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Toymakers aim to please mommy bloggers Influence can be factor in season's biggest hits

Emily Vanek is not buying up a bunch of LeapPad Explorers herself, but she may be at least partly to blame for some stores selling out of the $99 children's tablet this holiday season.

"The LeapPad is incredible," the Denver mother of three boys wrote to the 6,000 readers of her popular blog, ColoradoMoms.com. "Not only do kids get to have a toy resembling their parents' tablet, it's durable and my favorite part?! It's not just mindless games they are playing."

These days, mommy bloggers don't just gab about spilled milk and diapers. In fact, they've become so influential in the $22 billion toy market that toymakers go to great lengths to get their seal of approval. Their thumbs-up is particularly important during the holiday shopping season when toymakers hope to create the next hit toy.

It's a major shift for toy companies, which have always given out samples of new dolls, games and other playthings to drive sales. Five years ago, they handed out 98 percent of those products to television stations, newspapers and magazines. But today, as much as 70 percent go to bloggers.

Mattel, the world's largest toy company and parent of East Aurora-based Fisher-Price, has a database of about 400 mommy bloggers and their location, interests and the children's ages. Canadian toymaker Spin Master, which makes the trading card game Redakai, hired a staffer whose only job is to reach out to mommy bloggers. And small toymaker Cepia LLC, which makes robotic Zhu Zhu pets, gets feedback from mommy bloggers before its toys hit shelves.

It's hard for toymakers to ignore the monstrous number of mommy bloggers. Nationwide, there are about 4 million or so mommy bloggers who influence millions of other parents around the world.

"Mommy bloggers started because they wanted to share things about a new baby, but the most influential ones got into social media and realized they could make a difference," says Maria T. Bailey, whose BSM Media firm helps companies pick mommy bloggers with the most reach on the Twitter and Facebook social media websites. "Sometimes that difference is as simple as directing a mom to a toy that will save money."

That's why when LeapFrog Enterprises wanted to roll out its LeapPad Explorer kid-size tablet, it reached out to 200 of the top mommy bloggers. The goal? To get them to generate buzz for the tablet by throwing "mommy parties."

The Emeryville, Calif.-based company sent each blogger a kit that included a LeapPad, a game for it and coupons.

For bloggers such as Vanek, the Denver mom who bills herself as the "go-to answer for all things mom and kids in Colorado," it was a chance to be a hero of sorts to other parents and their kids.

"It not only lets my own children get to try out the newest/hottest toys, it allows them to share them with their friends," she says. "It allows me to get to have my own friends over for something better than a Tupperware party where I'm doing a hard sales pitch."

But for LeapFrog, it was an opportunity to get word-of-mouth going early.

It was the first time the company had hosted "mommy parties," but it seems to have paid off. The company declined to give sales numbers, but the LeapPad has been selling out online and in stores across the country this holiday season.

Sometimes, buzz from bloggers can backfire.

"If they like something word gets around very quickly. If they don't like something, word will also get around quickly," said Timetoplaymag.com's Jim Silver, a longtime toy expert who works with mommy bloggers to review products on his website.

Still, most toymakers find the risk is worth the reward.

Cepia LLC was relatively unknown until mommy bloggers made its Zhu Zhu pets a hit in 2009. Laura Kurzu, Cepia's senior vice president of marketing, works with bloggers every step of the way to develop toys, including a Zhu Zhu building set that it tweaked because of blogger comments.

"Bloggers can be really great evangelists for the brand, but you have to be invested in listening to what they say to you," she says. "You can't just throw something out there and expect gratuitous support."

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