In 2009, Susan Petersen, a stay-at-home mom in Provo, Utah, had a lightning bolt of an idea. She’d been struggling to find shoes for Gus, her newborn son. The baby shoes she saw in stores tended to be made of cheap materials. They looked shabby and often didn’t stay on his fast-growing feet. One day, she dreamt up tiny moccasins that, similar to Robeez, would fit snuggly around her baby’s foot and expand to accommodate chubby baby ankles.
She taught herself the basics of leatherworking, and, after a couple of false starts and many tutorials with the manager of her local leather shop, she proudly displayed her first pair of baby moccasins on her (now-defunct) blog. "I put them up on my site because I was so proud of my handiwork," she says. "But suddenly, all the other moms were saying that they wanted a pair for their baby, too."
It occurred to Petersen that she’d stumbled onto an actual business concept. But baby moccasins, cute as they were, were not necessarily an easy sell. For one thing, leather is an expensive material and parents aren’t used to spending so much money on baby shoes, since children outgrow them so quickly. On the other hand, her blog readers seemed to really understand what baby moccasins had to offer. First of all, they were adorable, which counted for something. They also provided sturdy yet cozy padding for babies to experiment with their first, shaky steps. If her product was going to take off, Petersen realized she would have to make inroads with the influential mommy bloggers who were the gatekeepers to the hearts—and wallets—of American moms.
The term mommy blogger gained currency in the mid-2000s, as the presence of women writing about the joys and tribulations of motherhood gathered momentum. The term itself has been the subject of occasional controversy: Some have called it a demeaning phrase for women who are talented, multifaceted writers.
But whatever you choose to call them, female bloggers who write about raising their children are a powerful force on the Internet. For one thing, there are armies of them. According to the women-focused publishing platform BlogHer, there are as many as 14.2 million mothers who blog; in fact, Nielsen determined that a third of all blogs are produced by mothers (who may or may not be writing about their kids).
A chunk of these blogs have significant audiences and are able to generate ad revenue for their owners. (The very cream of the mommy-blogger crop was at one point generating between $30,000 and $50,000 a month.) Of the 3000 top-tier bloggers featured on the BlogHer network, 39% include posts about parenting. These bloggers are able to influence their readers’ buying habits: 87% of BlogHer’s 37-million-strong readership has made a purchase based on a recommendation from a blogger, and 80% of readers will visit a blog for reinforcement before making a final purchase.
Petersen was no stranger to the power of the mommy bloggers. In fact, she was their target reader. For years, she had relied on these blogs for emotional support as she coped with the everyday struggles of being a stay-at-home mom. She says that the trust that readers have in these bloggers’ product recommendations comes out of a deeper emotional connection with these writers and a shared experience of motherhood.
"There are some very lonely aspects of being a mother," Petersen says. She points out when a woman has given birth, she is often alone for months tending to her newborn. And yet while she is stuck in this solitary existence, she must also reckon with the major physical and emotional transformations in her life. "I think so many women are drawn to mommy blogs because they suddenly have a built-in community of people who share their struggles and rally around them when they are having a hard time," she says. "There are so many hormonal changes that people don’t tell you about after you have a baby, for example. These blogs allow women to get that information out there, so you don’t feel alone."
In the early days of her business, Petersen would send off pairs of moccasins to bloggers in an effort to spread the word about her company, which she named Freshly Picked. Influential bloggers receive plenty of products from all kinds of companies: Since 2008, for instance, Walmart has been working closely with moms who blog, sending them products from vendors so that they can review them. But Petersen appeared to be able to break through the noise because of how relatable her story was; she was a mom and a scrappy can-do entrepreneur, much like they were. As a small-time blogger herself, she would attend blogging conferences and connect with other women personally. (She retired her blog several years ago when her business took off.) "My philosophy was to send the moccasins out to bloggers, just hoping their kids would love them," Petersen says. "I never asked for anything in return; I never expected them to do a special post about them."
But over time, the shoes did begin popping up on popular blogs, often in understated, unobtrusive ways. When bloggers began sharing content on Instagram and Pinterest, the shoes began showing up there too. In photos of birthday parties or museum visits, kids would just happen to be wearing Freshly Picked moccasins; the moccasins would be well-worn, as if the children had been wearing them for a long time. Petersen’s strategy worked like a charm: Blog readers appeared to be more convinced by these subtle endorsements of the shoes than they were by more obvious advertising.
"In surveys of our readers, the number-one reason that women in our community give for reading blogs is their shared experience with the blogger," says Lisa Stone, cofounder and CEO of BlogHer and chief community officer of SheKnows Media, BlogHer's parent company. "This is why so many women in our network report purchasing a product based on a blogger's recommendation. So I can definitely see a direct connection between that behavior and Freshly Picked's success."
Petersen’s business began to grow at breakneck pace. In 2009, after she made her first pair, she began selling a handful of moccasins a week. In her first couple of years, her sales grew by about 100% a year, she says. But by 2012, she was growing at a rate of 500% a year. Today, she sells between 1,000 and 1,500 a week, generating millions of dollars in sales per year. So far, she hasn't taken any external investment. As an e-commerce company, she says she's been able to purchase materials as orders have come in, then invest her profits back into the business. Recently, stores like Nordstrom have asked to stock the moccasins, so Petersen has begun to sell them wholesale as well.
As Petersen has continued to grow her business, she’s realized that to make an effective pitch to the parents, she had to be selling more than $60 leather shoes; the moccasins had to resonate emotionally. "At the end of the day, Freshly Picked is not selling moccasins," Petersen says (although it is). "We’re in the business of capturing memories. The message we are sending is that we want to be there for all the little moments in your child's life."
The products Petersen offers are designed to be connected with various stages of a child’s life, from "crib moccs" for newborns to moccasins that a 1-year-old can take his or her first step in. This concept appears to have made an impact on many of the moms who have tried her products. When Joy Cho, a well-known blogger who owns the design company Oh Joy!, began having children, Petersen sent her several pairs of moccasins as part of her blogger outreach. Cho quickly became a fan. "What I liked about the moccasins is that they lasted a long time," she tells Fast Company. "Their feet would leave a little imprint on the bottom of the shoe that I can hold onto as a keepsake or an heirloom."
Even though Cho regularly does partnerships with big companies like Target and Urban Outfitters, she reached out to Petersen to do a design collaboration because she loved the moccasins so much and liked the idea of creating shoes that would be woven into important moments of a child’s life. Petersen has also collaborated with another blogger, Naomi Davis, who authors the very popular blog Love Taza, to create the Bringing Home Baby Bundle, which provides new moms with robes, baby swaddles, a baby hat, and tiny moccasins for newborns to come home in (baby toes get cold, too).
As Petersen advertises her products, she's keen to make sure that her lookbooks are as diverse as possible, representing children of a variety of ethnicities and abilities. She doesn't use models, but in keeping with her quest to stay authentic, she invites her friends' children to be in these photoshoots. "We want our customers to look at pictures of our products and identify with them," Petersen says.
These days, it is the bloggers who come to Petersen asking to team up. These partnerships with influential bloggers have helped Petersen tap into new audiences, since the bloggers will highlight products to their enormous audiences; but the collaborations work because Petersen instinctively understands the powerful emotions that lie at the heart of mom blogs. "I get jealous when I see women who are ready to go to the hospital," Petersen says. "Those were my two favorite days in my entire life. You go home with a person that you created who wasn't there before."