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Word of Mouth and Social Media Ethics 101

Hi, I’m Andy Sernovitz, and I’ve been fighting for ethics in marketing since the early 90’s.

I wrote the original WOMMA Ethics Code and’s Disclosure Best Practices Toolkit. I’ve also worked with the FTC and numerous ethics experts over the years. I’m pretty sure that I’ve made more speeches on word of mouth ethics and social media ethics than anyone out there, and my book talks about these issues more than most marketing books.

I’m passionate about making marketing more honest, ethical, and trustworthy for everyone. I believe all marketers should be held to this higher standard, not only because it’s right, but because honest marketing works better.

It’s hard to start a great relationship with your customers by lying to them.

Word of mouth and social media marketing can only succeed when people trust each other to talk honestly about what they like and don’t like.

You can’t fake it. It just doesn’t work without the trust. You might be able to fool a few people for a little while. But in the end, people will figure out that you faked it. Then you get embarrassed, you make enemies, you lose sales, and you destroy your reputation.

The worst thing you can do? Pay for word of mouth.

I’m very opposed to any form of paid word of mouth, including paying bloggers, pay-per-post, incentivized reviews, or anything that involves cash-for-coverage.

It walks you into the worst kind of trouble. It’s high-risk. And it’s terrible marketing.

Once you pay, it’s advertising, not social media. And paying for ads that look like editorial is plain, old-fashioned, illegal false advertising.

More important, no one will ever trust you again: Once people find out you paid for word of mouth, they’ll never believe the real stuff. Would you trust any recommendations from a company that only buys them some of the time?

Bottom line: Only unethical or incompetent marketers pay for social media or reviews. Honest and talented marketers earn great recommendations by earning the respect of their fans. Which are you?

The good news? Being honest and ethical is easy.

Fake reviews, paying people to say nice things about you, and lying about your identity is always wrong.

But this isn’t complicated stuff. It’s common sense, and an easy way to remember it is with The Honesty ROI:

  • Honesty of Relationship: Say who you’re representing.
  • Honesty of Opinion: Say what you really believe.
  • Honesty of Identity: Never lie about who you are.

Be sure to check each marketing initiative you start against these simple rules. It’s also important to share these rules with the fans, employees, and agencies who are spreading the word for you.

Learn more about word of mouth marketing ethics:

Disclosure: The most important social media ethics issue.

The difference between lying to people and honest outreach comes down to disclosure.

For 300 years, from the very first newspapers, all media have mixed editorial with advertising. That’s OK. But the difference between sleazery and honesty is clearly identifying which is which. It’s the basis of honest marketing in all media, and it doesn’t change for social media.

When you’re transparent about your interests and relationships, people don’t have a problem with the marketing you do. But all the social media scandals — all the ways you can get into trouble — are all disclosure issues related to deceiving consumers about who’s backing a marketing message.

The good news: It’s easy to do disclosure the right way, and it won’t interfere with your marketing effectiveness. In fact, you’ll get better results because people will trust you more.

It all comes down to the sentence: “And now, a few words from our sponsor…”

The 2009 FTC updates:

In 2009, the FTC issued their Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising — new regulation that covered social media and word of mouth marketing. Here is a quick summary of their key requirements:

  1. Require disclosure and truthfulness in social media.
  2. Monitor the conversation and correct misstatements.
  3. Create social media policies and training programs.

Here’s what you need to know:

The 2013 FTC updates:

In 2013, the FTC released an update to their “.com Disclosures” guide — the biggest update on social media disclosure laws since the 2009 update to their Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, and the first update to the .com Disclosures since 2000.

The biggest addition: Making it painfully clear that disclosure must always be clear and conspicuous, no matter what platform you’re advertising on.

Most notably, they offer a tweet-by-tweet example of how to properly disclose a sponsored tweet — complete with screenshots and detailed explanations of what is and isn’t acceptable.

Here’s what you need to know:

Watch me explain FTC rules and what they mean to you:

Here’s a video of me explaining how to build a social media ethics program and why it’s important to your company, your brand, and your career:

Social Media Ethics Briefing: Staying Out of Trouble — presented by Andy Sernovitz from on Vimeo.

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