Clarification – there appears to be a campaign afoot soliciting mom bloggers to write positive blog posts and reviews, share them widely in the social media space, and “thumbs up” a series of Toyota YouTube videos. And the reward dangled in front of these bloggers for their help (and putting their reputations on the line) – a $10 Amazon gift card.
This story comes to light courtesy of a well-regarded mom blogger, Crissy, at DearCrissy.com. More about Crissy in a minute.
The skinny: apparently there’s an organization called MommyNetworks, based in Tampa, Florida about which not a lot of information is available. Never a good sign. But I’m tenacious. Let the digging begin.
I like to start at the beginning. And your website really does speak volumes about you and your business — I always start there. A quick visit to the MommyNetworks website reveals no “About Us” page, no names, no faces, no connections to ‘real’ people. There’s really no brand story or explanation about what they do, who their clients are, what services they offer, who runs the company – and all those other little niggling details that go to credibility. I do so love a mystery.
Oh, because I couldn’t resist – and just for a giggle, here’s what “Get the Best Deals” section of the Mommy Networks website looks like. Muy impressivo!
Here’s what else I know. The domain MommyNetworks.org is 4 months old, their Whois.com information is protected and the website is, unquestionably, a horrible, embarrassing mess. There are a sum total of three blog posts on the site, the most recent published on December 21, 2010. Impressive! Especially to another blogger – or a brand considering hiring them to do any kind of marketing or PR work. But most importantly, who they are and what they do is really a complete and total mystery.
Can you say “WARNING, WARNING Will Robinson?”
Digging more. (I really should’ve been a PI). Hmmm. Website copyrighted by Care.com, a company that describes themselves this way:
Care.com provides a trusted place for families and care providers to easily connect, share caregiving experiences, and get advice. The company addresses the unique lifecycle of care needs that each family may go through — including child care, special needs care, tutoring, senior care, pet care, housekeeping and more. The service enables families to find and select the best care possible based on detailed profiles, background checks, and references for hundreds of thousands of mom-reviewed providers who are seeking to share their services.
How does all this fit in with MommyNetworks? Still a mystery.
Okay, enough digging. Back to Toyota.
Crissy received an email from Tiffany Lewis, at MommyNetworks, which I imagine is a blogging network that she belongs to – giving her an opportunity to “work” and get a gift card in return. The email, from Tiffany Lewis, read like this:
A new opportunity! Another chance to score a $10.00 Amazon gift card for the mommy bloggers who help out.
There was a big report released about Toyota, by the NHTSA and NASA, stating that there was no electronic flaw found, which was originally assumed to be the cause of all the recalls with the Priuses last year. It actually turned out to be pretty much “user error” that was causing the accelerator to stick.
It’s a big deal for Toyota since this has affected their reputation heavily and they had a lot of negative stigma around their brand as of late, and we’re helping to spread the positive news:
I need you to:
Write a post about the report & good news
In the post, link to a few of the articles or videos below
If possible, share on social networks or “thumbs up” the YouTube videos.
There’s a final note that asks:
Please meticulously track your efforts (If you tweet it out, the exact URL) You must do this to receive (sic) the giftcard!!! If you have any questions I will get back to you as soon as possible. Have a great day:)
Here’s the things about mom bloggers. Most of them (and I know many) are amazing people. And as much as some of them might like a good deal, a freebie or a fantastic opportunity, they are typically pretty smart cookies. They’re not going to do stupid things, just because someone asks them to. And they’re certainly not going to potentially damage the credibility they’ve managed to build as a result of their blogs, their Twitter or Facebook followings and with their clients, who are often PR firms and ad agencies, by jumping on board a sketchy opportunity like this.
Crissy did what any self-respecting blogger would – she got mad. Then she wrote a blog post about it. It’s a stellar post. Based on the 130+ comments that she’s received since the post was published this morning, there are no shortage of folks agreeing with Crissy’s shock and outrage.
But who’s to blame? Toyota? In fact, did Toyota have any idea this campaign was going on? If so, did they understand how it was being conducted and what was being asked by the blogger outreach team?
As the erudite Alli Worthington, a well-recognized name in social media and the lifestyle blogger community, and co-founder of Blissfully Domestic women’s magazine, one of the most trusted women’s destinations online, says when responding to Crissy’s post, chances are good the answer to those questions is a resounding ‘no.’
In fact, Alli’s response to the post is so good, I’ll share it for you here:
A friend sent me to read your story. Wow. Unfortunately nightmare stories of bad campaigns are not surprising anymore.
I wonder if Toyota even was aware this was taking place. Here’s my guess – Toyota has PR Firm XXX that is hired to help their image. PR Firm XXX hires multiple small boutique marketing companies to do a word of mouth marketing campaign geared at increasing positive regard for Toyota.
The above marketing group took the path of least resistance to achieve their goal of increasing positive regard for their client. I am not an attorney, but paying a (presumptively) bloggers to give positive news stories a thumbs up may be against the FTC guidelines.
