3 Steps to Ethical Social Media Marketing

social media viewpointsMarketers know the most effective advertising is word of mouth marketing. The smartest marketers know word of mouth works best when it’s credible.

Unfortunately, trust is on the decline.   The percentage of people who view their friends as credible sources of information about a brand has fallen from 45% in 2008 to 25% in 2010, according to Edelman’s 2010 Trust Barometer study.

That’s an alarming statistic for marketers wanting to tap into the power of word of mouth through social media marketing.  This article will provide three simple steps you can take to ethically market with social media.

What’s The Problem

Some marketers have cited this decline in credibility as a result of “friends” becoming defined more loosely because of social media. Sure, we’re Facebook friends with someone and we’re Twitter followers of someone, but are we really friends with them? Do we trust the word of mouth recommendations of people we’re Facebook friends with and Twitter followers of?

It’s become a common tactic for marketers to send influential social media types free products, hoping they endorse the brand/product on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and anywhere else online.

Perhaps consumers have become skeptical from seeing one too many upbeat tweets and blog posts from someone they’ve friended sharing their love for a brand or product.

The Solution

Consumer skepticism of endorsements in social media can be reversed when marketers diligently and deliberately follow these three actions:

  1. It’s vital for marketers to ask the online influentials they’ve pitched to disclose when they’ve received product samples or any other incentive.
  2. It’s also vital for marketers to disclose their relationship with people they’ve targeted to spark word of mouth online.
  3. Honesty of the relationship between a business and a person is non-negotiable. It’s best to disclose relationships early and often in all social media venues.

On blogs, disclosure is easy. Bloggers simply need to clearly mention somewhere in a post that they were approached to write about a company’s product or service. Such a line could read, “I received [product name] from [company name] and here’s my opinion…”

On Twitter and Facebook, disclosure isn’t as easy due to space limitations. Using special hashtags is one way to disclose relationships. For example, #samp is being used by influential twitterers to denote when they’ve received a free sample from a company. Another disclosure tool gaining popularity is one of the six Twitter-friendly disclosure statements from cmp.ly. (For detailed guidance on disclosure in social media, read the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Guide to Social Media Disclosure.)

#1: Demand Disclosure

"Full disclosure assures consumers that testimonials are truthful and trustworthy." Paul Rand

Honesty of opinion is vital. As marketers, we can only provide online influentials with information and encourage them to tell others. What they tell others is up to the individual and not the marketer.

The instant marketers begin trying to manipulate what people say online, we lose. We lose by allowing word of mouth to lose its place as the most credible form of marketing.

#2: Encourage Honesty

"...the reason word of mouth is so effective is that it is understood to be authentic." Robert Weissman

It’s the responsibility of marketers to ensure disclosure happens. As marketers, we must educate and inform the online influentials we work about the importance of disclosing relationships.

Furthermore, we must monitor compliance and if disclosure doesn’t occur, marketers must take appropriate action. Such action may range from re-educating online influentials about disclosure needs to no longer working with influentials who show a pattern of not disclosing relationships.

#3: Monitor Compliance

"Checking to see if one of our influencers posted proper disclosure is easy. We know who we reached out." John Bell

What are your thoughts? How can word of mouth remain credible in social media marketing?

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About the Author, John Moore

John Moore is a marketing strategist who works with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. John has spent ten years designing and implementing marketing programs for both Starbucks Coffee and Whole Foods Market. Other posts by »




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  • http://dinodogan.com/ Dino Dogan

    Great article. Trust is one of my favorite topics and I spent a lot of time thinking about this garbage :-)

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of external behavior. I would like to offer a few thoughts on the core issues related to marketers and trust.

    The problem is that marketer’s job is to manufacture trust. Right there we face some serious obstacles.

    As soon as something (a techniques, platform, whatever) starts to work for somebody, marketers try to systemize it. codify it, sterilize it, etc.

    Example: Sockington, the most famous cat on Twitter (1.5 mil followers) was actually lost for few days. During those few days the guy running the account (Lets call him John, I forgot his name) tweeted that Sock is lost and stopped tweeting for few days until Sock returned. Sock was actually trending during those few days.

    Marketing folks approached John afterward congratulating on a brilliant marketing move and sought advice on how to apply it to their wares.

    Did I mention the cat was lost for real lol

    I have two posts on my little blog that are super relevant to this topic I hope readers of SME will check out

    http://dogandogs.com/social-media-is-not-just-connections-its-also
    http://dogandogs.com/the-psychology-of-business-in-social-media-a

    Here is another example that happened to me just yesterday.

    Apparently famous (tho I’ve never heard of him) Internet marketer was offering his new book for free. (this is a real book that you will be able to purchase at Barnes and Noble, not an e-book).

    Nothing weird about offering your fans an opportunity to get your works before it hits the shelves. Robert Kiosaki did it with his latest book, and he is certainly NOT the only one. BTW, Conspiracy of the Rich; great book. A must read.

