Why Modern Parents Are Still Reading ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting’

Facing fierce competition, the iconic book is changing with the times

The book originally received a mere 4,000 orders from bookstores when it was released in 1984. It went on to sell 19 million copies.
Animated illustration: Yuliya Kim; Sources: Getty Images

In 2014, the Brooklyn-based writer and Time magazine columnist Allison Yarrow—pregnant for the first time—decided she’d plunge into the plethora of self-help books that market themselves to young, expectant moms.

It proved to be a discouraging exercise.

“Much of the literature I encountered either infantilized or cosseted pregnant readers, belittled our assuredly doofy husbands or evangelized its preferred birth ideology while knocking down the competitors,” Yarrow wrote in her subsequent column “Why Most Pregnancy Guides Are a Total Turnoff.”

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Among the guides Yarrow found was one that’s pretty much impossible not to find: What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The book is a monster best-seller that’s now in its fifth edition. It enjoys the distinction of being the most-read pregnancy guide in the United States.

But Yarrow’s take was a decided meh, and the same or worse went for her expectant-mom friends, who referred to the book as “judgey,” “too cutesey” and just “Ugh, hated it.”

Ouch. How is it that a wildly successful guide could garner such a lukewarm response? Well, tastes vary of course, but one reason might be that Yarrow (and presumably the friends she consulted) is a millennial. And this—as many marketers have already learned through personal experience—changes things considerably.

“Millennial moms are savvy—we have books, apps, social networks and incredible communities on and offline where we can learn about pregnancy and childbirth,” Yarrow tells Adweek. “With online communities, we can ask specific, personal questions and get real-time responses.”

Which might be another way of saying: Guidebooks for moms are just that—something mom had in her dresser, while the kids have simply moved on.

And yet dismissing What to Expect as a hanger-on from the pre-internet era would be unfair and misleading, because What to Expect has in fact moved on. Though some Americans still associate the brand name with those hefty paperbacks (the current edition is 656 pages), What to Expect has morphed into a diversified, multiplatform media brand that not only reaches 16 million people per month, it reaches 90 percent of them via mobile devices.

What to Expect’s app, for example, boasts features like a weekly tracker that shows a baby’s development (measured in fruit sizes) and a “pregnancy clock” that promises “actionable tips synchronized to the time of day.” Both the app and website give users access to the What to Expect community of expectant moms who, divvied into groups like “35+ First Time Mommies to Be” and “C-Section Mamas,” participate in an open exchange of information, offering advice and sharing personal stories. The community now includes 18 million women, and a new post appears on the site every three seconds.

Not all the moms are millennials of course, but the diversity and volume of content the community creates is totally in keeping with Gen Y tastes. “Millennial moms consume and engage with information and products across various screens and devices,” says What to Expect’s evp and gm Michael Rose. “To fulfill our mission, we need to reach expecting moms and parents where they are, and we need to tailor our offerings to those platforms and screens.”

Yet, even as What to Expect has diversified to appeal to the latest generation of moms—and even though it remains the dominant source of pregnancy information out there—the mores of the millennial generation have clearly changed the pregnancy-information game. They’ve given rise to a vanguard of new online platforms that have not only raised the stakes for all content providers introducing themselves to new and expectant moms, but also given What to Expect a degree of competition that simply didn’t exist just a generation ago.

The birth of a revolutionary brand

What to Expect reaches back to a time before most of today’s millennials were even born. In 1983, New Yorker Heidi Murkoff was navigating the early days of her first pregnancy with no idea of how to handle it. (“Let’s just say I didn’t always know what to expect,” she deadpans.) When Murkoff went looking for an informational book to read, she found … not much.

“There were a couple of books on the market, but they weren’t relatable or reassuring, and they definitely weren’t written by someone who knew what I was feeling,” recalls Murkoff, who also didn’t feel comfortable asking her physician about some of her concerns. In that physician-as-god era, she says, “doctors weren’t relatable, either.”

Heidi Murkoff, What to Expect founder, is motivated to help moms around the world.
International Medical Corps.

But if Murkoff didn’t find the information she was seeking, she did find a very obvious need in the marketplace for a book that would speak frankly and sympathetically to first-time moms about what they were going through.

