Inside Utah’s multi-million-dollar “mommy blogger” industry
When your personal life is the product, being able to ignore criticism is a competitive advantage. For Utah’s cottage industry of motherhood/family influencers, the necessity of thick skin is especially strong.
In my conversations with local women about so-called “mommy bloggers,” both praise and criticism came in abundance. The reactions were typically split into two opinion clusters: the first group uses aspirational language to describe mommy bloggers—words like fun, motivating, encouraging—and feels that these content creators bring real, tangible value to their life. The second cohort is the opposite, and they mostly highlight dismissive opinions centered around how what influencers do isn’t “real” work or that their content is actively harmful to society.
Regardless of how you view influencers, these women are, first and foremost, entrepreneurs. They are some of Utah’s most prominent ambassadors to the world, and the businesses they’ve created are dictating cultural trends and bringing in tens of millions of dollars of revenue. Their products are stocked at every major retailer, the world’s biggest advertisers sponsor them, and almost all of them have achieved this without any outside funding.
Much ado about creators
The rise of “the creator economy” has been a significant focus of recent tech industry coverage. This broad term is used to describe the large number of people making things—basically anything—and turning it into their career. Whether your skills are dancing in 60-second snippets (try TikTok) or writing snarkily opinionated newsletters (try Substack), there is a digital service that allows for the monetization of almost any talent. Some venture firms estimate there are roughly 50 million online creators. It may feel like online creators are a new thing, but the term “mommy blogs” actually hit peak popularity about ten years ago, according to Google Trends.
Before tools like Instagram and Pinterest were ubiquitous, family influencer businesses were relatively simple constructions built using blogger tools like WordPress. “Mommy bloggers” would write blog posts about their life, upload pictures of their outfits, and chat with readers. Monetization was minuscule and generally done through affiliate links.
“You had to be the model, the makeup artist, the editor, the writer, the photographer, the graphic designer, and the web developer. I coded my own website when I first started!” says Rachel Parcell, who has 1.1M Instagram followers and runs a multi-million dollar business. “You kinda had to know everything [back in the day].”
Now, the industry has evolved to an extreme level of sophistication. The core product loop of creating content, posting it, and monetizing it has dozens of software tools available for each step in the journey. From social media platforms for demand aggregation to complex editing tools to make the photo look just right, these businesses have grown far past the humble days of quick blog posts, and has allowed some select few influencers to gain audiences numbering in the millions. To put it in perspective, Rachel Parcell—armed with an iPhone and pictures of her kids—has the same amount of followers on Instagram as the Utah Jazz at the time of this writing.
With followers comes numerous monetization opportunities. Think of each picture as the inventory an influencer has to offer. What products they choose to give their inventory to (and how much the companies representing those products are willing to pay) are their primary growth lever. The larger the audience is, and the more purchasing power they represent, the more valuable the ad inventory is.
There are essentially three types of inventory products these women offer. First, ads—when a company pays an influencer to sell their product. This is probably what you think of when you think of an influencer’s posts. They’ll caption photos with something like, “My kids love this!” or, “My hair has never looked better!” The post is usually charged as a flat fee. Note: I tried very hard to find a consistent benchmark on how much you could charge for an ad. No one could give me a straight answer, but depending on the audience and clout, the range can be anywhere from $500 to $250K.
The second type of product is revenue share deals. Influencers typically realize that ads are a poor deal for them. Oftentimes, ads result in millions of dollars in sales for brands, but creators capture less than 1 percent of the value they are creating. Enter: brand partnerships. Influencers will leverage their audience, tell them about how they “developed this product and tested it themselves,” and then receive a percentage of sales. For example, Witney Carson (1.5M Instagram followers, “multi-million” dollar influencer business) created a vegan leather diaper bag retailing at $180. The initial run sold out almost immediately. Through brand partnerships, influencers capture a percentage of the transactions completed, typically through a revenue share program.
The final and most lucrative category is owned inventory. This product poses the highest risk and highest reward, as influencers bring all product development, manufacturing, and distribution in-house. By bringing their own product to their audience, these creators have a built-in, highly loyal marketing channel. In reference to her line of dresses—which are stocked at Nordstroms, Dillards, Saks 5th Avenue, and Anthropologie—Parcell casually mentioned that she hasn’t paid a dollar in marketing for the first four years of her business. And it isn’t just fashion items that these influencers sell. It could be courses, coaching, access to exclusive content, or—in the case of Hannah Wright (404K Instagram Followers, Mrs. Utah 2021)—pork raised on her own farm.
Typically, a business making this much money and requiring little upfront capital would have a considerable amount of competitors. Between them all, profit would dwindle to nothing. But with online influencers, it’s the opposite—and power has consolidated among a few brands with a handful of elite accounts almost all nestled in Utah.
