Humanizing Technology

Charge of the “Mommy Blogger” Brigade

By Karen Angel

Like many bloggers, Danielle Altshuler Wiley ’95 was drawn to the medium during a time of personal upheaval. On maternity leave from her interactive-marketing job and feeling isolated at home, she began to devour blogs written by other new mothers in order to find tips for coping.

With encouragement from her husband, Michael Wiley, an ad executive and creator of the General Motors blog, she launched her own blog, foodmomiac, to share family recipes and experiences.

In June 2011, six years after starting foodmomiac, she left the corporate world and turned the sense of community she’d tapped into through blogging into a new business model—essentially, a management agency for bloggers.

It was Wiley’s ability to relate to her fellow bloggers that enabled her to recognize a niche for her company, the Sway Group. While she was shaping social-media strategies at Edelman Digital in Chicago, the bloggers she hired to promote clients’ products and services kept coming to her to ask for advice on rates and translations of industry jargon.

“We had started to pay bloggers for content more and more, and I started to realize everyone was having a lot of problems navigating that relationship,” she explains. “From the agency side, it was very difficult to figure out who was the right blogger to work with. On the blogger side, a lot of them just wanted to focus on their content, not on the business side that comes with getting paid for their work.”

Today, the Sway Group represents 75 “high-influence” mom bloggers (and a few dads)—with millions of readers among them—negotiating deals for them with sponsors, managing projects, and handling contracts. The company sells editorial content in the blogs (basically, online advertorials) as well as sponsorships on social-media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. Sway works with hundreds of companies, including big names like Home Depot, Kimberly-Clark, and Wells Fargo—and dozens of PR and ad agencies. In just two years, the company has signed more than 1,300 contracts on behalf of its bloggers.

“Influencers,” for example, might watch the MTV Video Music Awards and blog about the stars’ clothes and makeup, under the CoverGirl hashtag. Custom Pinterest pinboards might feature product-related recipes and images created by the bloggers. A telegenic crew, the bloggers often appear on TV talk shows. And with the sky-high popularity of YouTube and Hulu, video is a growing chunk of the business and is included in nearly every pitch.

Other companies have since entered the field, says Wiley, but when she and her two partners, Allison Talamantez and Joni Richman, launched Sway, “we were the only group exclusively representing bloggers in this way.” Capitalizing on the explosion of niche blogging, Wiley’s timing was perfect.

A sociology major at Vassar, Wiley gained a solid foundation for her work in social media. Her senior thesis analyzed the nineties phenomenon of people sharing transformative life experiences on daytime talk shows.

“I looked a lot at the regular-person expert, how someone would appear on Oprah who had a certain life experience and would be billed as an expert based on that,” she says. “That’s very similar to what people are doing on blogs. They provide expertise and give you immediate access to someone going through the same thing. Now I work with people who bare all online, and I help them monetize that.”

As for critics who charge that sponsorships compromise a blogger’s credibility, Wiley says Sway’s bloggers only accept deals for products they feel comfortable writing about and always test-drive them. Sponsored posts are always flagged. “We work really hard to make sure the content is good and interesting, even if it is sponsored, and that it’s effective for clients and interesting to readers, and doesn’t make our publishers feel they’re selling out in any way.”

Blogger Heather Spohr (thespohrsaremultiplying.com) has seen both a spike in her readership, to about 400,000 unique visitors a month from 325,000, and in her income, which has grown 25 percent a year since she signed on with Sway in 2011. “I don’t think the readers have noticed the difference,” says Spohr, 34. “Danielle is not going to try to connect me to a client that’s not going to be a good fit.”

It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Sway brought in almost $1 million in revenues its first year and $1.5 million last year; this year, it’s on track to pull in more than $5 million—a big relief for Wiley, who had left a high-paying job at Edelman. The company now has four full-time employees and eight part-timers, all of whom work at home, saving money on overhead. The company has no debt, and it continues to grow.

Last January, the Sway Group formed a joint venture with two partners to create Massive Sway, a network of 40,000 mostly female bloggers that gives Wiley the critical mass to, say, assemble 10 bloggers who are all potty-training or 50 bloggers who have been affected by adult asthma for a specific client.

Sway also represents Latina Bloggers Connect, a network of bloggers. Founder Ana Flores, who blogs on SpanglishBaby about raising bilingual kids and is on Sway’s roster, was so pleased with the way Sway represented her and her blog that last summer she asked the company to handle her network.

Wiley also has her hands full at home, thanks to a recent cross-country move from Chicago to San Francisco with her husband; daughter Dylan, 11; and son Max, 8. True to form, she turned to social media to help smooth the transition. “I just blogged for the first time in months to talk about the move,” she says. “My head is totally a jumble with the huge upheaval, and writing on my blog is grounding.”

Karen Angel is an adjunct professor of English and freelance writer based in the Hudson Valley.

Read an interview with Danielle Wiley on the TweetReach blog.