By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Wendy Wright is a home-schooling mother of two, a prolific blogger and a self-described "Disney Nut." Her cats are named Mickey and Minnie, and her blog is filled with advice for visiting Disneyland, tips for holding Disney-themed parties and reviews of Disney movies.
Wright's enthusiasm for all things Disney eventually drew the attention of the Walt Disney Co <DIS.N>, which invited her to join a carefully vetted group of roughly 1,300 Disney Social Media Moms. The group of mothers - and a few fathers - are part of a Disney effort to incorporate the enthusiasm and influence of parents into its marketing efforts.
Wright isn’t sure why she was picked, but guesses her online postings about Disney helped. "There's been a lot on social media about our trips to Disney," said Wright, who writes about technology, entertainment and other subjects from her home in Phoenix. "It's very obvious we are a Disney family."
Disney moms are not paid, but they receive perks from the company for their efforts, including - for some - deeply discounted, four-day family trips to Walt Disney World for the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration, an event that is part vacation and part educational conference.
Disney does not tell the mothers what to write or tweet about, and it doesn't require them to post. Still, this year’s social media moms event in May generated 28,500 tweets, 4,900 Instagram photos and 88 blog posts full of ride reviews and videos of kids meeting Disney characters. And the moms' postings are overwhelmingly positive.
The theory is that mothers with a large online presence have the ability to influence travel and entertainment planning of other mothers. "For a big chunk of our guests, it's the moms who are making [travel] decisions," said Tom Staggs, Disney's chief operating officer.
The mothers say they like having a connection to Disney - as well as the possibility of scoring a spot at the Social Media Moms Celebration, which was first held in 2010. Each year, the company's theme parks division e-mails invitations to 175 to 200 people.
This year, the moms made #DisneySMMC a trending Twitter topic on the day the invitations went out. "A very magical invite with pixie dust arrived!" Wright tweeted on March 21.
In the run-up to the celebration, the invitees posted on Pinterest the "Frozen"-inspired outfits and Mickey Mouse-adorned handbags they planned to bring to the Mother's Day weekend event.
Exactly how Disney chooses its social media moms is a mystery, stoking online speculation about the secret formula. One blog post that offered advice on how to get picked was shared 1,600 times.
Common tips include interacting with Disney's Twitter accounts and expressing interest in attending one of the smaller social media events Disney hosts in various cities.
Disney executives will only say they look for moms who fit its family-friendly brand, use multiple social media platforms and are active in their communities offline.
The moms include bloggers and book authors as well as radio, TV and YouTube personalities. They tend to cover topics such as family life, parenting, cooking, travel and crafting in addition to their postings about Disney, and only a minority are superfans who write primarily about the company’s products and theme parks, social media moms said. This year's celebration attendees had a combined Twitter following of 5 million people, or about 27,000 each on average.
To get on Disney's radar, Rachel Pitzel, a mother of two who lives in Playa Vista, California, filled out an online application for, and was accepted to, a social media event the company held in Scottsdale, Arizona last June.
This year, she was thrilled to receive an invitation to the celebration in Orlando, Florida. "You feel like a kid again," said Pitzel, CEO of Club MomMe, a social and educational group for parents.
But the invitation doesn't come free. Attendees get deep discounts, but they nevertheless pay for their packages, which include three nights at Disney's Yacht Club Resort, theme park tickets, fast passes to skip lines and a beach-themed party. Families also pay for their own transportation.
At the day-long conference, the moms attend motivational sessions and receive social media tips and Disney updates. This year, they learned how to use Pinterest data, heard from 11-year-old lemonade stand entrepreneur Vivienne Harr and listened to a Pixar producer talk about the Disney-owned animation studio.
Disney reminds attendees of government requirements that they disclose the benefits they received when writing about the event. The company declined to disclose how much it spends on the program.
Disney was the first major company to tap the influence of moms across a wide spectrum of social media, but the approach is now being used to promote a range of products, including Hewlett-Packard <HPQ.N> printers and Cottonelle toilet paper.
HP hired 14 mom bloggers to post print-at-home craft and project ideas on a website called MyPrintly. Kimberly-Clark's <KMB.N> Cottonelle brand paid a group of mom influencers to serve as roving reporters and share experiences at a New Kids on the Block concert it sponsored.
Overall, moms spend $3.2 trillion annually in the U.S. economy, said Maria Bailey, a consultant who advised Disney on its social media effort and runs BSM Media, a marketing firm that connects brands with moms.
"I have clients who call and say I want to do what Disney is doing," Bailey said. "Companies want to capture the mom market."
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Sue Horton)