mamas currently lists around 50 moms’ groups, from the Allston-Brighton Family Network to the Wellesley Mothers’ Forum, most of which offer some form of online messaging for members. Often hosted at sites like Yahoo, Google, or more recently, BigTent, subscribers typically must sign up and pass muster with a moderator, who ensures some base line of decorum and sets rules about whether vendors, out-of-town residents, and nonparents are allowed. Once initiated, members are free to discuss everything from safe sunscreens to stroller picks. But it doesn’t stop there. Discussions veer off topic (“OT”) into where to find a good contractor, plumber, or organic farm share.

“Every topic can be addressed,” says Alison Mitchell, one of the recent moderators of SomervilleMoms, whose 2,500 members post around 50 messages a day. “So it not only covers ‘What solid food do I feed my baby?’ but ‘Where can I get my car fixed?’ ‘Who knows a good dentist?’ ”

Another appeal is the flexibility. “You can put an e-mail out and get answers immediately, or read them when you have time.” Even negative feedback is allowed, provided it is balanced and presented reasonably. “As long as people are not making baseless personal attacks,” she says, “it’s OK.”

Similarly, the GardenMoms listserv was founded in 2002 by a group of South End moms invited for a meet-and-greet brunch by the owners of the now-defunct Garden of Eden restaurant. The list, which today includes moms as far away as Worcester, has doubled in size to 5,500 members since it switched from Yahoo to BigTent 18 months ago, says co-moderator Jen Levine-Fried.

She concedes the way the listserv is being used has shifted: Longer, more thoughtful conversation threads have declined. “The proliferation of smartphones has led to a change in the way people respond,” she says. “It’s subtle, but there seem to be more brief responses. There has been an increase in the proportion that are short — one or two sentences (or even one or two words!).”

A few listservs have dramatically faded in usage, or even shut down completely. (Anyone remember HarborMoms?) Way back in 2010, for example, one user of Boston Parents Network lamented the decline of the once-vibrant group, claiming it was too full of advertising and lacking in meaningful conversation. Listservs are “so gone,” DeBroff, a fan of newer technologies, opines. “People tend to feel like [they’re] inundated with messages they don’t want to read.”

Ion Sokhos

”The way people have coped is to look to the power of online to develop those connections and feel like you’re not alone.” — Christine Koh, founder, Boston Mamas

Companies do have to walk a fine line in tooting their own horn on the sites that allow them access. Moms are fiercely private (JPMoms declined to comment for this piece, citing privacy) and quick to label anything potentially PR-ish as spam. A mom’s own recommendation is OK — a company repeatedly trumpeting its own deals is not.

It’s no surprise that mothers particularly have flocked to these modern forms of gab. “Women need to communicate more; they have more supportive styles of communication,” says Blanchard. “It makes it more likely that women are drawn to this.”

A 2012 report on Moms and Media by Edison Research found that mothers are heavier users of social media and technology than the general population. Compared with all survey respondents over age 12, they are more likely to own a smartphone, spend more time online, and check Facebook repeatedly — twice as often as dads.

Blanchard also believes online parenting groups draw more participants than, say, foodies on Chowhound or brides on The Knot because of the higher stakes. “This isn’t just a hobby,” she says. “This is something people worry they are going to do wrong, which is why people take it pretty seriously and seek out people to validate the way they’re doing it.”

While members of other online communities may also swap tips and flame shoddy vendors, there is an instant connection among mothers, says Scituate-based John Cass, whose blog, PR Communications, covers social media. “It’s easier to break down the barriers, easier to ask for help if it’s a kid involved.”

SomervilleMoms sprang to action recently when a dog lunged at Beth Balter’s 6-year-old daughter at a local park and bit her in the stomach. The owner handed over her phone number — which later turned out to be a wrong number. Unable to verify the dog’s vaccination history, Balter ended up rushing her daughter to the ER at Children’s Hospital for painful rabies injections. Balter also turned to the listserv members, who forwarded accounts of the incident to local dog walkers, owners, and vets’ offices. Ultimately, one suggestion that Balter contact the town’s dog officer was key: Turned out, the rogue dog had bitten another child just the week before — but did have a clean rabies history.