    Except, this famous marketer decided to video tape himself flipping the pages of the book. Needless to say, you couldnt make anything out this way and he was just going after eyeballs.

    I (and many others) felt jipped and of course, I will NOT be buying the book (nor reading it for its likely to recommend these kinds of childish strategies).

    The problem is that this Internet Marketer was recommended by a very trusted name in Social Media we all know. The newly minted author never had any points to lose so he’s in the negative, but the SM expert did have a lot of credit in my view and now has lost a few points.

    Sorry for being vague, I’m just trying to give structure and leave out the names.

    In any case, great article…keep it up :-)

  • http://christophercatania.com Chris Catania

    All great points!

    And I would also say that WOM can remain credible when the marketer takes the time to truly understand the audience of the influencer. Because I can tell when a marketer who wants me to just push their message on my audience versus the marketer who wants to engage in a honest and open dialogue with my audience. And obviously I’m more willing to work with the latter because I know that they have taken the time understand who my audience is and they have presented their marketing opportunity in a way that makes sense to me and my readers. In that situation disclosure flows freely from both parties and ultimately to the readers.

    And it’s still amazing to me that many marketers unfortunately fall into the first group. But it really doesn’t have to be that way. All it takes is a little extra time to get to know the blogger/influencer and that extra time can pay off greatly in the long run for everyone.

    Good article. A lot what you suggest falls in line with what I would recommend to my fellow bloggers and clients that I advise.

    Thanks for sharing ;)

  • http://twitter.com/ruthseeley ruthseeley

    I don’t think you can include client disclosure in every tweet, and I wouldn’t want to try. It’s hard enough to say something meaningful in 140 characters as it is. And of course, I’m not a marketer, I’m a PR person. However – I thought about this issue and decided to create a special section on my web site’s blog roll for clients – past, present, and potentially future. I have also – when recommending someone on LinkedIn, Goodreads, Shelfari, or Library Thing (since I work with authors), included a disclosure line there. As for ghost tweeting – I have made it very clear to my clients that they have to do the work of social media themselves, since authenticity is what it’s all about. I offer them training if they need it – I make sure it’s thorough – I ‘supervise’ and advise them on their efforts – I suggest people for them to follow. But when they tweet it’s the actual person who’s doing so. I’m not opposed to using a character of some sort like Socks the cat, or a character from a novel – but I’d like to see disclosure in the Twitter bio profile about who’s really doing the tweeting.

  • john moore

    @Dino … nice adds. Here’s an add to your add … “What Gets Measured Gets Manufactured” … at the heart that’s the issue with marketing and credibility as it relates to offline (person-to-person) and online (social media) word of mouth. Marketer so value word of mouth that they will concoct incredibly uncredible ways to do it. My fear is that word of mouth, especial online word of mouth, will get taken over by the “uncredibles” that the strategy gets ruined just like spammers ruined the strategy of email marketing.

  • john moore

    @Chris … the classic direct mail strategy of need the “right message” to the “right person” at the “right time” totally applies to working with influencers to spark conversation and evangelism. Thanks for sharing .

  • john moore

    @ruthseeley … yes, having a “Disclosure Statement” on your website/blog is very helpful in communicating credibility. I’m seeing more and more people do just that and linking to their “Disclosure Statement” from their Twitter homepage.

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/ Michael A. Stelzner

    Hey John,

    You can reply to a specific person’s post here. The way you did it they will likely not see your reply.

  • john moore

    Dino … nice adds. Here’s an add to your add … “What Gets Measured Gets Manufactured” … at the heart that’s the issue with marketing and credibility as it relates to offline (person-to-person) and online (social media) word of mouth. Marketer so value word of mouth that they will concoct incredibly uncredible ways to do it. My fear is that word of mouth, especial online word of mouth, will get taken over by the “uncredibles” that the strategy gets ruined just like spammers ruined the strategy of email marketing.

  • john moore

    Chris … the classic direct mail strategy of need the “right message” to the “right person” at the “right time” totally applies to working with influencers to spark conversation and evangelism. Thanks for sharing .

  • john moore

    ruthseeley … yes, having a “Disclosure Statement” on your website/blog is very helpful in communicating credibility. I’m seeing more and more people do just that and linking to their “Disclosure Statement” from their Twitter homepage.

  • john moore

    Ok. Got it. Did it. Feel free to delete my replies where I failed to respond directly.

  • PRIntern

    I really enjoyed this article. As a PR intern at a marketing firm, I’ve been asked to review a client’s service on Yelp.com. How should I handle this situation?

  • john moore

    For your review to be credible, you need to disclose your working relationship with the company you are reviewing on Yelp. Simply writing something like, “I’m an intern at ___company_name___ and my experience has been…” would alert Yelp readers to your connection to the company you are reviewing.

    However, the better approach is to have actual customers do the reviewing. Perhaps as an intern you can put together a marketing program to spur actual customers to post reviews on Yelp. That would be the more ideal and more credible way to use Yelp.

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