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Word of Mouth Marketing: Can It Get You In Trouble?

You know I love word of mouth marketing. I find it to be one of the purest, simplest and most rewarding ways of getting my business known.

But did you know that word of mouth marketing can be illegal?

According to Andy Sernovitz there’s a new bill (pdf) being introduced in the U.K. which will make some marketing practices illegal. The bill is meant to stop false and misleading marketing practices. Of course, word of mouth marketing could easily fit into that category if marketers were deceptive about their campaigns.

So what makes word of mouth marketing illegal?

In Andy’s post he lists a few examples where the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has made this clear. And from what I read in the U.K.’s new bill (pdf), it seems to agree.

  • Asking buzzers to recommend your product with disclosing that they are part of a campaign or are receiving an incentive.
  • Falsely representing your employees as consumers.
  • Asking buzzers to claim they like your product when they don’t or have never tried it.

Now I, personally, don’t know anyone who’s doing these things purposely to promote their business through word of mouth. Yet to me it seems like there might be a gray area here. Gray in the sense of what we, as business owners feel is deceptive versus what consumers would feel is deceptive.

Please hear me clearly, I’m not talking about lying to yourself so you can scam the public. I’m talking about places where we might not realize we’re bending the truth in order to gain an advantage. When we talk about blogging, one of the things that comes to mind where this could happen is with being paid for posts.

Think about it, if someone wants to pay you either to write a post on a topic or to review a product, couldn’t that skew your judgement a bit? I’d like to think it wouldn’t skew mine. Yet it’s because I know it’s possible that I post very few ads on my blog. And you’ve never seen a product review that I’ve been paid for. It’s likely you won’t – at least not on this site (though I have a secondary blog in development where you may see my wife and I do product reviews, etc).

Do I think that we shouldn’t be paid for our writing? Of course not. I just think it’s important to keep the blogging crede in the forefront of our minds whenever we are paid for writing posts or reviews – be authentic, be transparent.

In Andy’s post he lists a few points from the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Ethics Codes that can help us stay honest without ourselves and our consumers:

  • 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

And if you have any questions about the ethics of a campaign you’re either wanting to begin or are being pitched, use the WOMMA’s 20 questions to identify any potential trouble spots.

So what are your thoughts? When do you feel word of mouth marketing crosses into the gray areas of deception?

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a deceptive campaign? What was that like?

(note: image from macmiester on Flickr)

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Comments

  1. I enjoyed looking at the link you included. Good post! Thanks for sharing!

  2. In today’s market conditions, I doubt that one can succeed with a false WOM publicity. The only cases where it could work, and has in fact worked is in pyramid schemes. If you have a business of any reasonable size, false publicity simply is too difficult.

  3. I think it would be very difficult to deceive the online public these days. To try to trick people with smoke and mirrors, to me, is an act of futility. Just about everything now on the internet can be examined under a powerful microscope and the public no longer plays the fool easily.

    The grey area’s of “word of mouth” in my mind could fall into the social networks like Facebook, MySpace and even Twitter. Having a profile on those sites, like Target has,could lead to promotion and reviews that don’t necessarily follow the code of ethics.

    Thanks for the post – I’ve just been learning about WOMMA and it certainly looks like I need to dive into that some more.

  4. Chadwyck says:

    Well, outside of a few rare exceptions, trying to deliberately deceive customers will only hurt you in the end. Bloggers bite back with a vengeance when they’ve been duped.

    Also, there’s the Monica Lewinsky/Matt Drudge effect. Someone will find out and they will tell their friends.

    Even if it’s not deliberate, it can be a PR nightmare if you’re seen as evil or bumbling.

  5. Reminds me of what happened eight or so years ago when a one of the major movie studios created a false critic to have good reviews in commercials and newspaper ads. They ended up getting caught and got into big trouble since they flat-out lied.

  6. Home Recording,
    Truthfully, I really don’t know what to think. I guess Andy would know. If it’s worth writing laws about, it must be happening, don’t you think?

    I wouldn’t think spam is successful, or telemarketing – but it must be.

    Jenna,
    Sure, what did you enjoy about it?

    David,
    It seems social media has made deception more difficult. If you get caught, you get flamed.

    WOMMA is great. The founders are good people, with good hearts. And I’m, obviously, a huge fan of Andy Sernovitz. Do you have his book?

    Chadwyck,
    They do – and it’s one of the many reasons I love social media so much. We all tend to protect each other and that’s really amazing.

    Thoughts?

    JBourne,
    I remember that, vaguely. What was the movie?

  7. I never thought how word of mouth publicity (or even viral marketing) could be illegal. But i can see that it could really be so and that there is a thin line dividing the right from the wrong.

  8. Very interesting indeed.

  9. As a computer consultant and instructor I went for almost 20 years and never advertised other than by the word of mouth my clients spread around. I always had more work than I could handle, so I love word of mouth.

  10. Nicole,
    But shouldn’t deception be illegal?

    Widgets,
    It is. What do you think is the most interesting part of it?

    James,
    I’ve done basically the same marketing my business. Very little effort, time or money spent on marketing. Almost all my business through word of mouth.

    If you were giving one piece of advice on getting good WOM, what would it be?

  11. How do these issues affect a sites such as Yelp http://www.yelp.com or BView http://www.bview.co.uk which are based on reviews from customers? As far as I can see Bview is positioning itself as a customer reputation management tool for businesses.

  12. Watch anime Online says:

    I dont think that it is a good idea, mainly because woerd of mouth marketing is the main way of marketing of today, ive seen many people market using the word of mouth.
    Thanks the info

  13. word of mouth is a very powerful marketing tool, i believe it can get you in trouble, because if you not doing it right, people are unhappy with your service they can spread bad information about you instead of good information.

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