Word of mouth marketers face 20 questions of ethics

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on October 30, 2006

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, now with over 300 corporate members, has formulated a list of twenty questions that word-of-mouth marketers should ask themselves before embarking on a campaign.

Word of Mouth (WOM) marketing is a powerful tool and is bound to become increasingly popular in the future: a 2005 eMarketer/WOMMA report showed that nearly half (43%) of all marketers planned to incorporate word of mouth into their marketing programmes in 2006. But is it always practised ethically? Sadly, not. And the more it is abused, the less impact it will have. Consumers will become blunted to it, they will no longer believe what they are told, and it will become a good tool spoiled. It is crucial that a framework of guidelines and ethics be introduced, and that marketers know them, implement them and follow them.

Assessment tool
With this in mind, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has released the WOMMA Ethics Assessment Tool, which helps marketers identify and eliminate unethical word of mouth marketing tactics before they are implemented. Modelled on the WOMMA Ethics Guidelines of honesty of relationship, opinion, and identity, the tool guides marketers through the questions they should ask before initiating a word of mouth campaign.

The answers generated will quickly identify unethical actions and point out safeguards for avoiding them in the future. WOMMA is now calling for public comment from marketers and consumers in order to make this the tool as useful and effective as possible. For more details or to submit a comment, click here.

For brands and agencies, an ongoing challenge is to ensure that all staff and contractors are aware of these ethics and are given the training to recognise an inappropriate programme when it is proposed. Unethical campaigns often happen when a junior executive isn't fully aware of the ethics, or when agencies that use unethical practices are hired without the client understanding the implications.

Twenty questions
The Tool consists of 20 questions that should be asked before launching any word of mouth marketing campaign. Get answers from agencies and vendors, as well as from their subcontractors. Think about the risks to your reputation before you cross any ethical lines. Remember: Consumers come first, honesty isn't optional, and deception is always exposed.

Honesty of relationship

  1. Do we insist that our advocates always disclose their relationship with us - including all forms of compensation, incentives, or samples?

Honesty of opinion

  1. Do we insist that all opinions shared with the public express the honest and authentic opinion of the consumer or advocate without manipulation or falsification?
  2. Are those individuals who are speaking for us free to form their own opinions and share all feedback, including negative feedback?
  3. Is all of the information provided to advocates, consumers, and the media factual and honest, and are all of our claims accurate?

Honesty of identity

  1. Have we repudiated and forbidden all forms of shill, stealth, and undercover marketing?
  2. Does everyone working on our behalf use their true identity and disclose their affiliation with our company and agencies?
  3. Do we forbid the blurring of identification in ways that might confuse or mislead consumers as to the true identity of the individuals with whom they are communicating?
  4. Do we forbid the use of expressly deceptive practices from our employees/advocates, such as impersonating consumers; concealing their true identities; or lying about factors such as age, gender, race, familiarity with or use of product, or other circumstances intended to enhance the credibility of the advocate while deliberately misleading the public?

Taking responsibility

  1. If we use agents or volunteers of any sort, do we actively instruct them in ethical practices and behaviours and insist that all of those working under our instructions similarly comply with this standard?
  2. Do we instruct all advocates to repeat these instructions and responsibilities in the downstream conversation?
  3. Do we have a plan to monitor any inappropriate word of mouth generated by our advocates?
  4. Do we know how will we correct any inappropriate or unethical word of mouth done by volunteers or resulting from actions taken by us?
  5. Do we insist that campaign organisers disclose their involvement when asked by consumers or the media and provide contact information upon request?

Respecting the rules

  1. Do we respect and honour the rules of any media we might use, including all such procedures and stipulations as may be deemed appropriate by specific websites, blogs, discussion forums, traditional media, or live events? (Examples of actions that break the rules: violating the terms of service of any online site, spamming, violating privacy rules, or defacing public property.)
  2. Do we prohibit all word of mouth programmes involving children aged 13 and younger?
  3. If our campaign involves communicating with or influencing minors aged 14 to 17, do we have mechanisms in place to protect the interests of those teens, and also have parental notification mechanisms in place, where appropriate?

When hiring an agency

  1. Does the agency subscribe to the same high standards of ethical behaviour and practice, and are they willing to guarantee the ethics of their own work as well as that of all subcontractors?
  2. Do they have reporting and operational review procedures in place permitting us to ensure full compliance with all ethical standards?
  3. Have they previously engaged in unethical practices?
  4. If they have ever engaged in such practices in the past, do they now prohibit them, and will they guarantee that they will not use employees who have engaged in fraudulent practices to work on our behalf?

And - purely as a final safety check - ask yourself: Would I be uncomfortable if my family or friends were involved in this campaign? And is there anything about this campaign that we would be embarrassed to discuss publicly?

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