Online, the power of mom

When Maytag representatives told Heather Armstrong they couldn’t help fix her washing machine, they didn’t realize that she isn’t your average American mother. Rather, she’s the mastermind of the wildly popular blog dooce.com with the power to bring corporate America to its knees.

“I’ve got a million followers on Twitter,” Armstrong told Maytag. “If I say something there, will you help me?”

But Maytag said no. Big mistake.

“Do not ever buy a Maytag. Our experience has been horrible,” she wrote on Twitter.

And as the message was re-tweeted – again and again – her complaint soon thundered through the blogosphere until it was impossible for Maytag to ignore. By the next day, it was fixed.

Armstrong is now up to 1.6 million followers on Twitter – half a million more than CNN can claim – thanks to the popularity of dooce.com, where she writes about everything from health care reform to her bout with shingles, from national politics to her daughter’s bathroom habits.

“I don’t think that humans were meant to live the way we’re living right now. Especially mothers who are so isolated with their children at home alone,” she said.

Her kind of candor, traditionally reserved for close friends and family, has led to the creation of a community whose power can be profound, as Armstrong learned after the birth of the first of her two children in 2004. She faced crippling postpartum depression, checked into a hospital and wrote about her struggle.

“My audience was so supportive and I really credit them with saving my life,” she said.

Armstrong, 34, first rocketed to stardom even before motherhood. In 2002, she was fired from her job for posting acerbic comments about co-workers on her blog. But as that company let her go, others came calling, asking to run their ads on her site – including big companies like Microsoft, Target, Walmart and Nike.

Armstrong worried her readers would see this as selling out, so she resisted.

“At the time, no personal blog was taking advertisements,” she explained.

When a bunch of new ad networks started courting her in late 2005, however, their offers were hard to refuse.

“I looked at [my husband] Jon and I said, ‘OK, we’re going to jump off this cliff together and I hope that we don’t die.’”

But instead they flew — on the wings of what’s now an estimated $40,000 a month, enough that her husband was able to quit his job at an Internet ad agency. Considering that the average American blogger makes only $5,000 per year from his or her site, they were lucky.

The Armstrongs aren’t the only ones profiting from the blog. Dooce.com has boosted profits for other women’s businesses, too. When Heather Armstrong mentioned an Australian woman’s product on her site, the woman’s traffic and sales soared.

That kind of tastemaking power has put Armstrong in the top tier of online influencers – a persuasive crowd.

According to a Nielsen survey, opinions posted on the Internet are now considered a form of advertising — and one of the most trusted. But it can be difficult to tell where the ad starts and the opinion ends.

The Federal Trade Commission, the agency that regulates advertising, doesn’t want this kind of confusion and announced in late 2009 that bloggers must disclose any pay-for-play writing.

And it’s not just talk. In April, the agency issued its first warning after it learned a retailer had offered gift cards to bloggers in exchange for coverage.

But Armstrong isn’t worried. She blogs by her own strict code.

“I will never write something because someone has paid me to write it,” she said. “My readers have to trust that what I’m saying is coming from a true space.”

 
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Comments

  • jim henson

    Enjoyed the story. I like the point that more people care about poop than world issues reported by CNN. Also, I liked how you reported that she accepts advertising money from giant corporations (that are invested in overseas sweatshops & child labor to produce shoes & clothing here) tells me a lot about her empathy for children & the poor. My hope is that she’ll make her way to a local soup kitchen & blog about that so that her many “tweets” will help feed the poor or donate to shelter. I will cross my fingers & pray that she’ll do this near Thanksgiving as a gesture of all her family has been thankful for this year. As I said before great story.

  • Julie Atherton

    Very interesting and insightful! Thanks PBS.

  • Unknown Mami

    I enjoyed the story. The code to embed the video is not functioning correctly.

  • Byron

    I sent this email to Heather Armstrong after watching the show.

