Big brands and politicians pay close attention when Mumsnet's 1.3 million members speak out. Here, co-founder Justine Roberts talks about high-profile campaigning, flexible working, and why women deserve a bigger voice
Justine Roberts laughs at the mention of the Daily Mirror calling her and Mumsnet co-founder Carrie Longton "the most powerful women in Britain" during last year's general election campaign. "Oh really? And I can't even get my children to brush their teeth," she says.
The phrase "Mumsnet election" was coined in the run-up to polling day, when it was believed that the online community's 1.3 million members—many of them floating voters—would sway the outcome. Senior politicians queued up to do Web chats with members and the assumption was that whoever could win over Mumsnet users would triumph. This was ludicrous, says Roberts. "There are over a million mums on Mumsnet, but the idea that they are going to vote in a cohesive way is just mad. This is a group of individuals with strong opinions and they are politically diverse. There was a suggestion that the Mumsnet vote would decide the election; well, there wasn't one collective Mumsnet vote."
The origins of Mumsnet go back to 1999 when Roberts went on holiday with her one-year-old twins to a family-friendly resort that turned out to be less than family friendly. She came back thinking how rewarding it would be to have somewhere for people to pool their knowledge as well as give advice and guidance. The company was launched a year later with exactly that aim.
"At the time everyone had a Web idea; it was a real gold rush time," says the former City analyst turned football and cricket journalist. "I was in a position to go ahead with it and that was partly because I'd had children, I had given up my job and I knew I didn't want to go back to it, so there was an opportunity."
Roberts says she knew the website would be useful, but beyond that it was a matter of experimenting to see if it worked. "It was the spirit of the times—'let's go and see what happens'," she recalls. Longton, a friend from ante-natal class, came on board and an old university friend was roped in to write code for the website.
Neither Roberts nor Longton were techies, but their concept worked. "It was about being communal," says Roberts. "It was a huge learning curve and it still is, but the beauty of our site is that we have this 24/7 focus group of smart and intelligent women who are very opinionated and tell us what to do."
Mumsnet today is hugely influential with a £3m turnover, more than one million unique users every month and 25,000 daily posts on discussion boards. "They have had a phenomenal impact on people's behaviour and attitudes towards brands," says Rebecca Harrison, qualitative insight director of brand experts Added Value. "I have been surprised about the relationship women have with sites like Mumsnet, they seem to rely on them a lot."
The aim of Mumsnet was not to have political influence. "It was to create a useful peer-to-peer advice network for mums. The best people to help new parents are the mums who have been there. They are the ones who have bought the appalling pushchair they couldn't collapse," says Roberts.
But shortly after she launched the website the dotcom bubble burst and the business plan was torn up, as was any idea to make a living from the venture. "It quickly became apparent that it was not going to happen, so instead of getting offices in Clerkenwell and hiring 400 people we decided to grow it organically and we worked out of the back bedroom."
Roberts describes the whole beginning as a "dodgy moment"—she and Longton were unable to pay themselves a salary for the first five years. "You had to have a lot of belief, but we were lucky because at least our husbands took care of the mortgage," she says. "This is a hard area to make money out of if you don't have scale; organisations much grander than ours struggle."
The team worked out of their houses until two and a half years ago when it proved too complicated and the operation moved to offices in Kentish Town, north London. Roberts much prefers it anyway. "I used to have to do this thing when I was on the phone to Radio 5 Live, holding the door with my kids screaming on the other side. It could be very stressful," she admits.
Mumsnet has faced fierce criticism ranging from accusations of members being smugly middle class to outrage at its political clout. "There is a certain amount of misogyny," says Roberts. "We started noticing it when we were perceived to have political influence. There was a backlash, which almost said to me, women know your place, this isn't your territory, who do you think you are?"
It is also charged with triviality. When Gordon Brown failed to name his favourite biscuit despite being asked 12 times during his Web chat the press picked up on "Biscuitgate"; the implication was that mumsnetters were superficial. But Roberts replies: "The reason he was asked 12 times was because he failed to answer, he didn't engage. Mumsnet chats do have a way of teasing out how authentic people are. And that is the way mothers are seen—as narrow, self-interested, only interested in biscuits and not engaged with the big issues. Often we are pigeonholed, but you only need to take a look at Mumsnet talk boards to see that, yes, a lot of it is inane and insipid, but a lot of it isn't and there are some smart people discussing a wide range of issues."
