I've had a number of conversations lately with B2B marketers who are becoming concerned with, hmm, let's call it the overzealousness of some B2B marketing practices that are emerging. In the quest to gain what should be earned referrals and testimonials, some companies appear to be pushing the boundaries of ethics and standards by paying for them.
A bit of a disclaimer before I begin. I don't claim to have the answers, but I do think this is a conversation we need to have as an industry. I hope you'll chime in and contribute to the conversation. I'm all ears!
Also, I'm purposely refraining from naming or linking to any examples because my intention is not to reprimand vendors, but to honestly explore the ramifications possible to the industry from a practice that I see gaining traction that may become damaging to brand reputations.
For a bit of background, let's start with the FTC guidelines for endorsements in advertising [PDF]. *Statements below pulled verbatim from the guide linked to above.
- Endorsements must reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the endorser. Furthermore, an endorsement may not convey any express or implied representation that would be deceptive if made directly by the advertiser.
- Advertisers are subject to liability for false or unsubstantiated statements made through endorsements, or for failing to disclose material connections between themselves and their endorsers.
- A young man signs up to be part of a "street team" program in which points are awarded each time a team member talks to his or her friends about a particular advertiser's products. Team members can then exchange their points for prizes, such as concert tickets or electronics. These incentives would materially affect the weight or credibility of the team member's endorsements. They should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed, and the advertiser should take steps to ensure that these disclosures are being provided.
A situation that has surfaced recently with several vendors is the offering of prizes for the submission of use-case stories to the vendor or testimonials posted on social media in regards to a product or service provided by the vendor. The third bullet above is the closest I can find in the FTC guidelines, but it is essentially the same situation.
My question is, if the testimonials or stories do not disclose the enticement of prizes, is the information reliable, transparent and an honest representation of the experience had with that product or service?
Some vendors have stated that they have a clearly posted disclosure notice and that the people participating in the program or contest should know to follow it. But they don't. After all, 140 characters on Twitter doesn't leave a lot of room for disclosures. But does the posting of the notice absolve the vendor of responsibility? Not according to the FTC.
What if the collection of stories predicated on the opportunity to win a prize is done outside of public view? When the stories are used, if disclosure isn't made the vendor may be at fault, but who will know?
If you were submitting a story and wanted to win the prize (many of them are pricey and very nice), would you submit a critical story or a story about a bad experience?
How much differently would the story or testimonial be told if the person submitted it purely driven by self-motivation, rather than potential prizes or recognition?
Could it be that the desire for recognition from or "kinship" with a vendor or brand motivates people to post things they ordinarily wouldn't without prompting?
Is the offering of prizes actually gaming our customers? I believe can be.
Are vendors under the assumption that this is a form of earned media? In my opinion, that's not true. I see it as more of a form of paid advertising.
Some may argue that the people who participate don't know whether or not they'll win the prize, but this goes back to motivation to participate in the first place. Would they have done so without the incentive of a the possibility to win a desirable prize?
The FTC is very clear that if a product is provided along with a request for a review, that the blogger must disclose the relationship. This also holds true for endorsements.
The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) is also very clear on this subject as you can see in Standard 2 of their code of ethics:
"Disclosure of consideration or compensation received: A WOMMA member shall require their representatives to disclose meaningfully and prominently all forms of consideration or compensation they received from the member, marketer or sponsor of the product or service. In other words, WOMMA members shall not engage in marketing practices where the marketer/sponsor or its representative provides goods, services, or compensation to the consumer (or communicator) as consideration for recommendations, reviews, or endorsements, unless full, meaningful, and prominent disclosure is provided."
Are companies so zealous about online engagement that they're willing to pay for it, rather than earn it and mislead their prospects and customers along the way?
Another point to be considered is purpose or use. If companies want to reward customers to participate in "social" focus groups within a community where opinions are shared and solicited for internal use and product/service improvement - and everyone knows the rules/conditions - that's one thing. It's when the information is used for marketing or advertising purposes or to sway brand opinion without disclosure that the problems arise.
What do you think? Overblown nonsense or a real issue that should be addressed?