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Protecting independent WOM

by Molly Flatt on 20 July 2009

Two of our biggest bugbears are sponsored conversation and lack of transparency in online word of mouth. So it’s good to see social media ethics hitting the news as New York’s Attorney General Andrew Cuomo orders plastic surgery franchise Lifestyle Lift to pay $300,000 penalties and costs for astroturfing – publishing fake positive consumer reviews across the web – as well as intervening in and trying to ban other negative WOM. Hair(line) raising indeed.

This comes on the back of news that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has proposed new guidelines on social media disclosure:

“brands and bloggers both may be held liable should either the FTC or scorned consumers deem that their actions or claims misguided them, or misrepresented the actual performance or efficacy of the product or service in question… the ability for a consumer to exercise better judgment and common sense is indefensible when a glaring absence of disclosure is pervasive”

Brian Solis’s TechCrunch post gives an excellent overview of the state of play so far and chimes with our own belief in the pointlessness and damage of sponsored conversation – although some brands are still trying to leverage paid WOM into every platform possible, such as TNT’s sponsored tweets. It’s also worth keeping an eye on Jeremiah Owyang’s running list of sponsored conversations in social media, a roundup of brands whose ethical policy evidently goes something along the lines of ‘Independence? Emotional engagement? Mutual respect? Meh.’

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  • http://eskimon.wordpress.com eskimon

    Unfortunately, as an industry, we seem to perpetuate the myth that ‘WOM’ and ‘consumer opinions’ are forms of advertising.

    Until we acknowledge that their very value to ‘consumers’ lies in their lack of bias or brand agenda, we’ll continue to see unscrupulous marketers like those at Lifestyle Lift and Belkin trying to hijack them.

    Perhaps more importantly, as long as the big research agencies include these forms of communication in their ad tracking panels, marketers will continue to assume that they’re channels like all the others – see here for more on that: http://eskimon.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/propagandata/

  • Molly Flatt

    Well put. Social media and word of mouth are not advertising channels. But a lot of good things come from brands listening to their consumers and using that as the basis from which they prioritise and change. Word of mouth has to be positioned to brands with a full sense of the context and boundaries of that conversation – it does not belong to them, it is not their tool, and it’s independence is where it’s value lies. It’s why we are so adamant that word of mouth is not seen as digital marketing, or viral, or even online PR, but as a separate and nuanced discipline which asks brand to look at their consumers in an entirely different way – where their independence is their currency.