Millions of followers, millions of commentators
Ignore the trappings of fashion and the flash of photoshoots—these businesses are ultimately about individuals offering their personal lives as product. It requires a shift from being an individual, full of complexity and contradictions, to a singular brand that sells a focused image. The labor of being an influencer is not just the physical act of putting on makeup or convincing children to wear an outfit for an ad. Instead, it is the emotional work of being willing to expose who you are to millions—and being willing to open yourself to their feedback every single day.
“After I had my son, I [posted] a big thing about my body and my healing process. That was really hard for me to do because as a dancer, my body’s always been nitpicked,” Carson says. “I’ve been on TV since I was 18 years old. So everything about my body is really hard for me to post and to share, but it just comes with social media. I had to really think, ‘Am I going to share this? And how is it gonna make me feel when people respond negatively or positively?’ I had to really, really emotionally prepare for that feedback. Which, to me, is almost harder than the numbers part of the business. You have employees for that, but sometimes the feedback that you get is a little bit harder to manage.”
What influencers choose to post is dissected, evaluated, scrutinized. Those who have a following of over 100K receive dozens, if not hundreds, of DMs a day—all containing feedback on what was just shared. While many of these messages will be positive, the comments can sometimes involve complaints pertaining to body image and personal views.
On top of the emotional difficulties, it is incredibly challenging to build an audience online. Only .14 percent of Instagram accounts have over 1 million followers, with most accounts accumulating less than 1,000 followers. Growing a sufficient audience that brands will want to advertise with is difficult and rare. In this aspect, most major accounts have some initial leg up. Whether it’s being featured in bridal magazines (Rachel Parcell) to being a TV star (Witney Carson) or even winning beauty pageants (Hannah Wright), there is usually an event that makes an influencer stand out and brings them to the public’s attention.
When asked if they were worried about competitors, the common reaction from these women was a laugh and a general attitude of “they are welcome to try.” “I know a lot of girls try it. And they’ll do it for a few months, and then they’re like, oh my gosh, this is way more work than I thought. And then they stop doing it,” Parcell says. “I think they go into it thinking, ‘Oh, it can’t be that hard.’ And then they’re like, “Oh, actually, it’s way harder and more time-consuming than I thought.’”
Despite the apparent simplicity of the tools—an iPhone and cute outfits—building a true influencer business requires strong emotional fortitude, an aforementioned growth hack to build an audience that <.1 percent of people on the planet have, and the savvy to negotiate brand deals and do all the back-office work involved with building a media business.
Utah, women, and building
Influencer businesses—like any other—are not above criticism. Oftentimes, influencers employ numerous nannies and home staff to support their entrepreneurial lives so they can focus on building their brand. As a result, the lifestyle they portray is an impossible and unrealistic standard for the average human to obtain on a limited income. How influencers use their personal life as a performative product can easily veer from fun content to something more nefarious for consumers. There is also merit to the argument that children shouldn’t be posted on influencer accounts (though, to be fair, somebody’s kids have to be in the picture to advertise diapers).
It should be recognized, however, that any company that demands our attention is equally deserving of being examined with a critical eye. The recognition that all media businesses are selling a product—not a reality—should govern our relationship with those who are creating. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson does not exemplify a reasonable male body type any more than Stephen King sets the base standard for prose. These influencer’s products ought to be viewed through the same lens—not as reality, but as a collective fiction through which customers derive enjoyment.
Beyond the parasocial relationships that influencer businesses create, there is a unique angle of gender to this story. In 2021, Utah won the dubious award of being The Worst State in the US for Women’s Equality for the fourth time in a row. We have an incredible disparity between men and women in various issues ranging from a college education, political leadership, and entrepreneurship. While the cause is a complex mix of religious and cultural factors, the uncomfortable reality is that this issue is real. Women in Utah are chronically underpaid and underappreciated by the local community.
Similar elements of dormant sexism are applied to our understanding of these “mommy bloggers.” Because these businesses are run by moms and their products (literally) hit close to home, onlookers flatten what they are creating into either “harmful” or “wonderful.” The reality is much more nuanced. It doesn’t so much matter whether these motherhood influencer businesses are net good or bad because, far more importantly, they are widely successful. They deserve to be given the same respect and consideration that we would give to any other entrepreneur who has built a multimillion-dollar business.
Note: I recognize the irony of me, a white dude who went to BYU, writing about the need to give Utah women a voice. But hey, I work with what I was given.
“When I first started, I would get the question, ‘How much money do you make a year on that thing?’ And I always wanted to respond, ‘How much money do you make?’ It’s not a question you ask someone, but they would always ask me,” Parcell says. “I think they felt it wasn’t a real job, and so that gave them access to ask. I got that question a lot from businessmen. No, you would never ask another man how much they made this year, but because you don’t take me seriously, you think you can ask it?”
Maybe it’s time that instead of asking whether or not they’re real, we ask just how big these businesses can get.