Jill Hamburg Coplan We're an Internet based fundraising-product company looking to expand our rep network. What do you think of the idea of soliciting work-at-home moms? -- J.W., Freeport, N.Y.
Several readers -- all of them male, incidentally -- have asked for advice on marketing to moms through mothers' groups or parents' networks such as soccer leagues and parent-teacher associations.
They're onto something. So-called "affinity marketing" is a both growing trend and a powerful approach -- though a risky one. Corporations have marketed directly to moms, and through moms, for ages. Avon sells to moms door-to-door. Tupperware has long used moms to reach other moms. Other companies, including Proctor & Gamble, pitched their products to stay-at-home moms by underwriting radio serials that came to be known as "soap" operas. As the affinity marketing technique has become more sophisticated, however, the niches have grown smaller. Consider, for instance, how credit-card companies now market to members of university alumni associations.
HIDDEN RISKS. While affinity marketing can be very successful, it is not a silver bullet that will remedy a lousy idea or a weak business plan, warns Sam Waltz, president of Sam Waltz & Associates, a business-advisory firm in Wilmington, Del. But "people do buy because they're part of a group," he says, adding: "It's an increasingly powerful tool in American business."
Yet the approach carries certain dangers. A company runs the risk, for example, of appearing patronizing or missing its target altogether. And there's always the danger of deprecating a group or eroding existing bonds of loyalty, however unintentionally, Waltz cautions.
First step, then, is to be sure you know exactly which moms you want to reach. Industry trade associations sometimes provide free marketing research to members, says Barbara Lewis, the president of Centurion Consulting Group and a professor of startup management at Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles.
Is working at home really the key common denominator? Be sure you aren't courting too narrow a group, the wrong group, even a stereotype that may not even exist. Maybe you need to be more specific: not just moms in general, but moms of teenagers or those involved with school activities.
ANYONE FOR TENNIS? It's important to speak directly to the group you are after, too. Keeping up with their self image is very important. Just look at the old master Avon. It is using the tennis aces Venus and Serena Williams in advertising campaigns, suggesting it understands that mom consumers have new ideals of beauty and new heroines, says Kimberly McCall, president of McCall Media & Marketing in Freeport, Maine.
"It's not a sound strategy to market to only one kind of group," says Lisa Skriloff, president of Multicultural Marketing Resources in New York City. While your products -- premium items -- are good for church, school, or scout-troop fundraisers, they're also suitable for corporate gifts. Perhaps you need reps in that sector too, Skriloff says.
Despite all these caveats, you may be surprised to hear that the experts actually agree: Affinity marketing that makes use of reps from a particular "lifestyle group" can be a wise small-business strategy. Just be sure you've done the legwork and know your desired demographic. Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan