Working with advocates and social media disclosure
The increase in the number of social marketing programmes being launched and the trend of partnering with advocates1 has created challenges for our industry. Despite marketers' efforts to be transparent, they often experience difficulties disclosing relationships. This is due to a lack of regulation, the changing landscape of guidance and an overall lack of established best practices to limit liability and demonstrate best efforts with regard to transparency. Channels such as Twitter can also pose challenges with character limits.
In order to help marketers adhere to ethical marketing practices in a constantly evolving industry, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has recently released a revised Social Media Marketing Disclosure Guide to help ensure communications remain ethical and credible. This is not a legal document; it's a guideline that outlines a set of standards that help marketers shape policies and procedures to adhere to the rules of international regulators (ASA & OFT in the United Kingdom and FTC in the United States, for example), according to the country where they operate. It does not include platform and brand guidelines.
- It's the brands' responsibility to provide disclosure policies that comply with the law, including educating its agencies, vendors and advocates on those policies as well as monitoring its advocates' for compliance.
- The three levels where disclosure must be made include: 1) In cases where advocates are paid to provide a service to, directly or indirectly, endorse a brand 2) Where advocates are given incentives; benefits; free products or services, 3) Where advocates attend sponsored events as an inducement to deliver a marketing message. It's important to note that compensation might be non-monetary in nature and may include rewards, points, contest entries or other non-traditional exchanges.
- Providing the context of the disclosure such as, e.g. promo, review, affiliate, will help to show transparency.
- Disclosures must be made for but not limited to: 1) Personal and editorial blogs; 2) Product review blogs; 3) comments in online discussions / reviews; 4. Microblogs (e.g. Twitter); 5. Status updates on social networks.
- Ramifications: Public opinion generally outpaces censure by regulators. The points below address US and UK sanctions if regulations are not followed: the marketer may be told to amend or withdraw a message in breach of advertising codes, fines, 20 year annual compliance audits, withdrawing trading privileges, paid-for search advertisements may be removed, in extreme cases a law suit.
- Responsibility: Do not assume the brand is responsible, this will be ultimately dictated by the terms of the agency / brand contact. In any case, agencies need to advise its clients of the disclosure policies and ensure the ramifications are clear. A brand's legal team will need to play a role in building and rolling out relevant internal policy (for employees) as well as guidelines for external activity.
- Governance at all levels: Three levels of governance should be in place: 1) Internal social media policy; 2) External social media guidelines including roles and responsibilities; 3) A tracking and response management plan to transparently show best efforts have been made to follow procedure and manage situations of misuse.
- Selecting advocates: As ability to follow guidelines also relies on the advocate, brands should carefully consider which people they choose to represent them as advocates.
- Geo relevance: The UK and US are regulated by disclosure policy with many other market laws falling within these parameters. Agencies, when advising clients will also need to be aware of the legal media landscape in other relevant worldwide markets should a programme become international, when future proofing or considering the international nature of the web.