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Can word of mouth marketing get me in trouble?

Intro: The U.K. is introducing a new bill that states that some stealth marketing practices are illegal. Honest word of marketers already oppose those particular practices, but it's time for a review. (See update below.)

1. Word of mouth marketing is safe and legal.

Honest word of mouth marketing is when you inspire your fans to talk about you. It is about earning their respect and recommendation. It always requires full disclosure and total openness, as defined by the WOMMA Ethics Code.

It is always safe and legal … and more honest that most forms of traditional marketing.  Why?  Because if you can't earn a recommendation with a great product or service, the word of mouth stops.  Traditional advertising runs as long as you pay for it, even if the message is less than true.  Real word of mouth depends on honest customer love.

2. WOM marketing without disclosure is illegal.

Any form of deceptive word of mouth campaigns are illegal.  This include any program where you are:

  1. Asking buzzers to recommend your product without disclosing that they are part of a campaign or received and incentive. 
  2. Falsely representing your employees/agents as consumers. 
  3. Asking buzzers to claim they like your product when they don't, or never tried it.

The FTC in the US has made this very clear.  The UK's new directive agrees.

3.  What should we watch out for?

Any campaign or agency that proposes:

  • PayPerPost or any similar program that induces people to post false recommendations without requiring that each post is properly disclosed. 
  • Sending employees or agencies to post anonymous comments (see MGM). 
  • Intentionally telling fans to hide their involvement with a campaign (see Target/Drill Team). 
  • Agent programs that send out armies of non-customer buzzers but can't enforce disclosure. 
  • Posting fake reviews.

4.  The WOMMA Ethics Code will keep you safe.

WOMMA's Ethics Code is simple and effective.  Read the entire document here.  The key idea is the Honesty ROI:

  • Honesty of Relationship: You say who you're speaking for 
  • Honesty of Opinion: You say what you believe 
  • Honesty of Identity: You never obscure your identity

If you have any questions at all about the the ethics of your campaign (or one being run or pitched by an agency), use these 20 questions to identify any trouble spots.

5.  Will I get caught?

Every time.  And when you do, your brand will be forever damaged.  The backlash against a company that lies is swift and severe in the age of empowered and connected consumers.

Why would you risk a priceless brand by sending out untrained buzzers to speak for you?  Why would you risk your valued name by letting a 20-something post false comments for you?  Why would you do this when you have vast hordes of happy customers who would gladly recommend you — if you only asked.

6.  What's new

Nothing at all.  It has always been illegal for marketers to lie to consumers.  It has always been illegal to use false testimonials.  Somehow, companies and agencies have used social media as an excuse for new forms of deception.  That's disgusting when we have an opportunity to use these tools to promote truth, transparency, and accountability. 

The truth is that word of mouth is based on truth, that liars will always be exposed, and honest companies will be richly rewarded by adoring fans.

Disclosure:  I am a private citizen, speaking for myself.  I do not represent WOMMA nor do I work there any more.  I am not a lawyer.

P.S. If you want to know how to earn word of mouth the right way, read my book or bring in my team for training. 

P.P.S  If you are angry at this post, I bet you have some sleaze to hide.

UPDATE:  The UK Office of Fair Trading reorganized their site.  The relevant documents are here (page 27).

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