Fortunately for her, the key ingredients to create such a book were already in place. Murkoff was a writer (an advertising copywriter, no less.) Her mother, Arlene Eisenberg, already ran a highly regarded group for new mothers at the Ansche Chesed synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. And Murkoff’s sister Sandee E. Hathaway just happened to be a nurse. With her family serving as consultants, Murkoff hammered out a book proposal on her IBM Selectric typewriter. She sent the pages off two hours before going into labor.

Released by Workman Publishing in 1984, What to Expect When You’re Expecting got off to a slow start. (A book that would go on to sell 19 million copies had, originally, received a mere 4,000 orders from bookstores.) But thanks to word of mouth—or “word of mother,” as Murkoff has termed it—the volume’s popularity steadily increased. The author’s mix of intelligence, frankness and humor was like a fresh breeze blowing through the maternity ward.

“What to Expect was written by an expecting mom for other expecting moms,” Rose explains. “We were the first pregnancy brand that spoke for her and with her, instead of just to her. So from the very beginning, our brand has been about empowering moms to be, and reinforcing that it’s perfectly normal for her to speak openly about her excitement, her fears and what’s happening to her body, without feeling judged.”

Within six years of its release, What to Expect was a sales juggernaut. And in June 2015, it became the longest-running title on the New York Times best-seller list. The book has morphed into a publishing franchise—with spinoff guides such as Eating Well While You’re Expecting and What to Expect the First Year—which has sold some 40 million copies in 40 different languages. Of the women who read pregnancy books, the company reports, 93 percent of them have thumbed through the pages of What to Expect.

Increasingly, so have their peers in other countries. Through the What to Expect Foundation she established in 1997, Murkoff created the Healthy Birth Project, which trains midwives in regions of the world with high infant mortality rates. There’s also the Special Delivery Program, created in partnership with the USO, which throws baby showers for active-duty military women. The foundation also runs Baby Basics, a program for underprivileged women, who receive easy-to-comprehend pregnancy guides in English, Spanish and Chinese.

Murkoff's Healthy Birth Project trains midwives in regions of the world with high infant mortality rates.
International Medical Corps.

Yet, it’s What to Expect’s online and social-media presence that keeps the brand most visible and, arguably, accounts for much of its continued vitality. WhatToExpect.com debuted in 2005, and the brand went mobile in 2009. Today, its pregnancy, baby and fertility trackers notch some 1 million users via iOS and Android. Murkoff, whose daily life still revolves around the brand she created, is an avid user of social media, communicating daily with readers via the app, Facebook and Twitter. “If I’m on the grid,” Murkoff says, “moms know they can reach me on social media and I’ll be there for them.”

Which isn’t just good—it’s critical. No pregnancy information platform can endure today without speaking to millennial moms, who aren’t just a surprisingly large demographic, but one with complex consumption patterns and few concerns about brand loyalty.

Understanding millennial moms

The prevailing image of millennials may still be hoodie-clad single bros sipping Stumptown lattes at their tech jobs, but the fact is that 40 percent of them are already parents. According to data from research and strategy firm McCrindle, the babies of millennial parents (known as Generation Alpha) are popping out, globally, at a rate of 2.5 million each week. A Pew study conducted earlier this year revealed that while millennials have tended to delay parenthood longer than Gen Xers did, their time has clearly come: As of 2015, there were 16.2 million millennial moms in America.

With a demo that big and growing, it may seem like all that a pregnancy-information platform needs to do is post useful tips and simply wait for millennial moms to click their way over. But of course, it’s not that simple. In terms of how they consume and share information, the moms of Gen Y are more discerning than those of any generation that preceded them.

While moms of past generations might have been content to take What to Expect’s advice as dogma, moms of this generation are not.

A 2013 study by Weber Shandwick revealed that millennial mothers not only join more social channels than older moms do (an average of 3.4 versus 2.6 for the general population), they spend nearly 17 and a half hours per week on those channels (four hours longer than moms in general do) and share more information, too.

Moreover, these consumption habits affect information providers in specific and often challenging ways. Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick’s chief reputation strategist, points out that Gen Y isn’t content to consult just one source for the information they need. “Millennial moms go from one to another to another,” she says. “[They] just don’t have the time to go to an expert or a doctor for this or that. They … just need an immediate answer at their convenience.”