    My name is Byron and I am from San Diego. I just saw your segment on PBS’s new show Need
    To Know.
    I have a comment and a question about an experience.
    I don’t believe it’s wise for companies to act unscrupulously in the age when millions
    can read about their shenanigans.
    My question stems from a recent experience from the free Hagen Daz ice cream give away
    from May.
    I heard about the free ice cream give away from a friend. i looked up Hagen Daz’ web
    site.
    Sure enough they announced that there was free ice cream to be given away at the ice
    cream shops not the supermarkets.
    Well, you might guess where I am going. My friend and I got to one (La Jolla CA)of the
    two local shops. The owner of the franchise said he wasn’t honoring the headquarters
    announcement for free ice cream because the headquarters wasn’t reimbursing the costs.
    Also,the only other store (and its 25 miles away in Carlsbad) wasn’t honoring the free
    ice cream day neither.
    I know it’s about ice cream and it’s not the end of the world. But it seems like a dumb
    move for Hagen Daz to advertise the free ice cream and not honor their announcement.
    It just doesn’t seem right to say one thing and do another.
    Oh, I probably wont be buying any of their ice cream any time soon.
    Do you have any suggestions?
    sincerely,
    Byron XXXXX

  • Mark

    Armstrong says her code includes “I will never write something because someone has paid me to write it. My readers have to trust that what I’m saying is coming from a true space.”

    However, by threatening Maytag with her substantial readership, she strayed from that code. She stood to gain financially (not having to pay for a repair or replacement of her appliance) if Maytag found it worth their while to give her a repair, and she offered them that deal. That she may or may not have been entitled to the repair does not change that. Armstrong seems to practice this tactic consistently.

    I cannot trust a favorable review Armstrong gives. She can extort good treatment from a company, threatening with her million readers, and she wrote that she did just that. How can I expect similar favorable treatment, given that I do not wield a similar threat?

    Given that she uses her blog for financial gain through favorable reports, I wonder what else I should not trust.

    She breaks a journalistic code and the trust of her readers. Sure, she’s a blogger, but she presents herself as a journalist in the most classic of senses.

  • Amy

    As a long time reader of dooce, I can vouch for Heather’s empathy for those less fortunate and the fact that her ethics come across loud and clear in much of what she writes, and she certainly does not “extort” money or gifts. In fact, she was a customer who had been wronged. She had paid for a brand new washing machine and was told “too bad” after it did not work, and after trying to work with the company to repair it more than once.

    She was fed up, as any of us would be in that situation. I certainly don’t believe she felt entitled, mainly frustrated when she hit a brick wall. As a reader, I do not feel she “used” her readership. Most of her audience are quite supportive of her, so I’m sure they’d feel pretty much the same and actually feel glad that the numbers did the talking. I mean, the readers were the ones who helped in snowball, by reposting on twitter.

    When all was said and done, there was at least one new washer, which was offered to her by another company upon hearing her situation, that was donated to a shelter that needed it, when Heather was given the idea by a reader. Not only does Heather talk to her audience in intelligent and hilarious ways, she responds to them, she challenges them and she listens, earnestly, to their ideas, concerns and support.

    I am sure that the Armstrongs give to those in need on a regular basis, but if not, I’m not going to judge. I’m too busy laughing at pictures of dogs in banana costumes…

  • Ron

    I have been wrong as many other people by those who sell us goods. I am working on a washing maching also. Bosch front loader, wating for a month and a half on a door switch. After the door switch was replaced, which did not fix the problem, a new door for the Second time in a little over two years. Waiting on this to be replaced. Thankful I bought a extended warranty on it.
    Also two years ago bought a bed the mattres is gone bad, After being told it had a life time warrnaty on the furniture, the owner told me that in the furniture business lifetime means 10 years. not getting a new bed because the one who made it is no longer in business, But the furniture store has been in business for over 30years. I was told they would give me 450.00 towards another bed. Not even close to what I paid.
    When we buy something we except it to work and last. So I am glad she was able to get her problem fixed.

  • Lori Dent-Eades

    I saw your segment on pbs this morning with my husband. We would like to know your opinion on somethig. I have a medical malpractice case……against a very rich and powerful hospital in sioux falls sd. We can’t afford the $500.00 for the medical opinion from a nurse that is in the law field that the attorney’s nurse needs before she will proceed. Do you suggest that i use twitter about my experience?

    Lori and Doug

  • Ellen

    ?? “I will never write something because someone has paid me to write it. My readers have to trust that what I’m saying is coming from a true space.” ??

    Heather’s site now includes “Sponsored questions” that she writes and that clearly reflect the interest of her paid advertisers…Disney, KINECT for Xbox 360 and Verizon, just to a name a few. She also had Verizon pay for her office remodel and the blantant notices all over her site confirming this fact were an embarrassment. She is now an official sellout and, in fact, hardly updates her site with actual posts these days. Yes, there’s a new photo posted here and there, however, her photography is amatuerish at best. Thankfully, her dog can balance things on her head which, while entertaining, doesn’t warrant the “blogger as god” status and pay. Wow, bravo Dooce. You have offically jumped the shark. You must be so proud.