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June 03, 2009

WOMMA Opens a Can of Worms


Long-time readers know I'm a big supporter of Word of Mouth Marketing. More recently, I've put my passion for WOM to good use helping the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) strengthen its marketing muscles.

Right now WOMMA is wrestling with questions of ethics. They've long stood against SHILLING. That is, a brand/agency paying cash to people to talk about, blog about, tweet about a product without disclosing they are being paid to do such.

However, the practice of Sponsored Conversations is gaining more acceptance from brands and agencies. (A "sponsored conversation" happens when a person is compensated with cash, in-kind gifts, and special access privileges in exchange for talking, blogging, tweeting about the product/service a business provided them.)

Some, like Joseph Jaffe, say if a person is transparent and discloses they are being compensated then a "Sponsored Conversation" is ethical and acceptable marketing behavior.

Others, like Andy Sernovitz, abhor the practice of compensating bloggers to post reviews, especially if the reviews are inauthentic.

In 2005, WOMMA established an ETHICS CODE for Word-of-Mouth Marketing. Since then, it has become a standard guide for companies of all sizes to use to help them design and deliver more ethical (and effective) WOM programs.

In the last formal review, WOMMA included this language in its ethics code: “We stand against marketing practices whereby the consumer is paid cash by the manufacturer, supplier or one of their representatives to make recommendations, reviews or endorsements.”

Recently, three WOMMA members have requested this language in the ethics code be revisited ... no doubt to support the practice of sponsored conversations.

Should WOMMA alter its ethics code to support marketing activity where a consumer is paid cash to make recommendations, reviews or endorsements?

WOMMA wants to hear your opinion because your opinion will help WOMMA make a stronger ethics code that is reflective of how honest marketers should behave. Consider adding your voice to this issue on the WOMMA Living Ethics blog.


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The community will decide what is ethical and acceptable. So long as marketers include fair disclosures, they should be welcome to speak on behalf of whomever they choose, so long as it is done legally.

Bloggers have earned the trust and attention of their audience. No smart social personality will share messages that are off-putting or off-brand for fear of risking their conversational integrity in the eyes of their readers - which will result in a loss of social currency - attention.

Full disclosure before and after a post are all that is needed. They have earned their audience, and they have a right to feature sponsored conversations much as broadcasters have the right to include sponsored advertisers.

There is an invisible hand guiding the conversation. So long as we stay honest, the community will police itself.

I am in agreement with Jon. The social contract is between the blogger and his/her readers. It is up to each individual blogger to apply the standards of his/her own social contract.

Changing ethics standards to meet lowering or lowest common denominators (because modernity calls for it) seems to undermine the very point/value of having a standard that calls one to excellence and purity.

Brands are either authentic or they are shillers. Work on your product harder if you think the only way to attract blogger attention is with a bribe.

I am at a loss to see what is unethical about shilling, provided there is full and transparent discloser.

Perhaps an appropriate parallel is a sales rep coming by to show how their product will solve your problems. Is what they say untrue merely because they have a vested interest in your purchase?

Shilling? Hahahaahahahahaa! The hole freaking social media phenomenon is one big shill-fest! Whether it's done for a friend, a company or personal self-interest, if a kind word or referral is passed along it's done to benefit someone. Getting paid is the name of the game and it's no shame. The only thing that's lame is that people try to rationalize their pimp act.

This one is close to home, as a previous brand ambassador.

Being on the forefront of this movement, I quickly learned a few things:
1. transparancy of the highest is critical to remain true.
2. if you don't believe in something, never, EVER say you do. I never said I liked a product that I didn't, in fact, I often openly talked about the flaws.
3. stay true to yourself and not to the company... authenticity and integrity are all you have.

In a nutshell, this is what I know... as a paid ambassador, I was told that I was a creative person first/employee second. We were told to never lie, never stretch the truth, and alway be open and candid. I never felt pressure to be more than an honest creative person who also had this great job blogging and sharing offline about a company I loved. (Heck, I'd have done it for free - well, up to a point... travel gets expensive!)

For WOMMA it comes down to one thing and one thing only - can they trust that every brand, every ad agency, every PR firm will abide by this type of behavior. If so - great! If not, well, then... you do what you have to do. Even if that means expanding that one sentence to an entire paragraph.

That's all - off the soap box and back to work now...

@Jon @Dave ... this social contract extends beyond blogger & reader to include brand & agency as well as brand & consumer and agency & consumer. Lots of constituents and lots of combinations that all need to be upfront and honest for shilling not to occur.

@JoshuaCreative ... well put.

@CropGril ... you speak from experience of a how a brand (Fiskars) can ethically and effectively compensate bloggers for their authentic voice in sharing recommendations and reviews. Unfortunately, not all brands (or agencies) have the ethos Fikars has. Your analysis of TRUST being the key is spot-on.

If everyone had the same code of ethics as Stephenie we would be fine, except not everyone does. I feel it's better to err on the side of safety and caution than to let in language that could lead to dishonesty. You can always go back and change it later if need be.

As long as the review is unbiased it's okay with me.

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