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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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