The responsibility and bad PR falls ultimately in the lap of Toyota. However, my guess is this marketing group was some tertiary hire by the main PR company. Much of this comes down to a lack of oversight. I advise my clients to know exactly who their firm may be hiring out to do these word of mouth campaigns.
Such an embarrassment to everyone that should have been avoided with due diligence.
My take – this isn’t something dreamed up by Toyota. It was an idea hatched by someone so eager to make a good impression with a client that they didn’t think it all the way through. They didn’t think about little things like ethics and the fact that you really can’t – and certainly shouldn’t – try to buy good reviews. And someone so absolutely ignorant about the mom blogger community as a whole that they tricked themselves into believing that moms – or bloggers anywhere – would be supportive of something so obviously wrong.
Due diligence. Understanding marketing and PR and ethical practices. Understanding the importance of full disclosure (not only a good idea, but required by the FTC) and, most importantly, realizing that whether you’re a brand, a PR firm, a marketing firm, consultant or blogger there can be major ramifications and potentially massive reputational damage done as the result of poorly conceived campaigns like this one.
And thanks to Crissy and the ethical thinking that led to her indignation and subsequent blogging about this issue, and to legions of other smart mommy bloggers, brands and agencies can learn some valuable lessons.
Know who you’re working with. Check them, and all of their resources out, very carefully. Ask for references and check them. Insist on being a part of all campaigns and approving content before it’s disseminated. Don’t be so anxious for results that you don’t first stop to determine how you define ‘good results’ – at least for purposes of your campaign and your goals. And also have a good handle on what you’re asking people to do.
And, for heaven’s sake, don’t think you can be unethical and pull the wool over the eyes of anyone – especially mom bloggers. They’re moms – they’ve probably already seen every trick in the book.
And mom bloggers, there’s a lesson here for you, too. Value yourself, above all else. Before associating yourself and your personal brand and credibility with an organization like MommyNetworks, do your own homework. Surely if you took the time to visit their website, you’d have some warning bells that things weren’t right. And if someone asks you do to something like MommyNetworks asked of Crissy and others, don’t hesitate to stand up and cry ‘foul’ … because that’s really the only right thing to do.
What did I miss?
Update: Crissy just updated her original post with the following information from Samantha Snyer, owner of Mommy Networks.
Samantha Snyder, owner of Mommy Networks, emailed me saying that she is in no way affiliated with Toyota. I don’t know how someone wakes up one day and decides to pay a bunch of mom bloggers to post good news about a brand out of their own pocket, but, that’s what Snyder says she was doing:
I am a toyota (sic) owner, that saw this come out last week and I thought that it would be a good case study. Honestly, look at my FB page. I really thought that I could bring up something as large as this recall and create a portfolio for MommyNetworks.org.
There was absolutely no mention of any of this in her original pitch, and I can only assume that the other bloggers involved were under the impression that there was some affiliation with Toyota, too. Might want to run this stuff by the brand, especially when you’re paying people.
And my final thoughts, as a marketer regularly helping brands protect and maintain their brand reputations, this is a perfect argument for the use of social media monitoring and business intelligence gathering tools as a critical component of business operations. People will do amazing things. And if you’re not listening, you might not have any idea.
UPDATE: 9:08pm, CST, The following was posted on MommyNetworks tonight, as an explanation and an apology:
To Crissy and Toyota, I am sorry
My dream has been to own my company since I was a little girl. I started MommyNetworks.org in August with the idea to help moms find work, and advertising.
Mommy Networks recently began some harmless outreach to other moms in order to build a portfolio, and increase our scope with Mom’s. I own a Toyota-Lexus and with the recent news that came out I wanted to base some outreach and case study development around this topic. I often have fun contests and give aways on Facebook.
I had a big #FAIL.
I went into a realm that was not my own. I am not a PR person, I have a background in HR, and want to help get Mommies jobs and help them find routes to advertise.
I truly apologize to everyone for this issue, and I am closing down MommyNetworks.org in order to reevaluate whether I am built for this kind of endeavor. Crissy was someone that said that she would be interested in future campaigns for advertising and reviews and this only reason I contacted her. I would never cold contact someone.
As for the Care.com issue, my designer and developer left that on my theme when I bought it.
I am responsible for going into this without experience and I am paying the price now.
I apologize to Crissy, Toyota, and everyone else. I messed up, and I hope everyone will leave this as a last comment from my side. I am open to answer questions, but hope everyone will respect my decision to simply fade away and deal with this huge #FAIL in my own way.
I had a discussion with Liz Polay-Wettengel about this this evening and she made a very good point. Bloggers – mommy bloggers in particular – must realize how important it is that they be more responsible about their content. Doing anything for a free gift card or some other perk gives an entire genre of bloggers a bad name – and that’s a bad rap.
To my way of thinking, reputation, integrity and credibility are always our most important assets (at least from a business/blogging standpoint) and if you will say or do anything for a gift card or an invitation to a party or for a free product, well then, what does that say about you?
I’m sorry that this blogger did something that she now regrets. And sorry that Toyota had to suffer some slings as a result. Once again, these are good lessons for us all. The Internet – it’s a very powerful thing.