Mumsnet's co-founder and managing director, Justine Roberts, laughs heartily at the revelation that some advertisers perceive networks like hers as 'scary'. For some marketers, however, it is no laughing matter. Many have admitted to Marketing (off the record, of course) that the prospect of working with the 'militant Mumsnet' leaves them quaking in their boots.
This should come as no surprise, however. Hell hath no fury like a Mumsnetter scorned, as some hapless advertisers have discovered already. The site's feisty users are not afraid to spread vitriol if they see fit, as when they masterminded a campaign to get the result 'Haliborange kills otters' to reach the top of Google's search listings after ill-advised representatives of the vitamins and supplements brand were exposed for posting fake messages on forums.
'We shy away from sugar-coating anything,' says Roberts. 'If we did the whole "We're delighted to work with so and so", our members would smell a rat. Our core values are transparency, clarity and honesty, and people would not hang out here if we deviated from these values in order to benefit our own narrow commercial interest.'
This approach seems to be working. Parenting networks, and those aimed at mothers in particular, are growing in popularity, with Mumsnet and its main rival, local network Netmums, now well established brands, having launched more than 10 years ago.
Roberts believes that Mumsnet represents a truly 'modern organisation', where the people are the stakeholders and have a hand in the way the community develops. 'We've never been interested in chasing profits at all costs,' she adds.
It is no longer strategically viable to ignore these increasingly influential networks, particularly if parents represent a key target market for a brand. Roberts is clear as to how advertisers can engage her community.
'Really interact,' she says. 'Listen and be prepared for a warts-and-all view of your business. This is starting to happen. Advertising on our site is definitely improving. On the whole, brands are paying more than just lip service to the idea that this is a conversation and we need to be involved.'
Roberts cites Bernard Matthews as the best recent example of a brand working with the network. The decision to engage the site's users was a courageous one, given the poultry producer's vilification by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver over production of its (now discontinued) Turkey Twizzlers during his campaign to improve school dinners.
Bernard Matthews enlisted the help of former Michelin-starred chef Marco Pierre White, its brand ambassador since March, who held a cooking session on using turkey, with several Mumsnetters. During this event, they were given free rein to ask the brand any questions they liked.
Lorna Cousins, marketing communications manager at Bernard Matthews, who led the brand's campaign, says the network provides an 'essential audience'.
'Online networks continue to grow and so are of increasing importance to most consumer brands,' she adds. 'They provide marketers with an opportunity to target a more relevant audience. The net also provides a great source of interaction with our target markets and allows us to address key areas with our consumers directly. Word of mouth is an incredibly important form of media, especially with mums, who trust each other first and foremost.'
Generally, when brands take the plunge and engage with these parenting networks, it is much less daunting than the marketers may have imagined.
Siobhan Freegard, co-founder of Netmums, takes pains to point out that the various communities differ greatly, each with its own culture, tone and agenda. Mumsnet 'has a lot to do with the intimidating image networks can have', she claims.
'You could probably describe Mumsnet as the new Women's Institute because it is mostly a middle-class, opinionated community with a very strong, confident voice,' says Freegard. 'We're a different environment. We're more about giving a voice to the voiceless and we've always tried to set a nice, cosy tone. Mumsnet's key sponsor is Boden, we have Robinsons. That speaks volumes. I don't think Robinsons could or would advertise on Mumsnet because the anti-Fruit Shoot voice is so strong.'
The squash brand has encountered widespread criticism of this latter range over allegations that the drink is too sugary and contains carcinogenic ingredients. The brand has addressed these issues with Netmums members. This site hosted a webchat between its community and a Robinsons nutritionist, who pointed out, for example, that Fruit Shoots are available in three variants including one containing no sugar and another with natural sugar only. The nutritionist was also able to explain that the research relating to carcinogenic ingredients had been widely discredited.
'It takes bravery to do this and you have to believe in your product,' says Freegard. 'If you're hiding something, I would advise you not to engage with networks like ours. Otherwise, they can be a great way of tackling negative publicity. Purists will probably still say that you should only give your kids water, but our view at Netmums is that as long as you're giving something back and engaging in a dialogue, we're happy to work with brands like Robinsons. The Mumsnet community is much more critical and hard to please.'
The growth of parenting forums shows no sign of abating. New players continue to enter the fray, positioning themselves slightly differently and targeting specific sub-groups.
MumsClub.co.uk, for example, specifically caters for working mothers and 'mumpreneurs'. Its founder, Jane Hopkins, believes that the rapidly growing popularity of communities such as hers is due to wide-ranging issues around women's identity.
'I've been to other business networking forums and I've not been comfortable. I've not felt that I've been taken seriously,' says Hopkins. 'I feel women, in particular, suffer from self-esteem issues. We don't always think we're good enough and we question whether we can actually do a certain job, which is why mutual support is so effective. Also, in a more targeted environment like MumsClub, you don't get the bitchiness that can appear in general forums. To me it was important to be separated from the pure mumsy forums as well as the pure business forums, which is why I set up MumsClub.'
Hopkins seems to be tapping into a trend in providing a safe environment where women can share often personal information that frequently blurs the traditional boundaries of work and home life, which are so interlinked for many modern women. Whereas in the past mothers might have talked to their neighbours over the garden fence, they now reach out to other women over the internet, the relative anonymity giving them the sense of freedom to address many difficult subjects, from post-natal depression to eating disorders.
Networking in 2010 is a far cry from the 80s, when it was about squaring up your shoulder pads and using them to push other women out of the way; now it is an altogether more supportive affair. Being strong is more about admitting to vulnerabilities and the fact that it's impossible to have it all. Brands that can be sensitive to this will flourish on forums. Certain celebrities have realised this, too, and are creating their own networks aimed at women (see box).
The people running these communities know their users intimately. This relationship offers big opportunities for brands, because they can help to create campaigns that will resonate with the target audience and potentially influence purchasing behaviour and fix misperceptions, if done wisely.
As Mumsnet's Roberts says: 'When it comes to advertising, we've only just scratched the surface. Addressing issues, through networks, is much more effective than putting up a glossy ad or sticking Kerry Katona on an ad declaring she loves the product. In the end, this way could make a few people think again. You can't stifle the conversation. You have to be brave.'
FOCUS ON WOMEN'S NETWORKS
Aside from more general parenting forums, there are several celebrity-based networks
Janey Lee Grace The BBC Radio 2 presenter hosts forums around natural/ethical/eco-friendly products at janeyleegrace.com.
Gwyneth Paltrow The actress has launched Goop, a weekly newsletter in which she shares her secrets on subjects from diets to travel. Subscribers are mostly women.
Amanda de Cadenet The photographer has set up social network 140women.com to create a support system for women struggling with all sorts of issues. She has opened a dialogue on post-natal depression, which she suffered, and her friend, actress Kate Bosworth, has talked about eating disorders.
Lynn Franks The renowned PR professional and feminist commentator has created seednetwork.com, where women entrepreneurs can share ideas, grow their network and get support and mentoring.
Lisa Tse The designer has launched women-only network, The Sorority, to foster a nurturing, collaborative creative environment.