Which suggests that while moms of past generations might have been content to take What to Expect’s advice as dogma, moms of this generation are not. What’s more, dogma itself doesn’t figure too well into the millennial mindset.

Jeff Fromm, author of the book Marketing to Millennials, points out that this generation doesn’t value authoritative sources as much as past generations did. Millennial moms “trust communities more than brands, our research shows,” says Fromm, who adds that if a young mom’s information needs aren’t being met by one group, she’ll happily abandon it. “If I get into [the right] community, I’ll stay engaged, and if I don’t find it helpful, it’s easy for me to find another. It’s important to understand that dynamic.”

Meeting millennial expectations

For his part, Rose believes that What to Expect does understand that dynamic. First off, he says, the brand has built its platforms to furnish moms with information tailored to their needs. Women who register with What to Expect give up their email address, due date and location. “This allows us to deeply personalize her experience across all screens, devices and geographies,” he says, “providing her the right content … just at the right time in the right format.”

Rose also recognizes that millennial moms prefer to take advice from other millennial moms, which is why “community is the most popular and most engaging section of our site,” he says. “Every three seconds, moms are asking questions, answering questions or sharing advice, news, ideas or product reviews with one another.”

While What to Expect has sunk considerable time and effort into making its content fit millennial consumption patterns, there’s still plenty of equity left in its longstanding reputation as a book series. According to Katherine Wintsch, founder and CEO of specialty marketing consultancy The Mom Complex, What to Expect enjoys a reputation that precedes the brand, even if the user experiences it solely online.

“It’s known to be the Bible for expectant mothers to understand what’s coming, and they’ve done a nice job building extensions,” she says. “It started out as one book, and now it’s … built a platform off of just an original book, which is impressive.”

And while millennials may well value the advice of peers over that of experts, that doesn’t mean that an established voice in the field doesn’t command its share of their respect. “What to Expect is almost like a media company now, and they have so much information,” says Gaines-Ross. It’s “a very highly valued and well-known source.”

Competition for mom’s attention

Today, What to Expect is in the strange position of having created a category that proved so vital that it gave rise to a host of other information sources it’s now competing with. Not only do these sites offer essential information for new moms, most of them impart that information in customizable and peer-to-peer formats, as well.

For instance, Johnson & Johnson-owned BabyCenter dishes out expert advice and peer-driven guidance via its website and apps. Mommy Nearest, another popular site, relays a wide variety of parenting, health and nutrition information to millennial parents, and it also features a broad user community that members can tap for advice. “We’re based on that peer-to-peer community,” says Mommy Nearest editor in chief Rory Halperin. “We find a lot more moms writing back and forth to each other.”

"Our focus is on [the mother] and on giving her the information she needs exactly when she needs it."
-Michael Rose, What to Expect evp and gm

There’s also The Bump, whose many features include Inside The Bump, a virtual 3-D baby whose appearance corresponds to the user’s stage of pregnancy, and Real Answers, where moms can get information from physicians and a network of other moms. Unlike What to Expect, says The Bump’s digital head Julia Wang, “we’re not tied to a legacy book series or a specific personality behind [them]. … There’s very little duplication between The Bump’s audience and What to Expect,” she adds. “Close to 70 percent of our audience is millennial, and we rank higher among millennial women than any other brand.”

Yet despite these competitors—and a good many others—Rose doesn’t seem terribly worried. Apart from its variety of large peer-to-peer communities, customized content and globally recognized brand name, “we focus on the substantive issue that expecting moms and parents care about,” he insists. “While other parenting and pregnancy brands focus on the mommy wars and celebrity gossip, our focus is on her and on giving her the information she needs exactly when she needs it.”

Indeed, for a 33-year-old brand, What to Expect demonstrates a swagger one might more commonly associate with an upstart. One of Murkoff’s recent creations is #BumpDay (“a day to celebrate beautiful bumps,” she explains). Designed to raise awareness of how basic care can prevent infant and maternal mortality, Bump Day—slated for Sept. 13, 2017—encourages everyone to post a photo of their or a loved one’s bump (past or present) on social media, drop in the hashtag and explain what prenatal care and a safe delivery means to them.

To Murkoff’s eyes, the initiative is a “fun, celebratory, sharable” way to “reach moms around the world.”

And seeing as we’re pretty much talking about selfies here, it’s a fair bet many of those moms will be millennials, too.