If you thought mummy bloggers offered little more than soliloquies on cupcake baking and breastfeeding, it is time to think again.
Many mums (and dads) may have started off documenting their baby's every burp and giggle online as a way of staving off the isolation of new parenthood, but they are fast becoming a powerful force that brands can no longer ignore.
Amidst the stories of sleepless nights and nightmare school runs, big business has infiltrated its way into the parenting community.
A cursory look at any of the popular online parenting diaries will show you just how avidly the authors are being wooed by the corporate world.
Whether they are reviewing the free products that they have been sent, allowing companies to write paid 'guest posts' on a blog, or taking their children on an all-expenses-paid trip, it seems that parent bloggers are having the time of their lives. 'Of course lots of them are doing it to get free stuff,' laughs Paul Sutton, head of social communications at BOTTLE PR. 'I say good luck to them.'
It is unsurprising that brands want to deal with the bloggers. Their reach is huge and growing all the time thanks to their presence on other social media such as Twitter and Facebook. 'Bloggers collectively have enormous reach and power, because readers really engage with the person writing,' explains Sally Whittle, writer of Who's the Mummy?, ranked as the most powerful mummy blog in the UK by Cision. 'So if they are considering a new brand of laptop, readers might think Well, I know Sally, and I know that I like the kind of thing she likes, so if she likes it I might buy it. When it comes to parenting blogs, this is particularly important because people are buying things for their baby.'
Whittle runs Tots100, one of the big parent blogging networks, which connects the brands with the powerful writers that they wish to contact. Its members reach ten million readers every year and the list of brands that Tots100 members work with is far from niche. When Tesco, John Lewis and Boots are expending their energy on linking up with the mummy bloggers, it is obvious that this is more than a passing phase.
But communicators have a problem when it comes to dealing with the yummy mummies (and daddies) that populate this virtual world. Unlike the journalists that they are used to dealing with, mummy bloggers are not trained to deal with companies, and often react in unexpected ways.
PR departments are having to redefine their tactics in order to work with the bloggers, and many agencies now offer 'blogger outreach' as a core part of their work.
'Dealing with bloggers takes a lot more time than most people generally appreciate,' says Sutton. 'You aren't going to get results from a quick email. Instead, it has to be done on a very personalised level and you need to invest time in building a relationship between brands and bloggers.'
Get it right, and it will be worth it, Sutton believes. 'Bloggers can be extremely powerful in disseminating information,' he explains. 'In some cases, now, our clients are more interested in connecting with bloggers than with mainstream media.'
In many cases though, brands aren't getting it right at all - and a provoked blogger is an extremely dangerous thing. Jacqui Paterson, who runs powerful mummy blog Mummy's Little Monkey, also gives training to brands on how to deal with bloggers. 'They can be really tricky,' she explains. 'Blogging has more of a personal feel, especially when you are dealing with parenting-related blogging. I feel sorry for the PRs who are trying to deal with bloggers; there is so much they can do wrong. And if they put a foot wrong, the bloggers will complain about it.'
Bloggers, she says, take to Twitter and Facebook in an instant if they are provoked, having no qualms about giving a PR a bad day if they have been offended.
Whittle agrees. 'One of the most common mistakes is assuming that bloggers work in the same way as journalists. As a journalist I don't much care whether I like the product or not - I'm serving readers and I am getting paid. As a blogger, I'm personally interested,' she explains.
'Companies also make the mistake of thinking that we are going to work for free. But blogging is becoming increasingly professional. People are making a full-time living out of it, between copywriting, writing guest posts and selling advertisements on their sites. That's an exciting opportunity for women, and very empowering. But brands think I'll send you a press release and you'll just write it and that doesn't happen.'
But the very, very worst thing a PR can do when dealing with a blogger, is to get names or personal details wrong, she says. 'Journalists can laugh it off when someone gets their name wrong, but with a blogger, well, you've just got the name of their child wrong.'
In extreme circumstances, the mistakes made when approaching bloggers can be personally upsetting. One blogging mother, Whittle recalls, was offered shoes to try for her five children - one of whom had died, a subject that was covered extensively online. Another, who had a miscarriage and lost a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, was offered a fertility kit.
'With journalists, you have a professional contract, but with bloggers it isn't like that. They just think You don't care that my baby died.' Her top advice to anyone dealing with a parent blogger? 'Read the blog. Read it carefully and make sure you really know who you are dealing with. It is harder to get it right than with a journalist.'
Sutton advocates starting slowly with bloggers, building up a relationship on Twitter and commenting on their posts. 'You get far better results by building a relationship on behalf of a brand over an amount of time. It is about connecting. Share posts that are relevant and interact on a human level rather than the level of a big corporation.'
With thousands of mummy blogs out there to choose from, how does big business decide which blog gets the freebies, and which gets left out in the cold? Cision, the communications software group, produces a list of the most influential mummy bloggers in the UK each year, which is based on a variety of factors. These include page views, sharing of posts on social media and number of followers on Twitter, explains Cision's editorial co-ordinator Jake O'Neill.
The organisation produces a list of the most influential parent blogs. At present, Whittle's Who's the Mummy? blog takes the top spot, with Paterson's Mummy's Little Monkey coming second. O'Neill says that PRs and brands can use the data to decide who to target.
'The fundamentals of working with bloggers are the same as with traditional journalists at traditional media outlets,' he says. 'Respect their schedules; take time to read their material to learn their interests; and only contact them if/when they want to be contacted.'
Helen Rowley, head of insight and brand partnerships at Mumsnet, adds: 'Working with a network of parenting bloggers gives a brand access to a sizeable and varied audience through each blogs following. Bloggers also have far greater authority with their readers than other platforms - their audiences are dedicated, trust the authenticity of the bloggers voice, and actively want to know what the blogger thinks, so the appeal for brands is obvious.
'Remember that the bloggers are free to write whatever they wish, and can answer you back if you do something they don't like. Treat them well and it pays dividends. This doesn't mean sending them gifts; it means engaging with them in an interesting and different way. Show that you're listening to what they have to say, the good and the bad, and you'll earn their respect. Also remember that a little criticism within a generally positive post can be a good thing for demonstrating authenticity.'
Mumsnet is running Blogfest, at which it will welcome brands to discuss blogging, on 9 November.
As expected with a new media outlet, the world of mummy blogging is fast moving, and PRs who want to be involved need to move with the times. 'It's a whole other world from when I started,' Paterson explains. 'It is achieving critical mass and as it evolves people who don't take it so seriously will be edged out. That's a little like what has happened with the publishing industry.'
She adds that big brands will become clearer about what they expect from their bloggers, instead of saying Here's a so and so; say something about it. 'This will involve the big brands upping their game, but the blogs will become slicker too - it's a natural evolution.'