So is this a group previously ignored? "Yes. Women don't have much of a voice in this country. Look at the last election—it was an election of men, all the campaign teams were male-dominated. The only look-in women got was as the leaders' wives," she says.
The bulk of conversations on Mumsnet talk boards are not about being a mother or parenting. "It is a bunch of women talking about stuff that women talk about, from highbrow political discussions to lowbrow discussion about Holby City. It is whatever women find interesting," says Roberts. "Our most active discussion is one called 'Am I being unreasonable', which is women wanting to validate their emotions and beliefs and that is followed by relationships. Pregnancy is only our fifth-biggest area of discussion."
Mumsnet is a source of information, advice and product recommendations but it also campaigns for members. "There are issues that members feel strongly about and we will campaign when there is consensus. Users organise themselves well, setting up Facebook groups, writing letters and organising Twitter campaigns. It is not a top-down thing, we are there to give a platform and sometimes we do amplify that on a Mumsnet level," Roberts explains. Successful campaigns include attracting attention for a member, Riven Vincent, who was ready to put her disabled child into care due to a lack of respite help, and the pulling of an advertisement that proclaimed career women to be bad mothers.
The ongoing campaign, Let Girls Be Girls, against the sexualisation of young girls has seen major retailers agreeing to not stock clothing that prematurely sexualises. Today some of them, including Tesco and Asda, seek guidance from Mumsnet on what is seen as appropriate and what isn't. "Mumsnetters are powerful when there is an issue they feel strongly about, partly because they are amplified by the media, but also because they are intelligent women and they know how to organise themselves," Roberts adds.
Longton says that the campaigning side of Mumsnet has evolved naturally. "Very early on it became apparent that we were building a community rather than a business and it has stayed like that although we obviously do need to make money," she says. No mean feat when many of the brands that want to work with Mumsnet are rejected. "We don't take advertising from Nestlé, which could easily be worth £500,000," says Longton.
It is rare to find an internet business that turns away advertising revenue. "We have a core policy, which is that we are here to make parents' lives easier so there are some brands and products that don't fit very well with that," says Roberts. "But it is an open dialogue with mumsnetters and we'd always go with the consensus on the site. McDonald's is on our 'no' list but they came to us not long ago and asked to do a Web chat. We put this to our members and there was a 50/50 split, but the ones who didn't want to do it felt very strongly about it so we decided not to do it."
This integrity is vital to the business. "We feel that our user group is a massive stakeholder in the operation and we have never been in a position where we had to do things that we don't think sit well with our philosophy because we are not owned by a big company and we are not chasing profits," she says.
The principle is the same when it comes to the valuable user data Mumsnet holds. "We agree not to use that data when people register with us. Our users generate our content, they are the lifeblood of Mumsnet and we take their privacy seriously. I am afraid we are not going to get rich that way."
Is Roberts the businesswoman not dismayed at missing out on this revenue? "We would have given up long ago if the ambition had been to be Twitter-like billionaires. We now make a profit, we earn enough money to pay our staff and we are still recruiting. We are not perfect but we can hold our heads up high and say we will work with brands in ways that are good for them and for our users."
Instead Mumsnet strikes other kinds of partnerships with brands. "We do a lot of insight, product testing and R&D so we could be included right from the genesis of a product to the testing of it. Ford last year gave 12 of our members a Ford Galaxy which they then filmed themselves using. These films were brilliantly authentic and very realistic," says Roberts. A recent initiative saw Mumsnet tackle family friendliness again. "We want Britain to be one of the most family-friendly places in Europe and we want to work with organisations to help them get there."
She says Mumsnet staff are often over-qualified but welcome the flexibility the organisation offers. "No one misses the kids' assembly, no one feels bad about going to the school sports day and no one feels awful if their child is sick and they have to work from home. These are our credentials, come and work here, we want you and if you have kids it is not a problem. Your kids and your family come first. When I worked in the City I was surrounded by women who had to pretend they didn't have children to get on and that is just crazy because you end up living a lie. That way companies will never get loyalty or people who are enjoying their jobs."
Although Roberts eventually wants to reduce her working hours she doesn't plan to cut back any time soon. The Mumsnet Rules book will be published in June, apps are on the way and the launch of Gransnet, an online community for grandparents, is imminent. "Like mums 10 years ago it is a demographic that is underpowered and lacks a community. We are all by nature communal and it is all about providing a space and a platform."