The Word of Mouth Marketing Association is the leading organization for word of mouth marketing ethics.
We founded the group first and foremost as an ethics organization — to raise this worthy practice to a higher level. We were raising the bar, with a plain-English call to action. We committed to inspire others to do the right thing.
Over the years, with good intentions, the current ethics code has been watered down and lawyered up. I also wish we had taken an explicit position opposing all forms of pay-for-post word of mouth and social media.
I thought it might be informative and inspiring to share the original ethics code that the founding members published and believed in back in 2005:
1. Happy, interested people will say good things about you.
It’s doesn’t take much more than that. Understand this concept, devote yourself to it, and you will be a successful word of mouth marketer.
2. Honest, genuine opinion is our medium.
We don’t tell people what to say or how to say it. We fundamentally believe that people should be free to form their own opinions and share them in their own words. While supporting the natural conversation, we take great care to ensure that we do not distort it.
3. We start, support, and simplify the sharing.
Word of mouth marketers use creative techniques to encourage communications. We make it easier for people to talk to each other, we create interesting things to talk about, we create communities to share ideas, and we work to find the right people who should know about what we do. Traditional advertising pushes ideas on consumers. We help naturally occurring good ideas move around.
4. Word of mouth cannot be faked.
Deception, infiltration, dishonesty, shilling, and other attempts to manipulate consumers or the conversation are bad. Honest marketers do not do this, will not do this, and will get caught if they try. Sleazy behavior will be exposed by the public and backfire horribly on anyone who attempts it.
5. Word of mouth marketing empowers the consumer.
Consumers have control, and they dictate the terms of a new, healthier relationship between marketers and the people who use their products. Consumers demand satisfaction, respect, and great products and services. When companies deliver, people will tell their friends. Word of mouth marketers work to accelerate this process, replacing aggressive advertising with customer-centric service, support, and open communications.
WOMMA Code of Conduct
WOMMA members believe this Code is a foundation for an ethical, prosperous industry. To survive and succeed, word of mouth marketing must earn the trust of consumers by protecting their right to open, honest communication.
The WOMMA Code establishes guidelines when planning and executing word of mouth marketing campaigns. Its purpose is to help define best practices, unacceptable practices, and baseline rules of the road. It is a tool for ethical marketers to understand where the lines are drawn and how to do the right thing. Word of mouth that occurs naturally through the process of serving and satisfying customers isn’t addressed here, because it is fundamentally genuine.
This is a work in progress. Word of mouth marketing is a new profession, and we are still in the formative stages of this new relationship with consumers. The environment is changing rapidly, the rules are unclear, and ethical practices are still being defined. We will continue to improve the WOMMA Code as the practice of word of mouth marketing evolves.
This is a code that WOMMA members choose to live by. We hope all ethical marketers will do the same.
The WOMMA Code:
- Consumer protection and respect are paramount
- The Honesty ROI: Honesty of Relationship, Opinion, and Identity
- We respect the rules of the venue
- We manage relationships with minors responsibly
- We promote honest downstream communications
- We protect privacy and permission
1. Consumer protection and respect are paramount
We respect and promote practices that abide by an understanding that the consumer — not the marketer — is fundamentally in charge, in control, and dictates the terms of the consumer-marketer relationship. We go above and beyond to ensure that consumers are protected at all times.
2. The Honesty ROI: Honesty of Relationship, Opinion, and Identity
Honesty of Relationship
- We practice openness about the relationship between consumers, advocates, and marketers. We encourage word of mouth advocates to disclose their relationship with marketers in their communications with other consumers. We don’t tell them specifically what to say, but we do instruct them to be open and honest about any relationship with a marketer and about any products or incentives that they may have received.
- We stand against shill and undercover marketing, whereby people are paid to make recommendations without disclosing their relationship with the marketer.
- We comply with FTC regulations that state: “When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product which might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience) such connection must be fully disclosed.”
Honesty of Opinion
- We never tell consumers what to say. People form their own honest opinions, and they decide what to tell others. We provide information, we empower them to share, and we facilitate the process — but the fundamental communication must be based on the consumers’ personal beliefs.
- We comply with FTC regulations regarding testimonials and endorsements, specifically: “Endorsements must always reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the endorser. Furthermore, they may not contain any representations which would be deceptive, or could not be substantiated if made directly by the advertiser.”
Honesty of Identity
- Clear disclosure of identity is vital to establishing trust and credibility. We do not blur identification in a manner that might confuse or mislead consumers as to the true identity of the individual with whom they are communicating, or instruct or imply that others should do so.
- Campaign organizers should monitor and enforce disclosure of identity. Manner of disclosure can be flexible, based on the context of the communication. Explicit disclosure is not required for an obviously fictional character, but would be required for an artificial identity or corporate representative that could be mistaken for an average consumer.
- We comply with FTC regulations regarding identity in endorsements that state: “Advertisements presenting endorsements by what are represented, directly or by implication, to be ‘actual consumers’ should utilize actual consumers, in both the audio and video or clearly and conspicuously disclose that the persons in such advertisements are not actual consumers of the advertised product.”
- Campaign organizers will disclose their involvement in a campaign when asked by consumers or the media. We will provide contact information upon request.
3. We respect the rules of the venue
We respect the rights of any online or offline communications venue (such as a web site, blog, discussion forum, traditional media, live setting, etc.) to create and enforce its rules as it sees fit. We never create campaigns or encourage behavior that would violate or disrespect those rules.
4. We manage relationships with minors responsibly
- We believe that working with minors in word of mouth marketing programs carries important ethical obligations, responsibility, and sensitivity.
- We stand against the inclusion of children under the age of 13 in any word of mouth marketing program.
- We comply with all applicable laws dealing with minors and marketing, including COPPA and regulations regarding age restrictions for particular products.
- We ensure that all of our campaigns comply with existing media-specific rules regarding children, such as day-part restrictions.
5. We promote honest downstream communications
Recognizing that we cannot control what real people say or how a message will be presented after multiple generations of conversation, we promote the Honesty ROI in downstream communications. In the context of each program, we instruct advocates about ethical communications and we never instruct or imply that they should engage in any behavior that violates the terms of this code.
6. We protect privacy and permission
We respect the privacy of consumers at all times. All word of mouth marketing programs should be structured using the highest privacy, opt-in, and permission standards, and we comply with all relevant regulations. Any personally identifiable information gathered from consumers through their participation in word of mouth marketing programs should be used only in the confines of that particular program, unless the consumer voluntarily gives us permission to use it for other purposes.