“The response from this community was nothing short of amazing,” says Balter. “I went from feeling so angry about how callous and selfish people can be to feeling totally supported and embraced by a community willing to take on my cause in a heartbeat.”

“There’s this sense of you have each other’s back, even when you haven’t even met each other,” agrees Koh, who tapped her Boston Mamas network to raise nearly $2,000 for Haiti. “I have people who I’ve become friends with online who I feel would do things for me that not even people I’ve known would do.”

***

ALL THIS PROMPTS THE QUESTION — why don’t moms tap into this power more broadly? Why not go beyond comparing preschools and touting diaper creams and really try to effect change? While there are some local examples of moms using their networks to rally behind a higher cause — saving a local library branch, raising funds for a new slide at Robbins Farm Park in Arlington — these campaigns are no Occupy Wall Street.

One possible exception occurred last May, when the MBTA posted an online survey floating the idea of banning open strollers on buses. Moms lit up the local listservs, mommy blogs like Carfree With Kids and Boston Baby Mama, and Isis Parenting’s 5,000-member Facebook page. They circulated petitions and, uncharacteristically, barged into a public meeting, strollers in tow, to make their voices heard. It was the largest vote on a survey in MBTA history, with two-thirds of respondents chiming in against the ban. Ultimately, the MBTA backed down, even though the issue ranks as their number one customer complaint.

Yet even this battle was, in the end, over nothing more than strollers. “I think the mom forums look down upon political organizing and advocacy,” says Morra Aarons-Mele, a Lexington mother of two and founder of Women Online, which conducts online marketing campaigns for social causes and nonprofits. “The moms’ sphere does not see itself as a political entity, and it’s hard to talk about politics, anything controversial; it’s really frowned upon.”

“I don’t allow it,” confirms Amy Weitzman, moderator of the 2,500-member Arlington Parents list, who believes political posts should be reserved for the town’s general e-list. “It tends to get cantankerous; it’s important to me the tone of the parent list is neighborly and civil.”

Another reason may be that there is little consensus among moms. The national network Moms Rising works to find common ground with causes such as paid sick days and maternity leave and fair wages, but just because one woman is a mom doesn’t mean she shares political sensibilities with another. “You may be a mom,” Aarons-Mele says, “but you’re also a security voter or a libertarian.” Members of DCUrbanMoms and Dads seem to delight in thrashing out these policy differences; Boston area moms seem more . . . reserved.

“In terms of rules of play, I know it wouldn’t be considered appropriate to post [about paid maternity leave] on a listserv. It would create chaos and fighting,” says Aarons-Mele. “The reason those lists work so well as communities is they are focused around a topic. The women who want to organize find other women who want to organize, and do it in a separate venue than the mom sphere.”

Brandt agrees that political influence can occur, but only in rare cases. “It has to be really in my face, a really dire situation for any of us. I really can’t go [march on] Washington today, because I have to get the kids to camp.” One exception: “When they see something related to schools, they’ll activate,” she says, pointing to a current debate over school-bus waivers for kids in aftercare in Hopkinton. “Heaven help the politician who pisses off a motivated moms’ group.”

Case in point: In early June, Gomez sent out an e-mail on behalf of a new cause — fighting the proposed elimination of Medford’s middle school foreign language department due to budget cuts. “Once again,” she wrote, “I am going to look for support from my online community.” Her passionate post was passed along to moms on other local listservs. Within two weeks, she had 600 supporters signing her online petition and a strong showing at the budget meeting. Funding was restored for the program.

“The mom network,” Gomez says in triumph, “came through.”

MOMS AND THE INTERNET

Moms and Media 2012, a report from Edison Research, revealed these facts about how and how often moms connect:

>93% have Internet access from any location

>61% have a smartphone

>Moms spend an average of 2 hours 43 minutes per day on the Internet — that’s up from 53 minutes per day in 2002.

>Moms check their Facebook page an average of 4.7 times per day (compared with 2.1 times per day for dads)

>46% use social networking websites several times per day

>35% have 5 or more devices in their home connected to the Internet

>74% have a Wi-Fi network in their household

Globe Magazinemagazine@globe.com
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